Sunday, July 18, 2010

Humboldt Chamber Music Workshop -- A Week of Heaven

The fingertips on my left hand tingle and looped strains of Schubert’s Trout Quintet play in my head. I’m back from my first stay at the Humboldt Chamber Music Workshop. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

Since 1958, the workshop has brought together chamber musicians to play and live together at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. String players bring their violins, violas, cellos and double-basses. Wind players carry in their flutes, clarinets, oboes, bassoons, and horns. We had a few exotic instruments too—English horns, piccolos, and even a remarkable C-shaped bass flute and huge contrabassoon. A saxophone even appeared for one performance.

Whatever instruments they carry in, everyone bring a desire to make music—lots of it—for a week together. Most people stay in the dorms on campus, making it a return to an intense college student life. The workshop is so popular now that it offers three different sessions: I was in week three.

The design of the workshop is brilliant. Every day, you are assigned a piece to work on with a different group. The music varies by composer, time period and style. It could be Mozart from the 18th century or written by Gwyneth Walker, who was born in 1947. It could sound gentle and pretty or exuberantly modern and tumultuous.

Groups are shuffled each day, so you work closely with a lot of different people over the week—and the groups vary in size, too. For a bass player like me, it normally means an assembly of five to nine players from both the string and wind groups—almost a small orchestra—but for a cellist, for example, it could mean working as a trio with a violin and a piano. But we had four flute players together once. Our largest group was a double quintet—five instruments with two players each.

You practice the assignment with your group in two morning sessions, where you meet and get direction from an expert coach. Besides being wonderful people, the coaches guide the group to produce its best sound together. I got some specific pointers on my technique that will help me in the future as well.

The two morning practice sessions are separated by a coffee break. This is just the first of several occasions to socialize with the other attendees, with whom you quickly make friends. The pleasant weather made our outside gatherings something to look forward to in themselves.

After lunch comes a third coached practice session, and then, after a break, begins a program of short performances on the main stage by every group. This gives you a chance to get performance experience (including nervousness, mistakes and exhilaration) and to hear what everyone else is doing. You are on stage for only five minutes, but are a member of an appreciative and understanding audience for a couple of hours. The two performance sessions surround the dinner break.

At the breaks and over meals, I talked with people that I played with, but also struck up conversations with the person staying in the next dorm room—or just somebody wearing an interesting T-shirt. I intentionally sat at random tables in the Jolly Giant Commons Dining Hall. We were all given beautiful hand calligraphic nametags at the start so it was easy to get to know everyone’ names—and instruments—at a glance.

Each day, after the last note fades from the final performance, you can rest and recover or, for more fun, freelance with other musicians. You can check parts out from the well-stocked music library—or even bring your own.

As a bass player, I found myself in great demand—I was the only one who brought a bass to the workshop, so anyone who wanted to play something with a bass part in it seized the opportunity and scheduled me for freelancing. My dance card (there were actual dance cards printed—and they said “Dance Card” on the front!) was full before the first day was done.

Playing music all day can be exhausting, and it takes a lot of energy, but the joy of it kept me going—and I could feel it from the others as well. Between the five assignments and five freelance sessions, I had close connection with ten different groups—and there was an eleventh one too. During lunch on Monday, one of the cellists invited me to sit in with the morning cello assembly, where several early risers sat and played a selection of pieces together. Besides enjoying the warm and friendly sound of my fellow bass clef string players, I was able to give them the extra low notes you can only get with a bass. And, it warmed me up for my Tuesday through Friday assignments.

On Friday night, the normal group chat in the dorm lounge grew into a big, loud party, with Klezmer music, food and drink. It lasted until 1 a.m. My bass participated, as I placed it there for the bassists who had brought their cellos and violins to the workshop to use. I played a little, but by then I was just happy to be there.

And happy hardly describes the experience. Joy is a better term. The intensity of the practice sessions and sharing of an experience with others who love the music too makes the week almost a dream—a piece of heaven—in which you give your energy and get so much more in return. I have many great memories—and a beautiful group photo—with a name key on the back. I can’t wait to return next year to make more music with my 80 new musical friends.

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