In a School of 'Fame,' an Awakening of Renaissance Music

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Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, best known as the school upon which the 1980 movie and subsequent TV show "Fame" was based, conjures images of scrappy youngsters clawing for that big break in dance, acting, singing or playing an instrument.

But starting this fall, the old image of actress Irene Cara pirouetting through the hallways in leg warmers and off-the-shoulder sweat shirts may be joined by yet another one: that of kids playing Renaissance music on the crumhorn, recorder and other archaic period instruments.

The high school on the Upper West Side is about to get its first Renaissance music club, the result of a $1,000 start-up grant from Early Music America, the national service organization that represents historical performance groups. The after-school organization, which is believed to be the first of its kind, will focus on teaching students the recorder and the crumhorn, a curved woodwind instrument that produces a strong buzzing sound.

The grant came about through the efforts of Lisa Terry, an early-music performer who came to LaGuardia last year to lead some workshops on the viola da gamba (pictured, below). At the time she was told by Richard Titone, the head of the school’s brass department, about a trunk containing a dozen recorders and nearly as many crumhorns and shawms (the predecessor of the modern oboe). Titone didn’t know how the instruments arrived at the school but sensed they had been there at least 30 years. By getting them in students' hands, they could be used in many contexts, whether a theater class preparing a Shakespeare play or accompanying a madrigal choir.

“What we want to focus on is 16th and 17th century music,” explained Terry, whose son attended LaGuardia. She noted that Renaissance instrumental music is often given short shrift by performing arts organizations, which tend to favor the late Baroque and Classical eras. “We are trying to get more Renaissance music played and loved.”

The grant from Early Music America will go partly towards mundane needs like cleaning the instruments and copying sheet music but it will also pay the salary of Lawrence Lipnik, a noted early-music performer who sings in the vocal group Lionheart and also teaches the recorder and viol at Wesleyan University.

“One of the things that’s so great about this program is the kids are going to play whole concerts,” said Lipnik, who is scheduled to teach ten sessions starting in October. "These are kids who are already motivated about music and now early music is going to be a path. With Juilliard across the street, that’s going to give the heads up to other schools considering investing in a program like that.”  

Lipnik and Terry hope the school can eventually expand into teaching other Renaissance instruments and serve as a feeder for Juilliard’s historic performance program, which launched in 2008 to much fanfare. Lipnik is aware of only one other high school in the U.S. -- in Albuquerque, NM -- that provides instruction on Renaissance instruments, a point echoed by Sue Rarus, the director of research resources and advocacy at the National Association for Music Education.

In an e-mail, Rarus noted that many schools, particularly high schools, have madrigal vocal ensembles. "Whether or not schools have early music/Renaissance instrumental ensembles is another story. I would venture to say few if any public schools have instrumental ensembles that play actual period instruments -- but, you never know."

Noting that any student can pick up the recorder, Terry believes that the repertoire will sell itself to students looking for something unusual. “Renaissance vocal music is famous but not Renaissance instrumental music,” she said. “But it’s absolutely wonderful and colorful and varied.”