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room with a view, campion hall, seattle university

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

The music was quite definitely the highlight of the week, but, thinking back, there were non-musical things that are worth mentioning as well. Since it was my first time at a choral summer school, it was interesting to talk to others with more experience of this type. Some had expected more lectures, or would have liked more “parallel” sessions in the afternoons, so they could choose between lectures on different topics, or more singing. Some thought that the “hanging out” time with tutors was not enough, they would have liked to have more informal chats with the tutors maybe at mealtimes or so. (There wasn’t a lot of free time built into the schedule.) What everybody seemed to agree on was that 50-odd was the right size for a group (you got enough variety in your human specimens, but there weren’t so many specimens that it was all a blur) and that the people were really interesting to hang around with.

Spending so many hours with new people can give you an accelerated view of their personalities and lives. And, to my surprise, a week is in fact long enough to get a pretty good idea of some of their subtler thinking patterns as well. For someone like me, who just enjoys the details of how people go around their lives, it was a live museum of sorts, where each exhibit could potentially display a wonderful complexity. People who voluntarily choose to spend a week at a Renaissance music summer school, and willingly pay good money for it, perhaps already have certain “characteristics.” Though I wouldn’t presume to know what these are, what I do know is that for at least for a few of these specimens, I got beyond the superficial “Hello, where are you from? What choirs do you sing in?” level of conversation. A man I spoke to many times was very frank about what was working for him about the summer school and what wasn’t. He had been to other such events before, and was honest in his comparisons with those experiences. Thanks to his generally analytic take on things, and also his questions to me about my musical and personal background, I quite enjoyed talking to him. A woman I got along with well surprised me by her strong reactions to certain things (reactions that I agreed with, I should add) because I had only seen her gentle and diffident side until then[1]. Then there was a forensic toxicologist, a very experienced radio producer and former NPR employee, a fiddler who would go off and play in the garden during lunch time and sometimes forget to come in for rehearsal, a high school music teacher and mother of three who had done a lot of hard work on the home front (such as filling up the freezer and refrigerator with food) before flying out, several very energetic and talented undergrads and grads, and, interestingly, several engineers and/or scientists (some retired, some not). About half the number made or planned to make a living around music, or had degrees in music, and the rest were like me, who did something else for a living, and had no formal training. (And a lot of them were musically far more proficient than me.)

Though I couldn’t quite think of them as live museum exhibits, it was fun to have the four people who were in teacherly positions all speak with English accents. There were times during the week when anything I read silently in my mind would automatically come with the intonation of one or the other tutors. (Not to get too self-referential, but Deb actually said to me at some point during my singing lesson that she found it simply amazing that all this variety of accents and sounds all came out of a tiny larynx, which was the exact same for everybody.) And their vocabularies were a bit different too. Though they tried to use American terms like “half notes” and “eighth notes,” their original “minims” and “quavers” would slip in[2]. The would ask us to hold our “copies” up, or whether we could do a piece without “copies.” For the plainchant at Compline, they would ask us to “pile in” at the beginning of a line , with longer pauses in the middle of lines, reminding me of rugby scrums. And they would ask us to “take a short” when they meant “take a quick breath.” (Though I wonder if that was just a David-ism.)

Personally, I got to live high up in a tall building, and enjoy an absolutely terrific view, but, more importantly, I got to live in a dorm for the first time in many years and also to be a full-time student for the first time in a while. This was one of many things that reminded me of a simpler time. A time when my schedule was made for me by external entities, and I simply had to follow it. A time when I had very few possessions, and they all fit in one half of a dorm room[3]. A time when all my meals were in a cafeteria-type setting, with a varying cast of friends, and with some external entity always making up the menu. A time of very few decisions. And, most of all, a time when staying within that simplified life, and doing my best within it, was all that was expected of me, and all that I expected of myself. I did a couple of 10-day Vipassana courses many (many) years back, and TSSS was somewhat reminiscent of that too, in that it offered an appealing glimpse into monastic life. (A monastic life spent singing, of course, rather than in the silence of Vipassana.) In many ways, it was a week that opened a little window into other possibilities.

The summer school had an intense schedule, I never even cracked open the book I had brought along. At various times I would find myself recalling something that had happened, and wondering if that had been the same morning or the previous day. I have said before, in many different contexts, that to enjoy something fully, you have to be fully present. I think this summer school was a week of being fully present for most of us, thanks in part to the schedule, and in bigger part to the music. I am sure that I am not alone in craving experiences that blow me away. These are precious experiences, and, almost by definition, rare and hard to come by — if you start to have too many of them, they start to lose impact. The interesting thing about TSSS was how regularly it produced them. Most of us know at some deep level that there is magic in music. Attending TSSS was like discovering a reliable source of this magic. Here it takes the form of a stream that flows for a week during most summers, and it is a stream that is worth drinking from again and again.

room with a night view, campion hall, seattle university


[1] She also gave me some memories I am unlikely to forget soon. One was on the final night, when she wanted to dance, and a waltz was being played. She asked me if I wanted to waltz. I had never done it before, but we waltzed anyway. She said that when she was a kid she would see these old women dancing with other women, rather than men, and wondered why they did that. And, as she added wryly, here she was, doing the exact same thing. “Anything for a dance,” she said. Well, we certainly had a lot of women dancing with women that night. As with most amateur choirs, the women easily outnumbered the men.

[2] Incidentally, there was a Francophone in attendance, for whom neither terminology really worked. She was also used to Do Re Mi for notes instead of A B C.

[3] And a time when there was no full-length mirror in my life, making me negatively evaluate the size of my tummy several times a day! Among the many things TSSS taught me, one invaluable lesson was that the quality of life goes up dramatically when one is uninfluenced by full-length mirrors. Another thing that improves the quality of life: desk chairs with the curved bases of rocking chairs. Clearly, rocking desk chairs rock.