Spotlight on: Sophie Renshaw

Strings Lecturer Sophie Renshaw has been working online with her RCS students, harmonising Bach suite movements. Listen to this Bach Courante in three parts here featuring students Gawain Usher, Lauren Hall and Shao-Wen Tan, and read Sophie’s blog below.




Where are you just now?

I’m in my home in Winchester, Hampshire, where I am sheltering with my family from this Covid-19 crisis that has come upon us.

We are lucky to have a garden which borders open country so we aren’t feeling too cooped up. Speaking of which, we are in the process of clearing the end of the garden to make space for a chicken coop , soon to house hens ; my teenagers need projects!

What have you been working on?

I recorded the Bach Courante for my students as a light-hearted approach to hearing the implied bass line, harmonies and possibly imagined counter-point in Bach’s unaccompanied works for solo instruments.

My students – Gawain Usher, Lauren Hall and Shao-Wen Tan – responded by saying they wanted to have a go; I am sure they will do a better job of accompanying themselves than I did!

I recorded each part into a zoom recorder, imported the files into audacity and edited them together. I enjoyed the process so much it has inspired ideas for other arrangements involving multiple players who could send me individual parts to be edited together. I have also started a library of recorded sounds of spring lambs, birdsong, our local night owl – which I plan to edit into a soundscape, adding acoustic music and possibly electronic sounds to it.

What advice do you have for students at this time?

During this challenging time of social distancing, I would encourage my students not to put unnecessary pressure on themselves to fill the coming months with the most productive viola practice they have ever done. If it happens naturally, roll with it, however if you are finding it hard to concentrate for long stretches of time, as many of us are, I would concentrate on balancing some work with maintaining regular online social contact, keep a self-management routine that heightens your feelings of wellbeing and seek out activities that are naturally enjoyable to you.

For me, apart from spending more time composing music than I am normally able to do, I will hopefully be dog-walking, growing vegetables, shopping for elderly neighbours and trying to keep my restless teenagers from doing anything they would later regret.

How have you been finding online teaching?

Online teaching has proved a challenge for Gawain, Lauren, Shao-Wen and I, and that challenge has given rise to some positive new focus in our work. I imagine we all agree that the main drawback with online instrumental teaching is that the sound quality is too inconsistent for us to be all that helpful to each other about tone production and phrasing matters. We have found the best way around this is for them to send me videos to which I respond with written feedback.

What seems to work best online is discussion of a more analytical kind; we concentrated for a week or two on harmonic analysis of Bach suite movements which gave rise to this recording.

Together we have been looking at the viola parts in major works of chamber music, discussing the interpretative choices available to us in view of the whole score , our knowledge of the composer’s work and other stylistic issues. Next we will be looking at the viola parts of the Beethoven symphonies , since just before the covid-19 crisis hit us, I had been touring them with Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and Sir John Eliot Gardiner.

The more we played them, the more I was struck by how often the viola part seemed to relate intimately to the timpani part. Beethoven seemed to often use the viola section not only at the heart of the harmonic shapes (with the seconds) but also as central to the rhythmic drive; listening like this caused us to feel at times like a true rhythm section and we played with more rhythmic intensity because of that.

What are you working on now?

Currently, my musical life is fed by a drive to play the chamber music repertoire and a desire to tread new ground through composing and arranging. Two years ago I began arranging for my string trio and the first music was songs by Sam and James Gillespie the Gillespie brothers – who hail from Northumberland and sing of the land and inspiration found there. The five of us have since formed a collaboration with the Provencal polyphonic vocal trio Tant Que Li Siam and our first CD under the name of Hirondelle will be released soon.

It is also a privilege to be working with students at RCS and to be part of an institution that fosters a creative mindset. I aspire in my teaching to walk a path with my students of constant exploration, weaving between imaginative interpretation, structural understanding and finding the courage to take risks, ask new questions and invent new ideas.

I wish everyone in the RCS community strong heart and mind through this difficult time.

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