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(This is the sixth post in a series of posts on the Tallis Scholars Summer School 2013, held in Seattle. For the previous post, go here; for the next post, go here; for the complete series, go here.)

In this post and the next one I’ll write about two more activities that were part of the daily schedule, namely, the tutor groups and the small groups. After the full choir rehearsal of the morning there would be time for lunch, and then time for tutor groups and small groups, both of which I was largely clueless about right up to the point I was in them. Ignorance is a wonderful thing because some of this singing was in groups of 10 or so, and this is something that I tend to find daunting. For the tutor groups, we were split into three (unequal) groups, and each group learnt music from one of Jan, David and Deb, which music was part of the concert at the end of the week. For the small groups, we started out by signing up for one of 5 pieces Deb had chosen, and a few days later had the freedom to either stay together in those groups, or re-form ourselves into other small groups of our choosing, and do music that we chose.

David’s tutor group sang two pieces by Ramsey and Jan’s did Monteverdi’s Christe, adoramus te (as distinct from his Adoramus te Christe, which we did as the full choir). Both groups consisted of about 20 singers. I was in Deb’s tutor group (former Tallis Scholar, who has has sung over a 1000 concerts with them), which consisted of 10 people, and we sang Monteverdi’s O Jesu Mea Vita, which, as it turned out, is a religious contrafactum (new word for me) of his secular Si Ch’io Vorrei Morire. (I think it is fair to say that Monteverdi was over-represented in the concert, but I for one wasn’t complaining.) I had heard the latter in concert twice in the past year, and had been very taken by it (the performance of it by USC’s Concert Choir had been especially beautiful) so it was nice to be singing it. As with so many madrigals, the opening claim that “I want to die when I see your lips” etc. is to be read in a very naughty manner, and the rest of the text is fairly passionate, as well as graphic (for want of a better word). With “die” being represented by successive cries of “Ai” across the 5 voice parts (what the “Ai”s stand for is not hard to imagine for any reader of the text or listener of the music), the music mirrors this passion effectively. Coppini, who produced the contrafactum, was apparently a master at converting secular madrigals into religious texts, and, in this instance converted carnal passion to spiritual passion for Jesus. Deb told us how this sort of back and forth between the secular and the religious was quite common in the church in Italy at the time and also talked about nuns such as Cozzolani, who had musical education from their early life outside the church, and who composed and sang after taking the veil. (Deb also co-directs a group called Musica Secreta, which focuses on music for women-only groups, which music was often performed by nuns during the renaissance, and which was sometimes composed by women/nuns as well.)

One of the things Deb said as we rehearsed was that in Renaissance music, at any given point, there was no single dynamic that applied to all the parts. The parts wove in and out and became louder and softer in context with other parts, and only a few times did they all sync up to become louder or softer in unison. I found this a useful idea to keep in mind not only for her piece but for the rest of the pieces as well, and when I listen to recordings I find that the ones that sound “better” are often doing this. I sang second soprano on O Jesu Mea Vita along with one other woman, and after some initial nerves about whether we could pull it off, we settled into it nicely, and also became friends as the days went by. My method from the beginning was to go for it, mistakes be damned (not necessarily an approach I recommend or am proud of,  I should add), whereas she started out tentatively and grew in confidence gradually. Happily, both approaches worked. Since the two of us tended to screw up in different places and ways (there were some rhythms that I was rushing on but she wasn’t, there were some pitches that I was doing better on etc.) we could learn from each other, and for the first time in my life, I actually consciously staggered breaths with someone. (She breathed in the middle of the measure, me at the end, it made me feel like a pro!) Deb was very helpful and positive, and since we both had our singing lesson with her, she also coached us a bit in that time, and sent us a midi file to practise with. We both rehearsed a few times on our own, and also the two of us together, sometimes with the midi file or the YouTube video playing and sometimes without, and by the end of the week, we were reasonably comfortable with the whole thing. Singing in a beautiful cathedral (albeit with a smallish audience) in a small group with only one other voice on my part was a pretty intense experience for me during the final concert.

In the next post I’ll write a bit about how the small groups worked.

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