Fast passage work: practice tips from Prof. Helen Callus



Dear Viola Friends!

We hope you have enjoyed hearing from the students at Northwestern. We have enjoyed putting these blog posts together for you and hope you found them useful! Please don’t forget to visit our web site http://violastudio.northwestern.edu and you can always write to me hcallus@northwestern.edu if you have any questions about anything.


Every few weeks I send a tip sheet to the studio that covers various subjects that have come up in that period. For our final blog post, I wanted to write some useful tips for practicing fast passages. I know these passages can sometime seem to take forever to improve and that’s quite normal so don’t give up! There are many different ways to practice them – here are a few that might be helpful.


FAST PASSAGE WORK – practice tips

You want to do the kind of hammer-action work so that in performance if your brain goes one way (becomes distracted) you have a good chance that your body will go the right way.


This is what we often refer to as physical memory – the ability for the body to remember what to do under stressful circumstances like performing. So when practicing fast passages – your brain can no longer really ‘think’ about what it’s doing – you are going too fast. So instead you train it to operate almost automatically and this takes a different approach in your preparation.


Fast playing is different from ‘learning notes’ and needs a separate approach and time to physically build the stamina and memory in order to do it well.


The most important tip I could give you is to start this type of work far enough in advance for it to really become part of your DNA/muscles/memory/subconscious. This means it needs more investment than other passages because you are learning new physical things when playing fast passages. Something to remember is that it just takes as long as it takes and you might be surprised at how long it actually needs to work a passage up to speed.


So here are some tips for practicing fast passages!


  1. Of course everyone knows that practicing slowly is key to just about anything – including learning fast passages. In this stage you are looking at the action of things (how the finger goes up and back down over the pitch for instance) and how to make those actions (which could be the right hand too) very efficient. For instance, the height of your left hand frame will contribute greatly to how fast you play – the higher the better – meaning fingers have more of an arch upwards. This would be as opposed to a lower angle with more pad contact which is better for slower playing/vibrato etc. It is good to do this stage while thinking about playing much faster – that will alter how you practice slowly. I often suggest that students practice at 30, 60 and 120 clicks so they can get a feel for doubling the tempo and seeing what demands that brings and then applying that to the slower work.


  1. Really solid left hand work takes commitment, time and patience. The very best way to do this is by generally working the passage up using the metronome, perhaps in 5 click increments like 35, 40, 45, 50 etc. As you get closer to the final tempo, I suggest going slower so 90, 92, 94, 96 and then even perhaps 100, 101, 102 etc. You need to get used to moving quickly without ‘thinking’ and that is a different physical sensation than slow careful metronome work.


  1. It is pretty pointless to do any kind of metronome work if you are not really thinking about everything as you are doing it. So look for patterns, work on intonation, the shape (frame) of your hand, the walking of the fingers from one string to another – anything at all that can contribute to efficiency. Use a mirror and a tuner along with your metronome so you ultimately don’t need any of them when playing the passage!


  1. Keep it spontaneous! This means try all kinds of different ways to practice as you go up click by click. Here are some of my favorites:


I. Use subdivisions on the metronome so you have a click for every single note. This is the only true way you know you are developing strong, controlled left hand fingers and each note is the appropriate rhythmic length. This is the only way you really know how good the individual notes are.


II. Practice on open strings only so you have time to think only about the right hand. You can improve the right hand this way but you have to be sure you are playing exactly the right open string for the note in the passage or else you are training your right arm to move to a new level when it shouldn’t.


III. Use dotted rhythms to clean up your articulation and action. It is also a great way to focus on one note more than the others. In a passage where you have several groups of four 16ths for instance, elongate the first note of the four in each group. The same for groupings of six – just make the first note longer as you go through the entire passage, then make the second note longer, then the third note etc. By focusing on one note of each group within the passage creates a sort of pattern which allows you to listen in more carefully to those particular notes (ones you might overlook like the very last note in each group as you are thinking ahead) allowing you to adjust your skills to make sure every note is clean and clear.


IV. Consider trying to play with a right hand that changes dynamics but a left hand that always stays piano. You can try this by starting a session playing both piano in right and left hands (left hand, meaning with no tension, no pressure, just tip-toeing). Then increase your volume in your right hand but not in your left. A lighter left hand will move faster and more efficiently and you are learning to divide the actions of your hands to doing different things as needed.


V. Make sure you practice a slow tempo EVERY DAY. The brain cannot absorb things really quickly – it needs repetition and thoughtfulness. So at least once a session, you should take things down to slow tempos so your brain can start to see patterns without thinking.


VI. Sometimes I recommend playing the passage with double notes – meaning to repeat each note so you can play faster in the right hand (double tempo) while learning the actual notes half the tempo in the left as it were. So the opening of the third movement of Schumann’s Fairytales is written d, f, b flat, a, f, e, d etc. I would suggest you play dd, ff, bflatbflat, aa etc. this way you can start to play faster in the right hand (because you are playing doubles), while still hammering out the notes more slowly in the left.


VII. I would also suggest that you keep notepad nearby and write down what you did as you are doing it. This will help as you set goals for tomorrow, a week from now or the future. It also helps when you come back the next day and can’t remember where you stopped. By checking your notes you can start a few clicks back and work you way up further. It is a written record of what you did that proved successful for the next time and helps you to stay really focused on what you are doing in each moment of your practice.


I hope these were helpful! I look forward to reading the other “From the Studio” blogs to come!

All best,


Helen Callus

Professor of Viola, Bienen School of Music, Northwestern University.

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Interview with Milena Pajaro-Van-de-Stadt, violist of the Dover Quartet. By Sae Rheen Kim

As a student at the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University, I have the privilege of collaborating with a number of fantastic musicians and to work with esteemed professors and professionals. One of the unique opportunities I had during my time here was being able to work closely with the members of the renowned Dover Quartet, who has been the Quartet-in-Residence here at Northwestern since 2015. As a student in the Chamber Music program, I’ve been able to receive coachings, watch and/or participate in masterclasses, sit in open rehearsals, as well as see them perform on campus 3 or 4 times year. Recently, I got to sit down with violist Milena Pajaro-Van-de-Stadt and ask her a few questions about her experiences as a touring chamber musician.


When did you switch to viola? 

I officially made the switch when I was a senior in high school, but I started playing it when I was about to be a junior.  Up until I graduated high school, I was primarily a violinist and the by the end, I focused on both instruments equally in my last year of high school.


What’s you favorite Viola sonata and why?

The Shostakovich Viola Sonata, and the reason for that is, for me, performing that piece every single time is such an emotional experience or journey. It feels as though I’ve been through a lifetime—I’m emotionally exhausted in the best way at the end of that piece. I think it’s just incredibly powerful, gorgeous, and heartbreaking music.


Do you have a practice schedule?

Well, I think it’s important to have one, but it’s hard to, especially as a touring performer. So something I’ve taken to is learning to practice in shorter bursts. I found that one of the best things to do for my left hand is practice things that have lots of double stops all the time to keep my hand in balance. One great piece for that is, actually Hindemith Op. 11 no. 5.  It’s an incredible piece, too. I always like to go to the 3rd movement of that piece to get some of my double stop warm ups in because it’s beautiful music and it’s just so great for your hand balance. But it’s definitely hard to keep a regimen when your schedule is constantly changing every day.


It’s funny that I’m not saying an étude. I think they’re more fun than scales because they can be much more musical. As noble as it is to try to play your scales really musically, I’m sorry to say that it can get boring to practice scales. So in that sense, études are great because they’re already that much more musical and varied than scales, and you can already put yourself in the mindset of performing a piece when you’re practicing them.


Why did you choose to be in a string quartet?

The funny thing is I actually chose to play the viola because I played it in a string quartet and the more interesting part of the story is, that’s what made me fall in love with it. Basically, when I was a junior in high school, I wanted to form a quartet because I loved playing chamber music and my brother used to play cello, and we had friends—these two girls who both played violin— and we wanted to make a quartet but no one played viola so I volunteered—I really wanted to try it out and playing in quartet on the viola was something I fell in love with right from the start. The unique role of the viola, the voice that it has, the way composers use the instrument. And from that moment, I realized that people play in string quartets as a career! I have CDs of string quartets that I listen to, and I thought, “man, if people can do that, that would be my dream because I love chamber music, I love the intimacy of it, the fact that you had your own voice yet your voice was part of something much bigger than just your own part.” And, once again, the viola in a quartet is such a satisfying and special part of the group.


How did you know that your chamber group was worth pursuing? 

It took time in some ways. Like I said, I wanted to be in a string quartet when I was in high school, so when I went to conservatory, my goal was to find 3 like-minded players—people who wanted to be in quartet and wanted to be in one full time, and when I got to Curtis, I just kept my ear out for people whose playing I really loved and I went to so many reading parties and played with as many people as I could. It’s interesting, though, because the first group I ever played in my freshman year at Curtis was with Camden, the cellist in my quartet—that was about 11 years ago now. We loved playing with each other and I think one of the reasons why we loved playing with each other was that we felt really comfortable—not just with arguing about things, but giving each other comments, and trying each other’s ideas which might be really different. This was a really interesting thing because you would think you’d want to play with someone who agreed with you on everything. But with him, we had such a great rapport from the beginning, playing in our first piano quintet. The two of us started playing in several groups together with different pairs of violinists. We were basically planning to stay in a quartet together. Joel and Bryan had been in a quartet together for a while, so the two of them were a pair of violinists who Camden and I really admired, from afar since we were in a different quartet. One day, their quartet seemed like the lower strings were on the way to graduate soon and our violinists seemed like they weren’t very serious about the group, so Camden and I, and Bryan and Joel, the two “pairs”– we decided to get together and read some music one day and instantly felt this chemistry. It was very much like a relationship. We had to have that talk: “well, is this “quartet” going to be just for school, or is it gonna be a long term one? Are we gonna stay together after school is over? Is it just for fun? Are we gonna make this part of our lives?” And everyone seemed just as excited about it, and that was another sign that it wasn’t just one person who felt really excited to be a part of the group and felt the chemistry— we all felt it. So, we decided to just stick together.


If you could play chamber music with any violist, alive or dead, who would it be?

Well, I can’t not say Primrose because that’d be fun. Although, it could also be intimidating. I’m lucky enough to say that one of my dream violists to play with was my teacher, Michael Tree, who was in the Guarneri Quartet, and I think he’s one the most incredible quartet violists of all time, and we recorded the Mozart Quintet with him, so that was awesome. But there are so many great violists out there…


What is your favorite country/city to perform in, and is there a place you’d like to play where you haven’t already?

There’s a place that we have not performed—or where I haven’t performed in—that I’ve been dying to go to, and that’s Australia, and also New Zealand. We love most places we go to, it’s just so great to connect with different audiences all over the place. We recently had a tour in Hawaii and that was really fun. We also had one of our most unique tours which was in Israel. None of us had ever been there before, so we planned it out so that we could be tourists as well as well as performers.


What do you eat before concerts? 

I usually eat a meal. I don’t just do the banana thing, I don’t like to play when I’m hungry. If I feel just the slightest grumble in my stomach, it makes me a little bit irritated and agitated. And also it would be easier to get jittery when I don’t feel I have enough sugar. I like to a complete meal and feel completely relaxed and grounded when I play a concert. And usually, for me, a meal before concert would involve a good amount of protein.


Who is your favorite composer?

One of my favorite composers, since I was a kid, was Shostakovich, and he stills remains one of my absolute favorite composers. But right now—I mean I can’t leave out composers like Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms,  Mendelssohn—it’s like comparing apples and oranges. As a quartet player, Beethoven is at the very top of the list. But lately, I’ve been completely taken away by the music of Benjamin Britten. I’ve actually been listening to the War Requiem almost every night—which is probably not the best thing to listen to before bed, but I just love it. So, it’s my newest composer obsession.


Do you have any advice for undergraduate students in a conservatory program?

I think it’s really easy to let your morale go down, and feel frustrated with yourself, and I think it’s important to remember that throughout our entire lives, we can always get better. That’s an exciting thing—that our journey with our instruments and with music and the emotional study of music and the technical study of music, everything—can just only get better. And to be very aware that when you’re in a practice room, that’s just that day. When you go into a practice room, it’s a practice, and you’re just the way you are that day, all you can do is focus on that moment and improving what you have at that moment and not think about the future and what you did the day before or what you could do. Don’t let yourself get discouraged, and recognize that maybe if you have a problem you want to fix, that just a 5 minute problem, like learning a note or fixing a bowing. Maybe you have a problem you want to fix that is a three-month problem, like changing your bow technique or the way you want to vibrate. Recognizing and being patient with yourself, I think, is a very important think because ultimately because we’re just really lucky we love what we do.


Who is your musical hero?

In the most sentimental form, my musical hero is my dad because he’s the one who really got me to fall in love with music from a really young age. He isn’t a professional musician, but he’s a great pianist. Anytime I hear any piano sonatas I think of him, and having him instilling this love for classical music in me at such a young age was such an inspiring thing, especially because he wasn’t a professional musician; it showed me how important music is to anybody, not just for people studying it or those who were professional musicians. It’s something that is important for the world and humanity.


If you had one musical superpower, what would it be?

My musical superpower would be being able to play music exactly how I hear it in my mind, exactly how I would sing it.


Do you have any Pre-concert rituals?

Not really. I’m almost anti-ritual because I have a little bit of a case of OCD, so if I add any other habit or ritual than it has happen or L’ll be completely thrown off. So for me, before a concert, the less I need to do, the better because I like to feel no matter where I am, or how I feel, I can always just go out and play.


How does it feel to be the only female in your quartet?

It has its pros and cons.

The pros: I usually get my space for dressing room area, which is nice—you get privacy, you can change, you can be very zen. I can always choose what I want to wear, I don’t have to discuss it beforehand.


The Cons: Sometimes having your dressing area can be lonely because then I’ll go and hear them laughing about some joke while they all change together in the same room but I can’t be there and I don’t know what the joke was—it can be lonely—but in the end we’re all friends so I don’t even notice it that much all the time.


Sae Rheen Kim is a freshman violist in the Bachelor of Music degree program at Northwestern’s Beinen School of Music.

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Performance Anxiety – Fight or Flight. By Wesley Chou and Dana Anex – BM viola performance majors at NU

As performers, we spend hours in the practice room in an effort to convey an emotional story to an audience, win an audition, or pass a jury. In many of our own personal performing experiences, we would make unexpected errors simply due to nervousness. How could something so meticulously prepared, in the comfort of our sound proof practice room, suddenly feel so foreign to us when we were standing in front of an audience?


To find answers to our questions, we consulted two Northwestern faculty members for insight, NU professor of psychology Richard Zinbarg and the Bienen School of Music director of orchestras Victor Yampolsky, to gain their perspective on performance anxiety.


I first met Dr. Zinbarg (or ‘Rick’ as he instructed us to call him) in his psychology class, “Statistical Methods in Psychology.” In addition to being a professor at NU, he is also the founder and principal investigator of the Anxiety and Panic Treatment Program at The Family Institute of Northwestern University. We met with Rick to learn more about the biological basis, cycles, and solutions relating to anxiety.


Rick told us that every episode of anxiety starts with a trigger. In the case of our ancestors, it was the presence of a life-threatening stimulus (e.g. a lion), but for us, it is having to play the viola in front of an audience. As a result of this trigger (performance), we begin to experience negative thoughts. Our body responds by producing excess adrenaline, which would help us in a close encounter with a lion; but this rush of hormones makes that already daunting passage at rehearsal 9 in the Walton concerto nearly impossible. As we realize how much our bows are shaking, our minds generate more negative thoughts creating a vicious feedback loop, fueling our running internal commentary of the performance. Allowed to continue, it can lead to avoidance, wanting to quit performing altogether, and in severe cases, can lead to the establishment of more anxiety inducing triggers.


Rick suggests the first step towards resolving anxiety is to acknowledge that, “our bodies can only exist in one temporal frame.” More simply stated, it means that our bodies can only be present in one moment at any given time. Our minds, however, seem to be experts at time travel whether it is recalling past failures in performance or forecasting the negative outcome of one in the future. Learning to combat the effects of anxiety involves learning how to be “in the moment,” an exercise that is surprisingly challenging for the mind. Like any advanced bow technique, it must be practiced, using a method of mindfulness and meditation like a mental etude. In this exercise, we focus on the breath, not because it is directly correlated to mindfulness, but because each stage of breathing is concrete in time. By focusing on each inhale and exhale, we are able to accept all this is true within that given moment. The idea is that in performance, we can recall the mental processes of how to be in the moment, and are able to perform within this optimal mental state.


When we met with Victor Yampolsky, conductor of the Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra and former principal second violinist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he told us, “I’ve never had such a thing as stage fright!” Anyone who is cut out to be a musician is willing to play before an audience for the sake of sharing music. Performance anxiety, which he distinguishes from stage fright, affects a willing performer in two forms: anxiety in the face of the public and anxiety to do justice to a great work of music.


Musicians in performance work against a “mathematical ratio: if you think you know a piece 100% you will perform it at 75%.” In our practice, we must always remember that nerves will take their 25% cut. Maestro Yampolsky believes that young musicians often make the mistake of mindlessly repeating passages of music for many hours a day, reinforcing flaws that will no doubt make themselves known on the stage. A performer who feels intimidated by an audience may temper the emotional content of the music before an audience. To counteract this problem, musicians must never play notes in isolation of the music. Music is more than just a collection of notes; even a D major scale implies a certain color and holds great meaning within it.


In preparation for performance, musicians must “train like Olympic athletes, if you are a jumper, you practice your jump; if you are a swimmer, you practice your swim. There is also a psychological component.” The psychological component is developed by playing for friends and teachers or by imagining that an audience is there with you in the practice room.


“Great composers,” he put his fingers very close together, “make me feel like a crumb, a speck of dust.” Before conducting a daunting program, he is nervous, “at the point of breakdown.” As performers, “we are the ambassadors of the composer,” which requires deep understanding and humility before the music. A program of Mahler or Beethoven comes with great anxiety, but the opportunity to realize this music is much greater because “we are lucky to work so closely with genius.”

Our egos must not let us lose sight of our purpose as performers: “when music is on the shelf, it is dead. We make it alive.”

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From Juilliard to Northwestern: an exciting transition by Alexia DelGiudice Bigari

562554_10201114249162520_658479430_nChange has been a very large part of my life, and I’ve grown to accept it with open arms. One of my most recent life changes was my transition this year from The Juilliard School to The Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University. Undergraduate and Graduate degrees are a big change on their own, but especially when you go from a conservatory setting to a university setting.
I am now in the second term at NU and the campus is huge! At Juilliard, the whole campus consisted of the five-story building, which was attached to the dorms by a bridge. I suppose you could consider all of Lincoln Center to be the campus, though. At Northwestern, it takes me 20 minutes to walk to class every day. The music school is where I am most of the time, but I also travel to the chapel for some rehearsals as well. I now understand what it feels like to be a university student.
The music building at Northwestern was just renovated last year, and it looks very similar in style to Juilliard. The windows are all glass and you can look straight into the school. The Bienen School of Music at Northwestern is right next to Lake Michigan, which is a very different change of pace from the busy streets of midtown Manhattan. On nice days here, I can take my practice breaks outside!
Studio class at Northwestern is a bit different from Juilliard. At Juilliard, I was in a studio that consisted of four teachers. Every week in studio class, I would get different perspectives on my repertoire from Mr. Tenenbom, Ms. Huang, Mr. Amory and Ms. Castleman. At Northwestern, studio class is solely with Professor Callus. I very much enjoyed getting different perspectives at Juilliard, but I also find it to be extremely helpful to get consistent feedback every week here at Northwestern. Also, comments from fellow studio mates are very much encouraged. I am lucky to have experienced both teaching styles.
As a graduate student, I am now beginning to get more performance opportunities. As an undergraduate, I became comfortable with the routine of practicing, lessons and occasionally performing in studio class. After all, I had a lot to work on! Now that I am a graduate student, I have had to come out of my shell. While I still work intensely on technique, I am also getting the opportunity to play a concerto with one of the school’s ensembles. This is something I have been waiting to experience for years, and I believe that it has come at the perfect time.
Transitioning from Juilliard to Northwestern wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. I believe that my education at Juilliard really helped me to be able to adapt to new experiences, and the tools I learned there very much benefited me moving on to this new chapter of my life. I believe that graduate school is where an artist can really bloom and become what they dream of being. The hard work is done in these two years, and a career depends on the work that is put in. I love my new home in Evanston, IL and am ready to see what amazing opportunities and knowledge these two years bring! I feel so lucky to have been able to study at two wonderful schools.

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What non-musical skills are key to being a successful college professor? Some thoughts by Jacob Adams

My name is Jacob Adams and I am Assistant Professor of Viola at The University of Alabama School of Music. At UA, I maintain an active studio of undergraduate and graduate violists, coordinate the chamber music program, and am assistant director of graduate studies. While the football team gets much of the publicity, UA also boasts a large and vibrant musical community. The familiar chant around here is “Roll Tide,” but we string players like to modify that and say, “Scroll Tide!”

1609065, string area brochure


Before beginning my position at Alabama, I got my DMA while studying with Professor Callus at UC-Santa Barbara. Before that I was a student at Oberlin and Yale and each school gave me something different in preparing me for a position like the one I have now. My goal with enrolling in a doctoral program was similar to most: I wanted to become a serious candidate for higher ed teaching positions. As you are probably (painfully) aware, such positions are not only highly competitive, but they are few and far between. During my studies with Professor Callus, our goal was not only high-level musicianship and teaching experience, but determining what could help distinguish me from other highly qualified candidates in a job search.


It is safe to assume that all serious candidates for higher ed positions have an impressive resumé, sound performing chops, extensive teaching experience, etc. Professor Callus guided me in building up all three of these elements – adding new projects and performances to my resumé regularly, challenging me that every performance was held to the highest possible standard of quality, and providing opportunities for me to lead our studio class or an undergraduate lesson with her direct feedback on my teaching. All of this work was tremendously valuable in further developing a foundation of knowledge and experience with my playing and teaching. But perhaps Professor Callus’ greatest gift to me was her advice and guidance about the other half of the business – what one might call the ‘non-musical’ skills.


These non-musical skills encompass all manner of things, great and small, that do not usually appear in a performance or on a CV. Remember that when interviewing for a position, the committee is trying to determine first and foremost if you are the right fit for their job. If you are being interviewed, it is now a given that your teaching/performance/resume credentials got you ‘in the door.’ Now the question becomes: can these people see themselves working with you day-in and day-out, potentially (hopefully) for years to come? And of course this is also a two-way street: can you see yourself working effectively with these colleagues?


Beyond collegiality and professionalism, there are many other non-musical skills that play a big role once in a higher ed position. Are you organized? Are you able to handle administrative duties? Can you complete tasks on deadline? Can you advise students? Can you organize and create special events without guidance or supervision? Can you manage a budget? In a college setting, your students and colleagues will be dependent on your ability to juggle and manage a wide variety of tasks and demands. If you are not careful, the things that ostensibly got you the position in the first place (your performing and/or teaching), can fall by the wayside. On the flip side, being comfortable and competent with these ‘non-musical’ skills makes the transition into such a position much more manageable. I am very grateful that Professor Callus helped prepare me equally well for this side of the job.

For more information about the viola studio at the University of Alabama, visit www.music.ua.edu or email me directly at jwadams3@ua.edu.

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Beyond the Practice Room by Hannah Alexander


As I have become more serious and devoted in my pursuit of a career in music, I have started to take note of what exactly it takes to be successful. I have begun to notice that success isn’t simply for the naturally gifted few, but rather it can be attained by many, if approached with the right mindset and tools. I would like to take a closer look at what it really takes to become a professional musician.


Embarking on the path to being a professional musician is quite a peculiar thing. Willingly locking yourself away in a tiny room for hours on end practicing a single shift, a tricky string crossing, or a nasty run might seem a bit obsessive to most, and it is… but when you step back and witness a flawlessly executed performance that encompassed all those details, it is something incredibly powerful and transformative This is why we do it, but the real question we need to continually ask ourselves is how do we get there? I believe our growth and development happens just as much outside the practice room as it does in it! Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours to mastery is a widely accepted concept, so the four hours a day is a given. In order to become a better musician we need to practice, no excuses, no exceptions, but in order to become the best musician we must cultivate some lesser emphasized skills.


Some of the most impactful moments in my lessons with Professor Callus have consisted of discussions about the importance of the musician outside the practice room. One of my favorite things she has done for me was shatter my understanding of what talent actually is. Talent is just a fragment of what it takes to be successful and yet we become so fixated on it, What is talent after all? Even the most musical person can end up not fulfilling their dreams of being a performer – why is that? Could it be that our success is rooted in fundamental attributes that we can control and that we can all develop? One of my favorite quotes is a beautifully simple list:


“Things that require zero talent:

Being on time

Work ethic


Body language




Being coachable

Doing extra

Being prepared”


I love this list because it really helps get me into a mindset of optimism because I can affect how I operate in the world around me and determine my own future. Professor Callus commented “whether you have the most musical talent or not, you need these other elements – they are almost as important. So worry less about how much talent and more about the work and see how far that can take you. You need talent but you also need tolerance for failure, to be kind to yourself in tough times and turn the volume down on the critic you have in your ear, working when you don’t feel like it etc.’ there are many components to a successful person doing anything.”

As a graduate student at Northwestern, we have the opportunity to do an independent study expanding on topics from our studies we want to delve deeper in. I took that as my cue to build a curriculum for myself to do an independent study around this fascinating idea of the musician beyond the practice room and the critical qualities we need and can develop. This quarter I will explore the musician as a Yogi: learning how to cultivate the mind and will, as an Athlete: understanding how to care for our first instruments– our body, and as a Businessman: developing professionalism on and off the stage. I have some excellent books, interviews, and research lined up and I am optimistic that the discoveries I will make will be groundbreaking for me! I believe that these three components are fundamental for attaining lasting success as a musician and through this project I hope to create a short synthesis of the most useful tips and tools from my work! Stay tuned for a follow up post on my website @hannahalexandra.com!

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What is it like being a Graduate Assistant? by Susan Bengtson


Hopefully undergraduates considering applying for a similar position during their Master’s will find this post helpful, as well as anyone else interested in the life of a GA. This is my experience, seven weeks into fall quarter, as Professor Callus’ GA at the Bienen School of Music.

Of my responsibilities as a GA, scheduling is the most straightforward. I am there to facilitate the scheduling of lessons and performances in studio class, making elaborate switches between students when necessary to solve temporary conflicts and accommodate weeks with atypical schedules. Shared Google calendars are a lifesaver. Because it involves a lot of different emails and texts at sporadic times throughout the day, scheduling is training me to find ways to get my practicing in, go to classes and rehearsals, and get other work done while at the same time being timely in my responses to communications from other students. For example, I will use snippets of time in between things or schedule a break in the middle of the day to be on my phone or work at a computer. You also get good triaging – finding what’s most time sensitive and taking care of it right away while saving less urgent things for a bigger block of time.Through the scheduling process, I have learned a lot about how I can structure my own studio one day. When Professor Callus was reviewing my post, she said it reminded her of her experience prior to having a GA. She explained, “There is a part of being a professor that is administrative, and scheduling issues in particular can take up a huge amount of time, especially if you are a professor who also plays in an orchestra, or travels a lot, or is very active in the field. So it becomes a balance of time management, and that was a very important skill that comes out of being a busy student and balancing many different things. It teaches us how to handle a teaching position and the all other pressures of life at the same time. But we don’t appreciate that when we are busy – we are just trying to get everything done without losing our marbles!”

Once a week I hold technique sessions that freshmen are required and all undergraduates are strongly encouraged to attend. This quarter I am walking through Professor Callus’ book, One-Step Scale System for Viola. Having the opportunity to teach a class like this is an incredible opportunity. Lesson planning, engaging students, assisting students with different technical strengths and weaknesses at once, clearly articulating concepts… the list goes on… All are abilities I am honing through this experience. Having a group class also builds camaraderie within the studio and allows me to have more face-time with the rest of the students during the week. Before and after class I can chat with other students to see how their practicing is going or their week in general. This brings me to perhaps my favorite aspect of being a GA: meeting with students one-on-one. This quarter, a lot of my private meetings with students have been to work on technique. We grab a practice room and spend anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour reinforcing what they are working on in their lessons. I love finding new ways to explain concepts and breaking down problems into pieces that can be modified and rebuilt. This is, of course, an externalized version of what I strive to do in my own practicing. All of this helps solidify my own understanding of how Professor Callus teaches. In a way, it’s like peeking into others’ lessons. Sometimes this quarter I have also met with students so that they could play through repertoire for me and get extra feedback. I realized quickly that the peer-to-peer teaching dynamic is very different than the teacher-to-child/teenager relationship I have had the most experience with in the past. I am finding ways to strike a balance between being a mentor and colleague and find that the dynamic shifts depending on the personality of the student I am working with and their needs. The hands-on teaching experience I have had as a GA has reinforced my desire to become a music professor myself one day. Check back again later this year to see what I have learned! To a large extent, how rewarding working as a GA is depends on the professor you are working for and what they allow you to take on. I am grateful for Professor Callus’ faith in me, and her concerted efforts to make my responsibilities further my progress towards achieving my personal and professional goals.


A native of Richland, Washington, Susan graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Music in May 2016 with her B.Mus. as a student of Jeffrey Irvine. She began her Master’s at Northwestern University this fall with Professor Callus. Please visit susanbengtson.com for more information.

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Internet Lessons

by D’aci Knight (private CA student of Helen Callus, Professor of Viola, Bienen School of Music at Northwestern)

Technically, you could say I have been studying viola since I was seven years old. I haven’t always had a teacher; I taught myself from books for the first several years. Then I spent a few years bouncing around different teachers, a lesson with one teacher and two or three lessons with another. I’ve never really been a very traditional student. When I met Professor Callus I was relieved to finally have met a teacher I could connect with and the rapport we had together was instantaneous.

I studied with Professor Callus for two years before she was offered a position at Northwestern University, which is halfway across the country from California, where I live. When I first learned that Professor Callus would be moving to Chicago to teach at NU, I was happy for her and also devastated at the thought of no longer being able to continue my weekly studies with her. It’s a 4 hour flight from LA to Chicago and moving was not an option. Then Professor Callus brought up the option of continuing lessons through FaceTime. FaceTime lessons were a new idea for me, and I was tentative at first. How well was it going to work? Would I be able to hear her, or her hear me? Would it be as frustrating as trying to talk to my cousins during boisterous FaceTimed holiday gatherings? My biggest worry was that a choppy, glitchy FaceTime lesson would be more challenging than it would be worth and I would lose my teacher plus however many wasted lessons spent trying to make the technology catch up to real life.

To my extreme relief, my worries were unfounded. My standard semi-rural internet reception has maintained a strong connection during each lesson, without lags or glitches. Within moments of beginning a lesson I forget about the screen and feel as though Professor Callus is sitting two feet in front of me, studying my hands as I play. I feel the same swell of nerves and excitement performing a piece for her on FaceTime as I did in person. I am able to see and hear Professor Callus as she demonstrates playing a passage for me. The lessons are almost identical to the lessons in her studio, with some minor modifications. She may have to wave a hand at me to stop playing where before she was able to just tell me to stop. But I am able to understand Professor Callus’ instructions as clearly as if we were in the same room, and I have the added benefit of being able to record the lesson and go back and listen to it afterwards. I also don’t have to spend thirty minutes or an hour driving back and forth to lessons, and I’m able to remain warmed up until lesson time.


I have grown up in a world where video chats with grandparents connect families and most colleges now even offer online classes. My own parents live- stream my recitals for family and friends on social media. I even attend an online high school. And now I am taking private viola lessons through FaceTime. FaceTime lessons might not be an ideal replacement for in-person lessons for some people, especially when starting lessons or learning from a new teacher, but it is an excellent option that is allowing me to continue studying with a valued teacher and I appreciate that the technology for this option exists.

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Welcome to the Northwestern University Viola Studio!

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Aerial Studio Selfie!

by Helen Callus

Dear Viola Friends,

The Violists and I from NU’s viola program are thrilled to be a part of the AVS Blog, “From the Studio”! I have been reading all the wonderful posts on the website and enjoyed hearing all kinds of thoughts from teachers and students. Over the coming weeks we hope to have several members of the studio participate and write entries about their experiences, thoughts and musings about a number of topics. Some of the subjects that came up were:


1. What it’s like to adjust to a new school

2. Mental focus in performing

3. An interview with Milena Pajaro-Van De Stadt who is the violist in the Dover Quartet, resident at NU

4. What it’s like being a Graduate Assistant, from my GA Susan Bengtson

5. NU offers many double/dual degree programs so we thought it might be nice to hear from one of those students on how they manage such a demanding schedule

6. Music and Cognition

7. Some practice tips from me

8. What it’s like to study over the internet when you live in a different state from your teacher

And lots of other subjects! For now, we all want to say Hello! Here are all the NU violists from this year:


Please check out the studio web site too!

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Best wishes,

Helen Callus

Welcome to “From the Studio” 2017!

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Greetings and welcome back to From the Studio!

In 2017 the AVS is partnering with five exciting viola studios from around the country. We will be working with Helen Callus and Northwestern University, Elias Goldstein and Louisiana State University, Andrea Priester Houde and Western Virginia University, Ames Asbell and Texas State University, and Martha Carapetyan and the Austin Viola Workshop, which is a pre-college level community program.
I am excited for you to meet and interact with each of these amazing teachers and their students. I know they will motivate and inspire you to seek new ways to teach, and more expressive ways to play. Perhaps they’ll offer a solution to a problem you’ve been working on, or delve into repertoire that intrigues you. Maybe you’ll connect to the life-story of a featured student. One thing is for sure, between now and May, we’ll be creating community, getting to know these great studios, and learning together.

To go directly to the collected posts of one studio, follow these links:

Northwestern University

Texas State University

West Virginia University

Louisiana State University

Austin Viola Workshop

Here’s to another wonderful semester “From the Studio.”

Happy new year!

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