JOHNSON CITY (Sept. 26, 2013) – The music of the Renaissance and Baroque periods is getting new life on the campus of East Tennessee State University this fall with the creation of the Collegium Musicum ensemble.
This student ensemble performs on replicas of historic instruments to recreate the authentic sounds of the 13th-18th centuries. Dr. Heather Killmeyer, assistant professor of Music at ETSU, is the conductor of the group.
Collegium Musicum will present its debut concert, “Welcome to the Consort,” on Thursday, Oct. 3, at 7:30 p.m. in the Mathes Hall auditorium. Admission is free.
The idea for the new ensemble was sparked last year when a couple of students in Killmeyer’s “Woodwind Repertoire” class were rummaging through the Department of Music’s instrumental storage room and came across a shawm, a double-reed instrument similar to the oboe.
Killmeyer accompanied the students back to the storage room, where they dug further and found several other replicas of Baroque and Renaissance period instruments. They located a set of Baroque recorders and a set of Renaisssance recorders, with each set comprised of soprano, alto, tenor and bass instruments. Other finds included a dulcian, a precursor to the modern bassoon; a crumhorn, a “strange little instrument” that makes a buzzy sound; a rackett, or German sausage bassoon, which is a double-reed instrument the size of a beer bottle; a cornamuse, a double-reed instrument with a windcap and soft, pleasant sound; and a chalumeau, a predecessor of today’s clarinet.
“I’ve always been interested in the Baroque period, as that was a heyday for the oboe,” said Killmeyer, herself an oboist. “I got excited and said to the students, ‘We should have an early music ensemble here!’”
She learned that an early music section was already in the university catalog and that there was once a well-established period ensemble. However, the class had not been available for years because no one was teaching it. So, with the blessing of then-Department of Music Chair Dr. Frank Grzych, who retired at the end of the spring semester, she began to develop the early music course that began this fall.
“I’ve not seen my students this excited about anything until now,” Killmeyer said. “They’re very enthusiastic. One of the students even brought donuts for everyone to our first rehearsal.
“Most of the students in the class have already fulfilled their ensemble degree requirement, but they are choosing to participate anyway, so that shows a lot about their dedication.”
None of the six students currently participating in the ensemble have had any experience playing the period instruments, Killmeyer says, except for two who played a recorder in the second or third grade. Two are oboe players, one is a studio art major who is very active in music even though it’s not his major, and another is a saxophone student who, after reading music primarily in treble clef, is now reading in the bass clef to play bass recorder. A couple of them are even vocal music majors for whom playing an instrument is entirely new.
“This is challenging for the kids since modern instruments are basically more progressive versions of what they’re playing on,” Killmeyer said. “There are some similarities in fingering, but it’s not the same. It’s very easy for them to sometimes suddenly switch to their old fingering.
“Plus, the instruments aren’t as in tune as modern instruments. Manufacturers today are always making adjustments to fix problems with the instruments, but these are basically replicas of what (musicians) played when the music was written, and the same technology wasn’t around.”
Killmeyer also pointed out that the music is very different for the students, who have never played many, if any, Baroque or Renaissance works.
“It’s been good to see the independence displayed by the students,” she continued. “We have mostly two people to a part – two bass recorders, two tenor parts. There are three on the alto part, but only one on soprano recorder. This is different than in the larger Wind Ensemble, where there are usually around four saxophones and eight clarinets. There, if one person gets a little lost, they can rely on the others to help them and jump back in. There’s not that luxury with a chamber ensemble. You have to be more independent. You have to be very prepared, and be cool.”
Killmeyer herself has found this experience challenging, as she had never directed an early music ensemble before, and the breathing techniques needed are different between the older and modern instruments.
“We’ve been having a lot of fun learning together as we go along,” she said.
In addition to the students, some other musicians from the campus and community have joined the Collegium Musicum ensemble. They include Dr. Jack Branscomb, a retired professor of English who played in the previous early music ensemble at ETSU; Charlie Warden, a photographer and videographer with Photographic Services in the ETSU Office of University Relations; and Dr. Lee Bidgood, an assistant professor of Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies in the Department of Appalachian Studies.
Killmeyer hopes to see even more participation for the Collegium Musicum holiday concert in November, when some additional community musicians may come on board, and in the spring, when some students who had scheduling conflicts for the fall will be able to join.
For more information, contact the ETSU Department of Music at (423) 439-4276 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For disability accommodations, call the ETSU Office of Disability Services at (423) 439-8346 by Friday, Sept. 27; accommodation requests after this date cannot be guaranteed.