HIPP Phoney Baloney

Throughout my past three years of becoming involved in the HIPP world, I have run into countless myths and generalizations about the field — even from within the early music community itself. For example, I don’t know how many times I was told that I had to choose between violin and recorder when I initially started playing recorder. HIPP artists who told me this were very adamant about it and insisted that neither were comparable; in fact, having both would contaminate my playing on either. This led to me laying aside my violin for a while until I met my recorder teacher. When he found out what I had been doing, he deemed what I had been told foolishness and urged me to go back to playing violin alongside recorder. I listened to my teacher, and man am I glad I did!

In another case, when I initially began playing the recorder, I was enrolled in a music appreciation class at school to fulfill a general education requirement for fine arts. The instructor — a highly literate musicologist — told the class many strong statements about HIPP artists, many of which literally led to mental roadblocks that persisted until very recently. For one thing, he claimed that HIPP was a hideway for modern instrumentalists who could not make it in the modern instrument world and were resorting to period instruments not only as a way of making it, but also for masking deficiencies. He also claimed that one could not be a performer simultaneously on modern and period instruments; all performing artists must eventually choose between either. These two myths especially affected me, and until I saw internationally-acclaimed violinist Rachel Barton Pine proficiently play Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons in concert on a Baroque violin, I persisted in believing them, even though I had a strong gut feeling that they were sheer nonsense.

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of talking with Wendy Harton Benner, a Baroque/modern violinist and member of Baroque Band. I had gotten latched up with Mrs. Benner via a friend of hers who is a professor at school who is friends with her. I found Mrs. Benner to be a most pleasant personality, albeit highly knowledgeable and understanding. In the process, I not only gained a vast wealth of information on Baroque violin and HIPP in general, but I also able to ask her opinion on the credibility of the HIPP myths I have encountered. By the time I was finished doing so, Mrs. Benner had labeled them all myths and gave me solid answers debunking them. Below are the “Big Four” myths I have encountered and Mrs. Benner’s rebuttals to them:

Myth #1: You have to choose between period and modern instruments as a professional musician; you have to choose between them. Performing on both professionally is impossible.

Truth: This statement is a total misconception. According to Mrs. Benner, it originates in Europe, where the HIPP scene is more promising. She explained that in Europe, it is possible to solely make a musical living on HIPP, thus leading to the myth that one has to choose which musical avenue to pursue. By contrast according to Mrs. Benner, the HIPP scene in the United States is not as promising. Normally, one cannot solely make a musical living off of HIPP in the US unless he or she is fully willing to travel a lot or teach at a conservatory. Hence, HIPP artists in the United States often have to do “double duty” with their modern instruments to make a living.

Myth #2: Simultaneously playing period instruments and modern instruments will contaminate each other.

Truth: No. In fact, Mrs. Benner and many others that she knows strongly believe that playing both enriches playing the other. She explained that many HIPP artists believe in the contamination philosophy, yet others believe in the opposite. She strongly believes that understanding the past musical influence will deepen understanding of how the music is interpreted on modern instruments and hence lead to richer interpretation.

Myth #3: Historically informed performance practice is a cover-up tactic for musicians who cannot make it on modern instruments and wish to make it in the music world.

Truth: Not true. According to Mrs. Benner and past research, this myth initially originated when HIPP first came on the musical scene in the 20th century. Modern instrumentalists somehow developed this notion, which appears to be an offshoot of the notion that modern instruments mean improvement and hence better. Mrs. Benner continued on that this myth persisted until the past twenty years or so when HIPP started taking off, yet those with the old school notions still cling to the stereotype. As an example, Mrs. Benner cited Pichnas Zukerman, who “won’t go within ten feet of HIPP” and keeps protesting converting his stylistic interpretations of Baroque on the basis that he does not have to play Bach different if people have been playing it in the usual, romanticized style for ages. However, Mrs. Benner reassured me that such musicians are becoming few, with more becoming open to HIPP and gradually absorbing its influence even if they have never touched a period instrument.

Myth #4: People with absolute pitch cannot make it in the HIPP world due to pitch frequency differences.

Truth: People with absolute pitch — Mrs. Benner and myself included — can learn to adapt to different pitch systems. In fact, since Baroque pitch at A=415 is exactly one half-step lower than modern pitch of A=440, all that is needed in the beginning is simple transposition like that used by clarinetists and French horn players. Mrs. Benner told me how she utilized this strategy to aid her in adjusting to Baroque pitch — that everything that sounds like an A is an A-flat, for example. Eventually over time, Mrs. Benner was able to discard this transition strategy; whenever she hears of plays a Baroque A, she thinks of it as an A and not an A-flat anymore. Although the issue becomes trickier when absolute pitch possessors go to classical pitch at A=430, Mrs. Benner reassured me that, once again, people with absolute pitch can learn to adapt; all it takes is time.

In all these matters, I fully agree with Mrs. Benner. In fact, I must admit that I somehow knew in my heartJean-Marc_Nattier,_La_Leçon_de_musique_(1710)that all I had heard were myths, especially with regards to playing both period and modern instruments and also learning to adapt with absolute pitch. Yet when I proposed my optimistic views (which were identical to Mrs. Benner’s) to others, I was often told that I was overly optimistic and that such an outcome was impossible. Now I know better, and I can now fully pursue my HIPP studies in peace knowing that all I had been plagued by were solely myths. Thank you so much, Mrs. Benner, and may God bless you always!

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