January 28, 2018


Approaching Baroque Style with Modern String Players

January 28, 2018


Approaching Baroque Style with Modern String Players


In this interview with Vox Humana Editor Christopher Holman, Zachary Carrettin, notable American baroque violinist and Director of the Boulder Bach Festival, presents practical rehearsal techniques, contracting strategies, and conducting techniques that can guide modern string players to playing baroque music in a historically-informed way.


Zachary, many thanks for agreeing to this interview. I find that many organists don’t often know the major players of historical instruments in the U.S. and Europe. To begin, could you talk about your journey as a professional musician?

I was fortunate to be a student in Houston in the late 1980s, a fertile time for historical performance practice. Sergiu Luca had just started Da Camera Society and was teaching at Rice University. Ken Goldsmith was at the University of Houston (later Rice University), and the two were bringing artists such as Roel Dieltiens (cello) from Belgium, Richard Wolfe (viola) from Amsterdam, Charles Neidich (clarinet), and so many others that contributed to a thriving but small historical performance music scene, playing for audiences seeking to witness the musical journeys of insightful and inquisitive artists. Sergiu then started Music-in-Context, and his colleague Brian Connelly performed on so many pianos from the classical period through the late romantic in chamber music on that series.

While I was a sophomore in high school, Ken put a baroque violin in my hands, a couple bows, a stack of manuscripts, first editions, critical editions, books, and recordings, and said, “Have a good summer." My high school studies included reading Neumann, Donnington, Harnoncourt, primary sources, articles, and developing an ornamentation style that enhanced my relationship to the instrument. Later I became a student of Sergiu, performed with Brian, participated in their summer chamber music festival twice on the Oregon coast, traveled to Italy thrice on manuscripts research grants in collaboration with Ken, recorded freshly resurrected quintets from the eighteenth century, and on and on. All of this was a part of my high school, undergraduate, and graduate education. Therefore, the very first Brahms sonata I ever played was practiced both on gut and metal strings together. By 1993 I’d already heard the music of Charles Ives performed on historical instruments of the early twentieth century, and I had embraced the challenges of playing Haydn quartets on modern instruments, having played and heard them on the instruments of Haydn’s sound world. All that was just the beginning, and how fortunate I was!

During grad school I played baroque instrument productions in Houston and then at the San Luis Obispo Mozart Festival, where I met such luminaries as violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock, and the virtuoso bassist Kristen Zoernig. Eventually I moved to Berkeley so that I could play with so many exquisite artists in ensembles such as the American Bach Soloists and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. I stayed five years as a profound post graduate professional education, after which I turned to concertmaster and solo work, and conducting. Naturally, I continued studies in the U.S. and Europe, and made many sacrifices to be able to do so. Eventually I studied conducting with Dumitru Goia, who had been a student of Rabinovich, assisted Mravinsky, and knew Shostakovich (and Goia attended numerous world premieres of the latter’s work). My teachers ignited the fire in an inquisitive spirit, and my life thus far has been wonderfully colored by artists who inspired me with their philosophies about the art, their distinct processes, and how they have used historical and modern instruments as tools for exploration.

What attracted you to the baroque violin? How do modern violinists become interested in period instruments?

Peter Kivy’s book, Authenticities: Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance, examines motivations for seeking authentic performance practices on historical instruments. One chapter deals with Authenticity as Sound. The sound world of those Franz Bruggen (live) recordings of the Beethoven symphonies, and then comparing them to Gardiner, opened the doors of perception. The sense of Affekt, the rhetorical statements, and the experience of music as speech, were thrilling to me and my fellow students. Ken used studio classes to reveal interpretive distinctions to us all, for example playing a recording of Karajan conducting the overture to Don Giovanni and then contrasting it with Gardiner. The class would then discuss the meter, the tempo, the speed of harmonic activity, engaging in perception and dialogue together.

Speaking of the sound, I played on Sergiu’s Santo Serafino violin, an instrument never altered and therefore in its original baroque state. In 1993 I played on Sigiswald Kuijken’s Grancino violin in Belgium, also in its original state and soon thereafter heard Simon Standage on his Grancino in Prague, also unaltered. These were important experiences as well, to hear the power, depth, response, and gorgeous cantilena of these instruments that also had the quintessential “baroque” sound. In these years I played with organists in many northern Italian churches and was enchanted by the sound of these instruments in their original acoustic environments. Hearing the legato polyphonic lines resounding with clarity and beauty in these stone spaces had an impact, and again, connected me to the music through a particular sound world.

Many of us organists are on some level interested in performance practice, though we don’t typically play string instruments. Further, there aren’t that many period string players around in most areas of the U.S. — so if we, for instance, put together a moderate sized modern instrument orchestra to perform something like the Vivaldi Gloria with our church choir, what are some quick things we can tell modern instrument players in the first rehearsal to help them get into “performance practice mode”?

Whom you hire as concertmaster has the greatest impact on your orchestra’s sound, bow strokes, woodwind phrasing, and general sense of ensemble. Pay more to get the right musician in that seat, and preferably one who is respected, as the players will look at him/her often. That can be disconcerting to a young conductor; just remember, the musicians look at the concertmaster for the start of notes and releases, and what part of the bow to utilize. They need to look at him/her more often than at the conductor, and more directly. The players look to the conductor more peripherally, for gesture, sound, shape of the phrase/line, dynamics, and the character of articulations. When the concertmaster and conductor know one another and have met regarding the nuances of the repertoire, the ensemble plays better, and benefits from “connected” leadership.

Your concertmaster should bow his/her part weeks before the music goes out, and then the principal second violinist, violist, cellist, and bassist receive a PDF or copy of the concertmaster’s part so they, too can match the bowings. If this is done before the parts are mailed out, your orchestra will arrive sounding as though they’ve already had one rehearsal. The concertmaster might choose to mark in a full score, which is preferred, because even though the second violins have the same rhythmic figure, theirs may be offset — on a weaker harmony or pulse, suggesting they should do the opposite bowing (perhaps).

Many times we have neither the luxury nor the time to do all I’ve stated. In that case, you may consider having the concertmaster lead a full strings sectional (three hours unless your program is short). S/he can solve these issues, and bowings can be written in without the conductor getting frustrated at what seems like a wasted rehearsal. (Definitely observe though, and the concertmaster may have some questions for you).

In either scenario (marking parts ahead of time with bowings, or having a strings sectional), the conductor must either meet with the concertmaster ahead of time to go through phrases, and/or must mark a score with dynamics/articulations/tempos so the concertmaster knows the style he/she is supposed to achieve for the conductor. Doing this many times over many years teaches a keyboardist conductor so many important and subtle aspects that will make him/her ever so brilliant in the capacity of music director. Understanding the difference between the ideal and the mechanics of the reality is what makes instrumentalists enjoy playing for a conductor.

Finally, to actually answer your question: one should listen to many period instrument recordings, watch the ensembles’ videos on YouTube, and attend live concerts performed by the better players, so one is aware of the possibilities (and the limitations). I once knew a conductor who refused to listen to recordings as he feared the influence of others as being something that would close his mind to other ideas he might have had otherwise. I don’t agree with this in the slightest. First of all, hearing others’ ideas is an integral part of our discipline; we just use modern means today as we usually cannot take a very long walk to hear Buxtehude anymore, sadly. Certainly, recordings are not the same process of music making nor the same result as live performance, but they can still inform us. Videos are really great, and in a small and limited way, are a bit like traveling the world in the course of an hour. You might observe a master of a particular approach to historical fingering or pedaling practices, someone you may never have had the opportunity to see up close were it not for the video.

To challenge anyone’s opinions, we first have to understand where they’re coming from. How would you describe the musical mindset of a string player who has never studied historically-informed performance, and what sort of verbiage can we use in rehearsals to gently encourage them to play in a more informed way?

That’s difficult. First of all, hold the bow at least one inch higher up the stick (for violin, viola, cello;, and for double bassists, using a French bow-hold this applies as well double bass — it’s not possible with the German hold). The violins, violas, and cellos may need to tighten the bows just a touch more as well. Doing these two things creates a feeling of holding a type of eighteenth-century classical period bow, a lighter feeling in the hand. Tell them to allow the bow to decay on down strokes especially, and to let the sound be smaller, not forcing the tone, even in forte. The energetic playing should come from “more bow speed, less pressure/weight.

In most baroque music with a succession of eighth notes, suggest they play stepwise motion as legato (not adding slurs, but rather smooth-but-alternating down/up bow strokes, unless slurs are printed in that passage). Intervals of a third and larger can have just a touch of space between the notes. The stroke should be “brushed,” not staccato, sostenuto, or excessively spicatto, unless you are going for that effect intentionally. If you have the time and audio speakers, you might play them a couple minutes of a recording, even if it is at low pitch. This won’t work with a large chorus selection as the strings won’t hear enough to change their playing, but in a sinfonia or overture, this can help. Woodwinds should be encouraged to breathe more often, (partial breaths), to make shorter phrases within longer lines, leading to rhetorical statements. Brass should decay every half note (and longer values) unless you prefer a messa da voce or in contrast, a sustained effect. Timpanists’ sheet music should have crescendos and diminuendos added by the conductor, or at least request it in rehearsal if there is time.

Choose the right repertoire! Vivaldi Gloria is perfect for a church freelance orchestra, for example, and two rehearsals are always better than one if the conductor has ideas and listens well. However, the Bach Orchestral Suites are generally the worst music you can program on limited funds and rehearsal time, with modern players (or period players).

Finally, intonation. If you are hiring modern players with an organ or harpsichord, tune it to A=440 (or A=441), and use a near-equal temperament, of which there are several easily accessible today through your phone apps, such as Cleartune. If you have a cadence in E Major, for example, and the G-sharp is too high in the violins or flute, don’t play it repeatedly on the keyboard. Instead, let the players tune the chord, well-balanced, and with a beautiful sonority. The keyboardist can release the third so it doesn’t sustain if it is not as in tune as the strings/flute. Your modern strings should tune normally, taking the “A” and tuning fifths. If the open G is flat they may finger it slightly. If the open E is sharp they may avoid the use of long open E’s by fingering the note on the A-string.

It is more involved for the basso continuo. The best scenario is to hire a continuo cellist that plays both modern and baroque instruments at a high level. This is as important as your concertmaster and will cost money from your budget. The cellist will play modern cello but understands the nature of playing the bass line in unison with organ and harpsichord. He/she may choose to tune every open string to the keyboard, (but that doesn’t mean the violins and violas need to do so, on the contrary). Now, you have a good near-equal tuning, your violins/violas have good fifths, your awesome baroque-experienced cellist has tuned each string… and the double bass arrives. Generally this is a solid, wonderful player that probably knows nothing of what the cellist does in the baroque scene, technically and musically. Your challenge is to get less “core” from the bass player, more shadow of the sound, more blend. The exceptions include when the chorus is singing. If your chorus has 40+ members, the bass player will need to access that core sound again, to give foundation to the ensemble’s sound. When you hire strings and you are ideally seeking terrific baroque players who will play modern instruments for your gig, I suggest the following order of priorities in hiring:

1. Concermaster/Principal Cello
2. Double Bass
3. Principal Second Violin
4. Principal Viola

I find that if I use the phrase “straight tone” with a choir, the singers don’t sound so good. Are there any phrases like that which we should avoid in this context?

For string players and flutists: “please use a narrow vibrato width, but not fast.” It is difficult because usually we get fast/narrow or slow/wide. What we want is slow/narrow (or medium/narrow), but not too slow as it will sound affected. Truth be told, we want the straight tones! But just as singers have been trained that vibrato is more natural than non vibrato, and the technique they’ve been taught reinforces this, string players and flutists have the same challenge. They have learned to color every note. If vibrato is to be used as an ornament or a special device, the ensembles must learn to play and sing without it. The result is that the harmonies (intonation) and the counterpoint are ever so much more evident (which also leads to challenges as maybe the group sounded better with vibrato!). The happy medium is a narrow but not agitated vibrato — control it. With the orchestra it’s best to ask for a sound (ask the concertmaster or the principal of the instrument in question), and let the player decide on the technique. “Can the sound decay on the cadence?” is better than “end down bow, please.”

You also studied orchestral conducting and have played under some of the greatest conductors of both modern and period instrument orchestras, including Jordi Savall, Nicholas McGegan, Richard Egaar, Reinhard Geobel, Christoph Eschenbach, Dimitri Kitaenko, Rafael Frubeck de Burgos, Giovanni Antonini, and others. Most of us organists are much more comfortable with choral conducting. What sorts of gestures help choirs that maybe aren’t so helpful to orchestras?

The chorus’s response to a beat generally happens at the apex, while many instrumentalists in the U.S. respond earlier, just after the landing of the beat. When conducting a Mass I sometimes have to remind the orchestra to listen to the chorus. The impression is the chorus is behind, but often that is not the case. Once I told the orchestra the chorus is responding at the apex (after the “beat”), and there was a general sense of “aha, I get it now”. That said, I personally despise excessive beating and find it to be the death of all art in music. So, life is a series of thoughtful negotiations. The orchestra needs the start, the transitions, and the endings. In between, a conductor can be part of the sound, riding the line and showing (ahead of time) the shapes with small and elegant gestures. Fingers can show diminuendos beautifully and a hand barely moving can keep the players involved and listening. The speed and size of gestures determines the attack of the note, whether it is played as a vowel or consonant, the speed of the breath and bow, the texture of the sound, and even the balance of the chord tones. With choirs, the info and gestures can be different, from diction, to style of fugal entrances. Also, the hierarchy of strong and weak beats should be rehearsed but also reinforced with the gestures. When the choir drops out, the orchestra either surges to take over, or perhaps the music is spacious, mellow. In the latter case, get small immediately, (let them play). It’s ideal better to “train” the ensembles to double the energy with the raising of your arm, than to do calisthenics in order to achieve a result. Sometimes results happen from breaking the rules or negotiating your ideal. Ultimately, in a well-trained ensemble, the conductor disappears and is simply an elegant reinforcement of what is being heard. However, he/she is not following. He/she is thinking ahead, showing ahead, and reacting as needed, all while revealing an ideal through sheer will and presence of being.

All that said, orchestras don’t respond well to conducted hemiolas, nor to conducted melodic rhythms. If your choir sings with orchestra it is best to rehearse the choir by conducting beat patterns with the right hand and expressive info with the left hand. Of course you may always do less than that (or even switch hands for entrances and such), but conducting a hemiola outside of the beat pattern will only get in the way of the orchestra’s sense of the pulse and ensemble.

Different ensembles have different needs, and rehearsal time (or lack thereof) plays a part in all this. Sometimes the beat is necessary for the sense of pulse in a choir or orchestra, especially if hearing one another is difficult in a particular acoustic space. I once played a Heinrich Schütz polychoral concert in Grace Cathedral (San Francisco) during which the conductor used a glow stick! And we were grateful.

What string forces would you recommend for a church choir project like excerpts from Handel’s Messiah with a choir of around 20–30 amateur singers? And how about 40–50 singers?

Strings from violins down to bass: a string quintet can be lovely, especially if your program doesn’t have brass.

With the latter option of 40 singers: 3-3-2-1-1 (you can have two cellos but you may not need the second one if you have organ, for example, and if your principal cello is a baroque player who tunes open strings to the temperament, I recommend against a second cello as that musician should not be expected to tune differently on a gig; it would only result in poor intonation).

This is based on modern instruments, with organ and some woodwinds.

Sure, 4-4-3-2-1 is lovely wonderful, but even with 50 non-professional singers, it may be too much. It really depends on the size of the choral sound and the median age of the chorister. Younger choirs may be able to handle a larger instrumentation.

You’ve recently taken up cello da spalla. Can you tell us about that? And what are your other current research interests and projects?

The shoulder cello is more of a manner of holding a basso instrument, rather than an instrument itself, and can refer to any number of differently-sized instruments, distinct numbers of strings, and tunings. Research in the mid-1990s by Gregory Barnett and later by Dimitri Badiarov has opened a door to a colorful universe of cello playing for violinists and violists! During the baroque era, some cellos were played with a shoulder strap (held as a fiddle, without the chin) in choir lofts where space was limited, in theatrical and street performances, and by violinists who either didn’t play cello and viola da gamba, or simply preferred the smaller cello. Matteson writes that, when adding a cello da spalla to the continuo, “a bass [line] cannot be brought out more distinctly clearly.” Numerous other references to bassetto, violoncino, violonzono, and fagottgeige exist, and probably many title pages and roster sheets that mention “basso” had a shoulder-held “cello” in the group. Several images of players exist from the baroque as well, and the instruments vary to a striking degree.

I own two of these instruments, a very large one that really sounds as a cello piccolo, tuned as a normal cello, and a smaller cello da spalla, tuned an octave lower than a violin. Next summer I plan to do a program with Guy Fishman (Principal Cello of Handel Haydn Society) and Ian Watson (Harpsichordist and Music Director of Connecticut Early Music Festival), featuring both of my cellos da spalla in melodic and basso continuo contexts, sharing the stage with Guy’s gorgeous seventeenth century Roman cello. I also plan to record four of the Bach cello suites on baroque violin, modern violin, electric violin, and cello da spalla.

Here’s a link to the electric violin, and it may be different than many would expect:

We talk often about HIP — historically informed performance. In recent years, I’ve considered RAP as a personal credo: Real Authentic Practice. The composer-musicians we revere (especially in the baroque), played numerous instruments, sang, composed music, and improvised. They knew the music of their time intimately, and were able to sight read this music with a familiarity we can only strive to achieve today. I encourage my violin students to play the bass lines, study the figures, read the primary sources, and to ornament, embellish, and improvise. This gets us off the page and into the music. To quote from the title of Barthold Kuijken’s 2013 monograph, The Notation is Not the Music.



Gregory Barnett. “Deconstructing Corelli’s Bass Violin.” Basler Jahrbuch für historische Musikpraxis 37, 193–210. Available from Amadeus

Dmitry Badiarov. “The Violoncello, Viola da Spalla and Viola Pomposa in Theory and Practice.” The Galpin Society Journal 60, 121–145. Available on JSTOR

Barthold Kuijken. The Notation is Not the Music. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013). Available here.

Johann Mattheson. Das Neu‐eröffnete Orchestre. (Hamburg: B. Schiller, 1713), §22. Available on IMSLP.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Vox Humana.