With all the Baroque music that we teach beginning violinists, doesn't it make sense to teach them something about Baroque performance practice?
Violinist Rachel Barton Pine thought so, when her daughter, Sylvia, started taking violin lessons and going through the Suzuki books several years ago. The Suzuki books contain quite a lot of Baroque pieces -- the Bach Minuets, Lully Gavotte, Vivaldi concerti, the Bach Double...the list goes on. This presents so many opportunities to introduce students to early music practices -- but how to go about doing so?
Once Pine, along with Sylvia's teacher, Isabelle Rozendaal, starting looking into it, they discovered that there are early music education programs and ensembles springing up all across the United States, and they seem to be a big hit with young musicians. Last month, Pine shared her own experiences with Sylvia, and she also brought together a group of teachers and students from Baroque programs around the country to talk about their programs and to perform at a workshop called "Baroque for Beginners and Beyond" at the American String Teachers Association conference in Albuquerque, N.M.
Pine herself has studied the subject of period performance deeply, having played in the Baroque group Trio Settecento since 1997 and having pursued a lifelong interest in rare Baroque instruments such as the rebec and the viola d'amore. She also drew on Baroque historical practices in her 2016 recording of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas.
When her daughter Sylvia's studies brought her to pieces such as Bach's Musette in Book 2, Pine and Sylvia's violin teacher decided to introduce some elements of early-music style. They looked at pieces in their original forms -- here, by the way, is a wonderful resource Pine recommended that explains Suzuki Violin Pieces in their Original Forms.
"Some of those versions were wildly different, with different notes!" Pine said.
Pine also drew on the work of her colleague from Trio Settesento, Baroque cellist John Mark Rozendaal, who devised new ways to teach the viola da gamba to young students.
He came up with a curriculum and pedagogy for his Viola da Gamba Dojo that combines ideas from various disciplines: a dojo's multi-level group learning; a Suzuki group's common curriculum; a ballet class's ritual of practicing basics; and a church choir's combination of pros, amateurs and kids.
Now seven years old, Sylvia participates in the new Northwestern Music Academy Baroque Ensemble. The group just acquired Baroque bows for its students (from Shar). In learning Baroque pieces, the students incorporate dance, speaking words, singing the melody and then playing on an instrument. Instead of having a piano accompanist, they have a cellist to play basso continuo. At the ASTA workshop, Sylvia was on hand to demonstrate how speaking the lyrics and singing the melody helped her learn phrasing for a song called "Tant que vivray" by Claudin de Sermisy (Pine adapted the lyrics to English for Sylvia). Rozendaal accompanies her on viola da gamba:
Sylvia also demonstrated some of the Baroque phrasing she has learned, using a Baroque bow to perform an excerpt from Bach's "Musette" from Suzuki Book 2, with Rozendaal accompanying on viola da gamba:
Pine said that since she has done so much research on the subject, she plans to create a series of early music books for students, with recordings made at A=440, a capella vocal versions and videos with practicing and teaching tips.
Another teacher who has come up with an early music program for young students is Shulamit Kleinerman, who talked about her work with Seattle Historical Arts for Kids, as well as her private violin studio. She specializes in Renaissance music and art, and she plays her violin off-shoulder style when doing Renaissance music.
Kleinerman said that what loves about Renaissance music is the fact that each instrument has its own part, and that every note you make is heard. Her Early Music Youth Academy evolved from hands-on art classes, to which she added some singing of Renaissance music. That evolved into doing plays, which involved dancing and fencing, and this led to the instrument-playing.
Among her traditional private violin students, "I kept noticing that there was a persistent minority of students for whom this was not going over," she said. What was not going over? The powerful, loud nature of modern violin playing. "It's just so high and loud!" one student complained. Another actually wore earplugs. When she handed one of these students a viola da gamba -- she loved it.
At ASTA Kleinerman shared some videos of kids from the Early Music Youth Academy playing viols and harps, singing, and talking about the music. They described early music as delicate, sparkly and less intense. They enjoyed that it was more mathematical and intricate, and one said that it was a "challenge to read, a challenge that's worth it."
When kids start getting involved, making stylistic decisions about music, it helps them not only in playing Renaissance or Baroque music, but they also start thinking more stylistically about Romantic music, modern music -- any kind of music, she said. "Learning any style, as a style, supports learning other styles," Kleinerman said.
Another success story came from Davis High School Baroque Ensemble, of Davis, California, which prides itself on being the first public school Baroque ensemble. Run by Angelo Moreno, it is an audition-only group. The money for converting all the instruments, purchasing Baroque bows, adding gut strings and purchasing new music money came from the parents and community donations. It grew from an already-successful orchestra program that was looking to expand, and its popularity among the students helped in its success.
"I think that to start a Baroque Ensemble, especially in the eyes of your district, you must show with concrete numbers that your enrollment trends warrant this sort of expansion and that proper performance of this type of music warrants this type of ensemble," Moreno advised. He recommended creating it as a higher-level program, as a goal for students to work for. The Davis High School Baroque Ensemble has played at the Berkeley Baroque Festival, gone on several international tours and been featured in several national publications -- all things that help its success to breed more success. At this point a junior high Baroque ensemble is also developing in Davis, to feed into the high school orchestra.
A Baroque program in Ann Arbor, Michigan, grew from existing music programs at the Community Music School of Ann Arbor, which includes about 40 percent scholarship students. One year, "we started a journey of discovery," said cello instructor Kasia Bielak-Hoops. They wanted to explore what it was like to play Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, in its original form.
After doing so, they decided they had enjoyed the process so much that they would learn one Brandenburg concerto every year, and they called it the Brandenburg Project. At this point, it has been six years, and along the way their ensemble has evolved to be more and more "Baroque."
For example, last year the program received Baroque bows from Shar, and "that really opened up their world," Bielak-Hoops said. They also obtained a Baroque oboe and dropped their pitch to A=415.
In a video that Bielak-Hoops showed at the ASTA workshop, kids gave the program high praise. Students said they enjoyed the opportunity to lead the ensemble in a more concrete way and to make decisions together about the music.
"We are youth-led," said one student, "we have a lot more say, in what you do with the music." Another said that "this feels more like a community than any other ensemble I've been in."
Bringing in experts from the nearby University of Michigan has also made a big difference for the Brandenburg Project, Bielak-Hoops said, and she recommended that other growing programs try doing the same. Guest artists not only provide inspiration and new ideas, but they also form a connection with the ensemble that can lead to more opportunities. The teachers felt like they were learning nearly as much as their students, she said.
Another high school group is the Stevenson High School Baroque Ensemble and Viol Consort of Lincolnshire, Ill., and this group actually made the trip from Chicago to Albuquerque to play for us at ASTA. If you look carefully in the video below, you can see a giant instrument called a theorbo in the back -- they made the trip with that instrument! Below, the ensemble performs an excerpt the Bach Double. Notice they perform standing, and they are using Baroque bows and are tuned to a lower A:
For the program at Stevenson High School, directed by Phillip W. Serna and Enrique Vilaseco, they started small and kept building and adding instruments such as the theorbo.
"We share ideas, and there is a lot of back and forth with the students," said Vilaseco, who sometimes plays along with the group, directing as concertmaster. "There's a lot of community in what we do."
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