Saturday, August 27, 2016

Recreating Medieval Music

My husband and I love Renaissance faires, and we've also become involved in Viking reenactment as well. As a musician, I'm fascinated by early music, from Gregorian chant to the music of the troubadours. While at a Viking and Renaissance Festival in Oklahoma last year, I was happy to meet a man from Instruments of Antiquity, who let me play his sample rebec. Since then, I've been seriously considering ordering a Medieval instrument, which are much more affordable than I would have thought.

As a violin and viola player, I find the history of musical instruments fascinating. It's so easy to assume that they've been around forever, but in fact many modern instruments were invented in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and a few were created in the early twentieth century (Sousaphone, anyone?). Yet, the history of string instruments stretches back in time, to ancient Greece if not earlier. Though much of the music of history has been lost, some of it can be recreated by musicians eager to research and experiment with the performances practices of the time.

Listening to the  music of instruments like rebecs, vielles, and viols is like listening to voices from the past. Each one gives us a sense of the soundscapes and tonal colors that would have been familiar to the people of the Middle ages, or even earlier. What's more, for modern musicians learning these instruments (or at least researching them) can inform our understanding of composers like J.S. Bach, who wrote music for the viola da gamba. Indeed, many music historians speculate that Bach's 6th Cello Suite may have originally been intended for a violincello piccolo (which Anner Bylsma used for his 2nd recording of this suite), a five-stringed instrument slightly smaller than a modern cello. Even if a modern musician isn't interested in buying or playing an instrument like a viol, understanding what one sounded like can give us a better understanding of the ways that music has developed over the centuries.

Yet for all that, I think one of the things that draws me to ancient musical instruments is the same thing that draws me to classical music in general--they are beautiful, rich parts of our cultural heritage. The rebec, for example, is a bowed string instrument that dates to as early as the 9th century in Europe, and may have originally come from the Arabic rebab, or spiked fiddle. It's a lovely instrument, with a softer sound than a modern violin, and playing it gave me a small taste of what life would have been like as a Medieval musician.  

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Being a Teacher and a Parent


I recently started teaching my daughter violin lessons. She is now three years old, and my mother got her a violin for her birthday. While I have taught music to children her age before (I some Suzuki teacher training on violin), this is the first time that I've been a parent. It's been a fun and rewarding journey so far, and I'm looking forward to seeing how my sweet baby progresses. However, being a parent, not just a teacher, has definitely given me a fresh perspective on learning music at a young age.

Daily Practice Is Tough

Like all teachers, I've encouraged my students to practice every day, if possible. After all, regular practice is necessary to develop any skill. For young children, I've helped parents learn how to practice with their children, since kids under six or so are really too young to practice independently. But, like many teachers I know, I hear "we didn't have time to practice this week" over and over again. As a parent with a child who's learning music, I'm more sympathetic than I used to be. Establishing a practice routine is tough. My daughter likes her violin, but she also wants to color, play with play-doh, and watch endless amounts of "My Little Pony." When I first started working with her, it took plenty of chocolate to get her to practice! 

A Routine Helps!

While at first I relied on chocolate to convince my daughter to practice, as we developed a routine and she felt more comfortable with her instrument, she's seemed more excited and interested (we're down to only needing about three M&M's per practice:). Now, violin has become a regular and predictable part of her day. It helps that daily practice also makes her sound better! It's important for any parent to remember that starting a new activity always takes a little bit of time--everything feels new and confusing, it can be a bit overwhelming. But with slow, steady effort and a little bit of fun and encouragement (chocolate!), it gets much easier very quickly.

Embrace Short Attention Spans

Too many parents bemoan their children's short attention spans, without realizing that it's developmentally normal and appropriate for young children to have them! So instead of fighting a child's natural development, go with it. I keep practice sessions short (fifteen minutes or less), and focus on doing a wide variety of different activities to keep my daughter from getting bored with doing one thing over and over. Often, this amounts to switching between bowing exercises and left-hand exercises, with a little bit of singing and listening practice thrown in. If my daughter gets tired or distracted, we're done. It's less important to have long practice sessions (especially at young ages, when children get tired and bored easily), than it is to have regular practice sessions. 

Overall, I've loved sharing music with my little girl, and I hope that it will become something special that we can do together. There's lot of evidence that musical training helps children's brain development, but when it's done correctly, I think it can be a beautiful, enjoyable family activity as well.