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Michael Whytock

RCO exams - Baroque performance...

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Hello all…

 

I have a query regarding the RCO exams and Baroque performance. As most people are aware, one of the pieces you pick has to be by Bach – Baroque. There is also a whole list of other Early Music works to pick from the Renaissance to the Baroque

Now in my eyes, there are two ways of playing Early Music

  1. This way is stylistically accurate and utilises traditional Early fingering and pedalling indication, traditional Early Music registrations, and traditional phrasing and articulation. To pull off the performance, the student has maybe played authentic instruments of the period found in Europe, and done extensive research into Historical performance – Think, Gustav Leonhardt and Ton Koopman

  1. This is, from what I have heard, the typical British way of performing Early works, performed by a large number but not all British organists. The Student has not played historical instruments and has only had experience of playing British organs such as Willis/Mander. The performance, though note perfect, lacks musicality and shows little understanding of Historical performance. Little research has been done in historical performance and the piece is often played in the same way most people play it without ‘thinking outside the box’ and thinking ‘how would it have been played in 1500’

 

Now, which was is best? The RCO has a mix of examiners who are experienced in a mix of fields though from experience, a lot of them appear to be traditional cathedral organists who are well versed in the British Church Music tradition.

Would they rather you play it like option 1 or option 2? Can anybody from experience, tell me which is preferred?

If you want to know why this question concerns me, then answer it and I will reveal more!! :P

 

Thanks

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To be honest - I think you're expressing too much concern about an issue which isn't entirely relavant, though one should alsways be concerned about performance practice. My advice would be to make sure you perform to your best - don't try to make your performance contrived.

 

When I did my ARCO, in the fairly recent past, there were only 3 instruments upon which to perform the exam. All three were tracker of the modern classical veriety, but I don't think any of them would claim to be historical replicas. Therefore expect a modern pedal board and some registration aids at your disposal. The main concern for the examiners is that you project your performance in a manner that is appropriate to the music. I would personally advise you to use some caution here, as don't want to present something that is at risk of the examiners strongly disaggreeing with. On the other hand a very dull performance will be lucky to gain you the pass mark. So long as you have experience with the kind of instrument you'll be playing the exam on (a modern tracker), you should be able to feel that the instrument is a suitable vehicle to project the music to your interpretation. Get all the notes right, have a feeling for the style, the music and you should be fine.

 

When it comes to early music techniques such as fingering and pedalling etc, you must do what is comfortable for you to express the music to your best - the examiners are listening, not watching.

 

Try to find an appropriate half way house. I dare say that neither a Ton Koopman inspired performance, or a Thomas Haywood 'Town Hall organ' style performance, while both of these musicians are amazingly inspired, is going to get you very far in an RCO exam.

 

Almost nobody ever gets top marks - I thought I'd just scraped a pass at my ARCO, and was then very surprised when I found out that I'd won one of the prizes!

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I am uncomfortable with the way you have outlined the question. In the first case, experience of historical instruments and using early fingering, pedalling and registration will not guarantee a musical performance. In the second, experience only of British organs does not necessarily lead to an unmusical performance.

 

I have no knowledge of the current scene, but I strongly suspect that if you ask anyone who has sat on the RCO examination panels they would all say that they have no preconceptions, but only want to hear a performance that is musical and convincing. Whether it always works like that in practice I couldn't possibly comment, except to say that I have good reasons for having my doubts. Either way, while I think it is good to know about historical styles, techniques and sound-worlds and allowing these to inform one's interpretation, I don't think anyone does themselves any favours by letting this get in the way of projecting a performance that is musical.

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Whether it always works like that in practice I couldn't possibly comment, except to say that I have good reasons for having my doubts.

 

I was interrupted earlier. The reason I wrote this is that, when I was a student, my teacher spent some time on an FRCO examining panel. He returned from one particular session steaming from the ears. The other two panel members were so impressed with one player that they wanted to give him the Limpus prize. My teacher had found the interpretation of one piece downright bizarre and strongly disagreed that he deserved a prize (though he had no problem with awarding him a pass). Being in the minority he was overruled. Now it would be easy to dismiss this as simply a narrow-minded view on the part of my teacher, yet he was one of the most broad-minded musicians I have ever met. He was not one of those whose teaching merely turns out carbon copies of their own performances. Rather he tried to broaden his students' musical horizons and encourage them to develop their own interpretations and style of playing. (Whether he regarded me as one of his successes in this respect is could be debated, but that is another matter!) The lesson I took from this episode is that, no matter how broad-minded a musician may be, we all have our limitations.

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Hello all…

 

I have a query regarding the RCO exams and Baroque performance. As most people are aware, one of the pieces you pick has to be by Bach – Baroque. There is also a whole list of other Early Music works to pick from the Renaissance to the Baroque

Now in my eyes, there are two ways of playing Early Music

  1. This way is stylistically accurate and utilises traditional Early fingering and pedalling indication, traditional Early Music registrations, and traditional phrasing and articulation. To pull off the performance, the student has maybe played authentic instruments of the period found in Europe, and done extensive research into Historical performance – Think, Gustav Leonhardt and Ton Koopman

  1. This is, from what I have heard, the typical British way of performing Early works, performed by a large number but not all British organists. The Student has not played historical instruments and has only had experience of playing British organs such as Willis/Mander. The performance, though note perfect, lacks musicality and shows little understanding of Historical performance. Little research has been done in historical performance and the piece is often played in the same way most people play it without ‘thinking outside the box’ and thinking ‘how would it have been played in 1500’

 

Now, which was is best? The RCO has a mix of examiners who are experienced in a mix of fields though from experience, a lot of them appear to be traditional cathedral organists who are well versed in the British Church Music tradition.

Would they rather you play it like option 1 or option 2? Can anybody from experience, tell me which is preferred?

If you want to know why this question concerns me, then answer it and I will reveal more!! :P

 

Thanks

 

 

=====================

 

 

I play a rather nice neo-baroque organ in a splendid acoustic, (a sort of mini Bavokerk sound), and attention to detail is greatly rewarded. I've

also played quite a number of historic instruments in Zwolle, Alkmaar, Leiden, Haarlem and elsewhere.

 

I can safely tell you that almost ALL neo-baroque organs do not feel like historic instruments, no matter how well they sound, and the one I play is no exception, with its modern suspended action and RCO pedalboard. In fact, organists would be better prepared for the real thing if they practised on a restored Victorian instrument with an original tracker action and hopefully a flat pedalboard or at least non-concave.

 

But so what?

 

The best live performace of Bach I have ever heard in the UK was the St Anne Prelude & Fugue, played by Francis Jackson at Leeds PC. He didn't hide behind "early fingering" or "toes only" or "pleno only".....he just played his heart out. The radiance on the faces of all those listening to it caught my attention. It was like looking at the faces of those who were listening spellbound to a great preacher or political orator.

 

Why?

 

Because Francis Jackson is firstly a musician, and whatever scholarship he is in posession of, (which is considerable), serves the sole purpose of musical understanding and projection.

 

How many organists attend to the structures, the voice-leading, the need for expressive rubato, the need for daylight in articulation, the very precise mimicking of voices in the concerted style (even in inversion, stretto, or whatever)? This is where the secrets of a musical performance are to be found.

 

It's so easy to hide behind false values, and so difficult to feel the music and respond accordingly.

 

If you ain't a musician, go and grow vegetables!

 

Best,

 

MM

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The RCO has a mix of examiners who are experienced in a mix of fields though from experience, a lot of them appear to be traditional cathedral organists who are well versed in the British Church Music tradition.

You make a lot of presumptions! What, in the 21st century, is a 'traditional' cathedral organist and how many of them comprise the examiners' panel today? While they may be versed in the 'British Church Music tradition', what evidence is there to suggest that their musical interests do not extend outside the organ loft?

Would they rather you play it like option 1 or option 2? Can anybody from experience, tell me which is preferred?

One of the eight courses this year listed on the RCO website deals with preparing for the exams, so that would be an excellent opportunity to ask the question about 'Baroque performance'. Moreover, from looking at the assessment criteria and the detailed mark descriptors printed at the end of the exam syllabus, I sense that the examiners have no preference, and are looking at the basic musical considerations listed, viz., Musical communication; accuracy and technique; tempo and style; and registration and organ management.

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You make a lot of presumptions! What, in the 21st century, is a 'traditional' cathedral organist and how many of them comprise the examiners' panel today? While they may be versed in the 'British Church Music tradition', what evidence is there to suggest that their musical interests do not extend outside the organ loft?

 

 

=========================

 

 

Call me cynical and manipulative, but when I played my finals programme, I did my homework. They had a well known cathedral organist from Scotland. whom I decided must have been the alpha male, So my first port of call was my record collection, to find a recording of the great man playing what I was going to play, and then I copied exactly what he did with the Bach P & F in B minor.

 

It obviously worked! ;)

 

Best,

 

MM

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Thanks all for you advice. Yes I have made presumptions about things which are infact presumptions made by my tutor.

I posted this question having just received the result for my ARCO examination.

The examiners are professional and I do not doubt their credibility, however failing me on a note perfect performance of a Buxtehude piece because they didn't like the ornamentation or any of the stylistic things I included in the piece has made me wonder if my excessive 'Historical performance' let me down?

I put a lot of effort into what my tutor called ‘making music. Not just playing notes’ and transforming the piece into something to make the examiners sit up. I spent a large amount of time on the phrasing and the trills only for it to go unnoticed.

 

Now my Bach Performance had many mistakes in it. Like the Buxtehude, I strived to get a musical performance that sounded historically accurate but the pedals let me down. We knew they would and my tutor said that may just pass it but, should the pedals go wrong, probably not.

The pedals let me down and my ‘Authentic Performance’ went all wrong as my nerves set it and I lost all control.

 

Anyway long story short….

 

I passed the badly played Bach with flying colours, despite the pedal mistakes, and the loss of control.

 

The Buxtehude which, like in lessons, was played note perfect with great attention to style and historical performance failed not because of the wrong notes because there were not any, but because of the trills and the phrasing and the other stylistically baroque effects.

 

I passed the pieces overall getting 60 when the pass mark is 60 (they didn’t like my Saint-Saens interpretation either!). I shouldn’t complain. They obviously have a marking criteria.

 

M

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The Buxtehude which, like in lessons, was played note perfect with great attention to style and historical performance failed not because of the wrong notes because there were not any, but because of the trills and the phrasing and the other stylistically baroque effects.

 

M

 

 

=======================

 

 

What was the Buxtehude work?

 

Best,

 

MM

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Syllabus here: http://www.rco.org.u...ations12-13.pdf

 

... however failing me on a note perfect performance of a Buxtehude piece because they didn't like the ornamentation or any of the stylistic things I included in the piece has made me wonder if my excessive 'Historical performance' let me down? ... I spent a large amount of time on the phrasing and the trills only for it to go unnoticed.

 

On the one hand you say they failed you because they didn't like the ornamentation, etc, and on the other you say that it went unnoticed. Which was it? What did the examiners actually say about this piece?

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This is there comment...'Your slow tempo militated against a sense of momentum, although you adhered to it with tenacity. The pedal 'theme' was delivered as a series of somewhat disconnected notes (well I am not going to play it legato and romantic am I??). Your varied registrations made for quite an engaging effect but the stylistic appropriateness of the ornamentation which you added seemed less certain (why? I was ornamenting in all the right places). Ultimately your manneristic delaying of the first beat of nearly every first beat vexed the ear and compromised the effective projection of this piece as a coherent entity (would they rather me not accentuate the strong beats of each bar?)

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With regard to the videos...

The first video is exactly how I tried to perform the works (without the hand movements but with feeling and musicality). I like his performance because I like the way he treats the music. The phrasing is very good and I love the way he finishes of each phrase and doesn't rush into the next phrase. There is breathing space and the piece doesn't appear to run away. I feel the holding onto/slight tenuto of the 4th note of each subject really adds something to this performance. I especially like the way he milks the end bars, taking time and adding trills to prolong it.

 

I don't like the second Bach fugue video because I feel she plays it very straight. The fugue subject is metronomically in time and there is no freedom. It feels constrained to me and lacks breathing space. The only time she slows down is at the end and I feel that she doesn't need to slow down during the piece but could do with holding back a bit more. Having said this, the registration is good and it’s a note perfect performance. It just isn't anything special.

 

I feel however, based on my marks, performing like the way she played in video 2 would have been better than performing it like video 1

The first video is exactly how I tried to perform the works (without the hand movements but with feeling and musicality). I like his performance because I like the way he treats the music. The phrasing is very good and I love the way he finishes of each phrase and doesn't rush into the next phrase. There is breathing space and the piece doesn't appear to run away. I feel the holding onto/slight tenuto of the 4th note of each subject really adds something to this performance. I especially like the way he milks the end bars, taking time and adding trills to prolong it.

 

I don't like the second Bach fugue video because I feel she plays it very straight. The fugue subject is metronomically in time and there is no freedom. It feels constrained to me and lacks breathing space. The only time she slows down is at the end and I feel that she doesn't need to slow down during the piece but could do with holding back a bit more. Having said this, the registration is good and it’s a note perfect performance. It just isn't anything special.

 

I feel however, based on my marks, performing like the way she played in video 2 would have been better than performing it like video 1

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I'm sorry to hear about your disappointment with the remarks made by the examiners - I suppose it just goes to show how subjective the whole process can be. But you did pass on the pieces overall. I think that very few people get marks much over the pass mark. Basically a pass is a pass, and you should be pleased, because if for one moment they don't think you're worthy of it you won't be awarded it.

 

If its any consolation, the Bach piece that I played for my ARCO came in for some criticism. To this day I still think that I play this piece (Nun komm der heiden heiland) well - I always felt a special connection with it. Their comments read 'Despite a basic awareness of style this was a rather prosaic performance.' In my opinion - that was never true. Perhaps I was a touch more cautious on the examination day, but I felt that the comment was way off the mark, and probably just because one of the examiners had a slightly different opinion of how the piece goes.

 

My advice - throw the comments away - a pass is a pass and that's all that counts. Take what you can from the comments - but disregard anything which is unhelpful to you. You don't have to agree with every bit of criticism the examiners make, and you're absolutely free to make your own interpretations in the real world. Exams and competitions don't count for everything!

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This is there comment...'Your slow tempo militated against a sense of momentum, although you adhered to it with tenacity. The pedal 'theme' was delivered as a series of somewhat disconnected notes (well I am not going to play it legato and romantic am I??). Your varied registrations made for quite an engaging effect but the stylistic appropriateness of the ornamentation which you added seemed less certain (why? I was ornamenting in all the right places). Ultimately your manneristic delaying of the first beat of nearly every first beat vexed the ear and compromised the effective projection of this piece as a coherent entity (would they rather me not accentuate the strong beats of each bar?)

 

 

You say that you failed the Buxtehude "because of the trills and the phrasing and the other stylistically baroque effects". [Dangerous word is 'effects'!] Having seen their comments above though, apart from the matter of appropriate tempo, I sense that the examiners didn't perceive momentum, projection or (in the pedal theme) a sense of musical line in what they heard; legato doesn't automatically equal romantic! Oh, and accents can be made by means other than delaying the strong beat.

 

That said though, congratulations on passing the pieces overall.

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I think Clarion Doublette and Wolsey both have it on the nail.

 

I hope you won't simply dismiss the examiners' comments. Disagree with them by all means - you have to be true to your own interpretation as you feel it - but do try to understand why they apparently found your playing unconvincing in this piece. I don't use HIP performance techniques and don't even know that much about them (though I did once learn some virginal pieces with contemporary fingering). However, I have a theory - a purely personal and totally unscholarly take on the subject. I make the fundamental assumption that no one at any point in history ever set out to play unmusically and that competent players will have used their technique to produce convincing musical performances, so that, for example, a toes-only pedal melody will have been played with any gaps between adjacent notes played by the same foot minimised as far as possible in order to maintain the sense of line. And similarly with the fingering of scales when executed by pairs of fingers. The organ did not exist in isolation. Performances on non-keyboard instruments would not, I assume, have been disjointed, so why would organists not seek to emulate, as far as possible, the prevailing performance style? When a technique is so secure that it can be taken for granted, players find convincing ways of getting round the difficulties so that the technical problems are not (or hardly) noticed. As I say, this is all total assumption and might be entirely wrong - but I'd be surprised.

 

However broad-minded we organists like to think we are, we all have our limitations - it's just a matter of degree. In the matter of interpretation the most you can do is open your mind and try to understand as many alternative approaches as possible, but at the end of the day we all make decisions as to what we can and can't accept. One thing for sure: the more of a closed mind we have, the less of a musician we will be.

 

For what it's worth, my take on the videos MM posted is the opposite of Michael's. I think both are excellent, musical performances and, were I sitting on an FRCO panel in some fantasy land, I would happily give them both a pass. However, in the D minor fugue I did find that the constant dwelling on the first beat became a little wearisome. I ended up feeling that the music was just progressing from bar to bar, one at a time, and that the sense of overall architecture suffered a bit as a result. In contrast, I liked the flow of the C major fugue, where there was a real sense of architecture and forward movement. Personally I would have preferred a lighter and more transparent registration to match the texture of the writing (I don't see why all Bach fugues have to have been organo pleno pieces), but the approach taken here sounds well to me.

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One of the best pieces of advice I was given by a very eminent young(ish) organ teacher, who for some years now has been heavily involved in RCO examining is that we should record ourselves playing. Our voices - singing and speech - sound different to others than they do to us because the physical way we hear our voices is different to that of others listening to us. Likewise, our musical performances which we hear at the moment we are giving them are inevitably subjective, internalised and transitory. Hearing a recording of oneself playing is a salutory but very worthwhile experience. I commented to the person who gave me this advice that my recorded performances sound quite different from what I expected; he laughed and said that he and everyone else finds this as well. I should add that he gives recitals all over the world and has won prizes in international competitions. Another leading organist who advocates regularly recording one's playing (especially practice) is Daniel Moult.

 

By doing this you can hear for yourself whether your playing sounds mannered, unrhythmic, unstylistic, inartistic or what have you. It can be a painful experience but it is a useful experience from which much can be learned in a postive way. A Zoom H2 recorder is more than adequate and can be got from Maplins. If you don't already do this I very strongly recommend that you start doing so, regardless of whether you are working for an exam or a recital.

 

Malcolm

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I agree with much that has been said above, especially Malcolm's contribution. You could also try playing along with your favourite interpreter(s). Having previously tried this, in preparation for the same exam, the sound one hears rarely tallies with the actual "feel". What is really important IMHO is projecting the sense of the musical argument to the listener, however much stylistic interpretation is added. Ornaments should do what is said on the tin - embellish the argument rather than draw undue attention to themselves.

 

Hope this helps.

 

M

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I must agree that recording yourself is very instructive. As Malcolm says, the difference between how you think your playing sounds and how it actually does sound is, more often than not, a very salutary experience. When I bought my toaster years ago I had a floppy disk drive incorporated so that I could do this - and very helpful it has been. I ought to use it a lot more than I do.

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