When I find myself irritated for more than a day by a simple word such as “eatery” (see the last post) it is definitely time for a retreat. I’ve loved going to music camp ever since seventh grade, and for the past dozen years I have treated myself to music camp for grownups: the weeklong Medieval/Renaissance Workshop sponsored by the San Francisco Early Music Society. It’s a retreat to a time of softer instruments with no amplification, elegant dancing and impeccable manners, and entertainment that emerged from shared talents. The world before daily newspapers, radio, television, and the Internet spared its citizens from the constant bombardment of bad news from distant places. For a whole week I worried about which foot started each dance step and forgot about the oil well leak, the economy, and the wars.
While a workshop attended by sixty people is not exactly a solo retreat, I always use the time to pamper myself. Sonoma State University offers a single room and private bath in a pod of four rooms with shared kitchen and living room; I had privacy when I wanted it and good friends for late night playing sessions. I didn’t have to cook for myself, and while the university’s dining hall doesn’t exactly do spa cuisine, it’s possible to negotiate around the junk and pick out reasonably healthy food. Walking around the campus yields surprises such as the butterfly garden and hundreds of swallow nests, and each residence cluster has a pool. This year, each day began with a warmup stretch and simple dances led by dance mistress Anna Mansbridge, and we all tumbled into our beds at night after several rounds of English country dancing. Sherry hour is a relaxing antidote to a day full of challenging classes, although this year my last class was a Feldenkrais class which left me floating without the alcohol. Massages are usually offered at the silent auction.
I seek out ways to stretch myself at this workshop; in other years I have tried new instruments such as harp, viol or percussion. I’ve also taken vocal classes, although I don’t think of myself as a singer, and I try to take classes with new instructors on subjects I haven’t had before. This year I had plenty of opportunities for challenge. In my first class, Adam Knight Gilbert of USC explained the mysteries of Renaissance music theory: instead of octaves, music was built around six-note scales called hexachords which could be in many different modes, not just major and minor. In a hexachord, it’s not “do, a deer,” it’s “ut, a lute,” and without “ti, a drink with jam and bread” the solfege syllables had to move around like overlapping ladders. In another class, Dr. Gilbert helped us find the brief motifs that are frequently found in fifteenth century music; Renaissance composers had brains full of earworms and were constantly quoting each other. The second class of the day is the all-workshop collegium; I chose to sing Monteverdi motets rather than play my part on recorder. I learned tricks to find my note after several measures of rest (besides copying the person next to me). I also practiced forgiving my imperfections.
The week ends with student performances and celebrations, just in time to keep us from succumbing to exhaustion. When I find myself next June on the fringe of insanity, I’ll retreat again to the SFEMS Med/Ren workshop. The theme will be music from the fringes of Europe.