Mideast Early Music Workshop 2012: a life-changing experience!!
The whole past week (July 15-21, 2012), I attended my first ever music camp, the annual Mideast early music workshop held at LaRoche College. It totally changed my life!
A big report, with photos and videos:
Why I decided to attend
I have loved music all my life, but never had any private instruction, or any intensive group instruction either.
After passing age 40, I started thinking about mortality, and making a list of what my biggest regrets in life would be if I died soon. On the very top of the list was my lifelong regret that I never had the courage to get serious about music. I had made excuse after excuse to downplay following my musical dreams (in part a legacy of my internalizing my parents’ constant discouragement of music as a “waste of time”, but also because I was not willing to make the required sacrifices as a very busy adult).
So before I turned 41, I decided to finally start the process of getting serious about music, and in February 2011 (less than one and a half years ago), I started to learn to play recorder because it was easy to get started on, was new to me (without the baggage of my difficult experiences with flute and piano) and most of all, because of the existence of the Pittsburgh Recorder Society as a friendly place to finally play with other people. I mentioned this in one of my first posts on this blog.
First hearing of the workshop
In March 2011, I went to the meeting of the Pittsburgh Recorder Society for the first time. At the April 2011 meeting, Helen passed out flyers for the Mideast workshop. I was interested in it and asked her and others about it, but as a total beginner felt that it was not worth attending until I got much better first.
After another year, I did in fact improve significantly on recorder (and musically in general), and therefore decided this past March to attend the workshop. I pegged myself as finally having reached a beginner/intermediate level suitable for benefiting from the workshop.
It also turns out that just this February, I picked up Gary Marcus’s book “Guitar Zero” and read it. It is about his experience finally immersing himself in music at the age of 40. This book helped me decide to attend the workshop this year.
It turned out that you have to choose a primary instrument (from among recorder, viol, and (Baroque) flute), but can also study secondary instruments. I decided that because of my strong interest in flute (both Baroque flute and modern flute), I would choose Baroque flute as my primary instrument.
Possible secondary instruments are recorder, viol, harp, voice, and capped reeds (for Renaissance band): I chose recorder (of course), but also voice.
I was deathly scared of getting into singing, but felt that this was my chance to finally jump into it!! I have never sung with anyone before (in elementary and middle school, I basically lip-synced when supposed to sing), and have almost never sung in the presence of any other human being (I believe I sang for Abby once). I had a definitely goal of unobtrusively getting my start in singing here, in an informal group setting, and then moving forward from there.
The classes I tentatively planned to take were:
- Baroque flute technique
- recorder consort
- all-workshop ensemble
- bass recorder ensemble
- voice class
- English country dance
I expected it to be a pretty intense schedule, and it definitely was!!
Evening before: informal dinner at Helen’s
Helen hosted dinner at her place for both locals and out-of-towners arriving in town for the workshop. About a dozen of us showed up, and Abby came along. Since most of the attendees and instructors already knew each other for years (decades in most cases!), I found it a great way to start getting to know some people. Yes, this is an “old people” music camp. At age 42, I was by far the baby of the entire group. It seems that a good number of retired people attend the camp. Some of the instructors are younger than me, but it appeared that all the students were going to be older than me. I have to confess that last year, when I was “warned” that this was an “old people” camp, I had reservations, but the fact is, music is for any age, and interestingly, since getting involved in music last year, I have been consistently surprised and delighted by how younger-looking or younger-acting musicians tend to be.
Day 1: Sunday (July 15)
Sunday afternoon, I drove up to LaRoche College to check in and pay the registration balance, and got my key to the dorm room where I would be staying for the week. Mike of the Pittsburgh Recorder Society had agreed to share a room with me.
Dinner in the LaRoche dining hall was varied and tasty, as I expected given the excellent lunch I had enjoyed at LaRoche during Pittsburgh TechFest in June! I was starving, having become considerably underweight in the past couple of weeks because of being really busy and stressed, and welcomed the opportunity to chow down. I ate not only a whole lot of healthy food, but also couldn’t help myself and ate a cupcake, a cookie, and ice cream also!
Introduction and all-workshop ensemble
The introduction to the workshop happened after dinner
Marilyn introduced the workshop, along with the instructors. Marilyn has been the organizer of this workshop for something like 45 years, I believe: wow!
Immediately following the introduction was the first meeting of the all-workshop ensemble. We had substantial-looking spiral-bound books of ensemble music and I wondered how much of it we would go through!
English country dance
After that was the first meeting of English country dance. I was sad not to be dancing with Abby (she was not enrolled in the workshop because this isn’t her kind of music), but enjoyed learning something new and getting a bit of exercise. Since it started from scratch, it was less intimidating than my first experience with English country dance four months ago.
Also, given that I was the young baby of the bunch, going a bit slowly was helpful to me.
Day 2: Monday (July 16)
I enjoyed a fine breakfast, including eggs, sausages, and potatoes, and felt myself regaining some much-needed weight. Also, regarding the dorm rooms: they have air-conditioning, much appreciated given the hot and muggy summer!
Baroque flute technique
I felt very intimidated in Majbritt’s morning Baroque flute technique class. There were six of us in the class, and I was clearly the least experienced. My flute playing (whether modern or flute) is at a beginner’s level, as I have been playing for only a few months really. In fact, this is exactly why I chose flute as my primary instrument in the workshop: to get good instruction in technique before I progressed too far on my won. Even with recorder, I had to unlearn some bad habits early on that I had developed from working on it myself for a month or so before joining the Pittsburgh Recorder Society!
In class we had a “review” of basic concepts of Baroque flute technique such as the correct embouchure adjustments to get the intonation right of all the various notes: for example, the F is sharp unless you adjust the embouchure, and the F-sharp is flat unless you adjust the embouchure in the other way.
Then we talked about articulation. One new thing I learned here was to be aware of the end of a note, very important compared with playing modern instruments.
I took a lot of notes, as well as made annotations in the music we got.
Eric taught voice class. There was a good balance of men and women. He handed us spiral-bound books of musical selections.
We went through a bunch of songs, and I . It was tremendous fun. I had never in my life sight-sung before (!!!), so I was very nervous. I tried not to let on that I was a total novice (unlike everyone else there). I took a lot of notes on what was tricky and marked up the song book for further study.
The somewhat nerve-wracking thing was that no men were really tenors, and a bunch sang bass, so Eric, Chris, and I sang tenor. I’m a baritone, not a tenor: the high notes were scary.
I totally stuffed myself for lunch. So much good food.
Emily was the instructor for my recorder consort class. I was put into a lower-level class because of being relatively new (having played recorder for less than two years). I didn’t mind, because I knew that I had much to learn.
Emily focused a lot on things like where to breathe, and in paying attention to others in an ensemble. I learned to write in commas for breathing in music scores (in the flute class, Majbritt also emphasized finding the phrasing and the breathing, and this has been a theme at Pittsburgh Recorder Society meetings as well). I realized that I still had a lot to absorb from these lessons.
Emily also told us to find the narrative in any music we played. It’s not just isolated notes; music has a push and pull.
James (whom I amusingly first encountered online through his fantastic multi-track melodica videos before finding out that he teaches recorder at the Mideast workshop) led the bass ensemble. I still play bass recorder only very infrequently, so I was nervous, but joined the bass ensemble because I thought it would be fun.
Alan taught improvisation. I had never actually specifically learned improvisation techniques before, but want to eventually get truly serious about improvisation, so I was excited to take this class, which was quite participatory. He would describe a concept, such as the pentatonic scale, and then have us do something with it. The class was enthusiastic. I was actually pretty moved by how individual everyone’s inventiveness was, even doing basic things, and that helped me loosen up as well.
On a whim, I checked out the medieval fiddle class. I borrowed a medieval fiddle to take back to my room after class. (But it would turn out that the instrument had problems, and I had too much other stuff to do, and had never played a string instrument before, so I ended up returning it and not returning to the class.)
Abby came up to visit and joined me for dinner while on her way to mandolin orchestra rehearsal, which is actually close by.
I ate an ice cream cone, but realizing that I was gaining a lot of weight already after 24 hours at LaRoche, I chose not to eat cake or cupcakes.
Intense stuff. I took pages and pages of notes as Eric talked about different styles, phrasing, “painting”, dissonances, imitation, counterpoint, the significance of words in text, changes in meter, etc. We read through a lot of pieces to work on for the week.
English country dance
We learned more stuff.
Finally, after all the classes into the evening, I got to spend some hours in my dorm room or across the hall in an empty meeting room used for classes in the day (since sometimes Mike was in the dorm room or going to bed earlier than me) doing what review of my notes I could, as well as practicing for each of my classes.
It was intense: I had been given so much to learn already after a single day! I was right in choosing to live on site rather than take the commuter option, because the commute from Pittsburgh would have been stressful and time-consuming for me, taking away energy and time I could spend on classes and preparation.
Day 3: Tuesday (July 17)
I learned about inégal for the first time. I hadn’t know that this “swinging” of notes (familiar in jazz) also applied to Baroque music!
We continued our study of articulation. I learned a huge amount about “t” and “d” and runs of notes as well as leaps. It was very difficult for me to execute all this, so I tried to focus on one aspect at a time.
More work, and a lot of fun.
Reinforcing the technique points we learned yesterday.
It continued being a challenge for me to alternate between reading bass clef for bass recorder and reading treble clef for it as well.
Musical structure such as ABA, ABACA (rondo).
Cutting out medieval violin meant having a block of nap time, much-needed!
I created a pattern of eating ice cream every day at dinner, and continued to gain weight.
All-workshop ensemble: singing?
Some of the pieces we went through could optionally be sung, so Eric asked us to think of whether we wanted to sing or play an instrument for our performance on Friday. I was intrigued by the option to sing. “Ecco l’Aurora” was very interesting to sing, but also rather challenging to me, with its leaps and modulations.
But because of the relative lack of tenor volunteers, I decided I would switch from playing tenor recorder and work on singing it on Friday. I was partly inspired by Chris’s example, and also by the guy sitting next to me who decided to sing.
English country dance
We learned a new dance, but also started focusing on improving on a particular dance for Friday’s performance.
I was practicing in the empty meeting room until at 11 PM, Charles, whose dorm room was actually right next door, told me he was going to sleep. Oops! If I didn’t do English country dance, I could practice earlier.
Day 4: Wednesday (July 18)
Very detailed articulation instruction. Also, notes on hemiolas.
I was very excited to attend the master class. I had never attended a master class before, actually, although I had seen some videos of the concept.
It turned out that Karen had prepared a piece for Baroque flute for the master class, and Mike had prepared a piece for recorder.
I took a huge number of notes. For each of them, I first took notes while they played their pieces, then I took more notes as the instructors gave feedback. I found it quite useful to compare what they observed with what I had observed independently (or not noticed at all). The whole experience was tremendously instructive for me, giving me a huge amount of information to apply to my own playing. I don’t know if I have the courage to expose myself to scrutiny in public like this. I’m certainly appreciative of Karen and Mike doing so!
I noticed some observations in common among the instructors and for both Karen and Mike. The gist of the advice:
- add more variety in articulation
- play with more freedom
- find and express the shape and melodic line
- look for the meaning of leaps and dissonance
I found these insights profoundly useful, and found it inspiring to see Karen and Mike work to make some changes in their playing in response to the instructors’ feedback.
Karen prepared one of the twelve Telemann fantasias for solo flute, no. 2.
By coincidence, Mike played another of the Telemann fantasias for solo flute, no. 10, but he played it on alto recorder instead of flute.
There was a funny moment in which Mike used his leg to play a high F-sharp. Later, Emily and James showed him a good technique hint, preparing the F-sharp by bringing up the leg already in anticipation, and then bringing the head down toward the leg instead of vice versa.
After lunch, Mike and I helped Chris move his harpsichord. (Chris drove his own harpsichord up from home and it’s used for many sessions at the workshop.)
People had been leaving our recorder consort class one by one; Wednesday, we were down to five! I wondered why this was going on. Admittedly, we were moving slowly through the music, because a couple of us were more on the beginner side and had trouble sight reading, staying with the score, keeping fingerings straight. I myself had silently considered switching, but I found the “slower” pace an opportunity to really focus on trying to work on various basic things that are more important than “getting through” a lot of musical selections. I really needed to get down what I was learning about breath, resonance, and intonation, as well as ensemble unity.
Wednesday there is scheduled “free time” during which there are no classes. I was totally exhausted by this point in the week and napped for two and a half hours!! Then I finally went outside for a 40-minute run, in my new Invisible Shoes (which I wore around daily and got a lot of comments on); I had originally intended to get regular exercise in every day while at camp, but had simply felt overwhelmed by the desire to make the most of my music classes and practice (at least I did do an hour of English country dance every evening).
White Elephant Sale
After dinner, I browsed around at the White Elephant Sale. I kicked myself for having totally forgotten to bring some stuff to donate to it. I was amused that Helen managed to get rid of a particular item that she had wanted out of her home for some time.
Chris and harpsichord
I had been so busy that I had not bothered to think about signing up for playing with Chris on harpsichord. Unfortunately, by the time I checked the signup sheet, I saw that it was full (empty slots conflicted with my class time).
There were signup sheets all along for other stuff too, such as people wanting to find others to play with. That is actually a large part of the appeal of the workshop. I didn’t participate in any of that because as a newcomer, I was focused on exploring classes. But obviously, those who had come to the workshop for years and decades did not necessarily need or want to spend all their time on classes.
Another highlight of Wednesday was the faculty concert. This was great. Bagpipes, recorders, Renaissance flutes, Baroque flutes, harpsichord, viola da gamba, even sackbut! It was a real treat to see all our instructors performing.
I was intrigued by Emily playing Debussy’s “Syrinx” on a special tenor recorder.
A short video clip from the faculty concert (I found out that my phone made an unstoppable annoying click when taking video, so I never used my phone again for video after this; other videos I post here came from the camera Abby brought on Friday):
Finally I got time to practice. There was a lot of stuff to prepare for the Friday concert.
Day 5: Thursday (July 19)
Because of the considerable weight gain (approximately four pounds so far since arrival), I decided to stop eating potatoes (which seemed to be available in some form at every meal).
More technique. Lip and tongue placement, different scales. We finally decided on what to play for the concert, a selection by Dittersdorf. I was one of those on the easiest part, the third part of the trio, playing “bass”.
We worked through a bunch more selections while continuing to refine the one we had decided to perform on Friday.
By the way, it came in really handy this week that I have at least basic competence in French, Italian, Latin, and German, because we sang in all these languages!
I got to class early enough (a rarity, since usually I was rushing from voice class) to take a photo.
By the way, since I had hardly played bass before coming to this workshop, I hadn’t realized that my bass tended to be sharp and I learned I had to keep the head joint pulled out to a certain degree. Useful to finally find that out.
We did blues stuff, and Alan pulled out his guitar to give us chords as the rest of us took turns on recorder.
Special mini-class on practice techniques
I attended a one-session class on practice techniques by Emily. I found this tremendously useful and took a lot of notes. Some of the key ideas:
- don’t practice a mistake
- importance of warmup with focus (physical but also mental)
- go slow, do it right
- break down difficult tasks
- it all starts with the mind: first decide and know what you want to accomplish, then figure out the physical means
- repetition and grouping into units
- isolation of aspects of technique
- classify goals as long, medium, and short term
We had a shorter session, in order to make more time for the following ad hoc student concert.
Eric had singers lined up in front so that we would run through “Ecco l’Aurora” as it was going to be presented on Friday: I stood with Chris for tenor and found it tremendously helpful to have him at my side so that when I was uncertain or got lost, I had someone to anchor back to.
Instrumentalists were reminded to play as though singing, articulating consistently with the words of the text.
Ad hoc student concert
A lot of participants in the workshop look forward to this as one of their highlights of the experience. I did not sign up to perform for this because I was focused entirely on classes.
Each selection was short, and there were a whole lot of individuals and groups that came up to present something. Some people had prepared something before the workshop. Others had met up and were playing for the first time together. It was a fun time.
Finally at 10 PM I started music practice!
Day 6: Friday (July 20), final day
We reviewed what we were playing for the concert, but also moved on to work some more on music we were not performing.
We went over the two pieces we were to perform at the concert, then closed the class with work on some more pieces in the book.
We did a lot of intonation adjustment, since many of us were sharp!
James had particular ideas about performance presentation, and told us to hold up our instruments after we were done playing, watch out for extraneous sucking, and refrain from bringing too much junk (extra clothing, shoe boxes, etc.) with us. Also, we were to bring only the two pages of music we were to play, not binders of all our music.
Final class. We did not plan to perform as a group in the concert.
Abby had come up for dinner on Monday. I hadn’t seen her since then, and she came up to see the final concert. I was happy she was able to make it!
The final student concert showcased what everyone had worked on so hard for the week. Because I took so many classes, I was in several groups that performed. Here are just a sample of photos and videos from the concert. I apologize for not having full coverage, but as I was occupied with performing, after my first performance, I completely stopped messing around with my phone and just focused on enjoying others’ performances and getting ready to switch in when one of my groups was up! Abby did take some photos and videos, but only when I was involved!
Me in flute
Abby took this photo of me in Majbritt’s flute group:
Me in voice ensemble
Eric tuning for the voice ensemble (I’m standing next to Chris as usual):
Clips from our two selections:
Immediately after the voice ensemble performance, Abby commented to me that during performance, I ended up “hiding” with my score in my hands rising up and up, partially covering my face. Admittedly, I was very nervous, but also, I was trying to cover up my inability to keep a straight face while barking on the tenor dog line!! (For the final all-workshop ensemble performance, I made sure not to hide.)
Concluding all-workshop ensemble performance
Me and Chris:
There was a party afterwards with unique tasty treats that Abby and I attended, and she got to meet more of my instructors and classmates.
People started to pack up and prepare to leave. It was a long week, but what a fun one!
I was, of course, asked whether I planned to come back next year. I said I would like to, but could not yet commit to that.
More photos of the whole workshop week can be found here at the workshop site.
Saturday at home: thoughts
I weighed myself the next day. I’d gained a total of seven pounds in five days. On the one hand, I had gone in underweight, so it was good I finally made up for that, but now I was a bit overweight, as Abby noticed.
Reflecting on the week, I resolved to put into practice everything I had learned at the workshop. It was going to take time to develop new habits, make use of new awareness, but I now knew of the path forward. Before attending the workshop, I had gotten advice here and there that was useful, and I had read up on things by myself, but there is nothing like being immersed in an environment of total learning, feedback, and collaboration.
Attending this workshop has given me fresh concrete direction and musical goals as well as the determination to push on and not settle for anything less than doing what I can to musically express myself.
I am grateful to Marilyn, all the instructors (especially those of my classes: Majbritt, Emily, Eric, James, Alan), my classmates (especially Chris for voice, without whom I would have felt lost), the staff of LaRoche College, and the members of the Pittsburgh Recorder Society who first told me of this workshop and also attended (Helen, Annie, Mike, Sam, Maggie who danced with me). Mike was a considerate dorm roommate for the week. And I am particularly grateful that Abby supported me in my quest to improve my musicianship and enabled me to attend the workshop, and also visited me twice for dinner and to see me in the final student concert.
I had an amazing time at the Mideast early music workshop. I am going to continue my study of Baroque flute and recorder, and voice as well, and do more with improvisation. Now that I have seen and worked with more really good musicians up front (both instructors and students at the workshop: I noticed that quite a few of the students themselves are actually professional musicians on non-early instruments), I have a much clearer idea of how I want to sound and what kind of technique I need to develop in order to make that into reality. Mostly, I feel that some kind of psychological block has been removed and that I now have real courage where I still didn’t have it before attending the workshop: courage to experiment, to fail, to continue.comments powered by Disqus