Face Time: Sarah Cummings — Keeping a Finnish musical tradition alive

Sarah Cummings with a kantele. Photo by Shellie Leger

WEST PARIS — Despite her heritage — her four grandparents immigrated from Finland — music teacher Sarah Cummings was unfamiliar with the kantele, a traditional Finnish string instrument with a unique sound, until she attended a finnish cultural festival in michigan

In the 30 years since this discovery, Cummings has become a kantele master and teacher and has written one of the few books in English on how to play the instrument (most are written in Finnish).

Born in Norway and raised in Paris, Cummings said as a child it was not unusual for her to hear neighbors and older relatives speaking Finnish and eating Finnish food. His grandfather had changed his name from Komulainen to Cummings when he became an American citizen.

She graduated from Oxford Hills High School and earned a degree in music education from the University of Maine. A flute player growing up, Cummings taught all musical instruments at Greely Middle School in Cumberland, including a class on the kantele. Her husband, Scott Thurston, also teaches music at Greely, and between them they have seven adult children.

What is a kantele and how would you describe its sound? The kantele is a traditional Finnish harp – technically a box zither – and is a family of instruments rather than a specific thing. Its size varies from 5 to 39 strings (or thereabouts – some may have 38 or 40 strings but at this stage the number of strings is not that important). The smaller ones can be played by plucking and strumming and the larger ones are somewhat comparable to the piano, with one hand mainly playing the melody while the other plays chords. It’s a very simple way to describe it, but it can be played with a huge variety of techniques and in a multitude of contexts and genres.

His sound ? Nothing else sounds like a kantele to me, and its timbre is distinctive. I’ve heard bands playing and found myself wondering where the bell sounds are coming from, but it’s the harmonics of the instruments that create the effect. There are also similar instruments in countries such as Estonia (kannel), Lithuania (kankles), Latvia (kokles) and Western Russia (gusli). Finns consider the kantele an important symbol of Finnish culture.

When did you start? I had already been teaching music for a few years when I went to a Finnish cultural festival with my mom, aunt, and sister in Hancock, Michigan, and a kantele band was playing there. I had never seen or even heard of it before and was fascinated. I went to a short practical session offered with the instruments. A year later, my dad gave me a 10-string kantele. This was before the internet, but my sister, Becky, had helped by writing to Finland and figuring out how to order one. It was the early 1990’s and at that time there were few to no resources for learning to play here in Maine. I had some little books that came with the instrument, but they were in Finnish. Dad could translate everything but the musical terms, and I broke a number of strings just trying to figure out what the chord should be. So I had a few babies and the kantele made great wall decorations for a few years. In 1998 the Maine Finns coordinated and hosted the National Finn Fest at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham and there was a six hour kantele workshop on the schedule. It changed everything for me because it gave me enough information to use my musical background and really get started. The following year, I traveled to Issaquah, Washington, for a workshop where one of the teachers was Timo Väänänen, a well-known kantele player from Finland. He told us about a kantele camp in Ilomantsi, Finland, of which he would be the director the following year. My cousin and I were quite hooked by this point and planned to go. It was a remarkable 10 day immersion and since that time I have been playing and teaching kantele here in Maine.

Is it easy or difficult to learn to play the kantele? It’s such a beginner-friendly instrument because you really can’t make a bad sound. I like to start people off with a little kantele because right away you can make music and whatever you play sounds good. Different kantele sizes present different challenges, but like any instrument, you need practice to learn and improve. It is a gradual process. However, I think it’s a great tool for early success and feeling good. Then you get addicted.

How did you integrate the instrument into the school music program? We are so lucky that Greely Middle School has supported this unique program by purchasing nearly 30 small kanteles, mostly 5-string, but also 11-string. My husband, Scott, and I both teach them in our sixth grade general music classes. We start with an introductory lesson to Finland just to provide some basic information, then move on to hands-on learning, playing in a band, composing, etc. I tend to use them throughout the course of a term and the students seem to really like it. I estimate that we have been using them at GMS for about 15 years, so hundreds of students have been exposed to a bit of Finnish culture and music.

Why did you write a book on how to play the kantele and what was the response? I started thinking about it and even doing some rough outlines about 20 years ago, but I’ve worked on it in spurts over the years, sometimes with very long breaks in between. A few years ago, I realized that if I didn’t finish the project, I would have a lot of regrets. Internet access has provided incredible opportunities to read, see and hear the kantele. However, basic English instruction is still hard to come by, and I really wanted to create a resource that was as authentic and true to how my kantele teachers in Finland taught me. My years of teaching beginners to play musical instruments were also a big factor. The book is designed to provide not only the basics of how to play 5 and 10 string kanteles, but also reading rhythmic and melodic notation and other aspects of music theory. There are exercises for the beginning player, but I intentionally increased the difficulty to improve technique and challenge the dexterity of a more experienced musician. There are also tons of familiar and traditional Finnish melodies, arrangements, and a fairly comprehensive appendix of 10-string chord transition charts.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive, but of course this is a niche audience. I’ve had great feedback from fellow musicians and other kantele players I know. I am more than satisfied with the reaction (and the “blessing”) of the kantele teachers in Finland. I believe it will be reviewed or featured in Kantele magazine, a publication of Kanteleliitto, the kantele society in Finland, and I have been asked if a copy could be placed in the archives of the Kaustinen Folk Music Institute. Honestly, I don’t care about sales, but I really hope my book will make the kantele more accessible to people.

Tell me about the project to transform your barn into a concert hall and a kantele institute. Scott and I fell in love with our farmhouse in western Paris. The previous owners have done so much great work on the place which gives us a real boost, including a new foundation and a new roof over the barn. Our big dream is to have a place for many creative and artistic events such as concerts, community activities, art exhibitions, readings, workshops, etc., and probably weddings, to boot. There have been three Maine Kantele institutes in the past, but the most recent was in 2008. Bringing teachers from Finland and renting space requires a lot of capital, but we now own the space, with enough room to the courtyards, the kantele building and the bedrooms. to house teachers. We are currently working with an architect on security and accessibility plans and hope to move forward very soon to create a viable business.

You were in Finland this summer. How often do you travel there and what do you do on those trips? It was my seventh trip to Finland, but my first as a simple tourist. I have been to kantele camp in Ilomantsi three times, once with the old ‘Maine Kanteles’, a lovely group who performed in Ilomantsi and also took the course. Unfortunately, this camp no longer works. In Kuhmo, however, there is now a kantele class integrated into the Sommelo Ethno-Music Festival, which I have attended several times. It’s a “two iron” since my relatives also live there, and it gives us a great chance to visit. Another kantele group from Maine, “Oksat”, was formed to play at the Sommelo Festival in 2017 as part of the celebration of 100 years of Finnish independence. Scott and I went to the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival this year for the second time. This festival has existed since 1968 and brings together folk musicians from all over the world. I know that I will go to Finland from time to time until I can no longer travel. It feels like home.

What do you like to do in your free time? Most of my time outside of teaching is devoted to working with us in the west of Paris. I like to cook and have some Finnish specialties, so who knows if that might be part of the program here. We also like to visit friends and go see live music.

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