Rená Toomey will never forget the exact moment she fell in love with the bagpipes. It was eight years ago during the Virginia International Tattoo at Norfolk Scope when a lone piper stood next to her in the darkness. The spotlight illuminated his impressive figure as the distinctive drone of the bagpipes swelled and filled every corner of the arena. Right then and there Rená vowed that one day she, too, would be a piper.
Musicians use instruments to transport us to another place and time and often capture our spirits and imaginations in the process. Hundreds of years of Scottish heritage and tradition fill the air with just one note from the bagpipes. Around the globe accordions are used by musicians to play songs that make us laugh, cry, and dance. The sweet notes of a hammered dulcimer tickle the eardrums of those who listen, even if the listeners don’t know what to make of the unusual-looking instrument.
Bagpipes, accordions, and dulcimers may seem exotic, but for three Tidewater women, they are fixtures of everyday life, as well as endless sources of joy.
A PIPER’S DREAM
Originally from Pennsylvania, Rená Toomey loved sitting in church every Sunday and listening to the melodies performed during the service. Her family considered music to be a ministry, and each member was a musician. Her dad and siblings played the trombone, and her mom played the drums. By the age of five, Rená was learning how to play the piano.
Rená studied French horn in college in Ohio, then transferred to Old Dominion University to finish her bachelor’s degree. She decided to pursue a career in education and currently teaches chorus at a middle school in Norfolk. “I love the way kids force you to unravel and relearn what you know,” she said.
Rená was with a group of students at the Virginia International Tattoo, an annual performance of military bands, pipers, and drummers, when she fell in love with the bagpipes. It wasn’t until later that she learned the piper who had inspired her to take up the instrument was Alasdair Gillies, considered one of the best in the world. All she knew was the unmistakable sound of the bagpipes had filled her with the desire to play that unique instrument.
“I’m a quiet person, which is why I like to play the loudest instrument,” Rená joked. She is a member of Tidewater Pipes and Drums, and several members of the group took her under their wings and taught her how to play the bagpipes. “The bagpipes are a folk instrument,” she explained. “You can try to learn how to play on your own, but at some point you will get stuck and need help.”
Although Rená, 45, is one of only a few local women who play the bagpipes, she has always felt welcomed by her fellow pipers. While being female hasn’t kept her from being part of the piping community, it has been an issue with people looking for a piper to play at events.
“People have an image in their minds of what a piper should look like,” Rená explained. “They want the quintessential tall, male piper with hairy legs sticking out from under his kilt.” With her petite frame and mass of blonde curls, Rená doesn’t fit that description. She has been passed over for gigs because clients preferred a male piper, not a female.
One of the most common requests Rená receives is to perform “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes at funerals and memorial services. “Although they are sad, funerals and memorials are some of my favorite gigs to play,” Rená said. “The pipes are very emotional, and when I begin to play, people know the service is coming to an end. It is a way for families to have closure and for me to show respect for the person who has passed away.”
Rená finds great joy in playing the bagpipes, and she wears the green-and-gold MacArthur tartan with pride. “This hobby scratches a lot of itches for me,” she said. In addition to the interesting, eclectic people she has met, she also performs at local events and in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Ocean View in Norfolk. Children are fascinated by the bagpipes, and kids often approach Rená when she performs in public. “The kids usually want to touch the bagpipes, so I fill the bag with air and let them hug it,” she said.
Rená came full circle when she took part in a performance of the Virginia International Tattoo. Instead of sitting in the audience, she took the stage along with hundreds of other pipers and drummers. “The sound of all those pipes and drums vibrated through my whole body,” she said. “There is nothing else like it.”
SENSE OF WARMTH
Sapta Yin had never thought about playing the accordion until she submitted her audition tape for a gig at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg in 2014. She had already mastered the piano and the harp, so when the folks at Busch Gardens asked if she would be willing to learn the accordion, she accepted the challenge.
Sapta, 30, joined the cast of Celtic Fyre, a live dance show. “That first season the accordion seemed like a beast,” she said. In addition to learning how to play the melody with her right hand and press the bass buttons with her left, she also had to work the bellows, the heart of the instrument. “I spent lots of awkward hours figuring out the bellows,” she said with a laugh.
Now in her third year with Celtic Fyre, the show pieces are second nature for Sapta. She also adds a few dance moves while she plays, including twirls and stepping up and down on a stool. Since she and her cast mates play several shows a day, they are always looking for ways to shake up their routine. “We do things like count how many high fives we can do during a performance,” she said. “It’s a way for us to keep things fresh.”
Sapta enjoys seeing the smiles on people’s faces when she plays. “The accordion is such a heartwarming instrument,” she said. “It lightens the mood and brings a sense of warmth. I want to contribute more happiness to the world through my music.”
The accordion Sapta uses during her performances is named Luna Bella. Sapta’s costume for the show is a pair of chestnut brown riding breeches and a long-sleeved blouse with a high collar. Luna Bella wears a little microphone and a mic pack, so everyone in the audience can hear. “The antenna sticks up on the top, and it looks like I have an android in front of me,” said Sapta, laughing.
Music is an essential part of Sapta’s life, whether she is playing the piano, the harp, or the accordion. She enjoys getting together with other musicians, improvising and creating in the moment. “Music is a great connector,” she said. “It creates an authentic connection between people. Today there are so many distractions, but when you’re collaborating with others you have to endlessly listen and respond. Every moment in music is a new beginning.”
CONNECTING WITH THE WORLD
Ann Robinson was at a fall festival in 1996 when she heard the sweet strains of the hammered dulcimer floating through the air. She left her booth, where she was selling her artwork, to investigate the source of the sound. She found a man playing the hammered dulcimer, a wooden instrument in the shape of a trapezoid with strings stretched across it. He used two mallets, called hammers, to strike the strings, and the music he created brought tears to Ann’s eyes.
“I was hooked right away,” Ann said. She had been saving her money to buy a new guitar, but instantly changed her mind. She purchased a hammered dulcimer that day and had her first lesson a few weeks later.
Ann grew up in a musical household. Her mom was a piano teacher, and Ann learned early on that piano practice would get her out of her least favorite chore—washing dishes. “Sometimes I still use practice to get out of doing that particular job,” she said with a smile.
Ann’s home in Newport News is like a zoo for musical instruments. In addition to two hammered dulcimers, she also has a fiddle, a harp, a ukulele, a mandolin, and a piano in her living room and parlor. Tucked away in an upstairs room are even more instruments. “I love anything with strings,” said Ann.
Now retired after decades as a professional school counselor in Newport News, Ann finally has the time to indulge her passion for music. She recently purchased another hammered dulcimer and is spending time getting acquainted with the new instrument. “It’s amazing what sounds you can produce with just two hammers,” she said. “With the piano, it always seems like it’s me against it. But with a dulcimer, it’s like someone opened up a piano and let the sound out. You can hear the music in ways you just can’t while playing the piano.”
In addition to music, Ann also enjoys painting. Several of her creations adorn the walls of her home. “Music is like painting with sound,” she explained. “When you play you are creating an image for the listener, and what you can create is unlimited.”
Sharing music with others is a thrill for Ann. “People see me playing at events and festivals, and they have no clue what instrument I’m playing,” she said. “I love to share the instrument and its incredible history with people who aren’t familiar with it.”
Music is also a way for Ann to connect with the world. She will never forget a man she met while playing at the Blue Skies art gallery in Hampton one Christmas. “A man came in and was listening intently to the song I was playing,” she recalled. “But he was blind and couldn’t see the instrument.” Rather than just describing the hammered dulcimer to the man, she let him to touch the instrument so he could feel the vibrations from the strings resonating through his fingertips. “What an incredible way to share music with someone,” she said.
Children are also drawn to Ann while she is playing the hammered dulcimer. “Kids are naturally curious,” Ann said. “And even if they don’t recognize the instrument, that doesn’t stop them from dancing next to me while I play.”
Ann was 45 years old when she started playing the dulcimer, and 50 when she took up the harp. She firmly believes that learning something new is possible at any age. “Life is a journey,” she said. “Every day another door to a new opportunity opens, and it’s up to you if you want to take it. Each instrument I play has provided something different in my life. The opportunity is always there; you just have to go for it.”
Jamie McAllister is a freelance writer in Virginia Beach. She writes for businesses, nonprofits, and publications. To learn more, visit www.mcallisterwe.com.