Originally published Wolfgang's Tonic
Making the decision to study abroad isn’t something a musician should take lightly. In two and a half years studying at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis I have encountered a fair share of international students, each with their own story. While some left their homes to begin their studies here, others came later in life to finish them. Some kept one foot firmly in place while they stepped forward, others jumped with both feet. Some brought their baggage with them, others left it behind. Maybe I’m being a bit too monochromatic. My life is full of contradictions, but I suppose those are what make me who I am.
Moving to Basel seemed, at first, to be the natural choice. Being raised in Ottawa and having completed my bachelor’s degree there, I knew what I was looking for from a graduate program. As an early musician, I felt I needed to go to somewhere in Europe where the research and practice of ancient music were at its cutting-edge (what a contradiction!). Having spent two days a month travelling to Montreal and back for lessons with my teacher Mathieu, I knew I wanted to go somewhere where my next bassoon teacher would be local. Studying in a city where there were no others my age in Early Music, I needed an immersive experience. Basel could satisfy those needs. Plus, the Canadian musician’s motto is ‘success at home comes from success abroad’, no?
What I could only learn upon arrival was how many sacrifices I needed to make. It became difficult to keep up with friends, I wasn’t adjusting easily to my new surroundings, and I had to give up all of my planned professional activities as they wouldn’t pay for my travel from Europe. For a time I shut myself into a practice room and didn’t come out. It wasn’t until I started performing with the European Union Baroque Orchestra, nine months later, that I began to settle into my new environment. The intensive performing experience, which I had been missing from my first year at the Schola, as well as the company of a great bunch of musicians helped me in accepting my situation. More than that, today, after two busy seasons with the ensemble, I know what to aspire to in my own work.
Looking back, almost all of my European musical activities to date are ones which I could never have had during the same period at home. Where else but Basel would I perform Rameau’s Les Sauvages to accompany Indian classical dance? Surprisingly, my first Messiah in four years will take place next week. More recently the Schola has provided a few performance opportunities, but its value to me lies in the classroom. One classroom in particular.
It is always interesting to hear a class discussion at an international school. Early Music, as a movement, began over half a century ago and yet it has gained momentum to varying degrees in the West. Many of my peers come from areas where the movement has developed deeper roots than in North America. When I bring a question forward for discussion, I feel as though I am looking for an answer which was previously taken for granted. I believe one of the most important questions for my generation of performers exemplifies this conundrum. On its face, the question seems simple enough but developing an answer to it has profound consequences to one’s own practice. Though the initial reaction of my peers is usually one of dismissal, as they believe the answer is obvious, the discussion that follows betrays the fact that there is no consensus. It’s a question which I could not have developed without living in a city such as Ottawa where Early Music has had little impact, a city where I felt isolated for choosing the path I have taken. I put it to you, “What is the purpose of an Early Music Performance?”
What keeps me here are things which I couldn’t have ever expected. Those moments of grace when you experience something that was unimaginable before, feeling that fleeting sense of enlightenment as a concept so radical to you is imparted in a matter-of-fact way, making lasting connections with people with whom you share a passion; all have coloured me. I’m not a fan of the narrative, I can’t say that my experiences here signal anything for the future, but it’s hard to think that I could be a completely different musician if it weren’t for that seemingly simple choice I made three years ago.