Music Issue: Reviving a lost art from long ago

Editor’s note: As the Juno Awards 2013 prepare to celebrate the best of Canadian music this weekend, Western Journalism students help us celebrate the best in Western Music. Read the full Music Issue.

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Wilma Van Berkel is on a mission to resurrect the lute.

The Western Classical Guitar teacher sits on the von Kuster Hall stage in the Don Wright Faculty of Music building with her homemade lute in her lap. Accompanied by a singer, she plays a 17th century ode called Like as the Lute Delights. Van Berkel’s fingers spread across the instrument’s neck, and with a squeeze the notes drip off the strings.

The song ends. The musicians take a bow. But there is still work to be done.

This is no ordinary concert. The performance is part of a two-day master class for voice and guitar duo taught by two visiting musicians.

Van Berkel is not only a music teacher; she’s a student as well.

“I think it’s important that you should always try to be a student in something,” she said. “It puts things in perspective.”

Van Berkel was born in The Hague, Netherlands, in 1965. Her parents enrolled her in recorder lessons at age 5 against her will to encourage the shy girl to interact with other children.

“I remember crying, ‘I don’t want to go!’ and then coming back it was the total opposite … I was hooked,” she said. “That was definitely a life-changing moment.”

Van Berkel switched to guitar because she liked its “intimate” and “sweet” sounds. She would sometimes watch her guitar teacher perform at concerts.

“I heard him play lute, which I thought was just mesmerizing, but I never thought that that was something you could pick up as a kid,” she said.

After receiving her degrees in teaching and performing from the Rotterdam Conservatory, Van Berkel earned two foreign exchange scholarships and a grant from the Dutch government to study at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts. It was there she met her Canadian husband and she followed him back to Toronto in 1992.

When she came to teach at Western in 2005 she could finally turn her attention to her earlier passion, the lute.

Van Berkel found a 30-year-old lute in the faculty’s bank of string instruments and started learning to play it three years ago. But she wasn’t completely satisfied.

“It was catered more towards guitar hands and guitar spacing,” she said. “So I thought it would be nice if I could make a copy of a historical lute.”

Van Berkel contacted a guitar-making friend of hers and they started building a custom Renaissance lute. She finished it last April and its debut performance was at the master class.

When in her classroom, Van Berkel watches attentively as a student tunes her guitar and a singer adjusts her music stand. The other students sit in a semi-circle around the performers, with Van Berkel seated front and centre.

She follows along with the sheet music while they perform. It is a classical Italian composition about dying for love. Van Berkel pushes her glasses up the bridge of her nose as she looks up.

“The exchange should be more dramatic, less languorous” she said. “Let’s try wrenching, not dying.”

She hopes by exposing her students to the lute she can raise its profile.

“Lute concerts are much bigger in Europe for sure,” she said. “I just want to have some of that here.”