Duty, and a full St. Patrick's schedule, calls Arnold bagpiper

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Somewhere along the line, Hal Cummings came up with the slogan "Have Pipes, Will Travel."

That's no exaggeration. On St. Patrick's Day in particular, Cummings, a Naval Academy graduate and retired Navy line officer as well as a master bagpipe player, faces a whirlwind schedule.

On Saturday night, the Arnold resident is scheduled to play in Washington establishments including the Irish Whistle, the Mighty Pint, the Side of the Whale and the Uptown Tap House.

"Then on St. Patrick's Day, I'll be playing with a group that includes a guitarist, keyboard player and a drummer," said Cummings a few days before the day of green celebration. "First we'll play at Fado in Annapolis, then we'll take a van back into Washington, D.C., and back to the Uptown Tap Room from 9 to 10 in the morning, then we'll be at McFadden's from 10 to 11 in the morning.

"Then we have a noon show back in Annapolis, at Fado, then at the Killarney House at 1:30 p.m. After that we're going down to Upper Marlboro to play with an Irish tenor and some Irish dancers," he said, catching his breath. "Then we go back up to Annapolis and play at O'Brien's and Middleton's Tavern later in the afternoon.

"After that we go out to O'Loughlin's in Arnold, where we'll play from 7 to 9 in the evening. Then we go back and play outside O'Brien's and Middleton Tavern to entertain the people who are trying to get in. We'll do that from about 9:30 to 11 that night.

"Then we're done."

Cummings majored in physics at the Naval Academy and later spent five years there as an instructor in the systems engineering department. He has been playing the pipes since he was 10 and serves as an instructor for several local bagpipe ensembles, including the Chesapeake Caledonia Pipe Band and the Calvert County Fire and EMS Pipe Band.

With his varied performing schedule — which includes weddings, funerals, bars and birthday parties — he has become adept at playing for audiences who either aren't too familiar with bagpipe music or, in some cases, have never heard it at all.

"In a pub atmosphere, we tend to play the more upbeat jigs and reels and fast marches and stuff like that," said Cummings, who spent a year in Scotland playing and learning about the artistry of the bagpipes.

"We will play quite a bit of crowd-pleasing stuff that people immediately start tapping their feet to and want to dance to. And we try to play stuff that will appeal to people who've never heard the bagpipes before."

Cummings' repertoire includes Queen's "We Will Rock You" as well as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," the "Star Wars" theme and "When the Saints Go Marching In" — along with the Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy hymns, of course.

Sometimes he gets a rise out of listeners by playing the song from the wedding scene in the Mike Myers movie comedy "So I Married an Axe Murderer."

"I do a lot of stuff out of movies," he said. "I do the song from the scene in 'The Quiet Man' where John Wayne and Victor McLaglen get into a fight. I also do a version of 'The Gael,' which is one of the themes from 'The Last of the Mohicans.' "

Despite the playful bravado of his pub gigs, Cummings takes the bagpipe very seriously and said he's always approached them with intensity.

The son of a Navy chaplain, he was introduced to the bagpipe when his father was stationed in Bermuda and he was attending boarding school there.

"They let us out early one day for a celebration of the 350th anniversary of Bermuda — this was in 1959," he recalled. "They were having a big parade along the main street, and all the sudden I heard this sound coming out of my schoolyard. I thought, 'Oh my God! What is that?'

"I rushed back to the schoolyard, and there were all these guys that I knew who were in the school's cadet corps, and they were all kilted up and tuning in their pipes. I was just dumbfounded. I said to myself, "I just have to do this!' "

Soon he joined the corps and began learning the pipes from "a couple of Scotsmen" who were instructors at the school.

Years later, his father was assigned to Andrews Air Force Base and the family moved to Washington. There Cummings learned from master piper Sandy Jones, who at the time played in the Air Force's bagpipe band.

After his teaching stint at the Naval Academy, Cummings spent 10 years at sea, serving as a surface warfare officer on cruisers and destroyers. As much as he loved the Navy, the downside was that he no longer had much time for his pipes.

They ended up gathering dust in a closet. Then came retirement and the events of Sept. 11, 2001. The music of the pipes summoned him again.

"I was home sick [on 9/11], and I watched all the events unfold on TV," he said. "There were people that I knew who were killed at the Pentagon. And of course, later, seeing all those funerals. ... I know up in New York, there weren't enough bagpipers to go around. The people up there who played were playing every day for a year at funerals and memorial services.

"There was something about that whole thing that made me realize that no matter how hard it was going to be to do it, I had to go back to playing," he said.

Cummings dusted off his pipes and once again began playing "two or three hours a day." He also got his chops back by attending a couple of bagpipe camps held at Grandfather Mountain, N.C., by instructor Sandy Jones.

These days, Cummings' pipes don't leave his hands for long. In addition to his busy performing schedule, he also has a full roster of students to whom he gives lessons.

"One of my students in the Calvert County Fire and EMS Pipe Band is also a U.S. Capitol Police officer in Washington, and he's going to be playing for the president ... at a ceremony for the ambassador from Ireland," Cummings added. "That's really an honor."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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