A summer in the joint(s)

I spent the summers following my first two years of university playing concerts in various community settings across southwestern Ontario, with an ensemble called Different Drummers (why does that name sound so lame now?). The group operated under the auspices of the Opportunities for Youth program, a student summer employment initiative of the provincial government.

We were a motley bunch of musicians, drawn from various points on a wide-ranging web, and our core instrumentation was violin, viola, cello, guitar, flute/recorder and piano. Our eclectic programming was an attempt to realize the noble but impossible goal of playing ‘something for everyone.’ We varied our shows but a typical one might include some Bach keyboard music, a movement of a Mozart string trio, a Scott Joplin rag, some Farnaby and Byrd, Monti’s Czardas, a couple of folk or folk-pop songs, and something from the contemporary ‘art music’ world. We did a lot of arranging to suit pieces for our instrumentation, occasionally with hilarious results. (Yes, the audiences thought so too.) Our extraordinary manager/administrator/chief financial officer/roadie was a guy named Greg Dovlet, and our home base between run-outs was a mid-city junior school not in summer use.


For young musicians training in a typical classical music school, the concepts of what audiences are like and how a performer should behave can be very skewed. You expect everyone to sit quietly and politely, for example, and/or you expect that a concert will be played in the order printed in the program; but neither of these expectations carry much weight in the worlds of Other Music Lovers. If you have the opportunity to play shows for audiences very different from the ones that frequent concert halls, you’re given a tremendous chance to remedy that skewing and to learn how to play for the rest of the world. That’s the opportunity we had for those summers, and it was a huge gift.

During the first summer we played at kids’ summer camps, hospitals, hospices, long-term care facilities, mental health centres, senior citizens’ residences and community centres, and a couple of jails. Based on those jail experiences, Greg’s proposal for the following year focused our activity on correctional institutions. Though we still performed for a few audiences of seniors or children who were free to leave when the show was over, we spent that second summer playing at detention centres, halfway houses, and minimum- and medium-security prisons around southern Ontario.

Don Jail

We would usually play two shows in one larger venue, or two or three different places in one day. We played at Toronto’s Don Jail several times, in the chapel in the old section of the building, and at various other places, the names of which we’d only heard of in the news. In Penetanguishene’s facility ‘for the criminally insane’ (as it was called at the time), we played for an eerily dulled bunch of people who clapped and smiled but were completely silent – and then later that day we played at the non-correctional psychiatric hospital where we got exactly the opposite response. There the audience got up and danced, sang along, wandered, or came up and had a chat while we were playing (and playing the flute makes it a bit difficult to respond ). The Orange Blossom Special was particularly special that day, as one audience member leaped to her feet and danced in a frenzy of delight that impressed her caregivers, and that most of us ‘sane’ people would never think of showing.

One day we travelled to a medium-sized city where the jail warden was a total jerk, the kind of guy I thought only existed on TV crime dramas. His staff were only slightly less obnoxious, and the atmosphere in the place was palpably angry. I couldn’t imagine being in that place for months on end without learning to hate the world even more than you did when you arrived. We played in the central area of the jail, next to the huge wrought iron staircase and amongst the cells, but the cell doors faced away from us and so the inmates couldn’t see us while we played. This was the only instance all summer where we couldn’t see our audience, which was very disturbing, and not surprisingly there was lots more heckling than usual in that show. Later that day, we drove half an hour southwest and played in the courtyard of a smaller jail where the warden and the staff treated the inmates as they’d like to be treated themselves. The atmosphere there was diametrically opposed to what we’d experienced in the morning. That was a very educational day.

Yes, there was always heckling; but the hecklers were relatively few, and there were also attentive non-hecklers who listened, watched, clapped, asked for more, asked questions, and sometimes even yelled at a heckler to ‘shut the #$@% up!’ From a performer’s standpoint it was a really important learning situation – we just kept playing despite ridicule, insults and sexist remarks being yelled at us. One of my colleagues was a beautiful Rubenesque blonde and therefore a particular target for the latter kind of attention, and I don’t know how she managed. We’d all be targeted at one time or another. As for the music, some inmates thought Mozart sucked, some people hated songs by Gordon Lighfoot, but the big surprise for me was that very few people in the prison population took offense at Byrd or Farnaby. Definitely not what I’d expected.

When friends heard where we were playing that summer, they’d ask, ‘So, what’s it like to play for a captive audience (har har har)?,’ which is what we got asked at pretty much every institution too… But when they asked what jail was like – as if I really knew at all – my answer was usually, “Best to stay out of it.” In some prisons you got the impression that the people doing time were being encouraged to change their life trajectory, to imagine other possibilities for themselves, and treated with dignity despite having made some extremely bad choices in the past. We’d all want this if any of us found ourselves in their situation. In other places the atmosphere was so thick with the psychological grime of the ‘us vs. them’ game, you’d want to take a shower when you left. I remember wondering what the maximum-security places were like, but it’s probably for the best that I never found out. Of course our experiences were minimal and very restricted, and we only understood a tiny part of the complex whole, but the project was one none of us will forget. It was a disturbing, confusing, eye-opening, fascinating and rewarding summer.

There’s been considerable discussion in the Canadian press lately on the treatment of prisoners in our correctional system. One of these items is a commentary in the Globe and Mail by David Clayton-Thomas, best known as the lead singer of Blood, Sweat and Tears. Here’s the link:


I’d like to pay a particular tribute here to the late Greg Dovlet, who died unexpectedly a couple of years ago. Thanks for everything, Greg, and for all that you were.

A little gem of a piece

In concerts of 17th-century German Christmas music with the Toronto Consort last month, I had the chance to revisit a great little instrumental piece by Johann Hermann Schein. It was a four-part Intrada with the original scoring for ‘Zinck, Viglin, Flödt, Basso.’ To translate, that would be cornetto, violin, flute and bass, though the last word refers to the bass part rather than to any specific bass instrument. A curious and wonderful grouping. Speaking of curious, here’s an image of the composer:


Born in 1586, Schein moved to Dresden with his family at the age of seven after the death of his father. He received his musical training in Dresden, Pforta and Leipzig, and worked in Weimar before landing the job of cantor at Leipzig’s Thomasschule in 1615. Schein worked there until his death in 1630, performing the same job to which J.S. Bach would be appointed one hundred and eight years later. Schein’s compositions are almost all vocal works, both sacred and secular; his one collection of instrumental music is the Banchetto Musicale (1617), where this little Intrada can be found (item 21).

It’s a really great little piece. Out on the web there are several performances of it on more homogeneous-sounding string or wind consort, but it’s at its best with the wonderful mix of colours specifically requested by the composer. In December my colleagues were cornetto player Kiri Tollaksen, violinist Christopher Verrette, and Dominic Teresi played the bass line on the dulcian.* Just under three minutes of genuine delight.

You can find the score and parts here:


* a forerunner to the bassoon

Performance Tip #1

Gotta love Quantz. Flute teacher to Frederick the Great, but not too busy to write an enormous tome covering virtually every aspect of musicianship in general, and flute playing in particular. Ever the practical guy, and no detail is too small…

“He [the performing flutist] must hold the flute so that the wind may escape unhindered. He must be careful not to blow at some time into the clothes of those who stand very close upon his right side, since this makes the tone weak and muffled.”

J.J. Quantz: On Playing the Flute. Berlin, 1752. Chapter XVI:10

(English translation by Edward R. Reilly, pub. Faber & Faber 1966/1976/1985/2001)


Arthur the Kunstkopf

I was in my second year of undergrad university when my teacher Hugh Orr asked me if I’d like to participate in a recording session for CBC Radio. The plan was to record music for recorder trio using the Kunstkopf (artificial head) recording technique, which was cutting-edge technology at the time. Also known as ‘dummy head recording,’ and very simplistically described here, the sound is captured with microphones placed in the ears of a plastic head. The result is a surround-sound effect for the listener – you hear the performance as though you were sitting amongst the performers. Headphones are useful for optimum effect, but not mandatory.


John Reeves, the producer in charge, was a groundbreaker in recording technology at the CBC and was the first to bring the Kunstkopf technique from Germany to North America. The other players were Hugh and Susan Prior (now Carduelis), and we recorded the session in the soundproofed basement studio at Hugh’s home. The dummy head – Arthur, I think he was called – was propped on a mic stand and placed right amongst us, like a mute fourth member of a quartet. It was a bit odd, playing for a plastic human head stuck on a pole two feet away, but strange things happen in the recording world…Here’s a shot from a different session, to give you an idea.


John Reeves had been experimenting with various chamber music groupings and it was pretty great that he wanted to include some pre-Baroque fantasias. I think we played John Jenkins and Orlando Gibbons. It’s wonderful music, especially the Gibbons: cerebral but not overly so, and with supple imitative lines. A bit like a pleasant conversation with friends, about something more than the weather (but not politics or religion). I had such a great time playing that session, and it was fun to hear the intriguing results on the radio broadcast sometime later. As is often the case, I wish now that I’d been more aware of the technology and of John Reeves’s work than I was at the time, but it was a real privilege to have had that experience. Thanks to Hugh Orr for this, and so much else.

Starting out

When I was eight I lived in the area of southwest London known as Barnes, and I went to Westfields County Primary School. Westfields was one of those old rectangular buildings with a central assembly hall/gym surrounded by classrooms along the walls, offices at the front end and the student cloakroom at the rear. The loo stalls were outside, so answering the call of nature between late October and April – most of the school year – usually necessitated a chilly trip. (That’s all been knocked down and replaced now, but the old back gate is still there.)


In the autumn of that year my classroom teacher Mr. Green announced that he would be teaching group recorder lessons to anyone who wanted to learn, every Tuesday after school. He gave us a letter outlining the registration routine, lesson schedule, and the cost. Anyone wanting their child to participate was asked to sign the form and send it back, along with four shillings and ten pence or whatever it was – 2s.6p. for the recorder and the remainder for the book.

When I went back to school the next day with the signed form and money in hand, I was happy about it but I thought I was doing it at my mum’s insistence rather than mine. Years later I heard her version of the story, which was that I’d announced the offer of lessons, asked ‘What’s a recorder?’ and that when I understood it was the flute thing my Uncle Bill played, I got very excited and wanted to be signed up right away.

I don’t recall the part about Uncle Bill at all, but it doesn’t surprise me that he might have been an inspiration to me. Married to my mother’s first sister, he was one of those men whom everyone liked – cheerful, good-natured, sociable, intelligent, funny. It was one of life’s cruelties that he died of a brain tumour in his late thirties, leaving my Aunt with two small children and her heart bashed in.

Uncle Bill played the recorder at the family singalongs around my Aunt’s piano. My Aunt played piano extremely well, inventing accompaniments to show tunes, folk songs and the occasional hymn. Everyone loved to sing and did so enthusiastically, but I didn’t because I’d been asked not to. Allegedly I took after my father’s ‘tin-eared’ side of the family because I couldn’t carry a tune. [My father came from a family full of atheletes, and just to be clear, I don’t take after them either.] It was no fun not joining in at the family piano-swarmings, so the possibility of playing what Uncle Bill did must have seemed like a great idea to me. Off I went to recorder class.

I liked playing a lot, and I didn’t have to be reminded to practise. My playlist of favourite tunes included Down in Demerara, March from Judas Maccabeus and All Things Bright and Beautiful, and like most kids I made up my own tunes as well. I still have a couple of those first attempts at ‘composing’ and they’re pretty hilarious, but I’ve often wondered why that particular creative desire went underground for so many years afterward. Years later, while teaching basic recorder for music education students at university, I regularly asked them to think back to their earliest musical experiences and asked, did they made up their own songs or tunes? Do they, still? (Most answered no.) When did they stop doing that, and why?

Very interesting, the looks on their faces as they wondered about all that.

Anyway, after a few weeks passed, my mother must have been surprised to get another letter from Mr. Green, asking that I be allowed to join the class which had been already playing for a year. He thought I’d catch up to them quickly and was worried I’d get bored if I stayed with the other beginners. So I switched group and, apart from having to deal with a few snotty comments from the second-years, it was just fine. That Christmas I joined in with my recorder at the family singalong, and it was just the best!


My friend Pauline remembers that Mr. Green drove around in a Mini, often with a cello in the back seat. Sadly I don’t recall that, but I’m very glad that Mr. Green was such a music enthusiast, and so generous of spirit. He taught those classes without charging anything for his time. What a gift, and I’ll always remember him for it.

Side note for anyone who’s been designated as ‘tin-eared’:

Being truly ‘tone deaf’ is pretty rare, and most people who think they can’t carry a tune can learn to sing. We’re usually quite unaware of our voices, and when singing it’s hard to hear your own sound as it rattles around in your head. For some there’s also an experience of fear or embarrassment connected to our early attempts to sing in the company of others, and the memory of it can stick like grime. For me, some voice lessons in Basel and the generous encouragement from colleagues were a big help in banishing some gremlins of old.

I’m not about to sing any solos in public, anywhere, but I’ve managed to sing in small groupings at a few concerts and once I even sang two solo lines in a program of music from medieval convents, which on top of everything else was recorded for the radio. I was so nervous I almost passed out, but hearing myself when the show was broadcast a few weeks later was an amazing little moment. I was no Hildegard of Bingen, but I didn’t suck. Who knew?

Ignazio Sieber’s Recorder Sonatas

While excavating a section of my sheet music filing cabinet the other day, I came across the sonatas of Ignazio Sieber (c.1680-c.1757). His six sonatas for alto recorder and basso continuo were published, probably in 1722, together with an equal number by Johann Ernest Galliard. Since Galliard’s name appears first on the frontispiece, I dutifully filed them under ‘G.’ No wonder I lost track of them for a while.

Sieber certainly isn’t a household name but his sonatas for alto recorder and basso continuo are worth a look. We have very little biographical information on him, but see from the the publication’s title page that he was living in Rome (‘demeurant à Rome’) around the time his sonatas appeared in print. Not surprisingly, his writing for the recorder reflects the typical early 18th-century Italian taste for not extending higher than an E’’ and for hovering lower than that most of the time. Sieber hangs around in the high register more than Bononcini, Bigaglia, or Bellinzani for example, but he still doesn’t ask a player to spend a long time up where the air is thin. Italian recorders from the time have a beefy low register and a weedier high register than their German counterparts, for example, which would likely have affected how musicians composed for the instrument.

Certainly more interesting and demanding than the Galliard sonatas that precede them, Sieber’s sonatas are in C major (two), a minor, and g minor (three!), all key choices which echo Händel’s opus 1 recorder sonatas (also thought to have been written in Italy). The music is well written for the instrument, lies comfortably, it’s reasonably challenging, and he has a witty way with passagework. The slow movements include some examples of notated ornamentation but there’s much additional scope for a player to experiment with phrasing, articulation, pacing, and further elaboration. The continuo parts similarly offer a lot of opportunity for creative experimentation.

As with many lesser-known Baroque sonatas, the writing isn’t dazzling or brilliant throughout but then, let’s admit it, neither is Vivaldi’s. Plus, Sieber’s music provides considerable opportunity to add your own thoughtful two-cents-worth well beyond a few ornaments. You can team up with him to create something extra, an interpretation which you might call even more ‘your own’ than your versions of Telemann or Vivaldi. I’ve heard similarly unfamiliar pieces dismissed as not worth working on, but I wonder if such judgement is passed either because the recorder part has too few fast sixteenth note passages, and/or because the player lacks imagination. As we all know the components of a good piece and a good performance are many and varied; and if you do really want more fast arpeggios, you can almost always add some…

Plus, if you’re looking to create a program of music from a certain city or region, in a certain style or by a particular group of composers, having repertoire like this is a real boon.

A link to the facsimile at IMSLP (don’t be fooled by the initial title – Sieber’s sonatas are here!):