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[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time that it has been superceded by something newer and better,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.

BRS started last night

Four years ago, I posted a very
critical description
of what the Boston Recorder
Society was doing at that time.

I started going again last year, because they decided to
start a loud wind class, and hired one of the better loud wind
coaches in the area (Marilyn Boenau) to coach it.

I’m really glad I did support that effort, because although
last year the
group had serious problems as a music making organization (it
worked fine as a way to give my brass chops a good workout once a
month), enough people were enthusiastic enough about the idea that
this year it’s even bigger and better.

We lost two people from the group we had last year. One of
them is a very good crumhorn player, who also plays shawms, but
there really are problems with playing both crumhorns and shawms
with the other instruments in the group. The other was a sackbut player
without a lot of experience playing Renaissance music, and he was
struggling with both the music and his instrument. It’s a better
group for people who are struggling with fewer things than he was,
and he lives pretty far away and had to miss several meetings.

We gained a crumhorn player who is open to the idea of trying
to play dulcian and has decades of experience playing recorder
very well, and two beginning dulcian players with lots of recorder
playing experience. Also the dulcian player who was mostly
playing bass dulcian last year has acquired alto and tenor
dulcians, and is playing them well, and one of the crumhorn
players who also owns a tenor dulcian has gotten better on the
dulcian. And I was complaining about having to play too much
cornetto for my chops last year, and this year I seem to have a
little more stamina. Also the coach seems to have been convinced
that she has to find at least one piece a meeting that someone
else can play the top line on, so I can play serpent.

As you would expect, not all the instruments and reeds people
pulled out of their closets were in wonderful shape.
The new crumhorn player’s only crumhorn
turned out to have serious tuning problems (not as in she couldn’t
play a meantone low third, but as in she couldn’t play a note that
was recognizable as a G), so she borrowed one
from someone else, and one of the other group members is going to
look at tuning her instrument for her. One of the dulcian players
has been learning to make reeds and loaned some of his reeds to
the new players to see if it helped them.

But we really ended up sounding pretty good. We played a 5
part instrumental piece with some dancy sections and some fanfare
sections, and it sounded really good. Then we played a seven-part
Gabrielli, that took some time to put together but will be really
wonderful. I got to play serpent in a fairly high tenor range on
that one, and I think it worked pretty well with sackbut, four
dulcians, and two crumhorns.

So to all ensemble musicians, Happy New Year, and I hope you
have something to be as optimistic about as I do.

West Gallery Quire starts up

Yesterday afternoon I went to the year’s first meeting of the
West Gallery

It was my first chance in a while to play serpent with a lot of
other people. I think I’m getting better.

Of course, the low notes are always a bit better when I’ve been
playing even lower notes on the tuba all summer. There was also a
good tuba player in the Wakefield Summer Band this summer, and
playing with him got me listening to the people I play with
better. And I think the
cornetto practicing is making my lip muscles work better for some
of the parts that are more idiomatic for a cello or a viol than
for a serpent.

I spent some time thinking about how many of the pieces would
be easier to play if I had a serpent in C instead of D. The serpent maker who
was at BEMF last June had one
that worked pretty well at about the same stretch as my D serpent,
so all I’d have to do is write a (large) check. And then make up
my mind to either play the notes that would be easy on a D serpent
on the C serpent, or carry both instruments.

I’m a lot better on the hard notes now than I was even a year
or two ago, so maybe I’ll just work on playing the D serpent

Gig with the Fipple Fluters

One of the people I play with keeps complaining that he’d love
to give concerts but he doesn’t think we’re good enough. I tell
him we’re never going to get good enough unless we do a lot of

Yesterday, I played with my sister’s recorder group (the Fall
River Fipple Fluters) at the Padenarum Farmers’ Market. The
weather was wonderful, the audience was appreciative, they weren’t
stuck listening to us if they preferred buying
vegetables… Exactly the kind of gig people who aren’t
necessarily good enough to play formal concerts should be doing to
get a chance of playing for an audience.

We played a Dowland set, but mostly did recorder
arrangements of folk tunes. I played mostly top lines on my G
alto — it’s playing farther up in its range than the soprano
would be, so it carried better outdoors. I tried to check that
there weren’t a lot of high G’s and A’s (in which case I sound
better on soprano, although I’m getting better at the high notes
on the alto), and missed a couple of pieces I should have switched
on, but it was really pretty good.

The history of West Gallery music

is so wrongheaded that I initially had no idea how to
start, so I thought about it until I did. I’m going to start with
the misstatements of fact, and then procede to the wrongheaded

  • Mr. White states that The Oxford Movement “booted this old
    nonsense out of [Church of England] liturgical practice”, which
    is true and “cleared the way for the ‘high’ choral evensong that
    remains Anglicanism’s greatest gift to the world.” It was not
    the Oxford movement that invented choral evensong, but the great
    century polyphonists (Byrd, Morley, Gibbons…) who are also the
    people who wrote the first psalm settings from which the West
    Gallery tradition arose. And the Melstock Band in “Under the
    Greenwood Tree” was not succeeded by organs and surpliced
    choirboys but by a harmonium, with a music-box like mechanism
    allowing anybody who can turn the crank to play an “approved”
    version of an “approved” hymn.
  • He quotes a Hardy poem in which the Vicar refuses to bury
    the old choirmaster as he had requested because the viols
    wouldn’t be able to play in bad weather. Mr. White claims to
    see the vicar’s point and claims that Hardy did not. Of course,
    the vicar is a character written by Hardy, so he would not have
    been able to make a point had Hardy not been able to see
    it. He may well have disagreed after he saw it, but I’m sure he
    had more experience listening to viols played in the rain than
    Mr. White does.
  • Mr. White isn’t responsible for this, but a commenter with
    the clearly pseudonymous name of Esmeralda Weatherwax, who may never have
    heard West Gallery music, equates it with the “worship band”
    with guitar, keyboard, and drums and banal choruses. The
    guitar, keyboard and drums may well be in the West Gallery
    tradition of using the musical talent available in the
    congregation, but West Gallery music for generations used only
    the Old and New versions of the metrical psalms, which are
    anything but banal. I know Francis Roads, one of the founders
    of the London West Gallery Quire whose performance prompted this post, and
    he is explicitly trying to use West Gallery music in
    contemporary liturgical settings to drive the “happy, clappy
    stuff” out.
  • When welcoming the demise of West Gallery music, Mr. White
    says, “I can’t be in a minority there because viols and their
    like are indeed long gone from Anglican worship.” This is a
    total non-sequitur — nobody ever claimed that the 19th century
    Church of England was a democracy, so the disappearance of
    choirs accompanied by bands of instruments may well have been
    imposed by a numerical minority.

And now to the matters of opinion:

  • Mr. White’s brief review of the performance he heard was,
    “They turned up with a batch of 18th-century-style wind and
    brass (serpent included), and a lot of lusty voices; and I can’t
    deny that it was fun, sort of. But spiritual, no.” I can’t
    dispute this view of this particular performance, since
    Mr. White was there and I wasn’t. But I challenge anyone to
    listen to “Egypt” or “Poole” and not have a spiritual experience
    overlaying the dread of death, and the joy embodied in Gibralter
    surely transcends “fun”.
  • I see no point in arguing with Mr. White about whether the
    West Gallery tradition is better or worse than the high choral
    evensong tradition. If a church has a congregation that wants
    to praise God with music, the church may well be better off using the
    musical talents actually available to it than trying to ape a
    church with a larger budget, a better organ, and a different
    population of singers. Mr. White and Ms Weatherwax want to
    dismiss the musical and liturgical value of what the rural
    churches came up with and I don’t.
  • Mr. White says, “Let’s face it, the 18th and early 19th
    centuries were not the church’s finest moment in this country,
    and the West Gallery tradition sums up everything that was
    wrong.” I agree that the Church of England, even prodded by the
    best of the Dissenting tradition, performed badly in a lot of
    the crises of that time. But I doubt that more little boys in
    surplices who could sing unaccompanied would have helped.

Pictures from Amherst

It was a pretty busy week, and I only had the little camera, so
I couldn’t do the butterflies, and I was usually carrying too much
to make it easy to stop and take pictures. But here’s what I

Marker putti

This statue was how to identify the building a lot of the
classes were in:

[Putti at Connecticutt College]

Putti at Connecticutt College
[plaque identifying Putti]

Plaque identifying Putti

Two serpent players

One of the cornetto players had always wanted to play serpent,
so he spent some time with mine, and we took pictures of each

[Laura playing serpent]

Me playing my serpent
[Michael playing serpent]

Michael Yelland playing my serpent

Excerpt from the Amherst Evaluation Form

I didn’t wrap up the Amherst experience because I was busy
writing the evaluation form. And by the time I was through with
that there were other things I wanted to think about.

But I did promise to let you know how it turned out. You’ll be
glad to know that the Saturday concert was really good, and lots
of people (including world class faculty members who didn’t even
know me) came up to me at the party and told me how good the
serpent playing was.

I’m not going to give you the parts from the evaluation about
individuals, but here’s something I wrote about the workshop in


This is from the section that asked for comments about the
daily schedule and kinds of classes. I wrote:

I was concerned that there didn’t seem to be any classes in anything
suitable for beginners. I don’t mean beginners in the sense that they
don’t know the fingering of a soprano recorder, but people who haven’t
previously had the opportunity for the kind of ensemble experience
that Amherst offers. I notice a lot of the people who were beginners when
I first came 20 years ago are now populating the advanced classes.
But we’re all going to die sometime, and if you don’t do beginner
classes now, where will the advanced classes come from 20 years from

I would think the faculty should be more aware of this problem, since
presumably most of them make a substantial portion of their income
from teaching, and if there aren’t places where people who want to
learn something can meet the teachers, where will they get their

Those questions come from someone who doesn’t have an association with
a university. I’m aware that if you know as a teenager that music is
something you want to study, and you go to the right kind of high
school (I didn’t) and college (I did, but of course nowhere was that
good forty years ago for early music), you can get a lot of what I’m talking about from
your academic experience. But one of the strengths of Amherst, and
the early music movement in general, used to be that people who
hadn’t had that experience in school could take it up later in life.
It’s not clear that that’s still happening.

And of course if there’d been brass ensemble classes for beginners,
there would have been a place for a low-level cornetto player, even if
nobody wanted to touch a serpent. My cornetto playing isn’t
performance quality, but if you had a beginning loud wind ensemble
with people who couldn’t count, it would have been easier to teach
with me in it.