By Scott Williams

Michael Cusack of Houston, Texas is an eleven-time winner of the U.S. Piping Foundation Championship. The first American to have won the Gold Medals at Oban and Inverness, his many other awards include the Dunvegan Gold Medal in Portree, the Senior Piobaireachd Competition at Oban, the Clasp at Inverness, the Bratach Gorm at London, and the March, Strathspey and Reel and Piobaireachd events at the Glenfiddich. In addition to his solo piping career, Mike teaches piping at St. Thomas Episcopal School in Houston, Texas.

The schoolís pipe band began in the early 1960's when the school's founding Rector, The Reverend T. Robert Ingram, decided he wanted a school band with a distinctive identity. His love of his Scottish heritage led him to the bagpipes and he decided a pipe band was just what the school needed. Getting a bunch of young Texan boys to learn the bagpipes and drums, and then wear kilts, was not an easy undertaking; but neither was saying no to Mr. Ingram. From its humble origins, the St. Thomas' Episcopal School Pipe Band has grown to become one of the worldís most respected pipe bands, winning Juvenile Pipe Band World championships in 1985, 1995 and 1998.

Mike first became interested in piping in 1967 when he enrolled as a Grade 1 student at St. Thomas Episcopal School. "The school had really gotten into the pipe band thing," he reported in a 1994 interview with the EUSPBA magazine, The Voice. "Every Friday afternoon, the band would play and a little canon was fired while the school flag was lowered. I was only six or seven years old, and seeing the band in kilts playing the pipes and drums really intrigued me."

Mike began learning to play the bagpipes in Grade 4. His first teacher was Stanley Green, an organist and recorder player who had learned enough about the execution required to play the chanter to get his piping students off on the right footing. The late Donald Shaw Ramsay, former Pipe Major of the Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band, and then living in California, came to Houston to give two-week long workshops to the schoolís band. "Ramsay would take us all together, about 20 chanter players at once. He introduced us to some big tunes. The first 6/8 I ever learned, for example, was "Frank Thompson"".

Pipe Major Ramsay had little time for students who were not particularly keen on learning. "He would take us through a tune and we had to have it memorized for the next day. Those who did were admitted to the next dayís class. Those who didnít were turned away. That was how he determined who was serious and who wasnít. We learned a tune a night. I idolized Donald Shaw Ramsay when I was little, and didnít want to let the man down, and I wanted to get into the top band as quickly as I could."

Ramsay came to the school as a full time instructor in 1974, but only stayed for one year. He wanted to take the pipe band to Scotland, but that didnít work out, and he resigned. In search of more quality instruction, Mike went to the North American Piping Academy summer schools. "The summer schools were crazy," he says. "They were wild. It was so good for me to be working with instructors such as John MacFadyen and Sandy Jones at that time in my life. With the structure and discipline I received from Ramsay, when MacFadyen gave me a piobaireachd or Jones gave me light music, I could immediately go and learn it and then play it. I was only about 13 at the time, and the other students in my classes were all older, but they accepted me because of my ability."

John MacFadyen had invited a couple of pipers to come to Scotland to study with him, and Mike was determined that he would get to do that. "I may have dropped a few hints, but eventually he invited me. Living in Scotland was the adventure of a lifetime. I had to walk half an hour every day to catch the train to school, usually in the pouring rain. There were times that I hated it, but there were times that I just couldnít get enough of it."

MacFadyen took Mike to contests where he would meet people like Seumas MacNeill, John MacLellan and Donald MacLeod. "He was sort of grooming me for the contests I would later enter," Mike explains. "When I was eighteen, for example, John was one of a panel of three judges on the bench when I won my first prize in Scotland Ė a fourth in the Open Piobaireachd at Glenfinnan. That was a very important step. Once youíve made it into the prize list, you see, people hear about you, and the other judges will listen to you the next time you go out. That also gave me the encouragement I needed to stick with it."

Mike received instruction from MacFadyen for about five years. "I think John knew he was ill, because he told my father that under no circumstances was I to be allowed to quit playing, and that I would someday be a great player. When John died, I started studying with Jimmy MacIntosh, and because of the groundwork from my previous teachers, Jim was able to help me become the player I am today."

When Mike started with Jimmy MacIntosh, he was impatient and volatile. Jimmy made him calm down. "He would sit and sing tunes to me, and if I made a mistake, the world was still going to turn, life would go on. It was no big deal. That was all part of the maturing process. Under his guidance, I began to hear the actual music, the soul in the piobaireachd. I know that sounds crazy, but I grew up on rock and roll. Thereís no soul in pop music, not really. Thereís power, but no soul. With Jimmyís help, I began to realize that I could produce music that was uniquely me. I donít play my tunes exactly like Jimmy does, but youíll know that we both come from the same starting point.

"For years, when I needed to learn a new tune, Iíd ask Jimmy for a tape first. Now, however, I have a bit more confidence. Iíll take the book and work on the tune and then play it for Jimmy and ask his opinion. People should never depend on tapes and recordings. Very rarely does the soul come through in a recording. Itís very important to get personal instruction from people who are knowledgeable and who have a link to the great players of the past. There arenít many people like Jimmy left."

After finishing high school, Mike went on to study Political Science at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. It wasnít exactly a hot bed of piping, "But neither was Houston in those days," says Mike. "Iíve never been dependent on being with other pipers to play pipes. I compete against myself. I record what I play, then listen and judge myself against what I expect to hear based on what Iíve learned over the years. In the early days, light music was more of a technical exercise for me, whereas piobaireachd had begun to challenge me. I was fortunate enough to be able to study with Sandy MacPhee, however, and that was when light music became a musical endeavour equally as daunting as piobaireachd.

"I had been named Piper of the Day at the Stone Mountain Games in 1980 and felt pretty good about it. I had four trophies in my hands and Sandy stopped me and told me I was a Ďblankety-blankí waste of talent. He said I had good fingers but I played without any music. He said if I came down to Florida, heíd show me what music was. With my parentís blessing, I flew down to Dunedin one weekend to visit with him. Sandyís parents were both Scottish. His father was from South Uist and his mother was from Lewis, and both were Gaelic speakers. They werenít just from Scotland; they were from the very heart of Gaeldom. We spent the weekend listening to all sorts of Scottish music, and thatís when I started to learn that there was a history, a tradition, a soulfulness behind the music. There have been other influences since then, Murray Henderson, Jimmy MacGregor, etc., and what I do today is a synthesis of what all of these people have shown me as well as what I truly feel should be done."

The pipe band directorís position at St. Thomas Episcopal School became vacant while Mike was in his senior year at Vanderbilt, and the school held the position open for him until he graduated. "I returned to the school in May of 1983," says Mike. "You donít expect to graduate from high school hoping to return there, but it was a terrific opportunity. I started getting involved seriously with pipe bands at that time. I was only 22, and I wanted my band to be the best within a thousand miles!"

The following year, Mike took his first major victory in Scotland Ė the Dunvegan Medal at Portree. "I donít think it came as a big shock that I won the Gold," he says. "I had been going over to Scotland to compete since 1977, so I was not a new face. I had taken a second in the Silver Medal in 1982 that qualified me to play for the Gold Medal at Inverness in 1983 where I placed third. That in turn qualified me to play for the Gold Medal in Oban in 1984 and I was fortunate enough to win it my very first time out. If you want to win in Scotland, you have to pay your dues. You canít expect to go over for Oban and Inverness and win. You have to work your way up.

Being on the invitation list to compete at the Glenfiddich is one of the crowning rewards for competitive pipers around the world. "Itís the honour of knowing that youíre in there with 10 of the best players for the year," says Mike, who placed 5th in the piobaireachd at the 1998 Glenfiddich. "The standard at home isnít nearly as high as in Scotland. We need more quality teachers in the States and we need more teenagers and young adults to start going over to Scotland and play the games circuit like I did when I was 16, 17, and 18. Then I think weíll see the standard at home improve a lot. For me itís a personal accomplishment every time I get to come back."

"In recent years," says Mike, "there have been quiet moments and then some really successful moments." That is something of an understatement, actually. In 1997, Mike won the Senior Piobaireachd at Oban, the Clasp at Inverness, and the Bratach Gorm in London. The next year, he took the schoolís pipe band Maxville, Ontario where they won the Grade 3 North American Championship and then to Scotland where they won the Juvenile World Championship as well as the Juvenile Championship at the Cowal Games. The band returned to Scotland in 2001 where they placed second at the worlds, and returned to Maxville in 2003 where they once again won the Grade 3 championship. To top the season off, Mike won the Senior Piobaireachd at Oban for the fourth time.

The band program at St. Thomas Episcopal School runs from the fourth through to the twelfth grade. From fourth to sixth, students attend piping classes two or three times a week, and students from seventh through to twelfth grade can attend up to five hours of piping classes per week, classes which are a part of the regular daily schedule. After school, there are special rehearsal sessions for the A and B bands. "This has created a very nice musical culture," says Mike. "Chanters are going all the time and the kids are always working on music, unless they happen to be behind on homework!"

In addition to his Band Director role, Mike is the seventh grade boys' homeroom teacher and teaches history. He has been married to his wife, Donna, who teaches dancing at the school, for seventeen years and they have an eight-year-old son, Michael who attends STES.

 


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