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SCA Musician Prowess – Some Context

After listening to the feedback on the “Identifying Prowess in an SCA Musician” post, we’ve made a few changes to the checklist. I want to provide some definitions, elaborate on what is meant by some of the items, and provide some context for why this document exists in the first place. I also want to address a few other comments made about the list or its authors.

Why does this list exist?

Kasha and I are members of the Order of the Laurel in the Middle Kingdom. Both of us have expertise in European Music before 1600. As is widely known, the Order of the Laurel has meetings where we discuss who we want to recommend to the Crown as a potential member of the Order. (Quick pause to remind people that we don’t actually decide who is or isn’t let in; the Crown does that.) One of the aspects discussed is a candidate’s “prowess in their art.” Kasha and I noticed that the Order’s discussions about potential music candidates could be much improved if we had some kind of criteria list–or something–to work with. We created the list primarily as a way to have common ground when discussing candidates. When an art is not your special area of expertise, it can be difficult to know how to evaluate others. For example, Carol has often found herself looking at sewing projects and thinking, “This is pretty! I think it’s period! I like it!”, which is not a responsible way to recommend a candidate to the Crown. We would rather have a sewing expert tell us what to look for — stitch size, appropriate materials, etc. We hope the list we’ve created will help non-musicians in a similar way.

Kasha and I think analytically, so a checklist was a natural fit. (I’d love to hear other ways of doing the same work, though.) It is not intended to cover all candidates. It does not preclude specialization. What it does do is allow us to have discussions like “Lord Lutesinger is not very knowledgeable in repertoire before 1400 and doesn’t sight-read consort music as well as we’d normally expect, but more than makes up for it with his depth of knowledge in 15th and 16th century lute repertoire, his vocal and lute technical skill, and his championing of the lute in the Society”. I really want to have that discussion and not “Lord Lutesinger plays his lute at many events. It sounds good,” especially when this ‘Lutesinger’ doesn’t actually read lute tablature and just plays chords when they are written in for him on top of the music.

If we were going to put together a reference document, we really wanted to make it something everyone can see. For many reasons, people should be able to see this. For one, I think it’s only fair that we if this list is being used by the Laurels (even if it’s only some of them) that everyone should be allowed to view it, work with it, and critique it. Second, I think I would have found it helpful when I was still working toward peerage. I could see myself using this list with future apprentices to generate interesting discussions. I imagine that would be true for other people too.  

Why is it so broad?

While I’ve said that the list doesn’t preclude specialist candidates, it does assume that a default hypothetical candidate is someone with a broad knowledge base. Some of that is because Kasha and I have a broad knowledge base. We enjoy, perform, and study music from a broad range of SCA period. But, more than that, the basic job of a Laurel is to be able to evaluate the prowess of candidates in your field. If you’re knowledgeable in only a very specific area, there are fewer candidates you are able to effectively evaluate.

But doesn’t that mean you’re only encouraging one kind of music candidate?

I don’t think so? I think a variety of styles of musician can fare well on this checklist. Any criteria list can be misused, but I think that risk is worth the potential gain of more fruitful discussion.

What are the ‘moderate changes’?

The main change is adding a category between “Proficiency with the Elements of Historical Music” and “In-depth Understanding of Historical Music.” The first category can be intimidating because it has the words “all” and “competent”. After receiving feedback from many people, weI do think there are some ‘must have’ items, but they need to be clearer and easier to meet than what we’d had in the first version of the document.

In the new version, the first section represents our “red flag” items, where if a candidate could not do any one of the items in that section we’d have serious doubts they were ready for the scrutiny of the Order. I spent some time trying to apply the “”Basic Proficiency”” section to my own SCA career, and came to the conclusion that I’d more or less completed it in about a year or two of playing in the SCA. (I feel obliged to mention that during that time I’d taken over the local choir, which encouraged me to work on quite a few of the items the list.) I didn’t have everything in the Performance subsection because I started playing recorder after joining the SCA and our local group Cynnabar didn’t have a regular sight-reading group. I expect that there are quite a few people in the SCA who can meet a lot or all of the material in the new “Basic Proficiency” section now.

The new second category, “Greater Proficiency with the Elements of Historical Music”, includes the things that we’d really like to see in all candidates, but wouldn’t necessarily disqualify a candidate if they couldn’t do every single one–especially if that candidate were very especially skilled in a certain area.

The rest is mostly the same.

What do you mean by ‘competent’?

Speaking for myself, competence boils down to three things:

  1. Being able to speak intelligently about a given topic.
  2. Being able to recognize when someone is or isn’t speaking intelligently about a given topic.
  3. Being able to prepare a class on anything on a given topic in a week where you have some free evenings and a weekend to prepare.

In practice, this means that at any given moment, you’d have a sentence or two to say about any of the topics on the list, and your sentence or two would be reasonable assertions.

For example for, “Outline the history of musical composition practice from 900-1600, tracing developments in modes/scales, harmonic motion, rhythmic rules, and expressive devices,” I might say something like:

“From 900 to 1600 the major shift was from solely monophony to monophony and polyphony. Over that time we can see the development of music notation as we know it now, starting from glorified memory aids to formal systems of notating pitch, rhythm, and even sometimes ornamentation. The relationship between modes and composition across period was existent but also contradictory and hard to explain. Pitch notation settled into more-or-less how we know it today fairly early in period. Rhythmic notation continued evolving across period, and differs from modern notation in that it was divisive rather than additive. (That is, in period music, we take a big beat–the tactus–and divide it into groups of usually 2 or 3 to get smaller note values. As opposed to today where we talk about the number of quarter notes in a half note, etc.) Music moved in the direction of conscious harmonic motion across period, but wasn’t discussed and thought about as such during period. Composition of polyphony primarily involved making sure the lines followed certain rules.”

This is not super detailed, but it is more-or-less correct. I couldn’t give an hour-long class on any of these sentences tomorrow, but I could by next weekend. If you asked for sources to back up these claims, I could give them to you. (For the bit about modes, for instance, the Early Music Sources video is great.) I want to see this level of competence in candidates, and I do know quite a few people who can do this, both in the order and not.

But I just don’t care about a lot of this stuff…

Hey, you do you! I’m happy to play and make music with people at all levels of ability and interest. You are absolutely still valued. But, like, you can’t ethically claim to be an expert in period music in the Society (in the Middle Kingdom at least) if you wouldn’t fare well on this checklist and don’t want to make the effort to do more of the things listed.

It’s not a value or character flaw to not care about something. There are plenty of skilled musicians I play with who don’t want to do this kind of work. That’s fine. I’m thrilled I get to play with them.

This checklist isn’t doable by non-professionals / non-rich people

Um… my degree is in Electrical Engineering. Aaron Drummond–my husband and fellow Music Laurel– has his degree in Computer Science. It’s true that I do teach piano for pay, but that’s based primarily on my childhood piano education and, honestly, patience. We are doing this as dedicated amateurs, with all the benefits and detriments that offers.

Regarding the cost barrier, if you look at the list, there is no mention of owning period reproduction instruments or regular private lessons with a period music focus or attending prestigious workshops. Meeting the requirements of the list involves taking SCA classes in historical music when you can (at Pennsic you can take quite a few, and if you’re in the Middle Kingdom, St. Cecilia at the Tower has a whole day’s worth), doing some music stuff in your free time a few times a week, and listening to fair number of recordings. Books about music history and scores are available for free online or at the library. If you love this stuff, it really isn’t a hardship unless you have no free time or energy.

Now you might notice that musician Laurels often do have period instruments and do go to prestigious workshops, and sometimes do spend money and time on private lessons. This happens because saving up to buy a period instrument or go to a workshop is worth it if you’re spending a lot of time on this stuff anyway.

I have a degree in music and I don’t fare well on this checklist

Kasha speaking: This doesn’t necessarily surprise me, since university music students and SCA musicians are typically taught different skills.

As an SCA musician who also happens to have a Bachelor of Arts in Music (with a Composition Emphasis) and a Master of Arts in Vocal Performance, I can talk a little bit about what I learned in school and what I learned in the SCA. The primary difference is this: At the university, we are taught from a musical tradition that emphasizes the Common Practice Period (about 1600-1900) and that treats music as a craft largely divorced from its cultural context. In the SCA, we study music written and/or performed before 1600 and think about it from the perspectives of historians and sociologists.

Here’s what I learned about medieval and Renaissance music in my university music program (other people’s experiences may differ). During my undergraduate studies, I took a year-long music history class that covered Western music from about 900-2000. We spent less than a semester on the medieval and Renaissance periods combined. In graduate school, I took a one-semester class on Renaissance music. Because I was interested in it, I also opted to join my college’s chamber choir, which sometimes performed Renaissance pieces (or modern arrangements of them). And in one graduate school class, my teacher played a piece of monody as an example of a type of music “we were probably unfamiliar with”. As far as I can recall, that is the sum total of my engagement with pre-17th-century music as a music major. On the contrary, most of the focus was on performance technique for Common Practice Period pieces, the teaching and arranging skills I would use if I chose to be a middle- or high-school band director, and — since I was a composition major — the extended techniques invented and used by 20th-century composers. When I graduated with my B.A., I could name a few medieval composers, had a vague idea that music before the Common Practice Period “developed” from Gregorian chant into English madrigals, and enjoyed listening to music composed by Josquin and Dufay (though I couldn’t describe how those pieces were put together).

I don’t want to downplay the privileges I have as a result of my education. As a music student, I gained experience listening critically to music and talking about what I’d heard and sung. I also learned about what kind of resources are available for researchers, gained experience playing in ensembles, and became proficient with music notation software. These skills have been valuable to me as I have studied music in the SCA (though I absolutely believe they can be learned outside the university, as well).

After joining the SCA, I began to study medieval and Renaissance music independently. I searched the internet for journal articles, listened to Dufay compositions on auto-repeat until I could sing along, went to the library for books of medieval poetry, experimented with composing my own motets for arts & sciences competitions, and learned pieces inside-out by transcribing them. It is in the SCA that I have had opportunities to lead and select repertoire for ensembles, play from period notation, attend day-long music history symposia (we call them “SCA events”), and arrange pieces for real performance by real performers. I’ve been forced to think like a historian, attempting to get inside the minds of people from another place and time and recreate their music in ways they might recognize, rather than using my personal taste as the primary consideration in musical decision-making. Most importantly, I’ve spent hours playing medieval music with other SCA musicians and afterward, talking with them about what we’ve played and listened to. We share helpful blogs, sources for musical material, and the names of favorite performers and instrument-makers.

While I do know a handful of SCA musicians who have also studied music formally at a university, most of the people I regularly make music with have not done so, and I consider many of them to be more knowledgeable than I am (and certainly better technicians!). We are teachers and students for each other, and to me, this is the most exciting part of being in the SCA.

In summary, I learned a lot in my music program, and I’ve learned a lot in the SCA — just about different things. Not only is this okay, it’s to be expected!

You just want to keep people out of the Order now that you’re in / You aren’t doing the work needed to help people meet your ‘standards’

Back to Jadzia: Um… just no. I’d feel insulted if the assertion wasn’t ridiculous. My SCA career has been spent making it easier for people to develop this level of prowess. More importantly, in the Middle Kingdom there are people who are meeting these standards.

Without a doubt, I want the bar in music in the SCA to continue to get higher. The SCA has the potential to do some interesting performance experimentation that even super skilled modern Early Music world people can’t because of the constraints of working in that world. The potential for doing interesting musical stuff is really motivating for me. That said, I care about how the standard rises. I want it to rise because it’s easy to improve when there are many skilled, generous musicians to play with. I want it to rise because people believe getting more skilled and more knowledgeable is both doable and worthy.

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Identifying Prowess in an SCA Musician (Revised)

by Mistress Jadwiga Krzyzanowska and Mistress Kasha Alekseeva

This is the revised version of the checklist. The original checklist can be found here. Context and clarification for the list can be found here

Introduction

As musicians, part of our responsibility is to help others understand how to assess the ability of others who practice our art. With that in mind, we’ve put together this description of the skills and knowledge areas we expect in SCA musicians who can be said to have achieved “prowess” in the art of music.

Please keep in mind that this list represents our views (Kasha and Jadzia), and others may differ in the relative value they assign these skills. Also, it’s important to realize that this does not address the whole range of how we might evaluate people to recommend for SCA awards (leadership, innovation, virtuous behavior, etc. are also important), but specifically mastery of this art.

You will notice that our list refers primarily to the musical tradition of Western Europe. While this tradition is the most common musical interest area among SCA scholars, we recognize that other musical traditions also exist and have rich histories. For musicians whose area of expertise is one or more non-Western musics, please modify the skill/knowledge descriptions accordingly.

List of Expected Skills & Knowledge Areas

The following items are divided into four sections:

  • Proficiency with the Elements of Historical Music (all of which we expect musicians of high prowess to possess)
  • Greater Proficiency with the Elements of Historical Music of which we expect musicians of high prowess to possess most)
  • In-Depth Understanding of Historical Music (of which we expect musicians of high prowess to possess many)
  • Areas of Individual Expertise (of which we expect musicians of high prowess to possess only a few)

Basic Proficiency with the Elements of Historical Music: A musician with high prowess must be competent in all of the following skills/knowledge areas for each category.

History & Musicology

  • Name 5 musical genres from between 1100 and 1600.
  • Name 5 composers from between 1100 and 1600.
  • Name 3 major social/economic events and philosophical movements that impacted the composition and/or performance of music before 1600.
  • Find sheet music for pieces from any major musical style from before 1600. Demonstrate familiarity with common online sources of repertoire (CPDL, IMSLP, etc.).
  • Provide multiple period musical examples to support assertions when writing documentation or teaching a class.
  • Identify 3-5 accurate modern sources on period music that are personal go-to references. Describe situations in which each one might be especially useful.
  • Engage meaningfully with other musicians. Ask questions about unfamiliar pieces and musical styles that reveal an underlying understanding of period practices and mindsets. Use similar questions to evaluate performers (for example, in a competition) with different areas of musical expertise.

Composition & Theory

  • Read at least one clef well enough to be able to practice your part independently, to understand musical examples, and to create musical examples.
  • Understand and use standard musical vocabulary to describe all aspects of music, including pitch, duration, dynamics, timbre, texture, form, and expressive techniques.
  • When working with editions of period music, identify areas of the score where changes were likely made by editors. Find and correct errors or questionable choices.
  • Transcribe a straightforward 16th-century facsimile of a score into modern musical notation.
  • If performing music from a culture that lacks extant musical scores, propose possible characteristics of that culture’s historical music by extrapolating from contemporary descriptions in historical documents or art, characteristics of later music from that culture, and extant period music from surrounding cultures.
  • Define the modern usage of the term “music ficta”. Recognize ficta in modern musical editions.
  • Demonstrate awareness that the rules of music differ among cultures. When interacting with non-Western musics, identify and investigate unfamiliar modes, rhythmic patterns, tuning, etc.
  • By listening only, identify the style, language, and/or approximate date of pieces in musical styles that are more popular in the SCA (e.g., English madrigals, late-period dance music, the Cantigas de Santa Maria).

Performance

  • Play one or more instruments/voice well. Use accurate technique to produce most sounds desired by the performer and/or indicated by the score, with a consistent, stylistically appropriate tone and correct intonation, articulation, pitch/rhythmic accuracy, and phrasing.
  • For instrumentalists: Sightread easy- to medium-level pieces with enough fluency to play with others in spontaneous pickup groups. Examples of repertoire in this category include most pre-1600 pieces from the The Recorder Consort (volumes 1-4) by Steve Rosenberg or any of the pieces in Gervaise’s Quart Livre de Danserie.
  • Execute good ensemble sense and technique: When reading a score, find a way to jump back in when lost. Lead and follow as the music demands. Identify and correct errors without excessive explanations or excuse-making. Hold a line independently, and help others hold their lines.
  • Appropriately warm up and care for one’s instrument/voice. Describe and use healthy and effective posture and (for voice and wind instruments) breath production.
  • Describe in detail what one has performed (whether memorized, read, or improvised) and in somewhat less detail what one has heard.
  • Compare and combine information from multiple editions, when available, for performance or study.
  • Experiment with period performance practice. Examples (as appropriate to era, place, instrument, and social context) include performance from memory, reading from historical notation, appropriate ornamentation, articulation, etc. For vocalists, additional examples include historical pronunciation and use of primarily straight tone (with vibrato for ornamentation).
  • Demonstrate knowledge of historical music theory by counting time in larger beats (half notes or whole notes instead of quarter notes as in most modern music). De-emphasize the presence of barlines in modern editions.

Leading Ensembles

Note: Some instrument/voice types or musical traditions stress individual rather than ensemble performance. For performers whose musical style of expertise de-emphasizes ensemble work, this category may be less important.

  • Lead ensembles of all skill levels with a welcoming, patient attitude. Identify appropriate, achievable challenges for groups of all levels.
  • Choose pieces for any given group that are appropriate to the group’s instrumentation and ability level.
  • Assign parts by considering the individual characteristics of each voice/instrument as well as the blend of the group as a whole. Substitute missing voices and instruments with ones of similar timbre, range, and capability.
  • Lead a group in 10-15 minutes of warm-ups that successfully prepare voices/instruments for activity throughout their full ranges.

Greater Proficiency with the Elements of Historical Music: A musician with high prowess will be competent in almost all (likely at least ⅘) of the following areas.

History & Musicology

  • Identify many period genres (at least 2-3 per century from 1100-1600). For each style, describe prominent compositional features and forms; name 1-2 exemplifying composers and 2-3 exemplifying pieces; and discuss the relationships among composers, performers, and audiences.
  • Outline the history of Western music from 900-1600, tracing developments in musical forms, notational systems, aesthetics, and technology.
  • Name many historical instruments. Describe in a sentence or two the differences between a historical instrument and its modern equivalent (if any exist).

Composition & Theory

  • Read modern Western musical notation fluently in treble and bass clef.
  • Transcribe and arrange (using appropriate arrangement techniques) period music as needed for specific ensembles and teaching/performance situations.
  • Recognize and name a few prominent forms of historical musical notation. Know where to look for more information about each.
  • Describe the text-music relationship of any piece with lyrics, identifying instances of text painting, the influence of text on the piece’s form/structure, musical constraints caused by linguistic features of the text, etc.
  • Define frequently encountered medieval and Renaissance music concepts, for example: church modes, text painting, imitation, Guidonian hand, Picardy third, parallel fifths/octaves, hocket, hemiola, cross-relation, counterpoint, etc. Allow these concepts to inform performance.
  • Outline the history of musical composition practice from 900-1600, tracing developments in modes/scales, harmonic motion, rhythmic rules, and expressive devices.

Performance

  • When performing pieces with lyrics, pronounce common languages (e.g., Italian, Latin, French, German, Spanish) with correct modern pronunciation or researched period pronunciation.
  • Perform in an engaging, vibrant manner (as appropriate to the style of music) that helps the audience connect to the music. Provide commentary and/or program notes that help audience members understand what to listen for in each specific piece.
  • For instrumentalists: Demonstrate robust familiarity with various versions/options (brand, material, size, range, accessories, etc.) of primary instrument. Justify the selection of a specific instrument and instrument accessories for each situation or piece. For vocalists: Demonstrate robust familiarity with various voice types. Choose pieces to perform with an understanding of one’s own (or the group’s) vocal range, flexibility, tone, volume, etc. Assign parts in multi-voice pieces according to voice type of participating vocalists.

Leading Ensembles

Note: Some instrument/voice types or musical traditions stress individual rather than ensemble performance. For performers whose musical style of expertise de-emphasizes ensemble work, this category may be less important.

  • Use knowledge of historical music theory and social context to help the group understand each piece and perform in a more historically accurate style. As appropriate to the group’s skill level, encourage deeper engagement with the repertoire.
  • Find or create exercises to help the ensemble work on common challenges, such as intonation and blend.
  • Notice, diagnose, and guide others during rehearsal in solving ensemble challenges such as tuning, blend, entrances/cut-offs, and phrasing.

In-Depth Understanding of Historical Music: A musician with high prowess will be competent in many (at least ⅔ – ¾) of the following skills/knowledge areas, including at least one in each category. For each area in which the musician is not proficient, the musician can name and contact at least one SCA musician who is proficient in this area.

History & Musicology

  • Use a variety of sources (printed and online) to find multiple modern editions and critical commentary for pieces from almost any musical style from before 1600.
  • Locate facsimiles of period scores from common online sources (DIAMM, IMSLP, etc.). Refer to facsimile when developing a performance, especially for text underlay.
  • Demonstrate familiarity with one or more non-Western musics from before 1600. Describe their instruments, genres, composers, performers, and cultural contexts.
  • Demonstrate great knowledge about several period styles of music. Describe features of each style in detail, using multiple examples of extant period scores. Explain the style’s cultural context, referring to extra-musical sources such as political documents, literature, and visual arts. Describe the relationship of the style to other period arts (e.g., dance, poetry, drama), language(s) of the surrounding culture, and religious/political ceremonies (as relevant).

Composition & Theory

  • Demonstrate working knowledge of historical notational styles. Given enough time, interpret and transcribe music from original notation.
  • Demonstrate detailed knowledge of the theoretical characteristics of at least one period style. Describe the rules of the style and generate examples of correct and incorrect techniques.
  • Compose pieces in simple styles (e.g., cantiga, chorale, Minnesang) that are nearly indistinguishable from similar period pieces.
  • Use knowledge of period musical theory to make an arrangement of a period piece that is nearly indistinguishable from similar period arrangements. Follow appropriate contrapuntal and voice leading principles for the piece’s style. Write individual parts that are idiomatic for the intended voice or instrument.
  • Name and summarize 3-5 period music treatises and/or performance instruction manuals. Consult them when studying or performing relevant pieces.
  • Explain basic principles of acoustics, sound production in musical instruments, and human vocal production.
  • By listening only, identify the style, form, language, and/or approximate date of most pre-1600 musical pieces.

Performance

  • Employ period performance practices consistently in performance. Confidently describe historical performance practices for primary instrument. Name and locate resources about historical performance practices for other instruments (voice, keyboard, string, wind, and percussion).
  • Sightread most music with enough accuracy to lead others in learning the piece. If primary instrument is a melody- or chord-playing instrument: Read much of repertoire at sight. If primary instrument is voice: Learn music independently and quickly. (At first rehearsal, if given the music ahead of time, learn part without much if any work at the piano.) If primary instrument is unpitched percussion: Choose and implement appropriate rhythmic pattern, with reference to genre and time signature/mensuration of piece, at first or second play-through.
  • Demonstrate familiarity with many period musical instruments (including voice). Describe their materials, forms/shapes, appropriate care, idiomatic ornamentation styles, and specific techniques.
  • Fluently read alternate forms of modern Western musical notation (tablature, lead sheets, figured bass, etc.).
  • When performing pieces with lyrics, pronounce common languages (e.g., Italian, Latin, French, German, Spanish) with pronunciation that is correct to the time and location of the piece’s origin. Pronounce less familiar languages (e.g., Occitan, Catalan, Portuguese, Greek, Russian, Polish, Middle English) with correct modern pronunciation or an attempt at correct historical pronunciation.

Leading Ensembles

Note: Some instrument/voice types or musical traditions stress individual rather than ensemble performance. For performers whose musical style of expertise de-emphasizes ensemble work, this category may be less important.

  • Conduct with motions that are effective, clear, and consistent, with subtle gestures for small ensembles and more visible ones for larger ensembles.
  • Understand that conducting as we now practice it was not used until the 18th century. Describe period methods of time-keeping and indicating melodic shape, such as liturgical hand signals and beating time with a staff, stick, or roll of paper.

Areas of Individual Expertise: A musician with high prowess will be competent in at least one of the following skills/knowledge areas in at least one category.

History & Musicology

  • Demonstrate great knowledge about at least one style of music that is less studied in the SCA (e.g., a style from before 1200 or from an area other than Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Belgium, or England). Describe features of the style in detail, using multiple examples of extant period scores. Explain the style’s cultural context, referring to extra-musical sources such as political documents, literature, and visual arts.
  • Demonstrate expert knowledge in the music of at least one culture/place (throughout SCA period) or at least one historical era (across Europe or another large area). Compare, contrast, and describe the relationships among various musical styles included in that culture/place or era, using detailed examples from extant scores and other historical sources.

Composition & Theory

  • Demonstrate great knowledge of historical notation. Perform from one or more styles of historical notation at sight.
  • Compose long or complicated pieces that are nearly indistinguishable from similar period compositions. Demonstrate facility with complex or involved sets of compositional rules, such as isometric motets, rhythmic modes, mensuration, species counterpoint, etc.
  • By listening only, identify pitches, rhythms, and other musical features in a performance or recording that are likely to be incorrect or questionable according to the stylistic “rules” relevant to the piece.

Performance

  • Play one or more instruments/voice expertly. Use accurate technique to produce all sounds desired by the performer and/or indicated by the score, with a consistent, stylistically appropriate tone and near perfect intonation, articulation, pitch/rhythmic accuracy, and phrasing.
  • Sightread challenging music (e.g., ars subtilior, florid organum, toccatas) with enough accuracy to lead others in learning the piece.

Leading Ensembles

  • Investigate and implement period methods of time-keeping and indicating melodic shape, such as liturgical hand signals and beating time with a staff, stick, or roll of paper.
  • Investigate and implement period methods of teaching pieces to performers, such as solmization with hexachords.
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Identifying Prowess in an SCA Musician (Old Version)

This list has since been revised, please refer to the new version: Identifying Prowess in an SCA Musician Revised

 

This post is by Mistress Jadwiga Krzyzanowska and Mistress Kasha Alekseeva

Introduction

Ockeghem would be a strong candidate, but his ignorance of late-period English madrigals is SHOCKING

As musicians, part of our responsibility is to help others understand how to assess the ability of others who practice our art. With that in mind, we’ve put together this description of the skills and knowledge areas we expect in SCA musicians who can be said to have achieved “prowess” in the art of music.

Please keep in mind that this list represents our views (Kasha and Jadzia), and others may differ in the relative value they assign these skills. Also, it’s important to realize that this does not address the whole range of how we might evaluate people to recommend for SCA awards (leadership, innovation, virtuous behavior, etc. are also important), but specifically mastery of this art.

You will notice that our list refers primarily to the musical tradition of Western Europe. While this tradition is the most common musical interest area among SCA scholars, we recognize that other musical traditions also exist and have rich histories. For musicians whose area of expertise is one or more non-Western musics, please modify the skill/knowledge descriptions accordingly.

List of Expected Skills & Knowledge Areas

The following items are divided into three sections: Proficiency with the Elements of Historical Music (all of which we expect musicians of high prowess to possess), In-Depth Understanding of Historical Music (of which we expect musicians of high prowess to possess many), and Areas of Individual Expertise (of which we expect musicians of high prowess to possess only a few).

Proficiency with the Elements of Historical Music: A musician with high prowess will be competent in all of the following skills/knowledge areas for each category.

History & Musicology

  • Identify many period genres (at least 2-3 per century from 1100-1600). For each style, describe prominent compositional features and forms; name 1-2 exemplifying composers and 2-3 exemplifying pieces; and discuss the relationships among composers, performers, and audiences.
  • Describe several major social/economic events and philosophical movements that impacted the composition and performance of music before 1600.
  • Find sheet music for pieces from any major musical style from before 1600. Demonstrate familiarity with common online sources of repertoire (CPDL, IMSLP, etc.).
  • Provide multiple period musical examples to support assertions when writing documentation or teaching a class.
  • Identify 3-5 accurate modern sources on period music that are personal go-to references. Describe situations in which each one might be especially useful.
  • Outline the history of Western music from 900-1600, tracing developments in musical forms, notational systems, aesthetics, and technology.
  • Categorize musical instruments by primary material and/or method of sound production.
  • Engage meaningfully with other musicians. Ask questions about unfamiliar pieces and musical styles that reveal an underlying understanding of period practices and mindsets. Use similar questions to evaluate performers (for example, in a competition) with different areas of musical expertise.

Composition & Theory

  • Read modern Western musical notation fluently.
  • Understand and use standard musical vocabulary to describe all aspects of music, including pitch, duration, dynamics, timbre, texture, form, and expressive techniques.
  • When working with editions of period music, identify areas of the score where changes were likely made by editors. Find and correct errors or questionable choices.
  • Transcribe and arrange (using appropriate arrangement techniques) period music as needed for specific ensembles and teaching/performance situations.
  • When a culture lacks extant musical scores, propose possible characteristics of that culture’s historical music by extrapolating from contemporary descriptions in historical documents or art, characteristics of later music from that culture, and extant period music from surrounding cultures.
  • Recognize and name a few prominent forms of historical musical notation. Know where to look for more information about each.
  • Define frequently encountered medieval and Renaissance music concepts, for example: musica ficta, church modes, text painting, imitation, Guidonian hand, Picardy third, parallel fifths/octaves, counterpoint, etc. Allow these concepts to inform performance.
  • Describe the text-music relationship of any piece with lyrics, identifying instances of text painting, the influence of text on the piece’s form/structure, musical constraints caused by linguistic features of the text, etc.
  • Demonstrate awareness that the rules of music differ among cultures. When interacting with non-Western musics, identify and investigate unfamiliar modes, rhythmic patterns, tuning, etc.
  • Outline the history of musical composition practice from 900-1600, tracing developments in modes/scales, harmonic motion, rhythmic rules, and expressive devices.
  • By listening only, identify the style, language, and/or approximate date of pieces in musical styles that are more popular in the SCA (e.g., English madrigals, late-period dance music, the Cantigas de Santa Maria).

Performance

  • Sightread easy- to medium-level pieces with enough fluency to play with others in spontaneous pickup groups. Examples of repertoire in this category include most pieces from the Pennsic Pile or The Recorder Consort (volumes 1-4) by Steve Rosenberg.
  • Play one or more instruments/voice well. Use accurate technique to produce most sounds desired by the performer and/or indicated by the score, with a consistent, stylistically appropriate tone and correct intonation, articulation, pitch/rhythmic accuracy, and phrasing.
  • Execute good ensemble sense and technique: When reading a score, find a way to jump back in when lost. Lead and follow as the music demands. Identify and correct errors without excessive explanations or excuse-making. Hold a line independently, and help others hold their lines.
  • Appropriately warm up and care for one’s instrument/voice. Describe and use healthy and effective posture and (for voice and wind instruments) breath production.
  • Describe in detail what one has performed (whether memorized, read, or improvised) and in somewhat less detail what one has heard.
  • Compare and combine information from multiple editions, when available, for performance or study.
  • For instrumentalists: Demonstrate robust familiarity with various versions/options (brand, material, size, range, accessories, etc.) of primary instrument. Justify the selection of a specific instrument and instrument accessories for each situation or piece. For vocalists: Demonstrate robust familiarity with various voice types. Choose pieces to perform with an understanding of one’s own (or the group’s) vocal range, flexibility, tone, volume, etc. Assign parts in multi-voice pieces according to voice type of participating vocalists.
  • Experiment with period performance practice. Examples (as appropriate to era, place, instrument, and social context) include memorization, reading from historical notation, ornamentation, articulation, etc. For vocalists, additional examples include historical pronunciation and use of primarily straight tone (with vibrato for ornamentation).
  • Demonstrate knowledge of historical music theory by counting time in larger beats (half notes or whole notes instead of quarter notes as in most modern music). De-emphasize the presence of barlines in modern editions.
  • When performing pieces with lyrics, pronounce common languages (e.g., Italian, Latin, French, German, Spanish) with correct modern pronunciation.
  • Perform in an engaging, vibrant manner (as appropriate to the style of music) that helps the audience connect to the music. Provide commentary and/or program notes that help audience members understand what to listen for in each specific piece.

Leading Ensembles

Note: Some instrument/voice types or musical traditions stress individual rather than ensemble performance. For performers whose musical style of expertise de-emphasizes ensemble work, this category may be less important.

  • Lead ensembles of all skill levels with a welcoming, patient attitude. Identify appropriate, achievable challenges for groups of all levels.
  • Choose pieces for any given group that are appropriate to the group’s instrumentation and ability level.
  • Assign parts by considering the individual characteristics of each voice/instrument as well as the blend of the group as a whole. Substitute missing voices and instruments with ones of similar timbre, range, and capability.
  • Use knowledge of historical music theory and social context to help the group understand each piece and perform in a more historically accurate style. As appropriate to the group’s skill level, encourage deeper engagement with the repertoire.
  • Lead a group in 10-15 minutes of warm-ups that successfully prepare voices/instruments for activity throughout their full ranges. Find or create exercises to help the ensemble work on common challenges, such as intonation and blend.
  • Notice, diagnose, and guide others during rehearsal in solving ensemble challenges such as tuning, blend, entrances/cut-offs, and phrasing.

In-Depth Understanding of Historical Music: A musician with high prowess will be competent in many (at least ⅔ – ¾) of the following skills/knowledge areas, including at least one in each category. For each area in which the musician is not proficient, the musician can name and contact at least one SCA musician who is proficient in this area.

History & Musicology

  • Find scores for pieces from almost any musical style from before 1600. Demonstrate familiarity with several online sources of repertoire, as well as printed collections.
  • Locate facsimiles of period scores from common online sources (DIAMM, IMSLP, Bavarian State Library, etc.). Refer to facsimile when developing a performance, especially for text underlay.
  • Demonstrate familiarity with one or more non-Western musics from before 1600. Describe their instruments, genres, composers, performers, and cultural contexts.
  • Demonstrate great knowledge about several period styles of music. Describe features of each style in detail, using multiple examples of extant period scores. Explain the style’s cultural context, referring to extra-musical sources such as political documents, literature, and visual arts. Describe the relationship of the style to other period arts (e.g., dance, poetry, drama), language(s) of the surrounding culture, and religious/political ceremonies (as relevant).

Composition & Theory

  • Demonstrate working knowledge of historical notational styles. Given enough time, interpret and transcribe music from original notation.
  • Demonstrate detailed knowledge of the theoretical characteristics of at least one period style. Describe the rules of the style and generate examples of correct and incorrect techniques.
  • Compose pieces in simple styles (e.g., cantiga, chorale, Minnesang) that are nearly indistinguishable from similar period pieces.
  • Use knowledge of period musical theory to make an arrangement of a period piece that is nearly indistinguishable from similar period arrangements. Follow appropriate contrapuntal and voice leading principles for the piece’s style. Write individual parts that are idiomatic for the intended voice or instrument.
  • Name and summarize 3-5 period music treatises and/or performance instruction manuals. Consult them when studying or performing relevant pieces.
  • Explain basic principles of acoustics, sound production in musical instruments, and human vocal production.
  • By listening only, identify the style, form, language, and/or approximate date of most pre-1600 musical pieces.

Performance

  • Employ period performance practices consistently in performance. Confidently describe historical performance practices for primary instrument. Name and locate resources about historical performance practices for other instruments (voice, keyboard, string, wind, and percussion).
  • Sightread most music with enough accuracy to lead others in learning the piece. If primary instrument is a melody- or chord-playing instrument: Read much of repertoire at sight. If primary instrument is voice: Learn music independently and quickly. (At first rehearsal, if given the music ahead of time, learn part without much if any work at the piano.) If primary instrument is unpitched percussion: Choose and implement appropriate rhythmic pattern, with reference to genre and time signature/mensuration of piece, at first or second play-through.
  • Demonstrate familiarity with many period musical instruments (including voice). Describe their materials, forms/shapes, appropriate care, idiomatic ornamentation styles, and specific techniques.
  • Fluently read alternate forms of modern Western musical notation (tablature, lead sheets, figured bass, etc.).
  • When performing pieces with lyrics, pronounce common languages (e.g., Italian, Latin, French, German, Spanish) with pronunciation that is correct to the time and location of the piece’s origin. Pronounce less familiar languages (e.g., Occitan, Catalan, Portuguese, Greek, Russian, Polish, Middle English) with correct modern pronunciation or an attempt at correct historical pronunciation.

Leading Ensembles

  • Conduct with motions that are effective, clear, and consistent, with subtle gestures for small ensembles and more visible ones for larger ensembles.
  • Understand that conducting as we now practice it was not used until the 18th century. Describe period methods of time-keeping and indicating melodic shape, such as liturgical hand signals and beating time with a staff, stick, or roll of paper.

Areas of Individual Expertise: A musician with high prowess will be competent in at least one of the following skills/knowledge areas in at least one category.

History & Musicology

  • Demonstrate great knowledge about at least one style of music that is less studied in the SCA (e.g., a style from before 1200 or from an area other than Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Belgium, or England). Describe features of the style in detail, using multiple examples of extant period scores. Explain the style’s cultural context, referring to extra-musical sources such as political documents, literature, and visual arts.
  • Demonstrate expert knowledge in the music of at least one culture/place (throughout SCA period) or at least one historical era (across Europe or another large area). Compare, contrast, and describe the relationships among various musical styles included in that culture/place or era, using detailed examples from extant scores and other historical sources.

Composition & Theory

  • Demonstrate great knowledge of historical notation. Perform from one or more styles of historical notation at sight.
  • Compose long or complicated pieces that are nearly indistinguishable from similar period compositions. Demonstrate facility with complex or involved sets of compositional rules, such as isometric motets, rhythmic modes, mensuration, species counterpoint, etc.
  • By listening only, identify pitches, rhythms, and other musical features in a performance or recording that are likely to be incorrect or questionable according to the stylistic “rules” relevant to the piece.

Performance

  • Play one or more instruments/voice expertly. Use accurate technique to produce all sounds desired by the performer and/or indicated by the score, with a consistent, stylistically appropriate tone and near perfect intonation, articulation, pitch/rhythmic accuracy, and phrasing.
  • Sightread challenging music (e.g., ars subtilior, florid organum, toccatas) with enough accuracy to lead others in learning the piece.

Leading Ensembles

  • Investigate and implement period methods of time-keeping and indicating melodic shape, such as liturgical hand signals and beating time with a staff, stick, or roll of paper.
  • Investigate and implement period methods of teaching pieces to performers, such as solmization with hexachords.
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Modal Playlist

I made a few modal playlists so you can get the sound of the modes in your ear. The tunes are a mix of pre-1600 and traditional. There’s a bias toward pieces with just a melody and accompaniment, since I think it’s easier to get a feel for the mode that way.

Enjoy!

Dorian

Phrygian

Mixolydian

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A Short Explanation of Medieval Modes

The medieval modes are as close as we get to scales in pre-common-practice music (that is, music prior to 1600 or so). They aren’t really scales, though.

To start, let’s look at the diatonic scale. It’s what modern scales are built on, and what the medieval modes are built on. The diatonic scale is this pattern:

…WWHWWWH…

H = Half step

W = Whole step.

If you think of a piano keyboard, a whole step is the distance between two keys that have only one key in the middle. C – D is a whole step. E to F♯ is a whole step. A half step is the distance between two keys that have no keys have no keys in between. E to F is a half step. C to C♯ is a half step.

whole-step  half-step

If you look at the entire piano keyboard, the white keys form the diatonic scale. The pattern mentioned above is repeated over and over again.

The C major scale is when you start on C and then repeat the diatonic scale pattern over and over making C your most important note. The pattern looks like this:

…[WWHWWWH][WWHWWWH][WWHWWWH]…

The brackets contain one period of the C major pattern.

The A (natural) minor scale is when you start on A and then repeat the diatonic scale pattern over and over making A the most important note. The pattern will look like this

…[WHWWWHWW][WHWWWHWW][WHWWWHWW]…

The brackets contain one period of the A minor pattern. In bold is the C major pattern, just to emphasize that this is still the diatonic scale, we’ve only shifted the start and end point of the period.  

This idea of shifting the starting point of the diatonic scale period is the basis of modes. In fact, you could call C major and A minor modes in this sense. Ionian mode is another name for the major scale, and Aeolian mode is another name for natural minor. These terms were both coined in the 16th century by music theorist Heinrich Glarean. For whatever reasons, those modes weren’t part of the musical theory before then.

The modes that were in use were the ones starting on D, E, F, and G.

Dorian

The mode starting on D was called Dorian. Using a keyboard, if you play and octave from D to D using only white keys you get the Dorian mode.

The pattern in steps looks like this:

…[WHWWWHW][WHWWWHW][WHWWWHW]…

Again I’ve bolded the C major pattern. It’s still there!

So if you’re in D it’s easy to play in the Dorian mode. Just play D a lot and don’t play any sharps or flats. But it’s not too hard to remember if you shift to starting on a different note. The modern key of D minor has a B♭, and B♭ is the sixth of the D minor scale. So if you sharp the 6th of a minor scale (and leave the 7th flat) you get Dorian. Or, you can think of it as playing an ascending harmonic minor scale, but leaving the 7th flat.

For example, A Dorian would look like this:

A B C D E F♯ G A

G Dorian would look like this:

G A B♭ C D E F G

G Dorian happens a lot in renaissance music. The way to identify it is if you have a piece with one flat that ends on G.

Another way to identify dorian pieces is if the piece would be in minor, but the last flat is missing from the key signature. The modern key of G minor has both B♭ and E♭ in the key signature. G Dorian only has B♭.

Lydian

In Lydian, you start on F and play only white keys.

There’s a weird thing about Lydian, though. Because of (I believe) hexachordal reasons, the B is flat most of the time. So you effectively get a major scale. This may be why Medieval music theorists hadn’t considered Ionian mode, since they got what it provides with Lydian.

So, if you play in F major, you’re probably playing Lydian.

Mixolydian

Start on G and play only white keys.

Or, play a G scale without the F♯. Or, play any major scale without the leading tone.

Here’s C mixolydian:

C D E F G A B♭ C

Phrygian

Start on E and play only white keys.

You’ll hear people talk about Phrygian with adjectives like “weird” or “eerie”. In the middle ages it was associated with the choleric humor, i.e. angry. In fact all of the modes had an associated humor.

Another way to think of Phrygian is to play E minor without the F♯. Or, play a minor scale and flat the second.

A Phrygian would look like this:

A B♭ C D E F G A

What I’ve described up to now is how modern musicians think and use modes. (With the exception of Lydian — modern musicians would play an F scale without the B♭. Otherwise you’re just playing a major scale.)

Medieval modes have a few more wrinkles.

Authentic vs. Plagal

The modes were used as a classification system for chants. Chants are melodies. A way you can classify a melody is by its range (how low it goes to how high it goes) and where the “tonic” (as we would think of it) or “final” (as the medieval music theorist would think of it) is in relation to the range. Is it at the bottom like, say “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star?”

twinkle

The range for Twinkle is a sixth, in this case middle C to A above middle C. Its final is the bottom note, in this case C.

Or, is it in the middle of the melody, like “O Come All Ye Faithful?”

adestfid

The range is an octave (from D to D an octave higher), and its final is in the middle of the range. (In this case G)

In the middle ages, Twinkle Twinkle would be classified as “Authentic”: the final is at the bottom of the range. “O Come All Ye Faithful” would be classified as “Plagal”: the final is in the middle of the range. Plagal modes have the prefix “Hypo”.

And with that, here’s a chart of the Medieval modes:

The_eight_musical_modes

There’s a bit more to the medieval modes than this, like when does one flat the Bs? And what if the range of a melody is really large? And how does hexachord theory fit into all of this? But I don’t understand that well enough to answer accurately.

How do the modes fit into playing and composing music in a medieval or Renaissance style?

I think that the modern understanding of modes is the most relevant part. That is, knowing how to modify a major or minor scale to make a mode. Want to make Greensleeves in A minor sound modal? Don’t sharp the G!  Do sharp the F.

When you’re trying to play along with a modal piece, the easiest and most convincing accompaniment is a drone on the final. Or maybe the final and a fifth above it. Greensleeves in Dorian with a drone on the final will sound good. Carelessly applying chords will sound weird and probably bad.

The plagal vs. authentic part I wouldn’t worry overmuch about. Does it really matter if your piece’s final is in the middle of the range vs. the bottom? No. Just have a final.

In performing polyphony, it can be useful to know what mode you’re in if you’re trying to sight sing using movable-do solfege. For instance, if you’re learning a piece in G Dorian, you might be tempted, via the key signature of one flat, to sing the piece as if it was in F major or D minor – that is, assigning the syllable ‘do’ to F, ‘re’ to G, and ‘la’ to D. But, your ear might be better served by assigning the ‘la’ to G and singing ‘fi’ (a sharped ‘fa’) for the E♮ – that is, singing as if it was in G minor with a sharped sixth. (Neither approach is relevant to how it would have been sight-sung at the time – again, see hexachord theory for more on that…)

In writing polyphony, modes have basically nothing to say about how the parts interact. You have to look to treatises on counterpoint for that.

And that’s an introduction to modes. Hope it helps!

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Renaissance ABC’s

Facsimile of Christes Cross melody.

Facsimile of Christes Cross melody.

 

At St. Cecilia this year, my friend, Master Christian, gave me some sheet music he believed I’d be interested in. It was a three part piece by Thomas Morley, from his book, A Plain and Easy Introduction to Practical Music. Basically, Morley used the ABC song of the time to demonstrate counterpoint. The top-line contains the melody; the bottom two lines are the counterpoint that Morley composed.

Of course, I’ve been singing the Christes Crosse to Martin ever since. 😛 I will win the Internet when he can sing it.

Fun fact: it doesn’t have the letters J or U since I and J were and interchangeable as were U and V.

Also interesting, it has a range of an Octave and a fourth, which is pretty wide. Today’s ABC song (Twinkle Twinkle) has a range of a sixth.

A couple of notes about the video:

  • I know it should be “when you have done” not “when you are done”.  I realized my mistake way too far in the process, and would have had to redo everything to fix it. So… no.
  • Attributing the piece to Morley is a bit like attributing “Twinkle Twinkle” (or Ah vous dirai-je, Maman) to Mozart. Morley presumable didn’t write the tune for Christes Crosse…

If there’s interest, I could be convinced to record Morley’s first variation.

Enjoy!

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What Recorder Should I Buy?

Playing Agricola's "Et Qui La Dira" on some Yamaha 300 series recorders.

Playing Agricola’s “Et Qui La Dira” on Yamaha 300 series recorders.

“What recorder should I buy?” “What recorder should I start on?” “I want to upgrade to a wooden recorder, which one should I get?” I’ve been asked these questions quite a few times, and I figured it’s about time I put my answers in one place.

“What size recorder should I start on”?

Should you start with a soprano or alto or tenor? The answer depends on a few factors. If you want to play SCA dance music, go with a soprano. There’s a lot more support for teaching yourself the soprano than alto, and the melodies for most of the dances fit well on the soprano.

If you’re playing consort music, tenor is a better pick because the tenor lines tend to be easier, and many pieces sound better on lower instruments. You can use the soprano “how to play the recorder” book because both soprano and tenor recorders have the same fingering. The stretch on the tenor can take some getting used to, but most people can do it. My fingers are not particularly long and I get by.

Why not alto? The short version is that the method books I’ve seen aren’t very good. In particular they teach alto “at pitch,” when most of the time I play alto “octave up”.*

“I want to learn recorder, which one should I buy?”

The recorder to start with is a Yamaha 300 series soprano or tenor. Pretty much every recorder player I know has a set. The soprano runs around $20, the Tenor is around $65.  The 300 series also has altos and sopraninos and basses.

If you want a renaissance style recorder, the Mollenhauer Dream plastic is great to start. (I still need to pick one up.) A soprano is about $30.

“I want to upgrade to a wooden recorder. Which should I get?”

First, remember this: just because a recorder is wooden doesn’t mean it’s better than plastic. If it’s under $100 it almost certainly isn’t better than a plastic. I’ve had the misfortune of playing wooden recorders that don’t play in tune. I would not recommend it!

With that out of the way: the best entry level wooden recorder is the Mollenhauer Dream. The soprano runs for about $130. I have a soprano, and I’ve come to like it quite a bit.

If you want a step up from the Dream, you’re looking at a Kobliczek Praetorius or a Mollenhauer “Kynseker”. Sopranos run at around $450. Altos around $650. I have a Praetorius alto, and am really happy with it.

If you decide you want a wooden recorder, Von Huene is open to sending a few of each to try. I highly recommend doing that since every wooden recorder is unique.

For advice on how to judge wooden recorders, I recommend looking at Chapter 7, “Selecting and Caring for Your Recorder” of Ken Wollitz’s The Recorder Book. It’s a book recorder players should have in their collection.

“What method book should I use?”

I don’t think method book matters that much. When I was in elementary school my parents got me “Recorder Fun” which came with an attached Yamaha recorder. When I started playing SCA in college I dug it up out of their basement and used that to teach myself.

Since then I’ve acquired a few other method books:

Hugh Orr’s Basic Recorder Technique Vol 1: Soprano and Basic Recorder Technique Vol 1: Alto

These books are nice because they have a lot of description on how to hold and play the recorder. They are also nice in that there is a book dedicated to the Alto recorder

Steve Rosenberg’s Recorder Playing

I’ve used this book to teach recorder to new players. It is for soprano or tenor recorders. What is nice about this series is that much of the music in it is from the Renaissance or Baroque eras.

Kulbach and Nitka’s The Recorder Guide

I used this book to learn Alto recorder fingering. What is nice about this book is it teaches Soprano and Alto fingering simultaneously. The Alto fingering is “at pitch”, though.

I’ve found David Green’s recorder method book reviews useful. His descriptions of the different books are much more detailed than what I’ve written.

I hope this helps you make your recorder purchasing choices a little easier. Happy playing!

*  “At pitch” means the staff for the alto is an octave lower than the staff for the soprano.  For example both of the following are the same pitch: this is “octave up” f_octave_up and this is “at pitch” f_at_pitch. Many pieces that fit a soprano recorder also fit the alto recorder, and those pieces are all written alto “octave up”.

 

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SCA Musician Myths

My band, Psallite, playing period music.

My band, Psallite, playing period music.

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about Bardic music’s place in the SCA landscape due to an article that came out in the Æthelmearc Gazette last week. In the article and the discussion around it I saw a lot of the same misconceptions of the SCA Early Music community (here on out called “musicians”) that I thought we were past. Apparently not. The purpose of this article is to address the things I’ve heard over the years about musicians and what the musicians want to see in the Bardic community. I want something to link to when I see the same misconceptions repeated every few years.

First, a disclaimer. I am not all musicians. I can’t speak for everyone. That said, I do know a lot of musicians in the Middle Kingdom and radiating outward. I host the only period music focused event in the Middle Kingdom. I know the pulse of the music community. I don’t believe a lot of what I say here will be controversial among that community.

So, here we go.

Musicians want only real pre-1600 music at SCA events. Newly composed music is by definition not period therefore they want to stamp it out.

No. I am happy with new compositions, as long as there is an attempt to do it in a period way. Process and intent are more important that product. If someone listens to a period song on YouTube and tries to write something that sounds like that song, that is a success. If someone takes a period tune and writes new lyrics that’s great! If someone writes a poem in rondeau form that’s perfect.

The important thing is engaging with period sources. If what makes a bard is telling the stories and history of the cultures we study and our own history, then I am saying that is not enough. Bards also have to engage with period material. At least if they want A&S cred. 

Musicians insist on people using only period instruments. I can’t afford period instruments so I will be rejected.

Repertoire is what matters, not what instrument you play it on. If you’re playing period or period-style music on your modern violin or trumpet or mandolin or guitar or plastic Yamaha recorder THAT IS PERFECTLY FINE. In fact, I’d say that’s not even a real barrier to mastery in music. You can tune a guitar like a lute and play all of the lute repertoire on it. You can play all the recorder music on plastic recorders. You can definitely play the repertoire on a modern violin.

If you notice that the well respected musicians tend to have fancy period instruments that’s because 1) they’ve been doing this a while and you tend to have more disposable income as you get older and 2) they’ve been at this long enough that they’ve decided that this is an OK place to put their money. They’re going to get enough value out of the instrument for it to be worth it.

One of my biggest pet peeves is people who think they can buy their way into the respected musician club. Good technique matters a lot more than a fancy period instrument.

Recorder-wise, I play my plastic Yamaha 300 series recorders the most because they play in tune, they don’t care about humidity, and I don’t have to worry about whether I just ate cake before playing them. I unapologetically bring my Casio Keyboard to events because I can play period harpsichord on the keyboard just as well as on the real thing. Also, I don’t have to spend all of the event tuning the keyboard.

There isn’t much period music available

This is not true. There is sooooo much material freely available today! It is getting easier and easier to get good quality editions of period music for free! Let me tell you about some places you can find it:

Choral Public Domain Library (cpdl.org)

With their multi-category site search, you can search by period and by number of voices, including solo voice! As of today there are 207 renaissance solo pieces, and 216 medieval solo pieces. (To be fair most of the solo-medieval music on here is chant, but trust me when I say there is a lot of legit solo medieval music.)

International Music Score Library Project (imslp.org)

Like CPDL, IMSLP has robust search capability.

Baroness Kasha’s translations

Kasha has made singable translations of period music. This is a great place to get started if you want to choose from a wide variety of period stuff. If you want to find the piece in the original language, just google the name of the piece.

Thomas Ravenscroft 

He was (essentially) an ethnomusicologist in the early 1600s. He went around collecting music “of the people”.

This is just the very tip of the iceberg of available period music.

There isn’t much solo secular music from the Celtic, Slavic, or Scandinavian areas before the late Renaissance

This is sadly still true. We can make educated guesses about what music sounded like, but there isn’t the wealth of information for those regions as there is for say, France. I am sad too. My persona is Polish. I did Polish dancing growing up. I’d love to do period Polish court dances in the SCA. But there are no dance manuals. I take what I can get, and keep an ear out for new discoveries.

I am also more willing to compromise for those regions. But I don’t think the answer is that we should throw up our hands and just play modern Irish traditional music because the period Irish stuff either wasn’t written down or was lost. Let’s talk about it, see how close to period we can get, and make educated guesses about what the music might have sounded like.

I don’t read music, how am I supposed to learn these songs?!

I’m thrilled to tell you that today it has never been easier to listen to period music. Just search for the name of the piece on YouTube.

Musicians care more about being period than being entertaining. If the only thing my audience will appreciate is a modern style tune, it’s my duty as a performer to give them what they want. That is what good performers do. You have to meet the audience where they are.

How entertaining or accessible a piece is and how period it is are not related.

It is perfectly possible to have period songs that are really accessible and entertaining. It is also possible to have modern stuff that isn’t. There is a rich middle ground that is acceptable.

My repertoire for SCA is 100% period appropriate. Accessibility of said material varies. Kasha’s translation work and the way we perform it is super accessible. Lots of people enjoy Wolgemut; all of their stuff is period. Owain Phyfe was basically a dude with a guitar that played  period material in the original language and his stuff was super accessible and well liked. At the other end is the 13th century Perotin piece I learned 5 years ago. An acquired taste to say the least.

Good performers do know their audience. But that doesn’t mean a performer has to pull out something modern. If the only thing that the audience will like in your repertoire is something modern, that’s more likely to be a problem with your repertoire and your performing ability, not the source material. Step up your game.

And again, newly composed music and poetry can be period appropriate! The only requirement to avoid side-eye from musicians is that the composer consulted period material before writing it. In fact, you won’t just avoid side-eye, you will get praise.

Period music is unpalatable to the modern ear.

This is just not true. As I said above, Wolgemut and Owain Phyfe both performed period music. Both are well liked by all walks of SCAdians. How accessible and enjoyable a piece of music is has a lot more to do with how it is performed than the music itself.

Period music is based on the diatonic scale, which is still used today, therefore the melody I made up is probably period sounding.

You know what else is based on the diatonic scale? Just about everything. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, the Beatles, any pop song.

That’s a lot of music. There’s a lot of variation. Even within pop music, which is arguably pretty homogenous, people with no musical training can tell the difference between a country song and a folk song and a rock song. Are you going to tell me they can’t hear the difference between Sting’s Dowland album and his usual stuff? Really?

That said, I think the real question is something more like, “American and British traditional music sounds pretty similar to some late period music, so if I write something in that style I’m effectively writing in a period style.”

One example I’ve heard recently is comparing “Martin Said To His Man”, a period tune, and “Step it Out Mary” a modern day traditional-style tune. I agree that the tune for “Step it out Mary” isn’t glaringly out of period sounding, but to me that just means that writing period sounding tunes today is possible. I might go as far as to say a person who grew up mostly listening to traditional tunes might naturally come up with music that meets the mark. But 1) that applies to almost none of us, and 2) we are a historical group! We should be emulating “Martin Said To His Man” when writing our own songs, not “Step it Out Mary”. Knowing why you think your music sounds period is important! Engaging with the source material is important!

Also, the stuff I hear coming out of Bardic is not on the level of Step it Out Mary. The songs I’ve heard have problems like melodic jumps that were not done, and harmonic shifts that were not done. Among other things.

To try to help the problem, my band is working on some simple ideas for getting started with writing music that better meets period practice. But to really start writing period-sounding music there is no substitute for playing and listening to it a lot.

Writing period sounding music is too high of a bar for newcomers! We want to get people writing as fast as possible!

First, much slack must be given to newcomers. Always. If a newcomer performs something that is not to the current tastes of the Society, we let it slide and try to expose them to “better” stuff. We should always assume people have honest motivations.

So, newcomers aside, how can we make it easier for newer bards to write in a more period style?

The easiest thing is contrafacta. Take a period tune and write new words for it. Where do I find period tunes? Here’s some stuff to get you started:

If you’re not sure how a song sounds, search for it on YouTube. There are almost certainly recordings. It has never been easier to listen to period music.

If you want to write your own song? Start with a period poetic form. Here are a few: Rondeau, Virelai, Ballade. Write your poem, then write your tune. You have already met the minimum criteria!

Want to go further? Listen to a few songs that use your poetic form. Then attempt to mimic those songs in some way. This is going above and beyond and is AWESOME.

Want to take your game up even further? I can point you to some composition treatises and some modern textbooks on period composition.

We ask everyone to make an attempt at period clothing for events. That is the same thing I am asking for here. I want composers to attempt to look at period material before writing their song or poem.

In period, people were composing music. I am composing music. Isn’t the fact that I am composing music enough?

A couple analogies. People wore pants in period. Therefore my blue jeans are enough.

People danced in the Middle Ages. Therefore swing dancing at an event is period enough.

Composing in and of itself is not enough. We need to engage with period source material, just like every other A&S craft. At least if you want A&S recognition.

If Bardic moves in this direction where do our old songs, written before we knew better, go? We will lose our history!

Here is where my opinion probably differs from others in the music community.

In my opinion, the old songs written to very obviously modern tunes and in very obviously modern forms belong at post revels,private camps, and social media. I believe they don’t belong front and center at court or at feast or in general at events. What should be front and center are our best attempts to capture our history in the forms of our period and with performances most likely to draw people into our period.

As for losing our history, we will only lose it if bards don’t translate it to more period appropriate forms, and if they don’t play these forms in an attention grabbing way.

This is a call to step up your game!

Can’t we just coexist?

Again, I think my opinion here might not be the most popular.

There is only so much time at events. There’s especially little undivided attention the general SCA populace is willing to give performers. What should they be presented with in that little time?

My answer is the best period appropriate stuff we have to offer.

The dance community faced a similar problem. There is only so much time at evening balls. What dances should be in the ball list? Dances from the period repertoire? Old out-of-period favorites? New choreographies in varying degrees of period-correctness?

Ultimately the choice in these parts of the Known World was to fill the ball list with a range of dances from the period repertoire and some newer SCA choreographies. All of these choreographies have at least some period connection, even if they are just Playford 1651 inspired. The Out of Period dances are reserved for dance practices, post-revels, after midnight at the dance tent at Pennsic, and other similar venues.

Are some people sad about it? Absolutely. But I think it’s the right decision. It would be sad if our balls were populated with lots of out of period dances when there’s a lot of period repertoire to choose from.

I believe that music in the SCA should evolve along these lines.

Honestly, I don’t have a real problem with a bardic circle at an event with loose rules. I do get annoyed when the undivided attention of the masses is expected to be given toward non-period or non-period influenced works when there is period-appropriate material that could do the job just as well or better.

Do all or most musicians agree with me on this? Probably not. So it goes.  

Should there be an A&S category for “SCA Genre” music?

To me, that’s the same as asking, should there be an A&S category for non-period artistic works. The answer is no.

I know someone who makes cake subtleties. I love her work. But it doesn’t belong in an A&S competition. I know someone who paints inspiring images of SCA events. It’s not period, though, and thus doesn’t belong in an A&S competition. The same goes for “SCA genre” music.

Now, there’s nothing stopping the Bardic community from having their own competitions. In fact they should! The judges will be far more knowledgeable than the random judges at A&S fairs.

I have been very disappointed in the Middle Kingdom judging criteria for performing arts for a long time. To combat it, I instituted master classes at St. Cecilia, where musicians could get useful feedback from the SCA’s musical experts on their performance instead of getting docked points for their garb. (Or the garb of their accompanist. *facepalm*). There’s no reason the Bardic Community couldn’t do the same thing.

We don’t know anything about what the common folk sung in period. We don’t have extant secular music.

This is not true. To start, we have a number of melodies that we know or are pretty sure originate with common musicians. Off the top of my head, “L’homme Arme” is probably a folk song. “Kalenda Maya” is a jongleur tune that a troubadour immortalized. “Le recueil des plus belles et excellentes chansons en forme de voix de ville” (Literally translated to “Collection of the Most Beautiful and Excellent songs from the Voice of the City” ) is a bunch of collected folk songs. Ravenscroft collected music from the folk at the end of our period. With a little bit of work I could isolate more known period folk melodies. We also know that courtly music was performed by lower class musicians. (We know because the troubadours complained about it.) 

And if you just want secular music… Entire genres full of music. Troubadours, chansons, madrigals, lute songs. Each of these has hundreds of secular pieces to choose from. Many have modern editions freely available if you have an Internet connection. You can find them if you look.

If you want help finding a particular kind of piece, let me know and I will help you!


 

The Early Music space in the SCA is rich in both material and in enthusiasm. Last year at St. Cecilia we had a giant group of musicians sing of Allegri’s Miserere. A few years ago a group got together and put together a performance of the entire Cantigas d’Amigo set. My band is experimenting with performing period works in translation, and it’s been very well received. I love being able to bring sheet music to an event and playing through it with people. I love that people are developing a taste for Early Music.

I would love to see more overlap between the Bardic community and the Early Music community. There’s knowledge in both communities that we could benefit in sharing.

I hope this article inspires all musicians and bards to raise the bar.

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Beyond “Bad Bards”: Improving Performance Climate in the SCA

THL Kasha Alekseeva

THL Kasha Alekseeva

This is a guest post from THL Kasha Alekseeva, Baroness of Cynnabar, and renowned performer in the Middle Kingdom. The post is a response to the article “You don’t hate the Bardic Arts, you hate Bad Bards

As RUM’s new Dean of Performing Arts, I used this article as an opportunity to think about the perception of performing arts in the SCA, and the unique challenges it has when compared to other SCA arts and sciences.

This article addresses the issue of people disliking the “bardic arts” and proposes that this is due to unsuccessful performances and to bards who (intentionally or unintentionally) are rude enough to entrap people in their performances. The article also discusses several kinds of less successful bards and encourages the readers to be patient with their shortcomings while they grow in their craft. I think all of these ideas are wonderful.

I love performing arts and want them to succeed in the SCA. And I know that bad reputations and schisms hinder our success. So the article made me start to think about the larger issues involved. If the problem of “hating bardic” can be solved by consideration for others and tolerance, what would specific considerate and tolerant acts look like? How can we turn some of our haters into fans? How can we coexist with those who will always be haters?

I agree with the author of the article that most of the time people who “hate bardic” are frustrated because they have been unwillingly forced into being audience members. But there are other reasons people may have to dislike performances that were not sufficiently discussed in the article (being outside its scope). The two most important, I feel, are 1) boredom or distaste caused by unsuccessful performances and 2) dislike or disapproval of performers’ choices of material, generally because it is “out of period”.

It would be easy to discount these voices as snobs, just as it would be easy to discount the performers they dislike as incompetent. But attitudes like these are unfair to everyone. For me, an inexperienced performer who is struggling to improve is very different from a lazy performer who doesn’t care whether people are enjoying themselves. An audience member who doesn’t feel like commedia dell’arte right now is different from a person who thinks the very existence of theater is an infringement of his or her leisure time.
The “out-of-period” debate is a little stickier, so I’ll talk about it in more detail.

A major question that comes into play here is what “out of period” means and whether there should be value placed on “period” performance material. Most SCA performers–at least those who are not reacting in anger to expectations they feel have been unrealistically imposed upon them–agree that to a certain extent, “period” material is valuable. Most disagree on what the definition of “period material” is and how much it ought to be valued in comparison with other important aspects of performance (e.g., accessibility, ease of transmission, feasibility with modern equipment, financial considerations, the performer’s taste, etc.).

I personally believe that there is room within the definition of “period-correct” for a great deal of leeway. It would be harmful for us to restrict SCA performance to literal, extant pre-seventeenth-century material. Think of it this way: We’d never tell someone that she can only wear an actual extant fifteenth-century garment! Yet I see us do this with musicians (did you know music composition is no longer a category at A&S fairs?) and with dancers (how many of us have danced a newly composed SCA dance?). For performing arts to be meaningful to both performers and audiences, we need to be able to create new art. We need songs and stories that commemorate things that happen to us, not just to King Richard or Charlemagne. We need to encourage creators, because a very important part of what we do in the SCA is re-create!

Of course, I think most SCA artists would agree that the goal is to re-create things in a period style and that “period style” is something we should value. But what does “period style” mean? I can think of various definitions for the term that would be more or less acceptable to me personally. Perhaps it should mean “I replicated materials working-class people had access to in 16th-century London” or “I used a process laid out in such-and-such 14th-century text” or “if a typical tenth-century Spanish monk saw my performance, he wouldn’t have found it strange”. For some of my performances, I prefer that last one. But for others, my definition is something more like “my audience had a reaction that was analagous to the reaction thirteenth-century French courtiers might have had”. All of these definitions (and, I’m sure, many other potential definitions) are valid!

One special challenge of performance is the fact that (as SCA cooks know very well), modern tastes are not necessarily the same as medieval ones. That is NOT to say that medieval performances are unacceptable to a modern audience. What it does mean is that modern audiences, lacking a medieval cultural background, may need to be given some extra information in order to appreciate the piece. That might mean translating the piece into our vernacular (American English, in this case), or handing out program notes to explain the structure of the piece, or teaching the audience the original hymn this song is based on, or even changing the jokes and allusions in the piece to equivalent modern jokes and allusions.

When it comes to unskillful performances, I think it’s important to remember two things. First, everyone starts out unskilled and then gains skill; therefore, in order for skilled performances to happen, unskilled ones must also happen. Second, it is very rude to subject audiences to painful experiences. Balancing these two principles is one of the biggest challenges of the performing arts community. What can we do to navigate this challenge? Below, I’ll talk about some specific actions we can take to foster growing performers while pleasing audiences.

Things Performers Can Do to Boost Performance Quality, Encourage the use of Period Material, and Challenge the Haters

  1. Share access to repertoire and research. When you perform, tell people where your piece comes from. (“This story is from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. There are tons of other great stories in there!”) Post links to monologues or routines, both challenging and beginner-friendly. Blog about the book you LOVE that has all the great reference material in it. Host a challenge and give a book full of potential repertoire as a prize.
  2. Consider that other peoples’ definitions of “period-correct” may have some value. Carefully choose which aspects of your performance are important for you to be accurate about, and respect the performances of others who value accuracy in different aspects. Encourage others to improve the aspects of their performance that are most important to them.
  3. Incorporate “period” material or a “period” process (whatever that means to you) into your performance, and make it interesting and entertaining. Prove both to your audience and to other performers that performances do not have to be obtrusively modern to be relevant and meaningful. Prove both to your audience and to other performers that performances do not have to be indistinguishable from period practice (as though that were even possible) to be virtuosic, beautiful, and important.
  4. Encourage others to genuinely love and want to improve their crafts. Compliment the hard work that goes into perfecting a difficult routine. Ask questions about the research behind a project. Discuss how the performance made you feel and ask what the performer was thinking about while performing. Show that you care and want to know more. When a performer does quality work–accurate, interesting, entertaining, or virtuosic–make sure everyone knows about it.
  5. Realize the limitations of research. There are some societies that we just don’t have that much information about, perhaps because they lacked a way to record performance information, because their records were deliberately destroyed by a subsequent society, or for some other reason. Does that mean that we shouldn’t even attempt to re-create that society’s arts? Not at all! It does mean that we will have to make some guesses, and that not all of those guesses will be able to be backed up by period examples. And that’s okay. (As long as we are not using it as an excuse not to do our best.)
  6. Don’t be the “rude bard”. Performances are by their nature disruptive, and being blindsided by a performer is annoying. Respect your audience, and perform in a location and at a time where they can choose to partake in your performance or not. Advertise your performance, so people know when to come (or when to avoid). If you’re performing and you can see that your audience is bored but cannot leave, cut the performance short.
  7. Remember that there is a difference between a performance and background entertainment. This doesn’t apply equally to all kinds of performance, but it is particularly important for musicians. If your role is to give the scene a medieval feel but not to be a superstar, don’t draw unnecessary attention to yourself. For example, virtuosic monodic arias are inappropriate for background music at feast.
  8. Support each other! If the SCA climate becomes more friendly for one type of performer, it becomes more friendly for all types of performers. We all share some important challenges–for example, the needs for physical space, time, an optimal soundscape, and an interested audience. Supporting each other doesn’t mean you have to like everything your fellow performers do–after all, tastes differ. But it does mean being respectful of performers and performances, reminding event staff to account for performance space and sound requirements, facilitating performance opportunities, and being generous with your knowledge and other resources.

Things Event Staff Can Do to Allow Entertaining Performances to Occur

  1. First and most importantly, provide opportunities to perform! Unlike the practicioners of most other arts and sciences, performers really can’t hone their craft at home. They also can’t practice in their neighbors’ day-camps while holding quiet conversations with others. Performance is loud, messy, distracting, and takes up a lot of space. It requires the tolerance, if not the enthusiasm, of other people. This means that SCA performers do not get enough opportunities to perform. Please think about ways to increase the amount of possible performance time. You can schedule concerts, bardic circles, and exhibitions. You can provide space on-site for spur-of-the-moment entertainment. You can provide music and theater for court and other ceremonies. You can ask whether anyone has a recorder with them before you get out your iPod for dance classes. SCA performance will not improve without an increase in the number of opportunities for SCA performers to perform.
  2. If possible, avoid scheduling performances at the same time as other events that have a huge draw. While we want performances to be optional for audiences, we don’t want to discourage audiences from coming, either. This means don’t schedule the bardic circle at the same time as the ball. It takes attention away from both events, which isn’t fair and causes hurt feelings.
  3. Don’t schedule performances at times and places where the audience is likely to be uninterested in the performance. One venue that I consistently hear complaints about is feast. People typically come to feast to talk with the people around them, not to be continually interrupted by entertainers. When you do schedule performances during feast (or a similar activity), have a handful of performances in a row rather than a performer… a two-minute break… a performer… a two-minute break… a performer… You can see how quickly that gets annoying for people who are trying to have a conversation. Also, use only your very best performers, whom you know are very entertaining and whom you know will be able to be heard and seen throughout the hall. Any time and place where the audience is held captive is not an appropriate venue for beginners to get their feet wet. A hostile audience does not lead to a positive experience for the performer.
  4. Advertise performances! As I mentioned above, this helps people who are interested know when to come. It also helps people who are uninterested know when to avoid the venue. It’s not fair to trap people in long performances they didn’t agree to experience.
  5. Be aware that performances often have unique needs, such as roped-off stages, quietness, controlled climates, changing rooms, soundproof warm-up space, prop storage, etc. Performers may ask for access to electrical outlets, drinking water, or garbage cans. Recording equipment may take up space in the aisle. As much as possible, please be patient and tolerant and accommodate these needs.
  6. If inspired to do so, host an event that focuses on improving the craft of performance. Events like St. Cecilia and Bardic Madness do something amazing for the individual performer as well as for the community of performers. They provide feedback, encouragement, and networking. If your group hosts an event like this, enthusiastically support it!

Because we have to some extent already begun to do some of the things I have mentioned, SCA performances (like everything else in the SCA) are constantly improving and developing. I’ve witnessed some very cool and entertaining performances recently. I’ve also witnessed some that didn’t quite succeed but were done with genuine respect for the material and love of the craft–and I enjoyed those, too.

I want to see others try and fail and try again. I want others to perform, and I want others to enjoy performances, not just for my own sake, but for the sake of my art. Because I will never be able to perform everything myself–but oh how I want everything to be performed!

To see some of Kasha’s work check out her band, Psallite

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Temperament

An audio example of what temperament can do to sound.

Tune in Csharp major in Equal Temperament

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Tune in Csharp major in 6th Comma Mean Tone centered around F.

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