It is January 1990, the place is Mittagong, about 109 km (68 miles) outside Sydney, NSW, Australia. I am in a large classroom, standing in a corner facing the wall with my eyes closed, practising contorting my lips, tongue and cheek. Seriously. Outside, dusk is gathering and cicadas are starting to chirp. Strange eerie sounds fill the air.
Actually, I’m participating in a workshop on Harmonic Overtone Singing, by Sarah Hopkins, at the Australian National Music Camp (now known as the Australian Youth Orchestra). I won a scholarship to play the viola at the Camp, but also signed up for other activities such as this workshop. You can check Sarah out here http://www.sarahhopkins.com/bio.
Sarah’s other workshops that year included teaching Harmonics to cellists, and in one concert during the 2-week camp, there were 12 cellos sawing away with fingers only lightly touching the strings, and the most beautiful, haunting sounds emerged. One could imagine whales singing, birds tweeting or the evocative drone of a didgeridoo. Another group was given Whirlies, which are essentially vacuum-cleaner hoses of different lengths and circumferences, which the user twirls in the air, over their heads and shoulders to produce a series of ascending and descending harmonic overtone notes. This particular performance was unintentionally funny, as we were reminded of religious monks in the act of self-flagellation!
For the duration of the 1990 Australian Music Camp, we were based in a boarding school in Mittagong. To get to the school, we were met at the airport by a member of staff from the Camp, brought to a YMCA where sandwiches and drinks were served. And then we were put on the train to Mittagong, along with a couple hundred other youth musicians and their various instruments and baggage. From Mittagong, we had to walk to the school, about 10 minutes by foot.
It was a boarding school, but unfortunately it was a Boy’s boarding school. The showers were COMMUNAL. Ooo err… Things were, shall we say, awkward the first 3 days…and then miraculously shower curtains and rope were procured, and a makeshift system of shower cubicles was created. The toilet paper was real paper…and I mean it was stuff you could write on, and just as absorbent. Unfortunately, no magical, soft, triple-ply toilet paper appeared in the 2 weeks of the camp, so one simply made do.
Every day, a different musical group representing a different instrument would be chosen for Reveille. Which essentially means you were going to get woken up at 6:30 the next morning by the sound of instruments playing, either really well, or really badly. The queues at mealtimes were out the door and round the corner, literally. But the food was worth the wait; it was plentiful, and delicious. Weatherwise, it was perfect, warm and balmy, and many of us took to going about barefoot. There were gumtrees on the grounds of the school, and in one particular tree along the food queue route there lived the school’s resident wombat. Now, I’d never seen a Wombat before, and when this one was pointed out to me, I couldn’t believe how large the creature was.
About a week into the Camp, the soundpost in my Viola got dislodged. Now, this soundpost is just a wooden dowel wedged between the top and bottom plates of a viola. It may not seem important, but it really is. There’s even a Wiki entry about sound posts, here:
“In a string instrument, the sound post or soundpost is a small dowel inside the instrument under the treble end of the bridge, spanning the space between the top and back plates and held in place by friction. It serves as a structural support for an archtop instrument, transfers sound from the top plate to the back plate and alters the tone of the instrument by changing the vibrational modes of the plates.
The position of the sound post inside a violin is critical, and moving it by very small amounts (as little as 0.5mm or 0.25mm, or less) can make a big difference in the sound quality and loudness of an instrument. Specialized tools for standing up or moving a sound post are commercially available. Often the pointed end of an S-shaped setter is sharpened with a file and left rough, to grip the post a bit better.
Soundpost adjustment is as much art as science, depending on the ears, experience, structural sense, and sensitive touch of the luthier. The rough guidelines in the following section outline the effects of various moves, but the interaction of all the factors involved keeps it from being a simple process. Moving the sound post has very complex consequences on the sound. In the end, it is the ear of the person doing the adjusting that determines the desired location of the post”.
So, what’s a girl to do when her soundpost falls out? Sharman Pretty, the co-ordinator of the Music Camp, put me on the train to Sydney that Sunday, with clear directions on how to find the violin maker and repairer, Robert Roberts (seriously!). So, I’m on the train on my own, with my Viola next to me, then I’m on a strange bus to this suburb I’d never heard of. There is a man in his 50s sitting on the seat next to me, and he has a rolled up mattress with him, of all things. It is tied up with string, trussed like a turkey. A surreal conversation follows, and when he finds out I am from the Music Camp, he asks if I know his daughter. I ask who his daughter is, and he says “Sharman Pretty”. No kidding! A huge big city with over 3 million people, and I end up sitting on the bus next to the father of the Music Camp’s co-ordinator? How’s that for a strange coincidence?!
Anyway, Robert Roberts isn’t in. There is a sign on his door saying “back in 10 minutes”. So I hang about the neighbourhood like some Chicago mobster with a machinegun in a viola case. Minutes later, Robert Roberts arrives back home, he’s been alerted to the purpose of my visit by Sharman Pretty back at the Camp. He uses an S-shaped metal instrument with a forked end, places the soundpost between the tines and then inserts it through one of the F-holes (there, I just had to put that in somewhere in this post), and then he wiggles the dowel this way and that, plucks at the strings, listens to the sound, runs the bow over a few notes, listens some more, tweaks a bit more. And then it’s over.
I have a couple hours before the train back to Mittagong, so I head to the Sydney Opera House. It’s a walk out to that iconic landmark, from the bus stop, but I take my time and enjoy the sights and sounds around me. Apart from the viola, I could be just about any tourist there. There’s not enough time to explore the inside of the Opera House, so I take a few photos, buy a few postcards from a kiosk, and then it’s back to Camp I go.
In 1991 I went back to the Australian Music Camp, but this time as a partcipant in the Music Journalism Course. And this time it was in Geelong, near Melbourne. But that’s another story, for next time.