Sunday, July 12, 2009

Ornamenting Handel and Bach, Rameau, Mozart and Monteverdi? Me?

What have I gone and done now? I stare in horror at the 16th and 32nd notes sprawled across the pages that are emerging from my printer as I print over 400 pages of PDF files e-mailed to me by a professor of music.

I did one of those crazy and impulsive kind of things that happens sometimes when one is trying to self-educate. I signed up for a music class that sounded interesting to me, but now am wondering if I've made a big mistake.

I'm taking my daughter to camp in Princeton, NJ in a couple of weeks. We've gone to camp there other summers, and in exploring the area I've taken interest in Westminster Choir College, a school that sits on a pretty little campus there. I had thought maybe some summer, while the kids were at camp, I might check out a course there in music. I think I mentioned that when my husband went back to medical school later in life I had been inspired to think about going back to school. So, now that he's finally graduated from his residency, maybe it can be my turn to study.

I checked out the summer offerings for the week I would be there, and the only one that seemed interesting was Ornamenting Handel and Bach, Rameau, Mozart and Monteverdi by Dr. Julianne Baird.

Now I must confess, that there was only a short paragraph in the summer course brochure, and I didn't really even know who the instructor was. You see, I am not in the music world, as I have explained before. I have a big toe dipped into it, but I do not know who is who and what is what. I know a sketch about music history, and barely understand what my voice type is. I have a scanty knowledge of rep and have only seen an opera or two. I barely know how to proceed.

I just went ahead and signed up because I thought it might expand my horizons and be better than just shopping for 5 days, or sitting in the hotel room watching movies or something. I figured it would be a little adventure. I also remembered how dumb I had felt when in rehearsal for the Pergolesi Stabat Mater I had done with my choir a couple of years ago. When listening to recordings, I had heard the singers embellishing the solos, and was very worried about whether I was going to be asked to improvise like that. I wouldn't have known how or what to do, nor what was stylistically appropriate. Fortunately, at that time, all that was expected of me was to sing the part as written, but exposure to the ornamentation of those singers had aroused my curiosity.

"Do you have to sing in the class?" asked my voice teacher when I told her about what I had done.

"Oh, well, gee, I don't think so. There was nothing on the application form about that and well ..."

"You'd better call and see if you have to sing," she advises.

When I called, I found out that I didn't have to sing if I did not feel comfortable with that. So, I was a bit relieved to know that I could just audit the class.

Then, it turns out that I did not receive an important e-mail that had gone out more than a month before the class was due to start. As a result, I began to receive information about the class and PDF files just a couple of weeks in advance.

To make a long story short, the type of musical ornamentation and early music that will be explored in this course is not the type of repertoire that my great big, slow-moving dramatic soprano voice will sing. In fact, 32nd notes and I do not get along very well at all. It's not that I will never be able to move my voice. I do plan on working hard to develop the ability to move my voice because I believe it is an important part of my overall vocal health and versatility as a singer. However, this is just not ever going to be the rep where I'm going to be comfortable or at my best, even after getting it going a bit. And I am definitely not at the skill level where I could pull this off right now.

So, here I will be, a great big lumberjack sitting in on a class designed for sweet canaries. Will the other students laugh at me? I can just hear it now: Why is she singing so LOUD in this little classroom? Doesn't she realize this is NOT the way these pieces are to be sung?

I would hate to not sing at all. I would like to participate if at all possible. But the pieces are just too difficult, and even if I were to master one of them, it would be after months, not weeks.

Nevertheless, I decide to give the pieces Dr. Baird has recommended to me a try. After all, it can't hurt to try now, can it? I sit down at the piano and count through all the rhythms as if I were going to really learn the pieces. I analyze the structure of the songs and play them. I find that it is way too difficult to sing the little runs in the keys they are written, but I CAN sing them an octave lower. (Gosh, would she let me do that in class? Or is that REALLY inappropriate?) Gee, I wonder if I would ever be able to sing this in the proper register? It feels like it would be good for my voice. It would be fun to try. But I'm sure it would take months. Like training for a marathon. I find myself getting lost in the process. And very very interested.

My voice teacher suggested that perhaps I could creatively use the runs and trills we will be exploring as little exercises for my voice. As I explore the music, I can see how this will be a possibility. Perhaps I will get some very useful things out of this course after all.

In the end, I did find a couple of things I could sing for the course. Dr. Baird has listed that a singer is needed to sing Voi Che Sapete without ornaments (another singer is assigned to the ornamented version already). Oh, I can do that!!!

And there is a short English recitative she has sent me that we are to have memorized to use for a session of baroque acting at the end of the week that is quite manageable.

So, maybe I will be able to sing a thing or two. I will keep you posted.


  1. I think the class sounds wonderful! Good luck with it!
    Oh, and I *think* I fixed the comment section on my blog. Have fun with Voi che sapete! I know that aria pretty well. ;)

  2. I know you posted later that immersing yourself in the Baroque repertoire an indulgence at best...but I have to admit that I would kill to be able to take a class like this. I've been fortunate enough to sing in choirs where the conductors LOVED Baroque music, so I got a fair amount of exposure to the style that way. Also my voice is of the lighter ilk and can move decently, so maybe I will feel at home in that repertoire. So, I am kind of jealous that you got to take that class! I don't suppose you have any class notes that you'd be willing to share?

  3. Blue Yonder, for one thing, thanks for stopping by and sprinkling my blog with your comments. I hope, by this blog, to get to talk to people about some of this stuff, so it's cool to hear what you have to say.

    I started to type out some of the ways I was enriched by this class (which I found out I got an A in ... Yay!) as a response to your comment, but I ended up writing so much I decided it could be it's own blog entry, which you can read here:

    In the meantime, Blue Yonder, if there is any way you could possible hook up and take this course, I hope you will. If you at all love this kind of music, you will love being immersed in it.

    Also, a few of the people in the class had just come from the Amhurst Early Music Festival ( and they were so aglow from it that I wish I had been able to go.

    I had heard or read somewhere at one point that early music is a kind of niche and appeals to a certain segment of the musical world, and I actually think that before being exposed to it I might have had a little almost negative impression. I'm not sure exactly why because I can't remember what I read or what was said to trigger that association in me. It's just another example of how the best way to evaluate something is to have a direct experience with it and not go by what someone has said. When it is viewed from the outside, without an attempt to understand from within exactly what's going on there, a superficial impression can be formed.

    I'm now definitely under the impression that each and every music experience has something that can be brought to one's own area.