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Bonzer Words!: Making Music

This column by Michael Grounds and Elizabeth Sinclair tells of the delight of making music imperfectly with other people. It's more fun and better for the soul than hearing it performed perfectly by someone else.

Michael and Elizabeth write for Bonzer! magazine www.bonzer.org.au

We spent a week at a music camp at Harrietville (pop.130) in the Victorian Alps. At any given time there are more visitors than residents. This was the week for the visitors to be musicians. It's an annual camp, and we've been going since 1981, which we worked out by checking the maker's label inside Elizabeth's viola. When we first went the glue hadn't had long to set and when we took a short cut along a dirt road we had to turn back for fear the viola would shake apart.

There are a hundred amateurs at the camp, and ten tutors who between them manage an orchestra, a string orchestra, a wind band, a concert band, a big band, a choir for choristers and another for everyone, and a recorder consort. We only got to play in the same room when it was orchestra. First night they sit you down in the rec. hall, pass out the music, raise the baton and off you go, full tilt. It's as hair-raising as the Big Dipper at the fun fair, but without the fear of death.

The orchestra did two big pieces; Variations on a Traditional Theme, by Rachmaninov, and one movement of a cello concerto still in the process of being written by one of the camp cellists who's in first year at the Melbourne Uni music school. The Variations called for a lot of agility through semiquaver passages, but if you can't quite manage them you can play every second note and no-one notices. Even if you get caught you're not going to be fired. The concerto was something else again. Modern composers don't like to stick to one rhythm for long, so we were counting 3/4 and 5/4 bars in amongst the 4/4s. We got it together eventually and had the privilege of premiering it at the final concert, a privilege amateurs don't often get. The young composer/soloist had the huge benefit of hearing, live, the sounds he had conjured up in his head and then written into his computer. Great fun all round.

We learned something about Percy Grainger, a world composer who grew up in Victoria. It was he, we were told, who pioneered the concert band movement which is now such a feature of the American school music scene. The wind band (in which Michael was one of the two bassoons) prepared several pieces written in America for this scene, pieces of joy and passion so arranged as to give every instrumental section its moment of prominence. Two bassoons, but heaps of clarinets and flutes and saxophones and an adequacy of brass players. One of the problems with being a bassoonist is that you get to sit in front of the trombones. Noble instruments, but more noble the further away you get.

Every evening there was happy hour before dinner. We sat on the lawn and drank good Australian cheap wine, and listened to eight or ten items from individuals or small groups who had been rehearsing pieces up in the rare moments of spare time. We two played duets for viola and bassoon on the first two nights when there weren't yet many takers. There aren't many duets for that combination in the classical repertoire—none actually—so Michael writes them himself, or arranges them from the piano parts of popular songs. (Songs from the Golden Era of Popular Song, which was when we were between 15 and 25. The Golden Era was between those ages for every generation—try anyone out and you'll see.)

We had had our Golden wedding anniversary in December, and the conductor of our home orchestra gave us the gift of a rumba, with words, for viola and bassoon. We played that, without words, and we played on our instruments a recorder duet Michael had written as a present for a friend's seventieth birthday. She is almost chairbound with MS, but her fingers can still manage a descant recorder and her husband plays tenor, so the present was set for them.

We played morning noon and night and came away near-exhausted and fully exhilarated, with everyone shouting 'See you next year!' Making music with other people, however imperfectly, is more fun and better for the soul than anything, except love.

© Michael Grounds and Elizabeth Sinclair


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