Guest presentation at Uni High: Intro to Baroque Performance

I had a great time visiting University High School‘s most advanced orchestra this week to teach a workshop on Baroque music and performance practice. Thank you to director Grace Lee for inviting me!

John Ott has been working with the students this year, introducing them to fundamental ideas of Baroque playing and historical context in their regular coachings. It was a pleasure to be able to open with leading questions to help them access, synthesize, and consolidate this knowledge and their experience so far with playing Michel Corrette’s Concerto comique, “Les Sauvages et la Fustemberg.”

The students had great ideas to contribute to the discussion and had the opportunity to try some of these approaches out right away with their own instruments. Time was limited but a small number of students got to try out some of the techniques on reproduction baroque-style bows, with both the Corrette and their own baroque-era solo repertoire.

Here is an overview of what we covered:

  • What do you already know about Baroque music? (engaging the students with immediate participation/leadership)
  • Setting the stage:
    • Historical context—Enlightenment philosophy
    • Rhetoric, affect, and the Doctrine of Affects (including linking of specific keys with specific affects)
    • Treatises on singing and playing—performance as an act of composition (improvisation, ornamentation)
  • Baroque performance style: it comes from the instruments.
    • Less vibrato—expression in the right arm.
    • Bow curvature and weight distribution—physical design. Short bow (17th century) and long bow (18th century)
    • Bow behavior:
      • decay (like harpsichord, as opposed to piano and Tourte/modern bow)
      • string crossings/leaps
    • Expressive tools available in the bow (ask students first):
      • bow speed
      • amount of bow—vary each note
      • articulation
      • timing/flexibility/agogic accent
    • Making this into a story:
      • cadences—points of arrival/repose
      • harmonic rhythm
      • articulation to show affect—connected to physical sensation of different affects in the body (connection to Dalcroze)
      • timing
  • How does this apply to the Corrette?

The Irvine district-wide festival this year includes exploration of the distinctive characteristics of Baroque music and historically-informed performance practice—how to make this music come alive as players familiar with the very different expressive vocabularies of Romantic, Contemporary, and even Classical music. I’m looking forward to visiting the orchestra again next week to continue applying what the students have learned to their performance of the Corrette Concerto. Thank you to all the great students for their attention, participation, and willingness to try new things with their playing!

EDIT: My second visit went very well. It was exciting to hear the students integrating ideas we’d discussed into their full-orchestra rendition of the piece. The cello and bass sections showed the results of their coaching with John in the energy of their articulation, and I encouraged the second violins and violas to carry this energy up into their own critically important inner-voice parts. We pushed the boundaries of dynamic range, exploring playing softly with high energy and short articulation for suspense and tension, and using dynamic contrast as an expressive tool. While they used their own modern-style bows, I encouraged them to think about the amount of bow used for every single note and change it to produce these contours and dynamic changes, rather than using the pressure and force possible with the reverse-curve modern bow.

Thank you again to Grace and John for making it possible for me to come in and work with these wonderful students!