Here are some tips from MENC member Angelo Moreno, orchestra director at Davis High School Orchestra in Davis, California, on starting your own Baroque Orchestra.
Building Support for the New Ensemble
A Baroque Orchestra can be a unique expansion to your already existing strings program, similar to a jazz band for your band program. It should be a smaller ensemble (like a jazz band) or as small as your administrators will allow. Keeping it small will preserve the specific character and performance feel that is unique to this style of ensemble and music. Moreno believes that, “In order to start a Baroque ensemble, especially in the eyes of your district, you must show with concrete numbers that your enrollment trends warrant this sort of an expansion and that proper performance of this type of music warrants this type of ensemble.”
If purchasing Baroque instruments isn’t feasible for your school, try converting modern instruments. According to Moreno, a basic conversion consists of replacing the modern bridge and tailpiece with a Baroque-style bridge and tailpiece, replacing steel strings with gut strings, and removing all metal fine tuners and chinrests. Violin and viola students should not use a shoulder rest, and cellists and bassists should remove the endpin from their instruments. If converting instruments seems too daunting, try buying Baroque style bows to start.
Having everyone in the ensemble tune to A = 415 and adding a harpsichord will add to the unique sound the ensemble can produce. Moreno says, “Learning to play harpsichord with all of its articulation and dynamic difficulties, as well as learning to read figured bass lines, will challenge even your most experienced pianists.” Ask the students to stand when playing. Lead the orchestra from your violin and play/conduct while facing your students (back to your audience), gesturing them with your bow and body for entrances, dynamics, and articulation arrivals.
With a smaller group, you can really focus on intonation issues at the individual level, as well as advanced bowing techniques including precise bow hold, tone production (pressure and speed influences), articulations, dynamics, and tone coloring. You can also focus on detailed ensemble playing techniques such as breathing together, moving together with the music, following the bow strikes of your leader, and matching bow styles and articulations in a more intimate setting.
Moreno declares, “The closer you are able to get to an authentic performance practicing, the more unique learning opportunities you can create for your students. All of these added nuances will challenge even your strongest players and add to the overall enjoyment of the ensemble experience.”
— Nicole Springer, October 7, 2009. © National Association for Music Education.