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Grand Day of Tournaments 2014

This post was written around November 23rd, 2014. I just haven’t gotten around to rereading it and posting. Enjoy!

We're going to be Laurels!

We’re going to be Laurels!

So apparently I’m going to be a Laurel…

I guess the place to start is with Closing of the Range. We weren’t intending to go, but were summoned to court, so we made an appearance. It was a chance to try out the garb we have for Martin and also to see if I fit into my old garb and/or can nurse in it. Martin’s garb was fine. Maybe a bit big at the time, but now it’s just about the right size. My garb fit…. sort of. I tried my front lacing cotehardie, and I could get it to tie completely, but it fits only somewhat better than it did when I wore it to Step Spritely last year and was around 3 months pregnant. The main problem, unsurprisingly, is the bust area. Nursing was problematic because the cote is not quite low-cut enough, and lacing is giant pain. Martin didn’t like the clothes either. *Sigh* So basically I need to add a giant slit down the center of my semi-fitted tunics or make new garb.

I opted to make some new garb. I’d been intending to make a couple of viking outfits before Martin was born, but I didn’t get around to it. Now I felt motivated. Of course then I found that my sewing machine, which I had fixed up a few months ago was making knocking sounds and not zig-zagging properly. In fact it hadn’t been zig-zagging well for a while. But I borrowed Arin’s machine, and blasted through making me some viking. I even made some cardwoven trim. The first trim I’ve ever made and then used. It was a threaded in pattern, but still. I listened to the WWI podcast I referenced in the last post while working on it. With a day or two to spare I had OK nursing garb for Grand Day of Tournaments. Yay!

Not yay was that I caught a cold around Wednesday before GDOT. On Saturday I was pretty stuffy but otherwise alright. Given that Robyyan and Fern were coming and Kasha and Ermenrich were being invested there was no way the symtoms I had would keep me from going.

Speaking of Kasha and Ermenrich’s investiture, getting the music to work was far more challenging than anticipated. I think we were up to plan F by the end. Emma and Holly were both sick so couldn’t make it. Before Emma got sick the plan was to play Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus on strings. Emma was going to play the tenor part on gamba and I was going to play the alto. When she got sick the plan was to have Robyyan play the alto on bass recorder and for me to move to the tenor on gamba. I was sad because I’d been practicing the alto part for weeks and I’m not so confident on gamba yet, but I worked on it and was more or less ready by Saturday. Then it turned out that Robyyan had a tenor cornemuse that could play the tenor part at pitch. Yay! Of course now that I’d worked on the tenor part I was a bit rusty on the alto.

The performance went… not so smoothly. Aaron bumped me with his bow which I thought meant we needed to stop. So I stopped and then everyone else stopped. Also we were not together when we stopped anyway. Eventually we restarted, and this time we stayed together until the end. The timing of our ending ended up being about right for the procession.

Kasha and Ermenrich’s investiture was beautiful. They are going to do such a good job as Baron and Baronness. 😀

Then Robyyan got called into court. Of course Aaron and I looked at each other because that’s a bit suspicious. My first thought was that it might be time for one of us get put on vigil. But then I thought maybe he’s getting a Sapphire or something. Although that would be a bit weird to award him in Cynnabar. Then when he begged a boon, I was thinking that I didn’t think he had any other apprentices or protogées. And then Aaron was called into court.

Watching as Aaron was put on vigil

Watching as Aaron was put on vigil

After court people asked me what I was thinking at the point. If I suspected that there’d be further business. Obviously I was very happy for Aaron. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was hoping I’d get called up too. I mean, it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve gotten awards at the same time.

I also thought about how things would change. Would I do anything different? My answer was no. I’d keep to the path I was on. I’d probably get the cookie eventually.

Then Robyyan said he had more business, and at that point I was pretty sure I knew what was next. 😀

After that I was sort of in a daze for the rest of the event. I was really surprised at how long it took to sink in. In fact I think only now it’s starting to feel real.

Needless to say, I was not expecting that to happen at GDOT. I thought we had another couple of years left at least, due to Martin if nothing else. I still had research I was planning to do. I think the fact that I wasn’t expecting it to happen for a while is the cause of it not sinking in. Most other important life events, I’ve either been in control of when they happened or have had plenty of advance warning. With this, one never knows. And one isn’t supposed to seriously plan until one is put on vigil. At least that’s how I’ve felt about it.

Impromptu Dance Band

Impromptu Dance Band

The rest of GDOT went well. Aaron and I got to play some 15th century music with Robyyan, which was oh so nice. Martin got to hear plenty of hurdy gurdy. He’s a pretty lucky baby. Martin enjoyed the event. He loves novelty, and the event provided lots. My garb worked pretty well for nursing. One highlight was seeing Alina and Magda and Gwommy dancing, and wondering who was playing recorder for them only to find that it was my piano student, Cassandra. 😀 Aaron and I didn’t take a Pennsic Pile because we weren’t anticipating having to play any dance music. Oh well. We didn’t have trouble playing from memory.

After GDOT, and after stopping at home to drop off instruments and change, Aaron, Martin, Robyyan, Fern, and I went out to Zingerman’s to celebrate. Tasty! I can’t remember the last time I had a sandwich there.

Over the last week I’ve been frantically trying to do research on Polish 15th and 16th century clothing, because I’d wanted to wear Polish garb for my elevation. Between the Internet and Aaron’s access to the UM library I’ve found enough information to make something approximating Polish clothes, but…. I really need more time to do a good job and from what I can tell the more distinctly Polish clothing has a headdress that would totally covers my ears (which I dislike as a musician) and is associated with old married women. Perhaps I’m old by 16th century standards, but I’d rather wait a little while before wearing that garb. 😛

So instead, I’ve decided to go with 15th century Burgundian. It will be semi-heraldic, which is to say red and white but no ermine and no clarions. And I’ll have a cool hat. That’s the plan anyway. Also there’s an image of a Polish shoemaker’s wife from the 16th century that’s essentially Burgundian, but with a different hat and some holes in the sleeves to let the chemise show through. So I won’t be wearing entirely not Polish clothes…

Aaron and I are having our ceremony together, but we’re having separate vigils. Also we’re planning to have two vigils: one at Pentamere 12th night so local people can come talk to us and one at Tree Girt Sea 12th night where we’re being elevated. Beyond that there will almost certainly be lots of music and dancing at both events. In particular I’m hoping we can make the music playing especially good at Tree Girt Sea for all of the out of town musicians coming to celebrate with us. 😀

Needless to say, I am thrilled and honoured and looking forward to the future. Whee!


How to be a Better Dance Musician

Blurry Photographic Evidence

It’s an Open Band!

I’ve been playing dance music in the SCA for over 7 years now. I’ve led some pits, been second in command of the pit many many time. I’ve been the lone musician playing dance music. I’m in a small dance band. I’ve played for Modern ECD and Contra dances.

In short, I know a thing or two about being a dance musician.

If you’re just beginning playing dance music, this is my advice to you on how to get to be a great, reliable dance musician. The kind of musician that dance masters gravitate toward, and the kind of musician that makes pit leaders happy. The kind of musician that gets asked to lead pits.

Bring your Instruments to Dance Practice

If your local group has a dance practice, you should make every effort to go and play for it.

Dance practice is the best place to learn to play dance music. The Best. Hands Down. Why?

  1. There are more dance practices than there are events with dancing. The more often you play for dancers, the better a musician you will be.
  2. Dance practice is an appropriate place to learn unfamiliar music. At an event you will likely only play the dance once, and you’ll want to play it well. The event is not the place to sight-read new dance music. It’s the time to perform dance music.
  3. You will probably be allowed to play through the piece at practice while the dancers are running through the dance. At an event, that’s gauche.
  4. The dancers will be more patient with you at dance practice than at an event. As long as you’re playing something danceable, the dancers will probably not be overly upset at practice if you accidentally forget a repeat. Truthfully they’ll probably be OK if you forget a repeat at a ball too, but it’s far more OK at a practice. The purpose of dance practice is to get better at dancing. This involves making mistakes. Dancers will realize the same is true for the musicians. (That said, do your best.)
  5. There will almost certainly be fewer musicians at a dance practice than at a ball, meaning the dancers will depend on you. This is a good thing. It’s very motivating. It will make you a better dance musician. In a large open band you don’t have that same motivation because there are a lot of people covering your part.

So, if your group has a regular dance practice, make every effort to go. And when you go, always play at dance tempo. I hear way too much whining about how dance music is too fast. Deal.

If you’re not quite up to playing at dance tempo, and you’re the only musician at practice, play along to the recording the dance master brought. There’s a good chance the recording is in the same key as your sheet music. Play as many notes of the piece as you can. If you keep playing you’ll eventually get better. If there are other musicians at practice, muddle along with them. Get as many notes as you can. Eventually you’ll get it.

If you’re frustrated at not being able to play all of the notes, use that frustration to motivate yourself to practice at home.

Learn to Dance

While you’re at practice, take the time to learn some of the dances.

By dancing the dances you develop an intuition about tempo. Roadmaps become easier to remember. You learn about regional variations. You’ll learn how to make dance music fun to dance to. You’ll get to know the people in the dance community.

Not to mention that there may be times when a private band is playing for all or part of a dance. If you know the dances you can still do something at the ball.

Pick a ball with an open pit. Work on the music for that ball.

When I’d been playing recorder for only a few months, I moved to the Barony of Bryn Gwlad in Austin, TX for a co-op tour at AMD. In late winter the Barony celebrated Candlemas, and there was a ball in the evening. I think there were maybe 10 dances in that ball. I worked to be able to play every one of the dances. Looking back, I believe that ball, more than anything else, jump-started my dance musician skills.

I was lucky in that the other dance musicians were not so far ahead of me that they were bored of playing through dance music at rehearsal. The fact that we were all struggling together helped a lot. But I think just the fact that I had an achievable goal was really helpful. I learned all of those pieces, and learned them well enough that when I encountered them back home I was solid.

So, pick a ball. Plan to be able to play 10 or so pieces well. By well, I mean you learn the melody well enough that if no other musicians showed up you could play those dances for the dancers.

If there are more than 10 pieces in the ball, either sight read or dance the rest.

If you want advice on which dances to include in your list of dances to learn, ask your dance master which dances are the most popular. Any dance master worth their salt will be able to give you a good answer.

Live in the Dance Tent for at Least one War

If you really want to get good at playing dance music, spend a war just playing dance music. Live in the dance tent. Play for classes. Play at every ball you can. Stay up late and play for the dance geeks. If the evening balls have private bands, go dance and listen to the band. Get to know the dancers. Get to know the other musicians.

I go to Pennsic. For the first few Pennsics I attended, I spent a lot of time in dance tent. I played for classes. I played in the pits. I stayed up late in the hopes of getting to play with musicians who knew what they were doing. All of this helped me to be a better dance musician.

If you have other interests, but would really like to improve at dance music, sacrifice one war to focus on dance music. Seriously. If you’re spend a fair amount of your war on non-dance music stuff, you’re missing a valuable, fun opportunity to up your game.

And honestly, if you want to get very good, skip the large open band parts. Play for the classes. Nap during the beginning of the balls, and show up to the dance tent late. The times when the pit is tiny is where the real action is.

Listen to Dance Recordings

Here are some bands you should be familiar with:

Why listen to recordings? You’ll get an ear for what good dance music sounds like. You’ll get embellishment ideas. You’ll learn how to make a dance like Picking of Sticks sound fresh with each repeat.

Simplify, Embellish, Improvise

If you spend a lot of time playing dance music, you’ll soon find there are a number of tunes you have memorized. Or at least there are few tunes you now find boring, but are still asked to play. What do you do?

The answer is start playing with them. How many notes can you remove and still have a recognizable melody? Where can you add extra notes? If you’ve been listening to any of the dance albums listed above, you’ll have some ideas on appropriate extra notes to add and take away. (Mostly add.)

The place to experiment is at dance practice. The dancers at a practice just need music that’s danceable. A sour note here or there won’t ruin the dance. Eventually you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t.

For more ideas on appropriate embellishments, read through some Ortiz.

That’s it. Play for dancers as often as you can. Focus on opportunities where the dancers depend on you. The end.


What I’ve Been Up To

Here’s a bit of an update on my life as an early music enthusiast.

Another Pennsic came and went. I gave a class on the madrigal, Since Robin Hood, by Thomas Weelkes. Aaron gave a class on Renaissance Instruments. We went to lots of dance classes and played music for the ball. Here’s a video of us dancing Chelsey Reach, a Playford English Country Dance. Aaron and I are the couple in Red on the right side of the square.

Last school year I was in the University of Michigan’s School of Music Early Music Chorus. Our director, Edward Parmentier, is very good, and even though I’m graduated now (Yay!), I hope I’ll be able to perform in it again next year.

I’m also in a quintet that sings primarily late 16th century early 17th century music.

I’m still directing Cyngabar on Thursdays. I’m no longer sure what direction the group should go in. Over the next few weeks we’re going to be talking about what our purpose as a group is, and hopefully then I’ll get some idea of what to do.

In the renaissance band, I’ve picked up playing the harpsichord, meaning, I mostly play a rhythm part. I’ve also been steadily improving on the recorder.

Aaron and I have started recording dance tunes. We’ve been getting asked to do so for months now, and we’re finally getting around to it. I’m looking forward to posting some of the pieces on here in the near future.

Oh and speaking of dance tunes, Aaron choreographed a bransle called the “Procrastinator’s Bransle” for an event called the Procrastinator’s Brawl and Ball.

Our band is playing the music. Aaron’s the mandolin (or cittern, I can’t tell which) and I’m playing the soprano recorder.

So yes, in spite of my like of updating this blog I’ve been quite busy with early music endeavors. I do intend to update a little more frequently now, though. Life may be hectic, but this is a worthwhile project.


Yes, Your Group Needs a Mission

Are your group meetings feeling stagnant? Are you playing the same music, dancing the same dances, or singing the same songs? Do you feel that going to practice is feeling more and more like a chore? Is attendance fairly low (or dropping!)? Are you feeling bored? If you answered yes to any of these questions, it may be time to clarify the mission of your group.

“A Mission? For an amateur group?” you ask. Yes, even the low-key amateur group you’re happy with could probably do with a mission statement stating that being casual is indeed its mission. Why? Because often times members of the group–both newcomers and long-time members–have expectations of the group that may not match what the group is actually doing or is planning to do. They have false hopes that things will change or are frustrated about the fact that things should be different. I think it’s better to let them know how it is and how it will be, so that they can start their own group if they’re not happy. When your group’s effective mission and stated mission are congruent, much of the unseen emotional tension in the group will ease.

But that’s just when you’re happy with the group. When you’re unhappy with where your group is, figuring out what your effective mission is can help alleviate the feeling. Once the mission’s on paper you can see what it is you’re unhappy with, reshape it to something that excites you, and figure out ways to make it happen.

A Group In Transition

When I took over Cyngabar (formerly the Cynnabar Collegium Musicum), I only had a vague idea of where I wanted the group to go. I wanted to improve the quality of the group’s singing, to improve the singers’ sight-singing abilities, and to polish our older songs, but I didn’t really put it into words thus the execution ended up being mediocre at best. By not articulating what I wanted I couldn’t really get help since I was the only one who (somewhat) knew what I wanted. After three or four months it was clear that we as a group needed to decide on a mission for Cyngabar and find ways to execute that mission.

We spent the bulk of one rehearsal in February discussing what to do going forward, and since then the improvement has been quite dramatic. The mission we decided on was that Cyngabar should primarily be about education within the group. That is, singers in the group should come away from rehearsal feeling like their singing has improved and they have a better understanding of the music we’re singing. Secondary to in-group education is performance, which should be concentrated within the SCA. To execute the mission we did things like move to a quarter system, record pronunciations, and I spent some time working on my confidence skills since I was holding us back.

It’s been about 9 months since that discussion, and the group’s improved quite a bit. We’re learning new, difficult music faster and with a lot less strain than before. Also we’re either getting more flexible or I’m getting better at explaining what I want the group to do.. or both. I’ve also been studying Renaissance Music so that I can better apply the history to our performances. If we didn’t have that discussion back in February, I don’t think Cyngabar would have improved as much as it has. Having a mission that we actually follow has really made a lot of difference.


I mentioned this earlier, and I’ll say it again: when your group’s effective mission and stated mission are congruent, much of the unseen emotional tension in the group will ease. People know what to expect and it’s refreshing to not have to figure out how the group actually works vs. how people say it works. Moreover when it comes to brainstorming ideas there’s no confusion over what should be suggested. If this idea’s a little fuzzy, here’s an example to clarify:

Let’s say the official mission of Cyngabar was education, but in reality we didn’t show any care about the history of the songs we sing. If I were to ask the group for suggestions for how to improve the performance of a piece, there’d be some tension and confusion. Should we apply the same rules as we would to a modern song (effective mission)? Should we do some research on performance practices and make a decision based on that (official mission)? Inevitably there’d be at least one person who makes a suggestion with the official mission in mind and another with the effective mission in mind. Since I never specified which side I was looking for, suggestions from both sides are appropriate even if they’re incompatible with each other.

I’ve witnessed this sort of thing happen in several different groups (Polish Folk Dancing, Swing Dancing, Early Music, Engineering) and it tends to get ugly… especially in amateur groups. At least in the workplace people will try to be civil because they don’t want to get fired, don’t want to be labeled as “doesn’t play well with others”, see that working together is more useful than being right, or some combination of the three. In amateur groups there isn’t a built-in fear-based incentive to be civil, so a lot of times people won’t be. So why not nip it in the bud and make it clear that the official mission is the actual mission? As long as your group actually lives out its mission, no one will question your statement.

How to Make Sure Your Effective and Official Mission are Congruent

A good way to find out what your effective mission is, is to ask people in the group what they think the mission is. The more conscious the person the better, because an unconscious person may state the official mission not realizing that there are always two missions (effective and official). It’s similar to a mother who tells her teenager to follow the speed-limit but habitually exceeds it herself. When the teenager confronts her about it, she gets confused and defensive. The official rule is to follow the speed-limit, but the effective rule is to drive however you’d like. The teenager gets this, the mom doesn’t. If the person seems contented in spite of being unconscious I wouldn’t worry about trying to awaken them, though. As long as he/she isn’t causing trouble there’s nothing to be done, really.

What if you don’t want to ask everyone they’re opinion? A more targeted approach is to only ask someone who seems unhappy with the group. If he/she states the official mission you can ask how the group can improve or what it’s doing wrong. If he/she states a different mission try to determine if that’s the effective mission. Ask for examples. Then come up with ideas for how to get the group back on track.

Missions are important. They give groups focus and help them grow in the direction they want to grow. By divining a mission that everyone’s happy with and by living it out, you’ll find that life in your group (whatever that group is) will keep getting better and better. ^_^


Weekly Vocalize #14 Generic but Versatile in Minor

Today’s Vocalize is the same as last week’s, but in the minor mode. Always a good idea to have choir sing in minor. ^_^

Here you go:


See the Vocalize 13 and Vocalize 11 for variation ideas. Enjoy!


Weekly Vocalize #13 Generic but Versatile

This week’s vocalize is just like the title says, “generic but versatile”. It’s a combination of descending scales and arpeggios in the major mode. Very simple, but you can work on quite a few things with it. Check it out:


Here are just a few things you can do with this vocalize:

  • Sing it fast with different consonants to work on annunciation
  • Sing it slow to work on breath control
  • Alter the rhythm to make it more complex
  • Sing it using lip trills
  • Add some Accents, Crescendos, and Decrescendos

I’m sure you can think of several more things to add to this list. Usual application rules apply. Enjoy!

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Getting Started on Ballad Research

Consider this a “whet your appetite” type of article on ballads. At some point later when I’ve done more research I’ll write a series describing what makes a song a ballad, and the wonders that they are. For now here’s a bit of what I’ve found so far:

Greg Lindahl’s site on 16th century ballads, is an excellent place to get started. There’s a lot of information there on both the history of ballads and on where to find them and what’s within SCA period. I especially enjoyed the reprint of the article from the Complete Anachronist. It gave me a lot to think about.

If you like making your own transcriptions or want to see what year the English songs you’ve been singing date back to, Early English Books Online is a great place to check. Many university libraries have contracts with EEBO, so if you have an account with your local college library there’s a good chance you’ll have access. I’ve been accessing it through my University of Michigan account. If you’ve seen the choral transcriptions I’ve posted, for several of the songs a facsimile can be found on EEBO. (Now I’m just waiting for the equivalent for other countries/languages.) I know of at least one book of ballads in there.

The Child Ballads are of course another excellent source for ballads. However, they only include lyrics (no melody line, and no chords), so it’ll require a bit of work on your part to find a tune to go with them. Also many of them are from the 18th or 19th century, which is usually too late for Early Music groups.

Another collection of fun ballads dating to 1682 is D’Urfey’s Pills to Purge Melancholy. It’s a bit on the late side, and hard to find outside of EEBO, but if you do have EEBO access they’re certainly worth considering. To get a taste, listen to a Hesperus’s My Thing is My Own.

So there’s some info to get you started. For performance ideas, check out the article I wrote earlier on performing solo singing music with instruments. Like I said earlier, after I’ve done some more research I’ll post a more in depth series on ballads. ‘Til then, enjoy!


Why I think SCA Singing Groups Should Perform Ballads

Here are three reasons why I believe SCA singing groups should include ballads and other solo music.


The main reason I think it’s a good idea for singing groups to include period ballads in their performances is that it enables the group to be more flexible at events. Sometimes there will only be one or two of you in at fighter practice or a dance event, and trying to sing a four part madrigal with two people is…. tricky. Having some ballads and other solo material in your repertoire enables you to better utilize the musicians that are available. Not to mention that you’ll be more able to include people who don’t normally sing in your group. Yay community singing!


If you only sing period part music you’re pretty much limited to the three “M”s: Madrigals, Masses, and Motets. Granted there a lot of Madrigals, Masses, and Motets so it wouldn’t be at all difficult to keep a group busy by focusing on them, but at the same time you’re not including a lot of other beautiful music. Moreover music from the three “M”s is really art music while ballads are popular music. By including ballads, you’re tapping into an entirely different musical sphere, and I think that’s pretty cool.

Showcase Talent

Sometimes you want to show off the individual talent of your singers, and part music really isn’t the best way. Solo music gives your soloist a lot more musical flexibility and a lot more attention than he/she will get with a madrigal where there are several people to pay attention to. So if there’s talent in your group, why not have a few of your singers learn a ballad or two?

Starting in September, Cyngabar (The new name for the singing group of the Cynnabar Collegium Musicum) is going to add some ballads and other solo music into its repertoire. Over the next few months I’ll report on what works and what doesn’t.

In Friday’s post I’ll show you were to find pre-1600 ballads (and some good slightly post 1600 ones too), where to find information on ballads, and some ideas on how to perform them.

Yay singing! ^_^


Weekly Vocalize #12 Dorian Mode

The following vocalize is in the Dorian Mode, meaning it’s in D minor without the B flat. For more info check out the Wikipedia article on Dorian. Dorian is a popular key for Medieval and Renaissance music, so it’s a good idea to get familiar with it.


This is an exercise worth getting into your fingers before presenting it to your choir. Chances are your singers will have a little trouble hearing where to sing at first so they’ll be following you on the piano.

In addition to this being an exercise in Dorian, you can also slow down the tempo and make it a sostenuto or breath control exercise. See this previous post for another sostenuto exercise.

Try to think of some variations for this exercise. Enjoy!


Combining Instruments and Voices in Ballads, Madrigals, Medieval Music, and Rounds

At Pennsic last week, Aaron attended a class on performing medieval music. I didn’t go because I was learning how to use my new inkle loom, but I did get to look at the handout afterward, and Aaron told me what was discussed during the class. The point I’m going to discuss here is combining instrumental music with vocal music. On the whole, most SCA music groups don’t mix instruments with non-ballad vocals. Madrigals are sung strictly a capella, and medieval music doesn’t tend to get sung or played at all. Cynnabar is no exception, and I’d like to see that changed.

Aaron, me, and some other people in our camp did some brainstorming on ways to incorporate instruments into Medieval and Renaissance vocals, and here’s what we came up with. Maybe you can use these ideas in your group(s) as well.

Ballads Sung with Accompaniment

Yes, I know this is done fairly well in the SCA, but it’s worth mentioning anyway since from what I’ve seen it tends to be more of an individual endeavor rather than something a singing group would do. I mean, why would a singing group want to do solo ballads when there are plenty of madrigals out there?

The answer to that question is another post by itself, so lets just say your group would be interested in learning ballads. First, I’d suggest having each member of your choir learn enough verses of the ballad so they can sing a complete song. You could make it easier and assign one or two verses per person, but then if that person is around a campfire by him/herself, they’ll have a really short song to sing. If it’s a song with a story (example: The Twa Sisters), make sure everyone knows enough verses to tell the story. If it’s a ballad with infinitely many verses, than pick enough so that each person can be able to sing a satisfying song on his/her own. Three or four is probably about right.

For your instrumentalists, have the guitarists, mandolinists, and other chord players learn the chords for the ballads, and then have them practice accompanying the soloists. You can also make an arrangement for the non chord instruments that doubles as multi-part choir music. Again have the people playing the non-melody parts practice accompanying the solisits.

For performance you then have a wide variety of options:

  • Soloist a capella
  • Choir a capella
  • Soloist with chord instruments
  • Soloist with non-chord instruments
  • Choir with chord instruments
  • Choir with non-chord instruments (Probably not as satisfying as some of the other options)
  • Choir with bass line played on bass instrument
  • All instruments together
  • Solo-instrument accompanied by chord instruments
  • Solo-instrument accompanied by singers (Could be weird)

And that’s with just dividing instruments into chordal and non-chordal. You can get even more by dividing instruments by pitch (lower instruments versus higher instruments), by type (winds versus strings versus percussion), and by family (recorders versus viols versus guitars). It all depends on your mix.

Cantigas and Carmina Burana

The Cantigas de Santa Maria and the Carmina Burana songs are similar to ballads in that they have a melody line and lots of verses. The main difference is the harmonic structure. Chords as we know them either don’t make much sense or are inappropriate for medieval music. At least that’s the impression I’ve gotten from the classes I’ve taken. This makes performance a little bit different than ballads.

For the vocalists, again have them learn several verses and practice the pronunciation. Nothing’s in English, so pronunciation will take a bit of work. If you can, record the lyrics ahead of time. That should make things simpler.

Instrumentalists and vocalists can take turns soloing, and instrumentalists have the option of playing the written music or making up their own solo. Vocalists have the improvization option too, but I imagine that singing the verses straight is quite a bit an accomplishment as it is. ^_~

While instrumentalists are accopanying have them make use of the drone, specifically have them drone in rhythm. Not only is droning in rhythm much less boring than just holding one note a long time, it also reinforces the pulse of the song. It’s both true to the music and sounds really awesome.

With so many different instruments soloing with different volume levels, you’ll need to practice shifting accompaniment styles to accommodate different instruments. For instance, you might have only percussion accompany some solos, only lower pitched instruments accompany others, etc. Of course you don’t have change accompaniment style just because of volume level. If you have 5 soprano recorder players each taking a solo you might change the accompaniment to add some variety. There’s a lot work on.

The trick with making songs with many identical verses interesting is variety. It keeps the listener from zoning out and keeps the instrumentalists from going insane because of the monotony. Repetition doesn’t have to mean the same thing as boredom.


Many madrigals were also written for solo and lute, and these are best suited for collaboration between instrumentalists and vocalists. Every Dowland madrigal I’ve sung, I can easily imagine having instrumental accompaniement or having an instrumental verse or having a solo and lute verse. As a rule, I’d say that mostly monophonic madrigals are best suited for this. That is, songs where there’s a clear melody while the rest of the voice parts have supporting roles. Most Dowland songs fit this description, as well as Ravenscroft and some Thomas Ford. Not to mention many non-English composers.

I know of at least some oratorios that were rescored as Madrigals, and those could make for some very interesting vocal/instrumental combinations. The one I’m thinking of at the moment is “Lasciatami Morire” by Monteverdi. You could have a basso continuo playing for a soloist and then break into the Madrigal version with or without the basso continuo playing. Then you could have an all instrument arrangement, where either the instruments play the madrigal or one instrument does the solo and others accompany. Awesomeness!

Now there are some madrigals like “Il est Bel et Bon” or “Fair Phylis“, which may be a bit more difficult to effectively incorporate instruments and voices together. There’s no clear melody, and the words are just as important as the notes. A thought for these songs would be replace voices with instruments or double the voices with instruments and see what happens. Another option is discussed next.

Transition to Different Songs

Some songs sound great together as a medly. On the album “Johnny Cock Thy Beaver” by the Dufay Collective tracks 14 and 15 are a medly of “Jamaica” and “Godesses”, both Playford tunes. First there’s a vocal version of Jamaica and then it jumps into an instrumental version Godesses and back to Jamaica, but this time an instrumental version.

This performance technique would be good for any of the types of songs listed above including those madrigals that are hard to voice on instruments.


The last type of song I’m going to talk about is the round. The easiest way I can think of to combine instruments and voices is to have the voices start singing the round and then start replacing the voices with different instruments. You can go back and forth with different voice/instrument mixes to make for a very interesting performances and make the rounds sound less… incessant.

Hopefully this post has given you some ideas on how to combine instruments and vocals in performance. Often you’ll find that many of your vocalists are also musicians, so combining vocals and instruments may encourage some of your singers to bring their instruments to rehearsal. Similarly you may find some shy musicians more willing to give singing a try since they’re at rehearsal anyway. So not only does combining instrumentals with vocals make for more interesting performances it may increase the number of participants as well. Always a good thing.

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