So far, so good

Betweeen how busy you are when you aren’t exhausted, and how
bad the network connection is, I probably won’t be posting very
much this week, but I did want to assure people that things are
going well at the Amherst
Early Music Festival.

I have mixed feelings about being “upgraded” to the
air-conditioned dorm — I’d really rather have my fan and an open
window than the noise of the air-conditioner, but the elevator and
the handicapped accessibility are good.

The double serpent case is as wonderful as I hoped it would
be. The new dorm is enough farther away from the center of things
that I’m using the wheels even though it isn’t really that

I seem to have landed serpent-friendly coaches this year, so my
cornetto lip was used, but not overused, yesterday.

The cornetto class is particularly good — there are five of us
and yesterday’s lesson on breathing was immediately useful in my
later classes.

One of the cornetto players, whom I met in 2010, has since taken
up serpent, and so the Collegium has a serpent section!!!

Packing for Amherst

I’m going this year. I’m looking forward to the cornetto class
with Nathaniel Cox, and as usual, to playing the serpent with lots
of good singers in the “Mass”.

Of course I won’t know until I get there what I’ll be doing in
the afternoon, but I’ve signed up to do German Imports and Exports
with Grant Herried, whom I like but haven’t ever had as a coach,
and the Copenhagen Part books with Wouter Verschuren, who’s the
big name dulcian player that people seem to like a lot.

For second and third choices I put Tenorlieder with Nathaniel
and Innsbruck and the Regensburg Part books with Catherine Motuz,
the sackbut faculty member whom I’ve never met.


I’m in the state of reise-fever where everytime I touch
something, I think about whether I want to take it, and if so,
what else I’d need to take with it. I’ll have the car, so I can
take more than any reasonable person would, but maybe I’ll
restrain myself.

Packing serpents

The exciting part of packing this year is that I have my new
serpent case from Emily O’Brien of Dill Pickle Gear. It
weighs less with all three serpents in it than the old D serpent
case did empty. I’ve been fiddling with putting backpack straps
on the D rings, but it’s light enough it really might not be

I think I’ll wait to have an assistant before posting more
pictures — the closed picture is easy enough, but you can’t
really appreciate the three layers with bright yellow and red
linings unless someone holds them open and you see what can go in

Anyway, that takes care of most of the instruments, since the
third layer will probably take the renaissance recorders as well
as the tenor serpent and the cornetto.


I’ll have the laptop computer, which I tested that it would
transcribe music (using the 2-octave MIDI keyboard) when I spent a Tuesday morning in Fall River. I
used it to post to the blog from Amherst
so it will still work as long as I make sure to have the
modifications I need for the version of the

I’ll have my phone and laptop and watch as normal, so that
means I need the chargers. I’ll also bring the foot pedal that
turns pages, in case I end up playing with anyone.

Other things

I’ve been packing clothes and other necessities of daily life
for long enough that I can do that pretty automatically. Of
course, as I get older, there are more pills that count as
necessary, but not yet so many they need their own suitcase.

So you’ll be hearing from me

I still get mad about 2010
sometimes when I’m practicing, but I really believe we may have
some of those problems licked. So I’ll let you know how it goes,
but I expect to be mostly having fun instead of posting
about the terrible things that are happening to me.

Alto Sackbut Playing

There are two reasons why I’ve been working on learning alto sackbut.

  • I sing in that range, so in the Tuesday group, where we usually play and then sing, it’s useful to be able to play an instrument in the same range I sing in. Renaissance music was often sung by men singing falsetto, so there are a lot of parts that are by modern choral standards high for a tenor but low for an alto, and I’m someone who can sing them. My Tom Prescott Renaissance tenor is pretty good, but the notes above A are finicky and I need something that goes up to C or D. The tenor serpent would be good if I played it enough, but I don’t, and in any case, I’m coming to the conclusion that serpent family instruments aren’t well-designed for sight-reading groups.
  • The loud wind faculty at workshops would be more comfortable, and would come up with better parts for, an instrument they understood better than they do the serpent.

So right now I have access to two alto sackbuts. This one is cheap, durable, lightweight, a cheerful color, and I have been practicing it and am starting to sound pretty good.

[red plastic trombone]
mini Pbone

It might well be a good solution for the Tuesday problem, where people play plastic recorders and modern stringed instruments all the time. But I don’t think the loud wind coaches at early music workshops are going to like it.

So I also have this:

[Photographer: Ishmael Stefanov]

It was originally a Finke alto sackbut, but an early music enthusiast/instrument builder named Clifford Wheeler put two valves on it so that it would play in the range of a tenor and bass sackbut as well as alto, and also modified the mouthpiece receiver so that he could use his French horn mouthpiece.

I think the valves are cute, although I wouldn’t have added the weight of them myself, but I can’t make even slightly good-sounding noises out of the French horn mouthpiece. A professional sackbut player who was in the room with it the other day didn’t sound a lot better than I did.

So I’m currently investigating buying a good sackbut mouthpiece and getting someone to change the mouthpiece receiver so that I can use it. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Of course, the other problem is that while I’ve been practicing regularly for the last month or so, I have yet to convince anyone to play with me. So it could be that although I can read music in not too remote keys and convince myself I sound something like a trombone player, nobody else will believe that.

Classes are going well

I haven’t had time to post — or at least, when I have had
time, I”ve been tired. When there isn’t a class or a meal or
dancing or a dropin session, it feels like time for bed.

But on Wednesday, they take a much-needed break from the
concerts and the evening is pretty free, so I decided to catch you
up on what’s happening.

Cornetto Class with Doug Kirk

We did more playing the first day than we did all week when I
took the class 4 years ago. A lot of the advice I’ve gotten is
goingn to be long-term beneficial rather than making me sound
better instantly, but I feel like this class is a success.

I was initially a little disappointed that I ended up playing
serpent in the ensembles instead of cornetto, but it really does
make for better ensembles to have lots of sizes. The piece we’ll
probably play on the student concert is a six part piece with me
on serpent, two tenor cornettos, one alto cornetto (in F) and two
regular cornettos on top. I was having to work very hard to get
the low F’s centered and in tune, and then today Doug said, “I
wonder if this piece would sound better a step up.” And it did.
Apparently the sixteenth century people were always doing that —
if they were playing an instrument that liked sharps better than
flats, they transposed it.


This year there are nine people in the loud wind section — two
cornettos, 2 sackbuts (alto and tenor), 1 tenor and 2 bass
dulcians, me on serpent, and a guy who switches between tenor
serpent and tenor dulcian. I think it’s going to be fun.

The conductor made parts for the major piece on the program
from the score with partify, and didn’t give the parts other than
the top line the measure numbers, but keeps telling people what
measure number he wants to start on. And I can’t always follow
his beat on mensuration chages. But he picked good music and is
enthusiastic about performing it with a cast of thousands.

Afternoon: Gombert and others with Marilyn Boenau and
Pervernage with Dan Stillman

This year, there weren’t any famous brass players on the
faculty, but there is a famous dulcian player, and the
not-so-famous dulcian players have been recruiting new people
faster than the brass or other reeds have. So although they
didn’t want me in any of the advanced loud wind classes, they have
classes for the less-experienced dulcian players that don’t mind
me playing with them.

I was expecting to mostly play cornetto, since I can play
cornetto a bit higher than anyone plays dulcian. But it turns out
they like the serpent, too.

Marilyn even let me play the tenor serpent on a top line that
would have been low on the cornetto, but was the right kind of
soaring on theh tenor serpent. It turns out I sound pretty good
if I hear good pitches to play with and am warmed up on

Dan has been experimenting. Monday, I played cornetto higher
than the dulcians could play. Then yesterday, he had me play
serpent lower for longer than he’d expect a dulcian to play. It
turned out not to be such a good idea on the serpent, either. But
it was educational.

Today he found a 7 part piece with a top line he’s playing on
alto dulcian, and a bottom line that’s fine for a bass dulcian.
So he has me playing a baritone line. 7 parts in that range is
pretty close harmony, and sometimes sounds pretty wierd, with the
less experienced dulcian players playing notes their fingers or
their reeds don’t know what to do with. But it’s a good class of
people working really hard at something they really want to do.

Dancing with the New London Assembly

I frittered away a lot of the free time I had today on napping
and eating. I did manage a pretty full practice session, where I
played parts to some of the music we’ll be doing in the

And at the reception after the orientation session, I
introduced myself to the collegium director and told him how much
I was looking forward to playing serpent with the group. He turns
out to have spent an afternoon drinking with Christopher Monk, so
he says he’s looking forward to having a serpent. The director of
the collegium loud winds looked right through me and walked away
when I tried to introduce myself, though, so I can’t tell whether
he’s as serpent-hostile as some of the other loud wind coaches.


So the only workshop-specific thing to do was the English
Country Dance after the reception. I was a little dubious about
it, since they billed it as being for experienced
dancers. (They’re having a dance program this year, so there are a
lot of experienced dancers.) And
the demonstration they gave at the orientation certainly did less
teaching and calling than I’m used to.

But I went anyway. The caller certainly did less than at other
dances I’ve been to, but the other dancers are quite good at
filling in if you need it. There was one dance with a
particularly unfamiliar “hey”, where you had to either count
something I didn’t know how to count, or know where you were
supposed to end up by some algorithm I hadn’t absorbed. Luckily,
my partner knew what she was doing. I was starting to get it, and
thinking it must be about time to end since even I had figured it
out, but it went on for two more times.

Unfortunately, my brain isn’t up to learning patterns and
listening to music at the same time. So I can’t tell you how
wonderful the music by Emily O’Brien, Shira Kamen, and Jacqueline
Schwab was, even though they’re all very good and I’m sure it was.