Back to the 16th Century for Beginner’s Mind

The fun part about not being tied down to a highly specialized music degree anymore is that nobody’s forcing me to play the instrument that I’ve learned to a very high level (the modern viola). I possibly should be, but it’s summer and I have no gigs, lessons, or work lined up yet, so there’s no pressure on.

There is, however, a very important birthday this month: that of Josquin des Prez, born on August 27 in 1521. Josquin was an important Renaissance composer found on every music history survey course curriculum, and for good reason: he wrote some pretty cool stuff.


In honour of Josquin’s 500th birthday, a countertenor and early music enthusiast of my acquaintance is organizing a two-week explorational workshop of Josquin and his contemporaries. Most of the participants are musicians or music students who play an instrument fluently, but who for this project are playing on period instruments they have never played before.

I am playing a viola da gamba. The viola da gamba (or just ‘viol’) is an instrument that was very popular in the Renaissance and early Baroque periods, but has fallen out of use since then outside of historically informed practice – and even there they are not as common as the baroque versions of modern instruments. I have played quite a bit of baroque viola, for example, and while it takes some adjusting it is doable in a few weeks to be able to play it half decently.

The viola da gamba is very new to me. To learn to play viola da gamba at the level that I learned to play the baroque viola would be a rather lengthier project. It is more similar to a cello than viola, but with a different bow and bow hold and tuning, and six strings instead of four. And no end-pin. Or fine tuners. And gut strings. And a flat back. So really not all that much like a cello after all – in fact, the double bass is the only member of the viol family still commonly in use today, it being more similar to a viol than any of the other modern string instruments.

So anyway, I have been learning an instrument in a posture I’ve never used, with a tuning I’ve never used, a plentitude of strings I’ve never used, all while reading in a clef I’m terrible at.

And I’m having so much fun.

My brain is creaking at the seams, I can barely keep up (in fact, I often can’t keep up), and an hour and a half passes before I even notice.

At the same time it’s an absolutely beautiful instrument and I am falling in love with it. Instruments in the Renaissance were often categorized as ‘loud’ or ‘outdoor’ instruments, and ‘quiet’ or ‘indoor’ instruments. For various reasons, over the centuries the quiet instruments were redesigned to be louder and the loud instruments were toned down to be able to play softer, allowing for nuanced ensemble playing in ensembles such as orchestras. Still, before all that, the viola da gamba existed as a quiet, indoor instrument meant for salons or the smaller chambers in one’s palace.

I’ve long complained that the modern way of playing stringed instruments is too much loud too much of the time. Some of the most constant feedback I get is to play louder, to project more. Yet I relish the softer sounds, and with a viola da gamba, if you try to force it to speak louder than it wishes to it protests with an energetic squawk. The instrument teaches you to play within its own resonance, within its own possibilities, and to revel in that. And revel I do. With no teacher to teach me how to play aside from the internet and the instrument itself, the learning experience is becoming something of a personal journey between the instrument and myself.

There are many interesting thoughts that have arisen as a part of this journey, and in the spirit of my previous post I may share some of my playing on other platforms as my learning continues. For now I will keep from bloating this blog post, and merely leave you with the promise of more interesting ponderings on learning early music and early stages in music learning.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *