Monday, July 30, 2007

So what’s “Real Quill”?

Like others in this business, I tend to separate the instruments of the baroque band into three general types: blowers (winds), scrapers (strings) and pluckers (harpsichords, lutes, harps et al). We pluckers need some means of plucking our strings, and that’s where bird quill enters the picture.

The harpsichord’s mechanism is very simple. When depressed, a key makes a wooden jack rise and pass by a metal string. Attached to that jack is a little thing called a plectrum that plucks the string. Releasing the key causes a bit of felt at the top of the jack to damp the string, so that the “ring” of one string won’t interfere with the plucking of the next one.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, all plectrum were made of bird quill, just like old-fashioned writing pens except a much smaller piece of same. When the harpsichord was revived in the 20th century, builders thought they could do better with a plastic substance known as delrin, which mimics the characteristics of real quill but lasts longer. Only recently have leading builders and players decided that the real stuff is actually better: more musical, less prone to brittleness, and it even feels better underneath the fingers!

And as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m a recent convert. The three harpsichords in Houston I use most often — all built by John Phillips of Berkeley, CA — all now have real quill: turkey vulture and Canadian goose, to be exact. Have a look at his website for more information on the instruments:

So when you’re in a park or stretch of wilderness that’s frequented by big flyers (no sparrows or robins, please), gather up a few sturdy feathers and give them to a harpsichordist!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Round Top 7/14/07

Greetings from the Texas Hill Country! The Festival-Institute at Round Top, TX, is a place I love to visit, especially during the summer season when the place is literally crawling with musical talent. For those of you who’ve never been, have a look at and plan a visit sometime soon. Festival Hill regulars will know that this is a place for not only great music but wonderful food and frequent surprises: from neo-Roman ruins and whimsical fountains to harpsichordists who dabble occasionally in contemporary chamber music. Vive la difference! (and Happy Bastille Day!)

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of playing an organ recital and eucharist for a national conference of Lutheran church musicians at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston. Having grown up in that faith, I knew that Lutherans could sing, and (as some of you know) the Fisk organ at Palmer is not shy. I only hope the walls at Palmer are still standing, because I’m pretty sure we blew off the roof!

Speaking of organs and organists, it was great to see so many friends and colleagues recently at the American Guild of Organists convention in Dallas, and at the Boston Early Music Festival earlier in June. Lully’s “Psyché” (the BEMF centerpiece) was a triumph, well worth the trek to Boston.

I hope you’re enjoying the new Ars Lyrica website, and I look forward to introducing you to our new Executive Director, Kinga Ferguson, in the fall. Meanwhile, stay cool and enjoy summer’s many distractions!