Duncan Cumming College of Arts and Sciences Dean's Award for Outstanding Achievement in Teaching 2010

Duncan & Hilary Cumming

Dean’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Teaching 2010

The College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Teaching recognizes our faculty members’ many fine contributions in teaching, advisement and mentoring.  Nominees have completed at least three years of full-time instruction at Albany and have demonstrated exceptional contributions and sustained excellence in teaching and mentoring activity.  This year there were two winners: Duncan Cumming (Music) and Christine Wagner (Psychology).

Duncan gained his Doctorate in Musical Arts (Piano Performance) at Boston University in 2003.  For a time he worked at Phillips Academy, and he has a long standing association with Boston University Tanglewood Institute, where he has been six years Assistant Director, and then Director, of the Young Artists Piano program.  He came to Albany in 2006.

Duncan is a teaching and performing musician first and foremost.  He is a wonderful pianist, as those who attend our concerts know. He has won many awards and honors, both for scholarship and performance, including first prize in the Berliawsky Piano Competition, and has conducted numerous master classes, recitals, solo, concerto, and chamber performances, and undertaken residencies across the region and the country, and also in England, Scotland, Canada, and the Czech Republic. His performances range across the standard repertoire but he is also a champion of new music, and has given many premieres.

In a typical semester Dr. Cumming carries a heavy teaching load including lecture-style courses including The Rudiments of Music and The Golden Age of Piano Music, along with  many individual studies with piano students and performance majors at various levels.  He developed a very popular 300-level course entitled The Performer’s World.  This course is aimed at performance majors and it covers everything from choice of repertoire, theoretical analysis, and practice regimes, to performance anxiety, whether or not to take repeats, and writing program notes.  Guest performers from the Capital District play a role.  Students have to attend concerts, perform themselves, write, and also lecture to the class.  This course gets terrific reviews from students. 

Dr. Cumming has been active in the community as well, as shown by his involvement in outreach programs to teach music to underprivileged and minority children. He has organized events and performed himself with children of all ages, performing in nursing homes, schools, and even, he reports, in juvenile lockup facilities. Especially noteworthy here are the Youth Movements Festivals which Duncan organizes, hosts, and performs in, along with students, ex-students, teachers, piano teachers, dancers, story tellers, and many others.

In his teaching Duncan ranges beyond music, making connections across the liberal arts and humanities.  A colleague described how Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet may prompt him to quote Shakespeare at length, or discuss iambic pentameter and its relation to music, or details of Tchaikovsky’s biography.  “This sort of connectivity personifies the liberal arts and what it means to be an educated person.”  In recent work with Albany Honors students he got them to write poetry and produce visual art which were linked in performance in the PAC to musical pieces, in a program entitled “Reflections on Childhood.”

How is all the effort assessed by students and peers? Glowingly, in a word.  “Duncan is a highly effective, dedicated, and motivating instructor” reports a colleague at Tanglewood, who goes on to state “many, many young ears and hearts were opened to the universe of great music.”  A colleague at a local college writes:  “You are a great pianist and teacher!  Thank you very much for giving our students inspiration.”  Student comments include: “I had never experienced anything as motivating before in a classroom.”  “He was my best mentor.”  “An amazing professor.”  “An awesome professor.”  “Definitely one of the best professors I have had … the best quality about him is that he cares about each of his students.”  “Not only is his playing excellent [but] his humility and ... work ethic are inspiring to any young musician.”

One thread that runs through comments by students and colleagues is that in addition to deep knowledge and outstanding professionalism as an instructor, he seems to be able to challenge and reassure students at the same time.  He is described as “approachable,” “supportive,” and “patient,” and yet he maintains the most demanding standards and expectations.  Students rise to the occasion.  One of Duncan’s syllabi contains the line “this will be a difficult class only if you don’t come.”