Gregorian Chant Meets Baroque Music, Part 1

bachinvention“You have perfect pitch? I wouldn’t want that — I’d go crazy hearing out of tune and transposing! How can you transpose?” I cannot recall how many times I have heard the following allegations from other musicians in one way or another. Immediately, my reaction has always been one of “What? That’s not me!” Despite that those speaking to me persist that this is how people with perfect pitch function, I nonetheless dismiss it as mere ignorance caused by either jealousy or preconceived and theoretical notions concocted by non-perfect pitch possessors who attempt to understand what is occurring in the minds of those who do possess it. Nonetheless, the question remains: Do I have issues transposing? Previously, yes and no, but with the aid of a wonderful and unsuspecting musical genre and notation from music history, I am confidently relieved to declare that I indeed have surmounted all previous obstacles with regards to transposition.

To begin with, transposing by ear or hearing a song in another key has never been an issue for me. From small on in Suzuki school, we Suzuki students were taught to play our songs in different keys. All that was initially needed was to switch from one pair of strings to another in songs requiring only two strings. As time progressed, we were taught to play our songs in different keys without the string switch just by listening. When my mom and violin teacher discovered I had perfect pitch, it was lauded as a gift and treated as special. Outside of being trained to ignore out of tune playing, using the ear to match it, and ignoring it when I heard it and nothing could be done, I never experienced any of the frustration that people suspect perfect pitch possessors would have. Additionally, since I had been trained to transpose from small on, transposing by ear or hearing a song in another key was never any issue for me. The song at hand was simply the same song in a different key. Yes, I sometimes felt that songs sounded better in other keys than others, but this factor was not a significant annoyance — the song in any key was still the same song, just with a different flavor. Therefore, transposing in this respect was never any issue for me.

Transposing by sight, however, proved problematic to me, as it often does to other musicians — even those who do not possess perfect pitch. Having been trained to see the note on the staff and immediately play it upon recognition, I found it most difficult to see that note as another note. To me, notation and the clef were fixed. An E was an E. Combined with the fact that I have always heard a note in treble clef in my head every time I see it on the page, I found transposing from sight hard. Even learning to read bass clef later in life proved problematic because I had somehow come to view notation as fixed and was so used to reading in treble clef. Perfect pitch or not, I wished to overcome this roadblock, yet no matter how much I pondered, I felt incapable of discovering the “magic fix.” When I finished my junior year of college, however, I — now a trained soprano taking voice lessons for one year — joined my parish’s Latin Mass Gregorian Chant schola in my desire to experience the Church’s rich liturgical heritage. Excited at the prospect of singing chant and using my newly-trained voice — a light, pure Baroque tone that surprisingly lent itself very well to the style required in chant and Renaissance polyphony — to give God glory, I never suspected what other fruits this newly found liturgical and musical outlet would yield …

To be continued …

Posted in Uncategorized

Recorder Mythbusters: Stanesby Junior Copies and Grenadilla Instruments, Part 3

In my previous post and second part of this four-part post series regarding purchasing my Von Huene Stanesby Junior alto recorder in grenadilla, I left off at the point in my story when I felt extremely torn between the two instruments, strangely drawn to the “taboo” Stanesby in grenadilla — the very instrument I had convinced myself all along that I did not want. Its tone, response, and overall playability had left me totally wowed despite the minor initial setbacks I had found with it. I reasoned that, like any finer instrument and any case of an instrument’s uniqueness facilitating adjustment on the part of the player, I would eventually learn to play the instrument with ease and that doing so would challenge me and take my technique to a higher level. Nonetheless, I reasoned that, since this is an investment for life and I am still a neophyte student, I would need the aid of an expert to make a sound final verdict. Hence, I called up my teacher and scheduled an appointment to try out the two instruments with his help. Hearing my confusion on the other end of my line, my teacher gently reassured me as always and told me, “We’ll take as much time as you need to make this decision.” Relieved, I thanked him before hanging up the phone and recording the date and time in my calendar.

For the next few days with the instruments prior to my appointment with my teacher, I spent time daily trying the instruments. The next day after the first, the results were indeed the same: I was again torn between the two instruments, vaciliating between the two instruments yet gravitating heavily towards the Stanesby. One minute I felt I liked the Denner, the next minute I pushed it to the side when its inconsistency became obvious enough to me. In an attempt to further my objectivity, I began switching between the two instruments and playing for short snippets of time to compare and contrast. After a while, however, my ears and mind became very fatigued to the point of frustration, and I decided that I would put the instruments aside until the next day. Finally, on day three of trials and more extended playing time on each as opposed to the snippet strategy, I experienced a huge breakthrough. I found myself deciding that the Stanesby was far superior, totally smitten with its tone and finding myself slowly adjusting to its technical demands as I had predicted I would. I found myself no longer desiring to touch the Denner, and the next day, the Denner totally sat in my Mollenhauer’s original soft case, which I was using for safe storage in the absence of any case for the Denner.

For the next few days, I began to use the Stanesby in my routine practice, not going beyond the twenty minutes that Patrick had mandated. However, I was no longer playing it merely to try it out, hopping from sonata excerpt to sonata excerpt with scales and long tones in between. Rather, I was practicing my actual repertoire, etudes, etc. on it as if it was my Mollenhauer. I even dared to begin learning a new Telemann fantasia upon it not only as a means of getting used to hearing in 415 pitch, but also unknowingly as a means of accustoming myself to it and its individual character. The more I played, the more I learned exactly how to play it and how it wanted to be played. Gradually, support and articulation issues with the instrument faded, and I began to feel I could express myself more than ever — just as my European correspondents had told me about such an instrument. Indeed, their insistence that I truly needed a handmade 415 alto to further progress as a player and in general was far from far-fetched …

As I slowly learned the new Telemann, I felt myself bonding with the Stanesby. This was no longer a strange instrument in my hands; it was becoming my instrument. I mentally began to consider it as such and treating it like my instrument, placing it on the dresser in my room as I did with my Mollenhaur and turning to it first thing whenever it was time to practice. Meanwhile, the Denner literally sat for two whole days before my appointment, and while I yearned to take the consignment label off the Stanesby, I kept reminding myself that I still needed to “play it safe” and check with my teacher before making the final verdict. Still, my heart continued to nag me to take that consignment label off; I even expressed my “gut feeling” to my mother and several friends, online correspondents — most of whom agreed that I had found my instrument but needed to wait for my teacher’s expert advice. So, with that in mind, I kept practicing with the Stanesby yet patiently waiting for the day to arrive …

To be continued ….

Posted in Uncategorized

Recorder Mythbusters: Stanesby Junior Copies and Grenadilla Instruments, Part 2

In Part 1 of this three-part post series on acquiring my Von Huene Stanesby Jr. alto recorder in grenadilla, I described my preconceived notions about grenadilla and Stanesby Jr. instruments in general, leaving off at the point when I stumbled across two used Von Huene instruments on the workshop’s consignment list and decided to contact Patrick to inspect them prior to possible purchase due to various “gut feelings.” Sure enough, when I called him up the next day to do so, he revealed to me upon inspection that the Denner had issues.  Instantly, my heart fell, yet it perked up when Patrick began highly praising the Stanesby and its good condition and tone.  Upon hearing that, my preconcieved notions once again began to replay in my mind, but I quelled them by ordering my mind to flip to objective mode. Once in this mode, I asked which of the two instruments was better, since I wanted to save on shipping and just get one instrument so I would not have to pay return shipping for the one I did not want after the trial period had elapsed.  However, Patrick insisted that he send me both, citing that I truly needed to try them in person before making a decision.  After enough insisting on his part, I agreed, and the two instruments were packed up and shipped to me in a few days.

Even though Patrick had given me his opinion on the two instruments, I still half clung to the notion that I did not want a grenadilla instrument and a Stanesby copy.  I was constantly thinking to myself into the fact that although the Denner had issues, I would still probably like it better.  Upon unpacking the newly-arrived box containing the instruments, I immediately went for the Denner, which was packed without a case.  No, the finish was not the glossy stained boxwood that I had envisioned, but a light yellow as if almost unfinished.  I was also highly surprised by the extreme light weight of this instrument; my Mollehauer was considerably heavier than this one. Holding this Denner was literally like holding nothing. Warming it up under my armpit to prevent condensation while playing, I proceeded to examine the Stanesby, which was nestled in a snug Cavallero roll bag lined with fleece.  This alone demonstrated to me that the owner had indeed taken meticulous care of the instrument like I did with my Mollenhauer, and upon closer examination, I started to feel drawn to the instrument. It appeared that the instrument had barely been played. The glossy, buffed finish, the beautiful brown grain in the black wood, just its beauty in general — it was almost as if the instrument itself was beckoning to me. Remembering the “gorgeous tone” comment next to its listing, I found myself not only mesmerized by its exterior beauty, but also increasingly eager to behold its internal beauty. Surely this was the instrument of a virtuoso. However, my preconceived notions again kicked in when I remembered the Denner under my arm, and now that the head joint was warm enough, it was time to start putting that instrument through its paces.

Upon playing a few long tones and scales, carefully checking for articulation and response, I immediately noticed that while the Denner indeed played like my Mollenhauer, its overall response and consistency was less than desirable. High notes did not speak easily; the tuning was inconsistent; the tone was unfocused and breathy; and its overall response was sluggish. Indeed, as I had been forewarned, this instrument had issues, and closer examination of the windway definitively proved to me that the previous owner had tampered with the voicing. Still, I decided that twenty minutes of playing for one day was not enough to fully judge and rule out the instrument; I would have to “get to know it” in more detail. Furthermore, with me confused over 415 pitch due to perfect pitch and my discovery that a 415 instrument requires more air and support than a 440 instrument, I reasoned that I needed to get adjusted to 415 instruments further and would hence have to give the trials a few days before final verdict. Since the maximum twenty minutes for any new instrument — new or used — was up, however, it was time to switch to the Stanesby.

Upon warming the head joint up and then blowing my first note, I was instantly taken back by the deep, sensuous tone and crystal-clear projection of the instrument. The “gorgeous tone” comment next to the instrument’s online listing was no hyperbole, yet I had not expected the magnamity of tone that was coming from the instrument. No, this was not a loud, piercing, overtly bright instrument that I had envisioned grenadilla instruments to be; this was the sweetest-sounding instrument I had ever heard — mellow with a slight touch of brilliance. Mesmerized and still recovering from my initial surprise, I proceeded to play some scales, long tones, sonata excerpts. The instrument’s response was unlike anything I had ever known: Quick, yet not as deft as that of my Mollenhauer or the other Denner. Not only did I feel that I was working harder in articulation, but I also felt that this instrument required more support and air than the Mollenhauer or other Denner. To achieve good tone, I had to support the sound more — more than even singing, and what I could easily do in one breath on my Mollenhauer or the other Denner, I had to do in two on this instrument. I literally felt like I was driving a truck rather than a car.

Despite these initial negative mental notes about the instrument, I soon discovered a treasure stash within this instrument. For example, the high notes on this instrument proved superb — easier to play and more in-tune than the other two instruments. No longer was I upping support and breath pressure to play the topmost notes and receiving an unwelcome squeal; the high notes just spoke by beautifully themselves at normal breath pressure for the high notes. Furthermore, with regards to the instrument’s individual weight, this was not a heavy, clunky instrument as many had told me regarding grenadilla instruments. Although this grenadilla Stanesby was indeed a tad heavier than my Mollenhauer, the difference was so small that I did not even give weight a second thought when playing it. Never once did I develop hand cramps or feel any discomfort.

After I had finished twenty minutes of playing on the Stanesby, I found myself extremely torn between the two instruments. Although my mind was gradually clearing of my preconceived notions, they still remained to a minor extent. Yes, the Denner responded more agilely with regards to articulation, yet its speech problems and overall inconsistency in tone, intonation, and response deterred me from further consideration. By contrast, the Stanesby lacked the agility of the Denner and required more air and support to play, yet its rich, focused tone and easy response of the high notes had me smitten. I thought that such easy response on the high notes was the signature characteristic for only Denners! And no — this instrument would not drown out a harpsichord as I had dreaded. Recalling how one must adjust to different instruments due to their uniqueness, I reasoned that, with much diligence and gradual adjustment, I would be able to overcome my support and articulation discomfort on the instrument which made me feel like I was driving a truck.

In my heart, I knew which instrument would most likely become my choice, yet two finals question lingered: Would this instrument be able to stand up to the virtuoso repertoire that stood at the forefront of my recorder-related passion, and would this heavier instrument prove problematic during virtuoso passages and to my petite hands in general? So far, all seemed “good to go” in these two aspects, yet I decided I would need an expert’s aid in the final verdict. After all, this purchase was an investment for life, and I wanted to ensure that I was pursuing the best decision possible. Reaching for the phone, I contacted my teacher and arranged an appointment a few days away. In the meantime, I would have more time to play and make further observations about both instruments for a more solid decision.

To be continued ….

Posted in Uncategorized

Recorder Mythbusters: Stanesby Jr. Copies and Grenadilla Instruments, Part 1

In my last post “Historical Pitch: The Low Down”, I revealed that I had purchased a grenadilla Von Huene Stanesby Jr. copy back in January after a second instrument and 415 copy became necessary for me. Since I have been so long away from blogging due to personal commitments and could hence not update my readers earlier on my new “baby”, I thought I might do so now, especially since I mentioned it in the previous post. As I had briefly mentioned in this post, learning the mail-biting Bach BWV 1034 sonata and then being unable to practice it on my Aulos plastic when my faithful Mollenhauer was at Von Huene Workshop for annual maintenance expedited the need for a second fine instrument. Furthermore, the counsel of my European correspondents and my own personal observation communicated to me that, with my level and personal goals on the instrument, I would more importantly need a fine, handmade instrument pitched at A=415 and designed for advanced/professional playing. So, armed with this knowledge and strongly determined to monetarily accomplish this goal, I set out on a quest to save up and purchase such an instrument.

Like in the case with my violin (please see my post “Old Faithful: Touched by the Master’s Hand” for background information on that story), I had preconceived notions about what my “dream recorder” would be. As early as my earliest days of recorder and establishing contact with Patrick von Huene and his staff at Von Huene Workshop, I had done extensive research — both internet and in-person — about recorders, including different types, copies, and makers. Somewhere along the line, I had picked up the notion that although most recorder makers use exotic hardwoods like grenadilla and rosewood, such instruments are historically anachronistic, since European boxwood was the most-used wood of the time. Indeed, importing such woods from Africa and South America would have been a rarity, since the 18th-century world was still quite unfamiliar with these territories and since slow importation via ship would have not been economical on a regular basis. In fact, I had read somewhere that rosewood and grenadilla instruments were a modern invention and that the “historically accurate” boxwood produce a sweeter, rounder sound as opposed to the “hard” sound of a grenadilla instrument.

Though I indeed preferred and still prefer brighter, more projective violins, I was perfectly mesmerized with the mellow tone of my Castello boxwood Mollenhauer, and upon inquiring to Patrick about the similarities in sound, I learned from him that the sound of European boxwood was similar to that of Castello boxwood, yet more refined. Like my family strategy of sticking to a certain restaurant in foreign territory to “play it safe” with regards to food satisfaction rather than risking money and appetite on an unknown restaurant, I decided that if I liked the sound I had with the Mollenhauer, I should “play it safe” and stick to boxwood. Furthermore, since my foremost interests in recorder revolve around playing with delicate continuo instruments like harpsichord and in period instrument ensembles with gut-stringed instruments, I was concerned as to whether a grenadilla instrument would drown out a harpsichord or period instruments, due to their “loud and piercing” sound as described by many and since I had heard that they are prime choice for playing with modern instruments. Also, considering my petite hands, I was concerned as to whether a grenadilla instrument would prove too heavy and hamper virtuosity, as many had told me. Last by not least, I had often read that grenadilla instruments clog easier due to wood density and resulting lack of warmth absorption, and having had extensive, flustering clogging trouble with my Mollenhauer since its initial purchase, I — who has often been deemed a “wet” player with hot breath temperature — desired no more hassle.

Additionally, I picked up the notion that Denner copies are “the” recorder copies suited for virtuoso repertoire like Telemann, whereas Stanesby Jr. copies are instruments for chamber/ensemble music and less demanding sonatas like Handel. I have no idea how, but something in the back of my mind tells me that some readings along the line had convinced me so. Because my primary passion on recorder revolves around solo work and intricate, virtuosic repertoire, I deduced that a Denner was absolutely necessary for me and that a Stanesby was totally out-of-the-question. I had read so much historical information in my readings about how Denner’s instruments are pinnacle in their ability to speak easily in the higher notes, and how many believe that Telemann must have owned a Denner recorder, since his works were the first to utilize the top fourth of the recorder. By how my Mollenhauer — a faithful “scaled down Denner” according to Patrick — played, I saw this to be true. Again, like the previously-mentioned family strategy of sticking to a certain restaurant in foreign territory to “play it safe” with regards to food satisfaction rather than risking money and appetite on an unknown restaurant, I decided that if I liked a Denner copy, I should stick with Denner copies. Having these three preconceived notions ingrained in my mind after three years, I all along resolved myself that my 415 instrument would be a Von Huene Denner in European boxwood, no deviation and exceptions.

For about two months prior to my graduation from college, I diligently saved up for my goal, carefully planning what I should save and when I should purchase. Additionally, I kept in mind a statement that I had been told in my early days of talking to various recorder makers and research: Do not rule out used instruments; if they are in good condition, there is nothing wrong with them. However, since I had been told that Von Huene instruments rarely come up on consignment since their instruments are so prized by their owners, I did not expect to ever see one on Von Huene’s used instrument list. Although I was therefore resigned to purchasing a totally new instrument, I never quite gave up hope, always checking Von Huene’s used list whenever it was updated online and in print. Two days after Christmas when I was praying about how I need another instrument immediately, something inside me suddenly urged me to go check Von Huene’s fan page on Facebook. Right there was listed a used Denner in European boxwood — the exact instrument my “dream instrument” was. I literally jumped for joy and thanked God aloud; here was the answer to my prayers!

Still, just before I picked up the phone to inquire about the instrument, something told me to consider other options on the list in case the used Denner had issues. Recalling that these are used instruments, I remembered that their conditions may vary upon how they are treated by their owners. Furthermore, the little something inside me kept reminding me not to trust preconceived notions and to consider, try other options besides the desired option for a balanced perspective. Hence, upon returning to the computer and once again browsing the used list, I stumbled across a listed Von Huene Stanesby in grenadilla, sporting a “gorgeous tone” comment next to its listed entry. Although this “gorgeous tone” comment pulled at me like a magnet, I balked within myself due to my preconceived notions mentioned above. No, I did not want a grenadilla instrument or Stanesby copy, and that was final. Yet again the thoughts of the Denner having issues and me having a balanced perspective crossed my mind; I reasoned that I would have Patrick inspect both and then decide what to do based upon his conclusions.

To be continued …

Posted in Uncategorized

Historical Pitch: The Low Down

DSC_0837Back in Fall of last year before my graduation, I began learning the daunting Bach sonatas on recorder.  When I had initially petitioned my recorder teacher earlier in the year due to my Bach-loving voice teacher/harpsichordist’s request, he had turned it down due to their daunting requirements.  Not only was I ready to meet such technical virtuosity, but I had also recovered from a massive oral surgery which had derived me of my ability to play recorder for three months.  So the idea of playing Bach was shelved until Fall, when I began to crave more virtuosity.  Now that my playing was “back in shape”, I felt that I could indeed give Bach a try — at least a try — and work slowly on it, using my prudence and shelving it again if necessary.  Needless to say, with much diligence and support, I succeeded in learning to play the difficult BWV 1034 sonata.

In the midst of this rigorous work, my faithful Mollenhauer Morgan Special Edition alto recorder (A=440) — my one and only “good” instrument — needed to go to Von Huene Workshop in Brookline, Massachusetts for annual cleaning.  Because of the surgery and three months of no playing, I had postponed it until after summer, but now with cold weather approaching and definite signs of mold/dirty windway, I had to send it in.  Previously, during the week-plus time period when I would not have my Mollenhauer due to annual check-up, I had used my plastic Aulos to get by. This time, however, doing so proved most frustrating literally to the point of tears. Not only could I not articulate properly and achieve good tone as I had experienced in the past, but I more prominently could barely play the Bach on my plastic. Doing so was literally next to impossible, and after four days of extreme frustration and subsequent skipping practice, I realized that I could no longer go on like this with just one good instrument and truly needed a second not only to take the weight off the first during practice, but also to serve as a backup when the other went in for repairs. In talking to two wonderful and excellent European recorder professionals that I correspond with on a regular basis, I learned that, as a serious player with professional aspirations, I would not only need just another instrument; rather, I would need a handmade A=415 instrument immediately.

 The thought of A=415 did not daunt me. Having noticed that 99% of the professional HIPP world uses it, I had all along been anticipating playing and singing in it one day, casually preparing myself for it.  During the very last stretch of my classical guitar days in which I was still a modest beginner on recorder, I was actually tuning my guitar down half a step for Baroque pieces, solely relying on “following the fingering patterns” as I had been accustomed to, playing by feel. Still, the thought of playing at 415 pitch on violin still frightened me, since my fingers always slide up regardless if the violin is tuned lower than standard pitch.  Furthermore, in reading violinists’ forums regarding 415 pitch and Baroque pitch, I became psyched out reading other perfect pitch possessors’ posts claiming its impossibility to them. However, my fears were soon placed at ease after speaking to actual early music professionals who have perfect pitch but have learned to adapt to 415 pitch. In any case, for the longest time since I had latched up with Patrick von Huene and his staff at Von Huene Workshop, I had admired his handmade 415s and, based on my deep admiration of his meticulous craftsmanship, thorough knowledge of recorder making, and stellar work on my Mollenhauer, I had decided that a 415 Von Huene would be my next instrument. Hence, when two used Von Huene altos within my budget range — a boxwood Denner and a grenadilla Stanesby with a “gorgeous tone” — popped up on the used list, I instantly ordered them to try on consignment.

Upon arrival of the two instruments, I found myself extremely disoriented with regards to 415 pitch.  Merely “following the finger patterns” as I had with classical guitar proved somewhat futile.  Like with guitar, I play recorder largely by feel in the fingering; for example, when I see a certain note in my music or am instructed to play a certain note, my fingers will immediately snap into position.  However, fingering one note and hearing another half a step lower — as my ear was constantly telling me — proved most confusing to the point I was experiencing serious disorientation.  Not only did I feel that I was playing an alto recorder in E Major instead of F Major, but I also could not play my most familiar pieces — which I could play fluently on my A=440 F alto recorder — fluently without mistakes.  I was always stumbling due to the massive confusion and subsequent frustration I was experiencing.  At the end of my first day with 415 pitch, I walked away extremely discouraged, feeling that indeed people with perfect pitch could not adapt to 415 pitch as I had heard. However, when I called my recorder teacher and told him about this, he up front told me: Stop playing games in your mind, and get to work. You can do it.

Although I still was doubtful, I mustered up courage and began to ponder on how I could overcome this mental block. I began to analyze how exactly I play, recalling the “playing by feel” mindset that I described earlier;I decided that if I was going to master 415 pitch, “playing by feel” was going to be the way to go. Hence, when I was practicing with the two instruments I was trying out, I perpetually played with the music in front of me, even for scales and pieces that I had known by heart for years. In doing so, when I would see a note on the page and instantly finger it, I would simultaneously hear it in 415 pitch and thus ingrain in my mind what that note sounded like in 415 pitch. The more I did this, the more I learned to “hear” in 415 pitch without confusion or transposing. More clearly, I no longer had to tell myself that “What sounds like an A-flat is an A”; an A was an A in 415 pitch, different sound or not. Furthermore, in about three days of the instruments’ arrival, an unexpected “blessing in disguise” sealed my mastery of 415 pitch on alto recorder: My Mollenhauer’s lower cork joint split, necessitating the instrument’s return to Von Huene Workshop just three months after it had been there for repairs as I described earlier. Initially, I was flustered that I would have to send it back within such a short epoch, yet I then realized that this would prove beneficial to me in the aspect that this would force me to use 415 pitch for my whole practice time without the temptation to revert to 440 pitch. Hence, when my teacher and I had finally decided that the grenadilla Stanesby Jr. would be my new instrument, I packed my Mollenhauer up with the other Denner that I did not want and dropped the box off at FedEx for shipment to Brookline.

While I was waiting for my Mollenhauer to come home and doing all my practice on my new Stanesby, I discovered yet another tactic to gain control of playing in 415 pitch: Singing at that pitch. Although I had done it in the past on a casual basis, I had always done it with the mindset to sing everything half a step down (i.e. transpose), and although this indeed was a good first step in acclimating myself to 415 pitch, I needed to get beyond it to master playing in that pitch. Hence, not only did I begin singing my arias half a step down on a regular basis, but I also began doing what I had done with recorder: Sing with the music in front of me so that my mind would be trained to hear in 415 pitch when I see a note on the page. I also began sight singing new arias that my teacher and I had carefully selected for my voice at 415 pitch, constantly reminding myself to stay at 415 pitch when I saw the note on the page. The more I practiced this, the more it became second nature to me, and soon I began to find myself needing music in front of me less and less. A G was a G in 415 pitch; I was finally learning to think and hear in low pitch.

By the time my Mollenhauer arrived home all clean and repaired, I had gained total control of 415 pitch and my new Stanesby, no longer experiencing drastic confusion when going between a 440 and 415 recorder. All I had to do was simply “flip the switch” in my mind when I had to immediately go between the two pitches. Though I still continued to need the music in front of me for brief periods of reinforcement, I was totally weaned off it by the time I went for a recorder lesson just two weeks after purchasing my new Stanesby. Most importantly, I had grown to prefer playing at 415 pitch due to its lovely, mellow sound and had become so bonded with my Stanesby due to its superiority that I found myself using my Mollenhauer less and the Stanesby becoming my primary instrument for practice. I found myself wanting to perform in 415 over 440, and when given the opportunity to choose which pitch to play at during a service at my recorder teacher’s church, I decided 415, hands down. Also, when given the opportunity to have a private lesson with noted American recorder player and teacher Rotem Gilbert, I immediately decided that I wanted to play at 415 — which paid off well beyond my foremost expectations. In both, I handled 415 pitch with ease as if it was the 440 I had known for the almost eighteen years of my musical experience. I was no longer transposing, but living within the 415 system. Learning to hear and identify at that pitch as if it was 440, learning to play in it without transposing, loving it more than 440 pitch. My initial fears about perfect pitch not allowing me to play at 415 was indeed a psychological block and an urban myth; all I had do was just settle down and trust myself. Yes, my dear recorder teacher was indeed right: Stop playing games; you can do it!

Posted in Uncategorized

CD Review: Maria Giovanna Fiorentino and I Fiori Musicali Play Corelli

Archangelo Corelli – a titanic figure in the history and development of violin-playing. With blazing eyes and breathtaking technique, he catapulted the playing standards of both the instrument and its musical literature to towering heights for his day. Yet, like many modern violinists today, I scarcely knew of Corelli and his impact prior to the latter half of last year when I purchased my Baroque bow. Having only been exposed to the modern violin routine of high emphasis on Bruch, Mendelsohn, and Sarasate, I did not know what repertoire to begin with until my voice teacher – a musicologist with graduate studies from University of Chicago – suggested the Corelli sonatas. I immediately discovered a harmonic and virtuosic wealth rivaling the most difficult of Romantic showpieces, instantly falling in love with their intricately, signature Italian Baroque strains. Incidentally, when searching for quality recordings of my newfound favorite pieces, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the recorder community was also infatuated with Corelli’s works, yet none of these recorder-transcribed renditions captured my violinist/recorder player heart as intensely as the outstanding recording featuring Maria Giovanna Fiorentino and I Fiori Musicali.

Prior to me hearing this recording, I had heard several recordings of Corelli on the recorder and had consequently developed the initial impression that Corelli’s sonatas sounded inferior and watered-down on recorder. I could not have been more mistaken. In this stunning, must-hear CD, Fiorentino exquisitely renders these hallmark violin sonatas in the true spirit of the original violin. No longer are they drastically watered down to fit conform to what recorder players would consider the technical limitations of the instrument. My previous prejudices had been based upon the often-performed Pez transcriptions of the piece, which greatly water down Corelli’s original brilliancy and greatly underestimate the recorder’s violin-like potential. Fiorentino’s rendition – a conglomerate transcription from both Pez and Corelli’s original – retained most of the glamor of the violin original save for minor tweaking due to register and ornamentation issues between instruments. More plainly, while the pieces are adapted for recorder and contain recorder-appropriate ornamentation, the “heart and soul” brilliance of the violin original – thrilling sixteenth note runs and dramatic leaps – are retained.

Throughout the entire duration of the recording, I seriously felt I was listening to a master Baroque violinist performing rather than a recorder player. Fiorentino’s brilliant and crisp articulation accurately captured all the essence of Baroque bowing and its execution across violin strings, while her eloquent, flowing cantabile lines literally breathed life into the often breath-devoid execution of violinists. I was most charmed by the occasional and tasteful usage of breath vibrato –often considered “taboo” in the world of recorder-playing — which endowed a more violin-like execution upon the frequent long notes. Extreme virtuosity – another key feature of all masterful violin-playing – was also omnipresent. Fiorentino never hestitated to push the capabilities of the instrument in her successful quest to accurately mirror the original violin, drawing countless reactions of amazement from my violin/recorder mind. Extreme high notes beyond the traditional range of the alto recorder were always supported with paramount breath control, never demonstrating any signs of strain or scratchiness that could often result on such notes from inferior muscle and breath control. For the finishing touches, the ensemble’s strong continuo section – complete with harpsichord, organ, bassoon, and theorbo – provided an equally strong bass which deeply accented Corelli’s intricate melodies and greatly brought out the rich harmonies which continuously subtext their both technically thrilling and delicate strains.

Of special note was Fiorentino’s exquisite rendition of the final sonata, the haunting “La Folia.” The most famous of the whole set, this highly virtuosic sonata – whose theme was the most revered in the Renaissance and Baroque – is more well-known in today’s classical music world via the romanticized transcriptions of Suzuki and Kreisler. Having experienced frustration at this fact when I myself was learning the original, hearing Fiorentino’s rendition of the original was most refreshing. Like the rest of the sonatas on this recording, her interpretation was stunningly faithful to the original violin, yet Fiorentino pushed the excellency of this interpretation even further by more prominently sounding like a violinist even more so than on any of the sonatas on this CD. Her brilliant and crisp articulation during the hair-raising sixteenth note runs – especially during the often recorder-unfriendly leaps – absolutely wowed me, sounding alarmingly reminiscent of string crossings and minute, unbelievably strokes that result from masterful use of a Baroque bow. By the time this recorded performance was commenced, I was most convinced that Fiorentino was more violinist than my modern violin colleagues who attempt this piece and that modern violinists could also learn from her example how to accurately render this great yet often neglected violin masterpiece in the true intentions of its great creator.

In general, I walked away from this thrilling sonic experience firmly and enthusiastically convinced not only that recorder players could accurately emulate violinists in pieces originally conceived for the instrument of the latter, but also more prominently convinced that violin and recorder were not incompatible as many had told me. Rather, both instruments are perfect complements to each other, with the understanding of both crucial towards a truly and historically accurate performance of Baroque music. As both a serious historically-informed violinist and recorder player who understands the nuances of both instruments and Corelli’s music, I wholeheartedly give my approval to the stunning recording mentioned in this review. Brava once again, Maria!

Posted in Uncategorized

On Ornamentation and Christmas Trees

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Every Christmas, my brother and I always decorate our Christmas tree. Over the years, the way we have decorated it has evolved greatly into the current combinations of European glass treasures and delicate ceramic angels amid multicolored lights and gleaming gold tinsel. However, we often want to put up every lovely ornament we have in this collection, and my mother has often commented that this is not only impossible, but also clutters the tree to the point that it begins to look overcrowded and gaudy. As of a year ago or so, I have begun to see what my mother has meant and have thus come to the conclusion that indeed, putting up every lovely ornament every year is indeed impossible. Yet I never once suspected that this principle would ever apply to the delicate art of Baroque ornamentation …

At a recent recorder lesson, I was going over Anne Danican Philidor’s hauntingly beautiful “Sonata in D Minor” with my teacher. This was my third French Baroque piece after two Hotteterre suites and the second one I had learned under my teacher’s gentle guidance. He had recommended that I learn it the previous year, and now that I had polished the Hotteterre, I was ready for another French Baroque challenge. Yet I was somewhat puzzled when my teacher firmly announced that he did not want to hear me play the first movement until last, when I was fully warmed up. Although I had previously thought it to be an easy movement, my teacher’s somewhat firm voice made me think to myself, “There must be something about that piece …”

Sure enough, as soon as I was done, my teacher commented about how nicely I had gotten the rhythm with the exception of two counting mistakes, but I was neither capturing the affection of the piece, nor executing the ornamentation properly. Scooting to the edge of the piano bench, my teacher enthusiastically stood up and said, “Okay. Classic example of mine: Christmas tree.” My teacher’s bright blue eyes twinkled merrily as he began to explain, gesturing enthusiastically. “When you look at a Christmas tree, what do you look to see?”

Puzzled a bit since I had never quite thought about this, I thought hard and responded tentatively, “Mmmmmmm, the ornaments?”

My teacher’s eyebrows raised a bit, and he continued, “No, I want to see the whole tree! Look, when you look at a Christmas tree, you want to see the outline of the whole tree, not a shape of a tree covered in ornaments. The ornaments are there to accent the outline of the tree, not cover or distract from it.”

At that moment, I began to giggle and mentioned how the general American public has come to decorate their trees in the most annoying and gaudy manners. In particular, I mentioned how commercialism has just practically destroyed Christmas with often ridiculous decoration options (e.g. pink and upside-down Christmas trees) and how many store displays just pack their trees with the most frivolous, Christmas-irrelevant ornaments. My teacher chuckled warmly, and we immediately launched into a brief discussion on how ridiculous this stuff is and how we prefer to decorate our trees, in particular how I like my tree to be traditional.

Then, once we were done laughing, my teacher began, “Well, now do you see what I mean? You don’t want a tree like at American Sales, just packed with ornaments to the point that I only see a pile of ornaments in the shape of a Christmas tree; I want to see a tree with ornaments only accenting. That’s what they’re there for; just to accent the tree. So, look at the tree. Don’t just sit over a little ornament and obsess on the details; then you miss the whole tree. Just glimpse over the ornament and see the whole tree. Got it?”

My teacher then proceeded to demonstrate to me how this applied to the piece. With recorder to his lips, he took the first phrase of the piece and just played three notes. When he had finished, he explained, “See, that’s the tree: Only three notes. Those are the melody notes, and you must be able to see them with the ornaments on.” Then, taking a deep breath, my teacher proceeded to play the phrase with the ornaments in, emphasizing the main notes while playing around them lightly with the ornaments. He continued, “See, I just decorated those main notes, emphasized the ornaments less, just went over them, not worried about every little note. Now you try it.”

As I was trying this new method of picking out main notes, just practicing each phrase with them, then adding the ornaments, the concept began to “click” for me. Now I clearly realized that ornamentation was not solely confined to essential graces and free ornamentation; ornamentation could actually be written into the piece. I just had to learn to identify it and separate it from main notes. Soon I found myself, phrase by phrase, eagerly searching for the main notes, then “decorating” the piece with the written-in ornaments. By the time my lesson had ended, I was extremely satisfied with what I had learned. Beaming, I turned to my teacher and asked one final question, “Should I practice it this way at home?” He enthusiastically responded, “Absolutely. Just remember: Four measures at a time, slowly.”

Every day since that lesson, I have practiced not only the Philidor like this, but also every other piece that I work on, whether review, polishing, or new. Each time, I continue to be amazed: Ornamentation is everywhere in Baroque music, whether free or written-in. And the key to playing the music elegantly is to learn to identify melody notes and such ornamentation, then separate them before finally putting them back together. What a potent method is my teacher’s pedagogy on this, and what a potent analogy is his Christmas tree comparison. Indeed, when I decorate my tree this year and for years afterwards, I shall always think about how this applies to Baroque ornamentation, hearing my teacher’s enthusiastic and gentle voice playfully explaining it to my somewhat neophyte Baroque mind.

Posted in Uncategorized