Staying true to oneself

MusicaLego: Building Baroque

I recently performed as accompanist in a masterclass held by soprano Deborah York at the Leeds College of Music (LCoM). Deborah York’s involvement at LCoM as visiting professor is in the beginning stages of developing a Baroque tradition at LCoM. During Deborah’s previous visit in April this year I accompanied the students on the piano. This time I was to represent the orchestra on the piano whilst organist and harpsichordist Gordon Barber was to play the continuo (see the photo, Deborah works with student Rosie Evans). It is planned that with each visit a new section of the baroque orchestra, which over time is planned to be transformed into a  baroque tradition at LCoM.

Staying true to oneself

One theme throughout the day was Deborah’s insistence that the singers stay true to themselves when performing specifically the Da Capo section of their arias. In the 17th and 18th centuries singers improvised ornamentation to the repeated first section of the aria. Over time the improvisation tradition at times rendered arias unrecognisable and that is what eventually lead composers to notating in detail what they wanted performers to sing or play.

In general the voice students performing at the masterclass wanted (as one often tries as a student) “to get it right”. It was clear, though that this concentration of performing the perfect version caused the singers to not let the ornamentation of their Da Capo flow naturally. It became clear that students had decided beforehand what to do with the ornamentation – either they copied what they heard on a recording or a teacher or coach has sorted out the ornamentation for them. As it was not their spontaneous reaction to the music at that moment, but predetermined and superimposed emotion their renditions came across more academically rather than naturally. Deborah encouraged the students to make up ornamentation on the spot, momentarily discarding any fear of being wrong or stylistically incorrect. After coaxing and experimentation and Deborah pointing out to the students to revel in the dissonances that should be resolved through the ornamentation, it was exciting to see how the students eventually took this in their stride creating wonderful ornamentation.

Balancing the “right” thing with the “real” thing

All these students ended up exhibiting the best parts of their voices in their improvised ornamentation. They unwittingly focused on what they are best at and represented it honestly and without hesitation. This reminded me that in whatever we do, be it teaching students or preparing music ourselves for performance, we should always keep the balance between “doing it right” and spontaneity. Being spontaneous is part of our make up. It is how we speak and how we move. Of course we are influenced by specific situations and it depends on the context of the moment in time, but in essence in life we act and react spontaneously.

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