Double Bass learns French Bass

Ashland High School Residency Program

First Musica Matrix Residency Program a Success!

The aim: to use the existing curriculum as a conduit into the understanding of Early Music by introducing students to a bounty of historic instruments and bridging from modern to historic instruments with the accompanying repertoire and instruction, while learning something about musical history and practice.

What had been originally envisioned as funding for two separate school programs was redefined as an eight-day residency program in which two different groups: one, the Chamber Orchestra class; the other, the Concert String Orchestra class, would alternate every other day and receive a total of four classes each. Lauren Trolley, string instructor at Ashland High, added a long list of requests for her class that included such things as reading from early notation, listening to musical examples and something about instrument construction.

My head was spinning when I exited that first planning meeting. How could I possibly accomplish everything on that list! while remaining true to Musica Matrix’s own mission to “Bring History to Life Through Music by preserving, promoting and performing Medieval and Renaissance Music in Southern Oregon”.

Four different sessions were designed; each class would receive all four of these on an every-other-day basis.

Session One – Medieval Music: A brief lecture, listening examples, and the opportunity to play a variety of period repertoire on familiar modern instruments. Concludes with my demo on a variety of medieval instruments including a tiny 14th Century style Spanish harp.

Session Two – Renaissance Music: much the same as Class One except for subject. Ended with a lecture demo by James Bishop-Edwards, colleague and early plucked string specialist.

Session Three – Introduction to the viola da gamba with basic technique imparted: My hope was to get the violinists onto the treble viol, as both the size and the clef would be familiar territory. The violists were given tenor viols, again because of the familiarity of alto clef as well as the slightly larger size. Cellists were given consort bass viols, and string bass players found themselves holding seven-string French basses. It began with a mini-concert with myself and colleague Michal Palzewicz presenting selections from our program of fantasias by Michael East and Orlando Gibbons for two bass viols.

Session Four – Learning to play some actual repertoire: This class began with a lecture demo by Steve Bacon on the construction of gambas vs. violin, viola, cello and string bass.

But with each class having at least 19 people, how could I possibly come up with enough viols? I myself own four gambas, so these were immediately donated to the cause. Good friend Steve Bacon, proprietor of Bellwood Violin and conservator of the Jack Schuman Collection, donated two gambas of his own as well. Viol whisperer Charlie Ogle in Eugene kindly donated a total of eleven viols!

So with my four instruments, two from Steve, and eleven from Charlie Ogle: I was thrilled to herd a total of seventeen viols from my home to Ashland High School for four consecutive days. Despite being in the same town, it felt like I was preparing to saddle up and traverse the open plains. I needed reinforcements and am grateful my friend and member of the Musica Matrix team Mariah McLaughlin who volunteered to help me wrangle such a large collection of instruments from my home to the school.

For four consecutive mornings, Mariah showed up on my door at 7am, was plied with coffee before we packed our cars. The viols nested together forming an interlocking pattern, and were very stable when being transported. We drove in tandem, parking as close to the High School Gymnasium as we possibly could by 7:30 to set up, organize materials, and round up the unfamiliar assortment of technical gadgets, including speakers that could connect to my computer, overhead projector and tables upon which to place instruments for viewing and also packets of materials.

I created music history thumbnails for both Medieval and Renaissance music using Grout as my guide, as well as a timeline placing some of the more important musicological events and trends on a par with more recognizable historic events such as the Crusades and the sinking of the Armada. I created a listening list for all of the musical examples. The students had multiple opportunities to listen to a piece of music while viewing both a modern transcription and a facsimile version. They also received scores, both in modern transcription and facsimile versions.

The students, although forewarned of my imminent arrival, looked like startled deer with their eyes caught in the headlights for that first class. By class two they began to warm up to the idea of being submerged in the ocean that is historic music, and began to timidly ask questions and to respond to questions that were posed to them. By the third and fourth classes, they were ready to have a gamba placed in their laps, gazing upon it with wonder at as if holding their own newborn for the first time. Any previous distance melted, and everyone focused on the task at hand.

Musica Matrix’s photographer was there to snap shots of the whole process, and I think these photos speak for themselves!

Though only two classes were devoted specifically to the viol, the fledgling gambists made remarkable progress. They learned the bow hold, how to properly hold the instrument, how to pizz on the gamba, and several positions for the left hand. We played short notes with the strings ‘plucked and released’ by the bow to underline the use of the middle finger for control.

The new bow hold was practiced with the bow only, and then the path of the fingers, hand and arm were mimed without even the bow, so that they knew what to do when the bow touched the strings. They learned to play both the C major and a minor scales, which was tied back to the Plagal partner of Dorian mode. I then wrote out a simple melody in that mode, for everyone to learn to play in tandem.

Of course I wildly over-prepared and had heaps more materials than we could actually use. This however afforded me ample choices when figuring out as we went along which specific pieces to use and which things to try. It was good I had these options, because each class had totally different needs. I think that next time my outline will be simpler with fewer moving parts, but I will keep a number of options available on repertoire for the best result.

All in all, The Great Viol Round-Up of 2017 was a great success. It is my hope to offer a select group of students the option to participate in a small consort viol class.

The local string teacher has already voiced an interest in doing another collaboration. Musica Matrix will be applying for another grant to facilitate this prospect! Wish us luck on our ever-evolving project to create a conduit to Early Music using the skills youngsters already have on modern instruments.

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