Why eating vast quantities of food helps playing Handel!

Back in October our trio had a coaching session with  RNCM staff pianist and historical performance expert. We took our non-Handel trio (see previous post) and got some great tuition on general style and 18th century culture.

One of the main things Harvey mentioned was ‘playing the bass line’ ie. the harmony directs how melody is phrased. You have to think vertically as well as horizontally because harmonic patterns shape the contours of the melody. This meant Caitlin (cello) and Harvey being very aware of each other and listening to how they’re shaping the bass line or how they’re using articulation and bow stroke etc.

On a less serious note, we weren’t fully getting the right style or mood of the piece and so Harvey thought it would be useful to think about how culture worked in Handel’s lifetime (1685-1759). The inside lid of the harpsichord had a beautiful painting of gentlefolk lounging around in powdered wigs and opulent clothes. This was an age of pleasure for the upper classes and emerging middle classes, who wanted musical entertainment in their homes in the form of small chamber groups, like our own. Everything was stately, savoured and washed down with enormous amounts of food and wine. Harvey recommended we read ‘The Diary of a Country Parson 1758-1802’ by James Woodsforde to see the typical menus laid on every day, understand the comfort they experienced and the quantity they consumed.

With this in mind, our playing really did change – we settled into the piece more, were less frantic and perhaps more joyful in our approach. Just like an actor, if you’re aware of the context surrounding the text, it adds a richness and depth to your interpretation.


Joining Forces

As part of our Baroque learning experience, we thought it would be a great idea to set up a little chamber group to get used to playing with each other, learning more repertoire, and improving our sense of pitch. Therefore we teamed up with a fellow student, Caitlin, who’s learning baroque cello and got going with some Handel trio sonatas. We’re hoping that one of the students learning harpsichord might be able to play some continuo with us in the near future but it’s obviously very challenging to learn the art of figured bass!

Our first rehearsal was great fun and we spent a long time just tuning our instruments. The violin and cello gut strings are prone to much slipping so we needed frequent tuning breaks! It was good to know that all three of us are at the beginning of our period instrument journies, so there was no pressure to be perfect already as we all have our personal problems to improve on first.

I thought that Handel would be a good place to start because his sonatas are not too virtuosic and he’s a composer we have all played a lot on modern instruments, therefore understanding his musical style. However, the first set of trio sonatas I found and we rehearsed turn out not even to be by Handel! My teacher, Tony Robson, says they’re only attributed to him and don’t show enough Handelian style to be true. How annoying! But they were relatively simple so gave us a chance to improve our ensemble skills.

We then moved on to another Handel sonata, op.2 no.8 recommended by Tony which is undoubtedly by Handel. It’s much more complex harmonically and has beautifully intricate melodies passing between the two instruments. We’re now looking to explore a new composer….any suggestions?

Beginner’s Baroque Violin!

My name is Kirsty and I have also recently started to delve into the past and study the baroque violin. After dabbling in playing a lot of baroque repertoire on my modern set up, I decided to take the stylistic aspects of the music a bit more seriously this year, playing on an instrument similar to one that might have been used at that time. Luckily for me, the RNCM provided me with a beautiful Andre Mehler violin and a Baroque-style bow, and also with some lessons from Polly Nobes, who has previously led the Academy of Ancient Music, and Annette Isserlis, a founder member of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Here is a picture of the violin, and another showing the maker’s stamp on the back:

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Needless to say I was excited to get going, however it quickly became apparent that there was a lot for me to learn! While the baroque violin looked fairly similar to my own modern one, there are a few significant differences.  For example, the lack of a chin rest or shoulder rest to secure the violin in place means that your left hand needs to crawl around the instrument, as opposed to playing on a modern instrument where the violin stays put under your chin and your left hand is fairly free to move around. Also, the strings made from gut as opposed to synthetic materials, which produce a very different sound, and also look quite different too:


These differences made it harder for me to shift to different notes, and even just play them in tune to begin with! Additionally, whilst the shape of the baroque bow inherently made playing in the right style easier, it feels a lot lighter than my modern bow, and therefore requires a very different type of control. Polly has given me a few exercises to work on these different aspects of playing the instrument, and hopefully I’ll be able to update this blog with my progress…

However the instruments themselves aren’t the only thing we will need to learn about during this project, and Amy and I are looking forward to exploring much of the repertoire and tradition surrounding Baroque music, and continuing to share what we learn here!

Welcome to the Baroque Oboe

Hello and welcome to our nerdy baroque blog! My name’s Amy and I’ve begun the long journey of learning the baroque oboe – a very difficult instrument! I thought it would be an excellent idea for getting inside baroque music and seeing how the instrument lets you play the music of that period. Thankfully the Royal Northern College of Music have provided me with an instrument seen here…..Stanesby model

It’s a Stanesby model made by Richard Earle of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and is absolutely beautiful! Tony Robson, former principal of OAE, has been giving me lessons and generously provided me with reeds, cane, music, reed case etc. etc…..

Where to start? That was the big question beforethe summer holidays when I took the plunge…I wasn’t sure how to go about learning the different fingering system or even begin to understand the many varied national styles of playing from that period. I had half a lesson before the holidays to make sure I could make a noise on it and I literally felt like I was back at Grade 1 wondering what the fingering for A was. It took a long time for me to get my head around and I spent hours on scales and arpeggios, much to my poor parents’ dismay, trying to get the right finger movement and position.

Compared to modern oboe, your hands have to be much flatter and horizontal to the oboe because of the ‘double holes’ which you slide about on.

  Baroque oboe holdModern oboe holdDouble holes

Also, reeds (dare I mention it) provided another challenge. They’re much wider and larger than modern reeds and you need to keep them further out of your mouth to ensure that the 1st octave notes don’t squeak. Also, embouchure has to be very loose or else you go very sharp and the bottom notes don’t speak. I’d advise lots of practice with a tuner (a semitone lower, 415) and checking every 10 minutes where your pitch is as it’s very easy to creep up closer to modern pitch.Baroque oboe reed

Squeaks were a real problem, and still are sometimes,because to jump up the octave there is no octave key but it’s about air pressure and embouchure, much like the flute. Coming in on a 1st octave E-A was probably the hardest thing I’ve faced so far as you have to get used to the feeling in your core of preparing for more support and air.

Check out the OAE website as it has a great page on the history of the oboe and watch out for future posts that might be helpful if you’re wanting to get to grips with the instrument.