Kiwanis Festival Karma

Though I wasn’t a private student of hers any longer, I played until I was sixteen or so in a small consort for teenaged recorder players which Isabel Smaller continued to coach. For several years, Isabel would collect my friend Janet and I from our homes on Sunday afternoons and drive us out to what seemed like the middle of nowhere for a couple of hours of consort playing. It was usually a group of three or four, recorder playing not being a trendy activity in the minds of high schoolers – plus ça change, but anyway…Occasionally we were joined by people either a bit younger and/or very much older, but it was usually just three teenagers with recorders and one with a guitar. Isabel found opportunities for us to perform at the Unitarian church where we rehearsed, for CAMMAC* events and at other functions, and when we were all fourteen-ish she took us to play at a music education conference in Charlottetown, PEI. I found the conference boring, what with all the adults around, but the red soil of PEI was some of the coolest dirt I’d ever seen. I loved Charlottetown and I’m happy to have been back to play there several times since.


Isabel also entered us in the Kiwanis Music Festival a number of times, usually in the “Recorder Ensemble, Open” category, which meant that there was no age limit for the competitors. Though I appreciate the ‘performance-under-pressure’ opportunity they provided, those Kiwanis competitions were usually a bit strange. We often ended up competing against grade school groups, which was thoroughly awkward. In one particular year there were only two entries in the class – a grade 4 school group, and ours. The school children were eight and nine years old, we were fourteen and fifteen; they’d been playing in school for a year or two, we’d been playing since we were their age; they played with several people on each part, we played one-on-a-part. Our group played part of the Hindemith trio and something from the 17th century, I guess, maybe Jenkins or Gibbons; the school group played something like Amazing Grace and Git Along Lil’ Dogie.

This type of class still exists in music festivals today, and it’s great because it provides anyone and everyone an opportunity to enter the festival regardless of their age. If a string quartet made up of middle-aged doctors wants something to work towards, this kind of class awaits them, where they might be pitted against the Happy Acres Ensemble and chamber ensembles from arts high schools. It’s all fine as long as the playing field is more or less even. But every once in a while it isn’t, as was often the case with the recorder ensembles.

Anyway, the school group played very well, and we did pretty well too I guess, but for the adjudicator it must have absurd. On one hand, the choice for first and second prize between two groups so different in age and skill level might have seemed like a no-brainer, but actually making the choice was totally ludicrous and unnecessary. These events are supposed to be positive, encouraging experiences for the competitors, especially the younger, less seasoned ones. As long as I have memory, I’ll always recall how that adjudicator dealt with the situation, with his wise but uncommon decision in the competition-oriented, winning-supposedly-means-everything, music festival world. He strode to the front of the room, congratulated everyone on a job well done, made some good suggestions for both groups, and announced to the assembled mini-multitude that he was going to make it – a tie for first. Absolutely brilliant.

And I often remembered this guy whenever I ended up in his position, as an adjudicator at Kiwanis Festivals in Ottawa, Guelph, Halifax and Sarnia. In Halifax there was a woman much like Isabel, whose name was Priscilla Evans. She seemed to run her recorder teaching studio with a devotion and intensity reminiscent of Isabel’s, and just like Isabel she went far above and beyond the call of duty when she believed her students warranted that kind of support. She also seemed to be able to keep several of her students interested in ensemble playing through their high school years, which was no mean feat; and consequently the ‘open’ recorder ensemble classes at Halifax’s annual Kiwanis Festival were always interesting, inspiring, and fun to adjudicate.

Keith, Alison, Janet and Isabel at Don Heights.

Keith, Alison, Janet and Isabel at Don Heights.

*Canadian Amateur Musicians/Musiciens amateurs du Canada

Travelling, Then and Now…and a minimum temperature clause.

For about a decade, four colleagues and I played together in a group called Musick Fyne. That name is an old Scots term for ‘art’ music and, not surprisingly, we chose it as our name because one of our repertoire focuses was seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Scottish music. We were a singer, harpsichordist, lutenist and two wind players, so we had lots of programming options. We also designed a concert of music from eighteenth-century Nova Scotia, Upper and Lower Canada and New England, the repertoire for which was drawn from (or suggested by) concert programs and concert descriptions found in 18th-century diaries and newspapers. Years later while in Philadelphia to teach at a workshop, I took a walking tour of the old city on my afternoon off, and ended up in one of the rooms where some of these 18th-century concerts had taken place. That was pretty inspiring! Here it is, if I’m not mistaken, with a fresh coat of paint:

Long Gallery, Independence Hall, Philadelphia

Long Gallery, Independence Hall, Philadelphia

This program also included a piece called The Hector, written for us by Canadian composer John Beckwith,*  which fit the program beautifully with its tale of a historic eighteenth-century sea voyage that brought Scottish immigrants to Canada after the Highland Clearances. There were many such voyages, but this one was particularly well documented. Beckwith drew his libretto from the captain’s log, describing the ship’s journey from Ullapool to Pictou, Nova Scotia in 1773. It was an arduous and unpleasant journey with a rough ending for the settlers, who arrived to find the land they’d been promised to be completely uncleared of forest, and no other provisions for accommodation and food made for them.

We gave many performances of this program, including several for a Nova Scotia tour which included the town of Pictou on the itinerary. It was very touching that in our audience that night there were descendants of the people whose emigration journey was described in Beckwith’s piece. Some of those people came to speak with us after the show. While we were there we saw the replica of the Hector, which was under construction in Pictou’s harbour; today you can go on board and take a tour of it, at the Hector Museum.

Can you imagine crossing the Atlantic in this?


For information about the trip of the Hector, and a passenger list, look here:

The travellers on the Hector endured some horrific conditions during their journey, on top of the requisite seasickness: lack of sanitation, insufficient food, dysentery, smallpox, and more. Many deaths were recorded on board, as were numerous births. The weather was dreadful at times, including one massive storm which blew them so far off course that their journey was extended by ten days or so.

Musick Fyne’s journeys around Canada were mercifully pale by comparison. The weather was often a total surprise: we had fantastic bright sunshine and NO snow for every day of a February tour in Saskatchewan, we had sunny skies and very little rain in BC, and our Maritime province travels were similarly deluge-free. ‘Lucking out’ with the weather seemed almost the norm. Our only real challenges came with winter concerts in southern Ontario, one of which involved a memorable white-knuckle drive from Gananoque back to Toronto, at night and in a blizzard. Visibility was maybe six feet. On the bright side (if you can call it that), the harpsichord in the back of the rental van provided us with some extra ballast. We would’ve probably made some quite spectacular sounds had we ended up on our side in a ditch, but happily we didn’t have to find out.

Moral of this part of the story: when in a snowstorm, always let the guy from Saskatchewan drive.

One January afternoon during a central Ontario tour we arrived at the elegant, stately old home that was the venue for that evening’s concert. The grounds were gorgeous, with massive evergreens and shrubs blanketed with fresh snow, and the grey stone house looking both regal and melancholy. We loaded the harpsichord and the rest of our gear into the designated performance space – a fabulous big dining room – but after standing there for a few minutes I thought I’d better go and get my coat from the van. It was absolutely %#$&ing freezing in that big dining room. It wasn’t until I was halfway across the parking lot when I realized that something was pretty wrong if I was in greater need of my coat indoors than out.

I came back with all my layers on to find my colleagues in various states of consternation. It turned out that the owners of the stately old home usually left that part of the house unheated. They didn’t normally use it, preferring to live in another wing of the place, and heating the entire house was colossally expensive.They did plan to turn on the heat on about an hour before the concert, but it was far too cold to do any rehearsing in the space, which we’d arrived early to do. And as for acclimatizing the instruments, forget it. The harpsichordist was already looking a bit blue, both from the cold and from thinking about how many times she was probably going to have to re-tune. (This was an instance in which that joke about how harpsichordists or lutenists ‘tune for two-thirds of the time, and play out of tune for the rest of it,’ was not even remotely funny. It’s not really very funny anyway, but in this situation it might have gotten you a tuning hammer in your eye.) The other wind player was wondering if we should take bets on exactly how long it would take before our instruments cracked once we started playing, even if the room warmed up by concert time. Nooooo pre-concert warmup for us.

The heat did get turned on about an hour before the show and the temperature rose from Siberian to semi-toasty over the next couple of hours, as the collective body heat of the audience added to the furnace’s contribution. It was certainly warm enough to play and when all was said and done, everyone seemed to have had some fun. Well, almost everyone. I’ve never seen a harpsichord tuning hammer make so many appearances in a show, before or since.

Second moral of the story: always include a minimum temperature clause in your contract. Seriously.

That said, there are many good reasons to tour Canada in the winter. It might be cold, but it’s beautiful. Here’s a shot taken on tour, on the highway just outside Banff, Alberta.

Outside Banff

*For more information on John Beckwith, please see:


Coming Back to Canada

My mother and I moved back from the UK to Canada a few months before I turned ten. I remember the precise date we travelled, October 8, because it was the day before John Lennon’s birthday (I was, and remain, a big Beatles fan). We moved in with my mother’s younger sister, her husband and two small children – how generous of them that was – and began the process of settling in. My mother searched for a job, a school for me, and among other things, a recorder teacher.

It didn’t take long to find Beate, the kind and self-effacing expatriate German woman who played the recorder and very conveniently lived right next door. It was with her that I first played duets, short dance and folk song tunes from little books featuring the same Old German script I was to re-encounter in 18th-century facsimile editions of Quantz and his ilk. It was a lot of fun playing duets with Beate, though at first I was a bit freaked out by the strange buzzing I heard as we played together. This production of difference tones is the normal result when two co-existing high frequencies team up to produce a third one, but I’d never heard this so clearly before, and I really thought there was a swarm of bees in the room.

My next teacher Isabel Smaller lived a few blocks further away, across the neighbourhood junior school’s football field. As I’ve described in an earlier post, Isabel made most of her living as an itinerant recorder teacher for the Toronto School Board, but also taught a few people privately at her home, and coached small ensembles at a Unitarian church further out in the suburbs. I have fond memories of many rides in her off-white coloured VW Beetle, the back seat of which was strewn with stray plastic recorder pieces, recorder cases, method books, photocopies of fingering charts, cleaning swabs, cork grease containers, pencils. Making a space for yourself in the rear of that car was an adventure, like excavating a Cabinet of Blockflute Curiosities.


I owe a big debt of gratitude to Isabel, both for what she taught me herself and for the opportunities she found and made available to me. When I was eleven she put my name in for a scholarship from the Canadian Amateur Musicians organization (CAMMAC) to enable me to take lessons with Hugh Orr. Hugh was one of the two leading names in the Canadian recorder world at that time, and lessons with him cost more than any single parent could afford. Very fortunately for me the executive of CAMMAC offered a scholarship for 50% of my tuition fees, and so for the next two years I headed to Hugh’s place every week for private and consort lessons. Thank you Isabel, thank you CAMMAC!

Every time I look back on this part of my life, I’m increasingly grateful. The private lessons were enlightening, rich and demanding; but on top of those, I got to play Bach fugues and Renaissance fantasias in a recorder quartet with my teacher and two other kids my own age who played really well, all before I reached my teens. Learning to play in an ensemble where the parts weren’t doubled, learning how to listen to the other voices while playing my own, how to tune, how to find my way back into the piece if I got lost, at that age – well, it was a wonderful and rare opportunity. I didn’t really realize that at the time, all I knew was that it was always loads of fun, and sometimes very challenging. Later on I would teach people coming into university and college who had never played any consort music at all, ever, but I’d had six years of it before I hit university. Such good fortune.

Hugh, having some fun.

Hugh, having some fun.

Hugh was an extraordinary teacher. Trained on piano and cello, he was self-taught on the recorder and had the most remarkable analytical skill at solving pretty much any technical problem one might have. I learned a lot about playing the recorder from him, but also how to practice and how to problem-solve. Though he was to be my professor at university a few years later, too, I learned some of these important things as a child in those first two years of lessons. He was anything but fond of public performance and so did very little of it, but he was a very busy player in the radio, TV and jingle world. I’ve played with a lot of people and I’ve never seen anyone come close to his composure, musicality and accuracy in front of a microphone.

He also wrote a two-volume recorder method,* still one of the best available for its careful descriptions of technical questions, helpful photographs, and for the music contained in its two volumes. It’s a particularly good method for older beginners. Years later, when I headed across the Atlantic to study at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, my teacher there asked that I bring her some copies of Hugh’s books. Turns out she used them with some of her Schola students, some of the young hotshots of their countries, to help them with basics like hand position, left thumb technique, and more: she said one of Hugh’s pictures was worth more than a whole lot of words.

Thank you, Hugh.

*Hugh Orr: Basic Recorder Technique, Vols. 1 and 2


Remembering Washington

When I began collecting material for this post last week, I had planned to focus on the Tibiades of François Chauvon, a little-known collection of elegant and slightly eccentric suites from early eighteenth-century Paris. Eight of these can be heard on a CD released last fall on Montréal’s, a recording project of which I was delighted to be a part.

But to paraphrase John Lennon, life is what happens while you’re making other plans, and earlier this week my writing plans were unexpectedly altered by the sad news that my dear friend and colleague Washington McClain, a baroque oboist whom I knew for close to twenty years and with whom I played countless concerts of chamber and orchestral music, had died. He was one of North America’s busiest and most admired baroque oboists and taught at Indiana University. When he passed away suddenly last Sunday at the age of fifty-two, we all lost a radiant musical light.

So for now, I’ll write about Washington and our last musical collaboration, which by a bittersweet synchronicity was that recording of Chauvon.

Washington was a superlative musician. Elegantly expressive and adroit in technique, he had ‘ears’ so good I’m sure he could hear the grass grow. He was a paragon of integrity and professionalism, and he was also a mensch. Wash was serious and of strong opinion when he felt he needed to be, but he also had a smile that lit up the room and a deep sense of collegiality. I also loved him for his genuine, ongoing exploration of everything and anything that really brought the music off the page, especially with repertoire such as the Chauvon. He never got tired of wondering.

Photo by Colin Savage.

Photo by Colin Savage.

For a few sweltering days during a heat wave in July 2011, Wash and I gathered with bassoonist Michael McCraw, harpsichordist Charlotte Nediger and violinist Julia Wedman to rehearse and record eight of the twelve Tibiades. We were lucky to have found nearly a full week when everyone was available for the project. It’d been quite a while since all five of us had seen each other and we were happy to be reunited, so there was a little bit of magic afoot. The Ontario Arts Council had given the project some funding, and we’d secured the services of an excellent producer (Ivars Taurins) and ears-of-gold sound engineer (Ed Marshall). Our venue was Toronto’s St Thomas’s Anglican Church, an anglo-catholic oasis of calm despite its location half a block south of one of the busiest streets in the city.


That recording was hard work, mostly because of the oppressive heat. St. Thomas’s is a serene place with dark wooden rafters, terracotta tile floor and a paucity of large windows, but it got very hot and humid as the sessions progressed. ( You can’t leave the ceiling fans on, or leave the windows open during recording sessions like this, unless you think the sound of an idling truck or the barking of a Jack Russell terrier adds some extra élan to music from eighteenth-century Paris.) We consumed water by the jug, we toweled off repeatedly, we made ice packs to cool our feet (surprisingly effective!). There were a few more curses than usual about errant tuning, flabby strings and recalcitrant reeds, and some discussion about how much more clothing we could take off without offending anyone. But despite all that and the occasional self-recriminations we took turns having (“I remembered the repeat for the first four takes, why did I forget it now?!?”), we had a lot of fun exploring that music and were all very, very happy to have done so together.

We recorded for three days, creating a French Baroque sonic kaleidoscope by varying the number of players and instrumental colours for many of the suites. A prélude played by us all was followed by an allemande for the flute, violin and harpsichord, then a courante for the oboe with continuo, a gavotte for oboe and bassoon, an arpègement for solo harpsichord, and so on. Three of the suites were given the more standard treatment, one each for oboe, violin and recorder (with continuo). Here’s Wash with Michael and Charlotte, playing the Allemande from the Third Suite:

Allemande, la Dragonne – Suite 3

Still other movements got the tutti treatment with some spelling-off for variety’s sake, as in the Chaconne en rondeau from the Eleventh Suite:

Chaconne en rondeau, Suite 11

Chauvon: Les nouveaux bijoux came out last fall, and kind and favourable reviews have recently begun to appear. I’ve listened to the CD again several times this week just to hear Wash. Knowing I’ll never sit beside him again is heartbreaking, but his beautiful playing is there to enjoy as often as I wish. It was a joy and an inspiration to know and make music with him, and I’m beyond grateful that we made that CD.

Wash was also a good friend, affectionate, honest, thoughtful, funny, wise, and a great storyteller. People had to push pretty hard before he ceased giving them the benefit of the doubt. I can’t believe I will never have another of those long telephone conversations with him, or hear his laugh again. It seems inconceivable that our visits to the Ethiopian restaurant around the corner are over, and that he will never walk through our front door again. What a terrible loss. I miss him greatly and will remember him often, even if I should live to be a very old lady.

Don Giovanni, Japan 2000

Don Giovanni, Japan 2000