Singing on the Book: New Video Series Launched

Professors Peter Schubert and Julie Cumming have recently released a series of new videos on Renaissance vocal improvisation.

Professor Peter Schubert, recent recipient of the Gail Boyd de Stwolinski Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Music Theory Teaching and Scholarship, has been involved with both vocal music and music theory for decades. His colleague Professor Julie Cumming specializes in late Medieval and Renaissance polyphony, and is currently co-leader (with Prof. Ichiro Fujinaga) of a SSHRC Partnership Grant, SIMSSA: Single Interface for Music Score Searching and Analysis, that runs until 2021. 

Watch their new video series below, and find out more about how they both became interested in Renaissance improvisation, and how they incorporate it into their teaching here at Schulich:


The first video introduces the medieval practice of “singing on the book” - improvising a new melody against a chant melody found in a book of Gregorian chant.


How did you become interested in Renaissance improvisation?

JC: Peter Schubert got me interested in improvisation, because he was working on it, and he asked me to demonstrate it at a conference.  Discovering that I could actually improvise in Renaissance style really changed the way I thought about Renaissance music, and I went on to do a series of articles in which I explained how understanding how people improvised helps us to understand how people composed in the Renaissance (when they did not use scores, but had separate parts on different parts of the page), and how to analyze and understand Renaissance music. 

PS: My area of research has been Renaissance theorists, and I gradually realized that when they wrote the word "counterpoint" they meant improvisation, not writing. In 1999 I started teaching myself to do what they did; it was really difficult!


In the second video, Raphaël sings the cantus firmus and Rosemarie first improvises a line in note-against-note texture; then she does contrapunto fugato in two ways: repeating a motive over identical cantus firmus segments and repeating a different motive over transposed segments:


To what extent are you improvising in these videos?

JC: In the fifth video, Chant Paraphrase Canon, we initially improvised the canon over the Alleluia, but then we did it again quite a few times as we worked out how to explain it to people.  We have improvised chant paraphrase canons in public before, however, on chants chosen by the audience.  

PS: All of my previous videos are 100% improvised on the spot. But last year I did a couple of new improvisations at the Theory Society meeting; one was pretty hard, and a I crashed and burned in front of a couple hundred people. So for parts 3 and 4 of these videos I practiced beforehand, and had memorized some of it. But I never wrote anything down!


In the third video, Professor Schubert shows how to place a repeating motive in the added line even when the cantus firmus motions are different:


Explain a little more about the book of Gregorian chant:

JC: This book of chant has been in the McGill Library’s Rare Books Collection since the 1930s, but it was never catalogued and I only found out about it about a year and a half ago.  The library asked me to do an event around this manuscript, and last January I led a small student choir in singing from the book, as part of a lecture recital about the book and about the practice of chant singing in the middle ages.  We "sang polyphony on the book" for one piece - the hymn - but we didn't improvise it.


In part four of the series, transposition is discussed. In order to respond to the Renaissance requirement for variety, motives placed against a cantus firmus were most often transposed when they were repeated:


Who do you teach improvisation to in your classes here at Schulich?

JC: I have taught three graduate seminars on historical improvisation, in which we learn a technique of improvisation every week, and then they come back in teams the next week and improvise for the rest of the class.  I also teach people to improvise canons in many different settings.  

PS: There’s some sort of improvisation in the first three semesters in the undergraduate Musicianship sequence, and in a fifth-semester elective I teach some of the techniques in these videos.

What is the overall student reaction to learning how to improvise in this way?

JC: They are thrilled that they can do it, and challenged (in a good way) by the more complex techniques.  They also feel that they finally understand how Renaissance music is put together.  

PS: Many think it’s fun, and since we just ask them to try it out, there’s no consequences for their grade. For students used to just playing the written notes it can be a little alarming to suddenly be asked to just make stuff up, but most of them get used to it, and some of them discover skills they didn’t know they had!


In the final video of the series, Professors Cumming and Schubert demonstrate how to paraphrase a chant so that it can be sung in canon with itself after one beat at the fifth below: