Experiencing Early Music

by Casey Middaugh

Reproduced with permission of the International Society of Bassists, this article appeared in Bass World, Vol 27 #2.


I suppose that it was a rather odd sight: an auditorium sparsely populated with gray-haired couples and the front three rows packed with excited high school students acting like they were about to see a rock concert. The Academy of Ancient Music came out on stage with oddly shaped bows and well-worn instruments, instruments that looked loved.

When the orchestra began to play, a ripple of eagerness passed through the audience. It wasn’t the typical sound of a string orchestra. The sound was grainier, less metallic; you could hear the bows flowing across the gut strings. I began to notice the communication occurring throughout the ensemble. Each member of the orchestra was watching the others closely and was intensely involved in the playing. It was wonderful to see and hear this after having grown accustomed to playing in ensembles that, though technically proficient, were not invested in the music, where people were so involved in their own part that they lost what the piece was doing as a whole. These cellists in particular were enjoyable to watch because they played so enthusiastically. When they had a long singing note or an entrance they would look at each other, nod with the cue, and then grin.

My friend Joe and I made little excited noises when unexpected moments happened in the music or when the whole chamber orchestra came in for a big entrance after a quiet part, so our friend Colleen kept laughing at us. We spent the first half of the concert leaning forward in our seats, our chins in our hands, our mouths hanging open, our eyes glued to the stage, and every so often emitting a squeal, a laugh, or a little squirm, unable to keep all of the excitement inside.

I’ve wondered since what it was about this concert that affected me so deeply. It isn’t as though I had never seen talented and dedicated musicians play before. I must simply have been in the right place at the right time for this ensemble to speak to me. By the end of the first piece I knew that I wanted to play like these musicians. I finally saw an example of what I want to be when I grow up. It felt like coming home.

Normally when I go to concerts I get frustrated, because I would rather be on stage playing. With this concert I was happy to simply watch because the orchestra brought me in. I deeply wanted to be on that stage; not to keep me occupied, but because I wanted to know what it was that the orchestra was experiencing. In watching these musicians play I could see that they understood what the music was about; the context from whence it came. They showed everything in the way that they played the music. You didn’t have to be knowledgeable to understand that there was humor, irony, and poignancy in the music that the orchestra was playing.

The performance did much to remind me why it is that I want to be an accomplished musician. Music is about the conversation between the instruments, the dialogue that can occur and the teamwork and understanding that the conversation between instruments requires. It is easy to forget how much fun you can have when you care about what you are doing and understand what is going on. Sitting in a practice room playing scales isn’t necessarily fun, but it is necessary to get to the level of musicianship that I want to attain. I want to become the best bass player that I can be, but that doesn’t just mean technical achievement. I want to become an aware musician, a musically sensitive player who is enjoyable to watch perform.

Casey Middaugh started playing the bass in 6th grade with Charles Fuller and Ben Musa. She has played with award winning Garfield High School Orchestra, Seattle Youth Symphony, and Seattle Mahler Festival. Casey just completed her senior and post-graduate year at Interlochen Arts Academy and is sharing her enthusiasm for all types of music as a camp counselor at Interlochen Arts Camp during the summer of 2003. In the fall, she will start at the Peabody Conservatory, studying with Rob Kesselman.

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