A couple of weekends ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a baroque bow workshop led by Elinor Frey, organized by Suzuki Montreal. It was a two-part workshop, the first half being for violins, and the second half being for celli. The bowing techniques she was talking about were generalized enough that they were applicable to all bowed instruments. (I managed to work past crippling social anxiety to get there, too, so yay me.)
Elinor brought her five-string baroque cello so that she could play the violins’ piece just up a string, and it was gorgeous. (It’s the one in all her current publicity shots, as she has a new album out, Berlin Sonatas; you should check it out! It’s lovely! I am also a big fan of her earlier album with that label, La Voce del Violoncello.) The celli were scheduled to play the Lully gavotte by Marais from the third Suzuki book. Interestingly, the violins were playing a transcription of the bourree from Bach’s third solo cello suite. Usually other instruments get stuck playing transcriptions of violin works, but this time the shoe was on the other foot! So since the celli were sitting through the violin part of the class anyhow, we all brought our versions of the solo suites and made notes on the bowing stuff and the bourree specifically. And I’m glad I did, because there was no way to take notes during our part of the session! Since we’d all listened and made notes during the first half, we had the time to explore the techniques further in our part of the class.
Elinor talked about bowing gesture and release being two of the main components of baroque phrasing. The gesture part is the initial physical impetus, which creates a more emphasized sound with bow speed, and the release is the gradual diminished activity that translates to softer sound. It’s not just a dynamics thing, though. It’s a phrasing thing. Because a baroque bow is shaped and held differently, the power naturally lessens about two-thirds of the way along the bow toward the tip. We can’t use the shoulder torque and back muscles that we do with a modern bow to maintain weight and contact toward the tip, so that natural diminuendo has to be incorporated into the performance. The gesture comes from the elbow, and when you’re using a baroque hold on a modern bow, it’s really hard to lead with the wrist, as many of us tend to do. And interestingly, the gesture doesn’t necessarily come at the beginning of a bar; it’s often (but not always) on one of the strong beats.
We approximated the baroque bow by holding our modern bows a few inches away from the frog. I think of it as choking up on the bow, the way I choke up on a baseball bat (because those are always too long for me, and the balance point is off). I’ve done this before, not with my previous teacher but on my own, when I was doing independent reading about bowing. It naturally makes the bow lighter and it pretty much negates my unconscious tendency to lift the bow at the beginning and end of my bow strokes, keeping the bow in the string and producing a nice, creamy sound. It also made that wretched scale run in the gavotte a lot easier, I discovered during the class.
Elinor talked about giving different notes weight in order to create a different palette of sound, going beyond the basic blocks of bars. It does still have to sound organic, though, and one of the techniques she shared with us was looking at the music for visual clues. In the bourree she pointed out a passage with low notes and high notes that formed a kind of dialogue in the music, the high notes being one voice, answered by the lower notes/voice. Since our ears hear higher notes more clearly, she had the violins play the lower voice/notes with more presence, using the gesture impetus for those and the natural release for the higher voice/notes. The result was a very pleasing contrast.
We also discussed interpretation and learning about the music. When starting a new piece, Elinor said she always researches it to learn as much about it as she can. If it’s music for a dance (which, of course, both the gavotte and the bourree are), learn about the dance, because how it’s danced will impact how you play the music for it. She also tries to find a manuscript form of the music, because that can give you insight as well if all you know is a clean modern edition with standardized bowings and slurs.
We had an interesting tangent about Suzuki citations and attributions, too. Just as I discovered when I was reading about the Lully gavotte (because of course I read about most of the pieces I am assigned; I am a research geek, one of my charming Ravenclaw tendencies), she said that she’d found out the gavotte wasn’t written by Lully; it was written by Marais, and dedicated to Lully. Over time, the ‘Lully’ gavotte became ‘the Lully gavotte,’ which became interpreted as being ‘the gavotte by Lully.’ So yes, while there is misleading and erroneous attribution in the Suzuki corpus, it’s a great opportunity to teach students to not blindly accept whatever they read and to double-check everything.
All in all, it was a wonderful afternoon. I left feeling excited about my instrument and experimenting with the new ideas. I’m currently working on the two minuets from the first solo cello suite, so a lot of it is directly applicable. While some of the subjects she addressed I had been exposed to either through my own work or in orchestra, it was a lovely chance to observe a baroque cellist with baroque instrument and bow, and to think about a different approach to the music and performance, and experiment accordingly. I really hope we can do this again with Elinor, with another piece of music.