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AMN mentors Early Music and Period Instruments Piano Talking about Music Workshops

A new way to perform old music

This is a guest post by Nancy Friedman, an AMN volunteer.

You’ve played Bach, Vivaldi, and Haydn for years on your modern instrument. But have you ever wished to play that music in historically-informed style … without investing in costly period instruments?

Now you can! Throughout October, Amateur Music Network is presenting Early Music for Modern Instruments, a series of online workshops for skilled amateur musicians taught by early-music mentors Elizabeth Blumenstock (violin), Eric Zivian (piano and fortepiano), and William Skeen (cello).

Elizabeth, Eric, and William

“With most of us still stuck at home, there’s never been a better time to expand our musical horizons,” says AMN founder and director Lolly Lewis. “If you’ve worked hard on the standard classical path, you know the repertoire. Now you can learn new tools and approaches from early-music specialists that will give you even more appreciation of the music you love.”

What makes early music different from modern music?

The history of music is a history of technology—and of loudness. “Before the early 19th century, smaller ensembles were the rule. Large concerts were rare, outside of opera, and art music was mostly a private thing, something for the homes of wealthy patrons,” Lolly says. “It didn’t need to be very loud because audiences were small.”

That changed in a big way in the early 19th century, as instrument technology improved. Orchestras were getting larger and wind instruments could freely modulate and stay reliably in tune. Composers began writing virtuosic concertos to be played with the larger orchestras: “The solo artist needed to project over that big ensemble sound,” Lolly explains. Violins, violas, and cellos, the primary solo instruments, had to adapt to handle more string tension. Their bridges were raised to create more resonance; necks were set at a steeper angle; bows were redesigned with a concave curve to allow more tension in the hair.

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Baroque (left) and modern violin. Via A415 blog.

 

Baroque and modern violin bows, via Vermont Violins.

“Now we have big, lush string sections and big wind and brass sections with a huge sound,” says Lolly. “That’s what ‘classical’ music sounds like to us—but it’s not how it sounded three centuries ago.”

When she isn’t managing AMN, Lolly is a recording producer. Her interest in early music was sparked in the 1990s when her studio, Transparent Recordings, worked with Bay Area early-music specialists the Artaria Quartet. “It was completely new to me,” she recalls. “I knew it sounded different from modern music, in the intonation and a generally more muted sound, but then I realized that the dynamic range was turned upside down! Instead of emphasizing loudness, there’s a potential for exploring a vast expanse of subtlety that’s almost unlimited. That was really exciting for me.”

Modern instruments aren’t just louder: they’re also able to play reliably in tune in any key. “It all changed with the piano,” Lolly says. “Unlike its ancestor the fortepiano, the modern piano has true ‘equal temperament’—the tuning doesn’t vary across registers and tonal centers. This results in a manufactured tuning system that’s equally out of tune in all keys. Sounds weird, but we’ve become so accustomed to it that this is what our ears are comfortable with now.” Once pianos set the standard, other instruments followed suit.

The evolution of the piano, via Merriam Music.

 

Professional early-music specialists invest in original or replica instruments—a good bow alone can cost many thousands of dollars. But skilled amateurs can adapt their modern instruments—and their technique—to explore the phrasing and articulation of historical style. The limitations of instruments in the past are now opportunities for discovery for the players of today. 

Join us in October to explore some exciting new approaches to familiar and beloved works of music. 

 

NOTE: If you already have Baroque equipment, that’s great! You’ll love working with these great mentors, too.

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AMN mentors Jazz and Beyond - Non-Classical Music Piano

Meet Dee Spencer, Jazz professor and music director

This is a guest post by Nancy Friedman, an AMN volunteer.

Dee celebrates Mardi Gras on March 9 at the Cafe in the Castro

On August 15, the multitalented Dee Spencer—teacher, performer, music director—will offer an online workshop in jazz-piano improvisation through our Amateur Music Network at Home series. We caught up with her by phone just before she headed out to an evening gig at San Francisco’s Catch restaurant, which had recently reopened for outdoor dining.

What was your early musical life like?

I grew up in a musical family in Wilmington, Delaware. My dad sang, my mom sang. Dad was a huge opera fan, Mom listened to gospel music, my sisters listened to Motown. One of my uncles came to live with us, and he introduced me to jazz. When I was 7 or 8, my mother bought an upright piano and said, “Here you go.” I took classical piano lessons and became the designated accompanist for the family. In junior high and high school I wanted to be in the band, so I switched to woodwinds. I got a four-year oboe scholarship to Florida A&M University, in Tallahassee, and then ended up doing more keyboards than oboe! I became a piano minor, and while I was still in college I got a job at Epcot playing keyboards with a jazz/rock combo and accompanying the singers in the stage shows.

How has the COVID quarantine affected your performing and teaching life?

I teach jazz and musical theater in San Francisco State University’s School of Theatre and Dance. Fortunately, I’d already taught online. What’s changed is that all 18 weeks of instruction have to be complete before I click and launch on August 22. It’s intense! Also, obviously, we can’t do our productions in person yet—everything’s going to be online. It’s a different game, applauding for someone you can’t really see. But a lot of people are doing a really good job with virtual productions.

I’ve used the quarantine to do some songwriting, too. I was music director of One Mo’ Time, and my favorite song from the show is “Cake Walking Babies (from Home).” That was my inspiration for “Quarantine Cakewalk.” It’s a sheet-music exercise—you have to play it exactly as written. It’s not an improvisational exercise at all! [Editor’s note: Read about the history of the cakewalk. Go to our Workshop Resources page to listen to and download the sheet music for Dee Spencer’s “Quarantine Cakewalk.]

Tell us something people may not know about you.

I wrote our high school class song, “What Do We Have to Offer?” It got mixed reviews—my classmates said it “wasn’t happy enough.” But the band director and the choir director liked it, and that was good enough for me!

Something else people may not know is that I play third clarinet in the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band. I really like playing third clarinet—you get the lower notes, and you get to hear what the other instruments are doing. I like sitting in the back row—it’s so interesting to blend in with the trombones.

What can participants expect from your AMN workshop?

I’m an improviser, so I can go just about anywhere. I have various game plans, and I’ll see what everyone’s expecting. Are they new to improvisation? Do they already have experience? I want my audience to be engaged—to work hard and have a robust experience and also an enjoyable one.

It seems like COVID has forced all of us to become improvisers. Can you give us some professional advice?

Learning to improvise is a good thing! You discover things about yourself and the world. You’re taking a risk, and that’s good. It’s always good to stretch.

Register now for At Home with Dee Spencer, August 15 at 2 p.m. We may have time for one or two people to play for the group during the workshop. Please contact us at info@amateurmusic.org for more information.