The Lute Society: Summer School Review Norvis 2008

NORVIS early music summer school 2008

Report by Jil Segerman

NORVIS is a great opportunity to immerse yourself in lute playing, and to branch out into all sorts of musical activites. You choose the mix. If you can find time in the busy schedule, there’s the beautiful city of Durham to explore, just a short walk along the river bank.

In the mornings there were two teaching sessions. Lutenists could choose to do two sessions of lute, or one of lute and one of something else: viols, violin family, recorders, harpsichord or singing. This year the lute tutors were the usual team, Martin Eastwell and Stewart McCoy. There were about a dozen lute students, with a whole range of abilities from total beginner to highly competent. There were almost as many different instruments; Renaissance lutes in all sizes and pitches, baroque lutes, archlutes. And a few non-lutes that managed to sneak in: baroque guitar, vihuela and bandora.

Martin and Stewart were totally unphased by this richness of variety, and put together an inspiring set of sessions. Usually the group would split into two, depending on what people wanted to do. The first session concentrated mainly on technique; sometimes group teaching, and sometimes individual mini-lessons with the rest of the group watching and picking up hints that they could use. (Or chilling out after the excesses of the previous day.) These mini-lessons were very informal and not as scarey as it might seem, because we were a friendly group, so no one had to feel bad about making mistakes. All of us were there to learn, whatever stage we were at. It was amazing how even the most advanced people could learn something from watching a complete beginner.

After morning coffee, there was a choice of opportunities for group playing: lute trios and quartets, extemporised divisions, lute songs, reading from staff notation and from figured bass. The whole class worked up a massed-lutes piece to play in the students’ concert, an arrangement of the Morales Missa Mille Regretz.

In the afternoons, with the serious work done, people could join the choir or the baroque orchestra. Then after tea was “choice of delights”, with half a dozen different activities to choose from every day. These included early dance, and every imaginable group-combination, besides some more arcane pursuits such as playing from facsimile, and a trip to see the Durham Cathedral manuscripts. A highlight for me was playing Renaissance viols with Richard and Vivien Jones. Richard is one of the best makers of Renaissance viols. These instruments have a different construction to the viols that most of us are used to, and a lovely clear tone that brings out every line, even in a many-part counterpoint, which so well suits the early repertoire.

In the evenings were student concerts, and tutors concerts (a real treat), and a celidh. To round off each day, there was a short meditation in the chapel, on a non-religious theme, with readings or poetry or music. Then time to get to the bar before closing. The last-night’s concert was a performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with most of the course students taking part: soloists, choir and orchestra, and dancers.

The downside? Nothing too serious. The accommodation is pretty basic, it’s on a university campus, and with public access, so the rooms have to be locked up. This means carrying your things around with you, and it’s a very hilly site, so the more you play bass instruments the more healthy exercise you get.

The other problem is that with so much going on it can be hard to find the time to practise in between one lesson and the next. But this diversity of things to do is what makes NORVIS special, that and the interesting people you meet, both students and tutors. Each person at NORVIS will find their own way to open up to new experiences, or to improve on their chosen instrument.