Monday, May 24, 2010

Why does someone take up an "early music" instrument?

I began playing viol when I was in high school. I played violin and attended Interlochen (a summer music camp), where I took a class entitled “Shakespeare’s Music” handed me a treble viol. I fell in love and haven’t looked back. Numerous early music professionals got their start there. Unfortunately, Interlochen has since ceased offering any early music to their campers. Currently, in the US most early music professionals get their start on a period instrument in university. Another strike against us is that many universities are cutting these programs with today’s economic difficulties. The professional performer is only side of the historical performance world. The other is that of the amateur musician…

Many people decide to take up music later in life, as their careers and families are established. They may have more time to devote to music in retirement or as their professional and personal lives are more established, they want to explore a creative path in music. This musical explorative journey is quite rewarding, as it offers opportunities to make music with friends in ensembles of like or unlike instruments with many people performing in church or in house concerts.

The recorder is often a popular choice for people to start their musical exploration. It is quite easy to play as a beginner, and there is much music to play for solos and ensemble. (Instruments are quite inexpensive, with decent plastic instruments selling at around $20.) One local player is a proficient trombonist, who was pushed to pick up the recorder by his church organist to eventually perform in church services. There is also at least one amateur recorder consort in the greater Cincinnati area. Catacoustic also offers frequent workshops for beginner, intermediate, and advanced players with teachers brought to instruct these players in technique and ensemble skills.

The viola da gamba is another surprisingly popular instrument for the amateur musician. It is easy on the body to play, a rewarding instrument for the beginner, and offers a huge repertory for many levels of ability. There are four players in Cincinnati who play on Catacoustic’s rental instruments. I also teach music students at CCM (University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music) to play the viol in group classes. Catacoustic offers frequent workshops for viol players, attracting players from throughout the Midwest – from Nashville, Cleveland, and Chicago!

As I think to the future of early music performance in this country, I would like to continue to encourage people to find their voice in Renaissance and Baroque music. This will include amateurs and professionals learning early music instruments, as well as attracting more people to concerts and recordings where this repertory is performed. I would like to know your thoughts on the best way to do this. Have YOU ever thought of playing an “early music” instrument? What is the best way to go about doing this?


josephine said...

Hello! I started learning the cello almost 9 years ago as an adult. I'm currently in a community orchestra and very happy. Since I love medieval and rennaissance music (almost as much as baroque whc is my favorite) I started wondering if I could learn to play the bass viol which approximated the cello in size. I found a teacher in my area 8 months ago and now play simple pieces with her. I love the unique sound quality of the viol and the intimacy of the music. If I ever visit Cincinnati for work I hope to hear your group perform.

Annalisa Pappano said...

Thank you for your comment! Certainly let us know if you come to Cincinnati - there may even be a workshop here that you could participate in at that time!
How did you find an instrument and a teacher for the viol?

josephine said...

Hi Annalisa! I contacted the Viola da Gamba Society of America. There only seems to be one registered teacher in NJ! I am giving myself a year to see if I will continue. I'm lucky that she has an extra viol which Iam renting. I'd love to attend a workshop! right now, tuning and trying not to hit more than 1 string are my biggest challenges.
Best wishes,

Allen Garvin said...


I've been playing viol for 2 years now. For about 15 years before that, I played recorder semi-regularly, first getting started at ren faires, then playing a couple times a month. I found it a fun but not very satisfying instrument. Then two years ago a friend convinced me to take a beginning viol class at a workshop. I bought a chinese-made treble, and after that, the last two years have been the most musically wonderful period of my adult life!

It's a very congenial instrument. I'm fortunate enough to live in an area with about a dozen regular players, so I get to meet a couple times a week to play consort music. At first, I was pretty embarrassed about my skill level, but I've found out since that consorts really love new players. For one thing, it's an opportunity to play the wonderful In Nomine repertoire. These pieces are rarely brought out in normal circumstances, because despite what we might claim, it's rarely fun to play the long cantus firmus while everyone else is having such a fun and challenging time. These are some of the most beautiful pieces of the repertoire, and it's rewarding for everyone when a new player is introduced to the joys of consort playing, while the experienced players get to be challenged. For new players, the single most important thing, I would say, is finding a consort to play with as soon as possible. I'd say a consort is more important than a teacher--it's the soul of the instrument, playing and growing with close friends. Never put it off because you think you're not good enough.

I've become modestly competent on treble & bass, but I've been working intensely lately on my tenor skills, since I'm planning to take all 3 to the conclave in July. I was taking a little break from practicing and googled around for recent gamba-related blog posts and found this article...

-- Allen

Annalisa Pappano said...

Thank you for your comments! I find that this is true of areas where there are already established players - that the community almost sustains itself. It is wonderful and truly a social, fun thing!
What would you suggest for a city like Cincinnati, where there is not an established community of consort players?
So glad you will be going to Conclave! Enjoy!