CORFU — Tim and Stephanie Benson give new meaning to the term “making music.”
Not only do the Corfu couple play (he the bagpipes and she the fiddle), but they are among a rare group of people worldwide who make bagpipes.
Their careers started in entirely different fields.
Stephanie, a daughter of Skip and Kathy Cornelius of Alabama Center, was a mechanical engineer working in the automotive industry in Detroit, when a college roommate asked her to go camping with them in Ohio. While there, they attended an Irish music festival and she was hooked. Stephanie returned to Detroit and started taking fiddle lessons.
Work took her to Germany for a year, and she thought she’d have to give up her Irish music, but instead she found a ton of people there who played Irish music, she said.
“I found a great fiddle teacher there, and continued my lessons,” Stephanie said.
The Ohio trip was where she met Tim, who was in graduate school in Canton studying counseling and playing at an Irish cultural club in Akron.
Both he and Stephanie had heard about each other from friends. While these friends were telling Stephanie what a talented piper Tim was, they were also telling him what an accomplished musician Stephanie was.
So when they first met, they felt like they knew each other. Several weeks later they were both at a music festival in the Catskills, when they met again.
“Throughout the summer, we kept showing up at the same places,” Stephanie said. “In December 2006, we started dating seriously.”
In July 2009, they were married. The couple has three children, ages 5, 2-1/2 and 7 months. They have a babysitter come in two days a week so they can devote time to their music and bagpipe making.
Tim had always been interested in music, and knew he wanted to play bagpipes the first time he heard one on a CD. His interest was peaked even more after he attended Northern Ireland in an Exchange program in 1995.
In 1996, he was attending a Jesuit prep school in Cleveland, which had a large contingent of students who played Irish music. He also discovered there was an academy there which taught people how to play Irish music, and he decided to order a set of bagpipes.
His teacher told him to get a tin whistle in the meantime, as it was hard to get bagpipes, but the teacher was able to get him a used set in a few weeks.
“I became obsessed with the music, and I practiced for hours every day,” Tim said.
But coming from a family of doctors, academics was important, he said. He got a job working at a home for indigent men, but he knew he hadn’t found his niche.
The couple had come to Corfu to live, after Stephanie decided she wanted to be near her parents.
Making bagpipes is a labor intensive profession, and one Tim became interested in when he learned to play.
Tim makes and plays the Scottish bagpipes, which differ from the Irish bagpipes with which people are more familiar. The Irish, or “uilleann” pipes are blown from a bellows located on the right arm, and the air is controlled by pressure on the bag, which then feeds air to the reeds.
In contrast, a Scottish bagpipe is blown from a pipe in the mouth. Pressure on the bag from the left arm sends and controls the flow of air to the melody chanter and three drones.
While a bagpipe is one of the hardest instruments to learn to play, it is even harder to get one, Tim said.
“Traditionally, a customer can wait years after placing an order for a bagpipe,” Tim said. “In fact, there are so few bagpipe makers in the world, most have a backlog of one to 15 years. Some have even closed their books because they don’t expect to live long enough to fill their orders.”
He and Stephanie have perfected a computer-assisted manufacturing program which enables them to turn out 10 bagpipes in the time it would take to make one by traditional methods. Actually, they utilize the age-old assembly line process introduced by Henry Ford.
“Making one pipe sequentially is not a viable economic option,” Tim said.
Stephanie sews the leather bags, and Tim makes the wooden pipes, using woodworking equipment his father had given him. He also hones his skills as a member of the Pembroke Woodturners Club. Being a bagpipe player helps him build a better instrument, he said.
With the two of them working together, their backlogs are not as long as the traditional bagpipe makers, Tim said.
Their customers come from all over the world, including Russia and South America. In fact, the majority of their customers are from other countries, he said.
Tim has played bagpipes at the Grand Old Opry in Nashville and tours with the Nashville Celts. He just returned this week from a tour of Sacramento, Los Angeles and Oakland. He has also taped shows for PBS and WXXI in Rochester.