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.


[dorm room]
My dorm room, with pillow raising desk chair to right height for typing.


I decided to come on Saturday, and do the concert and party
from the first week. So I did all the packing and unpacking
yesterday, and today I can relax until the orientation this

An unanticipated side effect was that I didn’t have the help
from the work-study students that the little old ladies who arrive
this afternoon will, so I was actually pretty tired after getting
all my stuff out of the car, up a few steps, and through several
fire doors. No individual item was very heavy, but I kept trying
to carry several at once. I guess when I’ve had more experience
being a little old lady, I’ll stop doing that.


It’s utilitarian. My major problem is that the desk is the
wrong height for typing. I am putting the laptop in the pencil
drawer and adding my pillow to the chair, and it’s almost good
enough, but I should have brought the laptop stand. I should also
have brought an extension cord, as there isn’t a really good
outlet for the window fan, but I’ll manage.

I did manage to practice before supper, and the room is much
more live than what I have at home, so the cornetto sounds

Evening activities

I was too late to hear the afternoon student concert, so after supper, I
went over to the auditorium for the faculty concert and
all-workshop collegium.


They had an a capella singing program the first week,
so the madrigal singing had a large number of unusually competent

For some reason it wasn’t enough to keep an unfamiliar Dowland
in a recognizable key, but most of the other stuff went pretty
well. We started with “Fair Phyllis”. “Never
weather-beaten saile”
must have been from a different source than
the one I transcribed — the alto part had come completely
unfamiliar ornamentation.

Unlike 2010, the person leading it arrived on time and kept
things moving pretty well.

Faculty concert

The major problem was that it was too long. It was over an
hour and a half with no intermission. It’s good to let the
faculty play what they’re excited about doing, but the audience as
a whole got restless, and I got a coughing fit which wouldn’t have
happened if I could have gotten hydrated 10 or 15 minutes

A high point was an arrangement by Danny Johnson of a folk song
from Brittany for two flutes, viol, cello and solo voice.

The “Deploration on the death of Johannes Ockeghem” left me
wanting the version the Cantabile Band
does with the serpent on the Tenor line. In spite of having two
good singers on that line, it was inaudible even to someone who
knows it and was listening to it.


They’re still calling it “The All-workshop Collegium”, but they
have the viol classes at 415 now, so there were almost no viol
students. And they decided the recorders were at 8-foot pitch, so
no recorder students who couldn’t play tenor or lower were
included. I don’t know if there were other loud wind students
first week — the ones that played the concert were all playing
dulcians, including one whom I know mainly as a sackbut
player. Judging from the narrowly avoided train wreck on the
dulcian group piece, this
group, unlike the strings and recorders, did include some less-experienced players.

The music was all by Obrecht. The concluding 6 part “Salve Regina”
was stunningly beautiful. It was written for Compline, which in
monasteries was the last office of the day. So you had the Salve
Regina echoing in your head as you went off to bed.

First post about the Amherst Early Music Festival in 2014


You would think that after what happened last
, I wouldn’t be anxious to go back. I did have a long
conversation with Marilyn before
signing up. It seems that what I want this year is something
they’re probably set up for. I’ve been working hard on the
cornetto, and need a teacher, and one has heard of people who have
learned something about cornetto playing from Doug Kirk,
who will be the cornetto teacher this year. Marilyn thinks the
chorus director will like the idea of a serpent playing with the
chorus, and I think I can probably handle three cornetto classes,
and if not I can sing or dance or something for one of them.


Here’s what I told them on the class selections form:

Early Morning 1st Choice: Cornetto (Kirk)
Early Morning 1 Comment: I’m at the point in my cornetto playing where a
teacher would be helpful, so this class is one of my reasons for coming.
Early Morning 2nd Choice: Shawm & Dulcian (Stillman, Verschuren)
Early Morning 2 Comment: I suppose if you cancelled cornetto, I could borrow
a shawm and make noises come out of it.
Early Morning 3rd Choice: Brass Tacks (Ramsey)
Early Morning 3 Comment: Again, if you cancelled cornetto and wanted to teach
a sackbut beginner, I could borrow an instrument and make noises.
Late Morning 1st Choice: All-Workshop Collegium for Reeds and Brass: Compere
and Beyond Compere (Eisenstein)
Late Morning 1 Comment: I’m expecting to play serpent here.
Late Morning 2nd Choice: All-Workshop Collegium for Reeds and Brass: Compere
and Beyond Compere (Eisenstein)
Late Morning 2 Comment: I could play cornetto if the faculty were
Early Afternoon 1st Choice: Regensburg Manuscript (Kirk, Stillman)
Early Afternoon 1 Comment:
Early Afternoon 2nd Choice: Bassus (Verschuren)
Early Afternoon 2 Comment: This would require Verschuren to be
non-serpent-hostile, and I expect he’d rather have all dulcians.
Early Afternoon 3rd Choice: Mouton adn Gombert (Boenau)
Early Afternoon 3 Comment: This is third choice only because I work with
Marilyn all the time.
Late Afternoon 1st Choice: The Vermeer Project (Verschuren)
Late Afternoon 1 Comment: This is first choice because it’s probably where
the cool kids will be; I’m not really an advanced cornetto player.
Late Afternoon 2nd Choice: Pevernags (Stillman)
Late Afternoon 2 Comment:
Late Afternoon 3rd Choice: New London Assembly: English Country Dance…
Late Afternoon 3 Comment:

Since starting to write this, I’ve had a phone conversation
with Marilyn, and it looks like I’ll have my first choices in the
morning, and work with Marilyn and Dan in the afternoon. Marilyn
claims to be happy to have me play serpent some of the time; Dan
would want cornetto.


I’m leaving tomorrow, and will take the laptop so I should be
able to post from my dorm room the way I did last time. I don’t
know how much time I’ll have for writing, with all the playing and
singing and dancing I’ll be doing, but I’ll certainly let you know
how it works out.

Wave for Android

[tenor serpent mouthpiece]
Tenor serpent mouthpiece by Sam Goble.

Yesterday, I got a new
for my tenor serpent.

The website says, “My mouthpiece dramatically improves the
tuning and makes the sound more direct and precise.” After a
day of fiddling with it, I agree about the sound, but I’m not
yet sure about the tuning. Sam warned me when he shipped it
that I would have to add some dental floss. Sure enough, as it
came from the box, it’s quite sharp, so I added dental floss so
that it wouldn’t go as far into the bocal, and then it was

So one of the things I spent a lot of time doing today was
playing tenor serpent notes into a tuner. I was originally
using the gstrings
tuner on my android phone. But it’s been telling me from time to
time that it has been superceded by something newer and better,
so I decided to look into that. The reviews complained a lot
about some features that were missing in the new version, called
but enough people thought there were improvements, that I
decided to try it.

Sure enough, the tuning is much better. Gstrings was
occasionally picking up the wrong overtone, so I would be
playing a possibly out of tune E, and it would be telling me I
was playing A. It doesn’t look like Waves ever does that.

The missing feature is that if you’re asking it to play a note
for you, you can’t at the moment specify the
octave that the note comes out in. Gstrings would let you do
that, but if you didn’t have a speaker plugged in, the bass
notes were practically inaudible, so you were better off with
the octave it picked anyway. I did think about plugging the
phone into a speaker, but didn’t get around to it.

In any case, getting Waves doesn’t remove Gstrings, so if you
really want to do that, you still can.

One of the reasons to get a smartphone is to replace all the
little standalone electronic gadgets. I’ve had some problems
with things like a pedometer, which works, but drains the
battery too much to be usable. I’d say the phone does replace a standalone tuner pretty well.

Serpent Stand

Choruses usually practice in a place where
there are chairs so people don’t have to stand all the way through
a long rehearsal, but when the group is going to practice any long stretch
of the music, they will be encouraged to stand up, because
the breathing muscles work better that way.

Bands (non-marching) and orchestras, on the other hand, have a lot of
instruments that are usually played sitting down, like cellos and
tubas, so they just have chairs for everyone who can play sitting
down and the people like the percussion and string bass players
who pretty much have to play standing up stand in the back.

Most of the people who play serpent come from a band
background. There are two ways to hold the serpent, and the one I
learned (French, or vertical style), requires putting the weight
on something underneath the instrument. So I was taught to
balance the weight on my calves, and to play sitting down.

A few years ago, I found that when performing with the Cantabile Renaissance
, I was having to switch between singing and playing
recorder and playing serpent, and I prefered doing all of that
standing up instead of switching between standing and sitting, so I bought a tuba
so that I could play the serpent standing up.

Last year at the Boston Recorder
, we were in a room with terrible chairs that angle
back so that the knees are higher than the hips. These are even
worse than normal chairs for the breathing muscles. One meeting,
the coach suggested that we all try to play standing up (I was
playing cornetto on that piece, so it wasn’t a problem) and we
agreed that it sounded better that way. Only two of the seven of
us kept on doing it, though. After that, I thought about the
previous meeting when I’d been playing serpent on the bass line
and had been completely unable to produce an in-tune low F. It’s
not the easiest note to play with a focused sound, but I don’t
usually have trouble producing the slightly fuzzy sound at the
right pitch. So I started bringing the serpent stand to those
meetings and playing everything standing up.

Last week I had a rehearsal with a flute player who has decided
she plays better standing up, so we all tried standing up, and it
really did help. I had warmed up the serpent very badly, and I
was having problems making some of the leaps the repertoire
demanded, but the notes I got were in tune in spite of the bad

So I decided to play both
last weekend with the serpent stand. It involves
carying more stuff, but the convenient bag to pack the serpent
stand in is a duffle bag, which ends up weighing fairly close to
what the serpent case with serpent in it weighs, so although I’m
carrying more weight, I feel better balanced with the stand than
with just the serpent case and my other stuff in my backpack.

I was still badly warmed up on Friday. I’m getting more
comfortable playing the bass lines on the serpent, and we did have
one tune where I managed to do something with the melody, so it
wasn’t a total loss as a serpent performance, and several people
said they enjoyed it, but I felt better about the recorder

On Sunday, however, I had practiced both serpent and cornetto
quite intensely in the morning, so the serpent was really ready.
One of the visiting directors from England went out of her way to
tell me how good I was sounding. The bassoon line I played wasn’t
embarrassing at all. So I think I’ll keep on using the stand.


Come hear me play this weekend

[Laura and Frank with serpent and dulcian]
Laura Conrad with serpent and Frank Jones with dulcian at NEFFA, 2005

English Country Dance in Harvard Square

The Harvard
Square English Country Dance
is tonight at 7:30 at Harvard-Epworth Church. It’s open band, so you can play some and
dance some or just dance or just play.

I will have both the serpent and some recorders, so it’s a
chance to hear the serpent.

West Gallery Quire

The West Gallery
is meeting this weekend, with guest leaders from
England, and four new tunes.

One of the new tunes is scored for two bassoons, so if you play
bassoon you would be especially welcome. We have two dulcian
(ancestor of the bassoon) players who come from time to time, but
at least one of them will be out of town this weekend.

So it’s likely that we will simulate the bassoons on serpent
and trombone. This is quite authentic — the original West
Gallery musicians just played whatever instrument they had on
whatever part they wanted to. There are complaints from congregation
members about bands where the cello played the tune and the
clarinet played the bass one or two octaves too high.

In any case, this is actually the best way to hear the serpent
— I’m a better West Gallery musician than I am a country dance
bass line player, and the serpent was invented for singing with,
and you’ll be able to sing with it.

Absent-mindedness in the choir

[choir sleeping]
Illustration by Charles Green for “Absent-Mindedness in a Parish Choir”,
pub. in Thomas Hardy’s “Wessex Folk” (subsequently renamed “A Few Crusted Characters”)
in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine Vol. 81 (May 1891)
Image scanned by Philip V. Allingham for the Victorian Web

A friend drew my attention to the Thomas Hardy short story Absent-mindedness
in a parish choir
. It’s one of the surviving depictions of a
West Gallery choir at the end of
the era.

If I left my serpent like that one (the cello bow is even
worse), I wouldn’t have one long.