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Intonation

Music students are under the impression that there are two kinds of intonation: 1) in tune, or 2) shameful evidence that you should have picked a different field of study. This kind of black and white approach robs the music student of an important concept: intonation as a means of expression. We do not play in tune; we play within tune.

We learn in music history classes that there are many kinds of intonation but that those systems are largely irrelevant now that we have the all-inclusive and modally magical equal temperament. Equal temperament was a fantastic invention and we should be ecstatic that we can change modes left and right and up and down and all over, but we lose something very important when we think intonation has become equal or wrong. Especially as string players, the world is our oyster when it comes to the harmonic series. We have the power to manipulate overtones, project beats and oscillations at will, and essentially function as king Triton over the waves of harmony. This seems terrifying when we can hardly hit a note in what we already consider the “center”, but is it possible that pitch is a spectrum rather than target practice? Perhaps if we open our ears to the expressive possibilities of intonation we will have the freedom to hear beyond right and wrong?

The harmonic series is powerful. It is the basis for how our ears and brains perceive sound patterns and how musical tradition has developed. This law of physics could be our ticket to expressive freedom in the concert hall and personal freedom in the practice room. Our options are not even limited to historical systems; we are not tuning a brand new instrument, we are shaping a phrase and speaking a truth. Use the tuner, but find out what happens when you bend this way or that; chances are that with intention and long-term commitment you will end up with a pitch very close to that of equal temperament, but with more character and personality in the intonation simply because you allowed yourself to explore other options of pitch.

The Tonal Energy tuning app is a great resource for hearing historical tuning systems. Start there to open your ears and your mind, but after that open up your heart by looking in your repertoire. What if that dissonant seventh is supposed to be painful and gritty, requiring the thumping, natural oscillations our instruments can produce? Or what if that third should not be equally raised to create a shimmering white noise hovering above but should ring justly, pure and true? These things become complex and messy when we play with our equally limited friends like pianists and orchestras, but it is a beautiful disaster and one we can work within. It is not worth shutting off our minds to it. We must listen harder than we play. Our fingers will never remember where the pitches are (as much as we try to convince ourselves that they will) because they are only extensions of the real pitch center that lies within us. As violists, we are blessed to feel the vibrations of our instrument deeper than our violinist friends whose frequencies barely rattle their jawbones, or our cellist and bassist friends who hold those precious resonances away from their faces and chests. Let’s capitalize on that and revel in the dirty seconds and those open fifths; allow yourself to feel like salt of the earth instead of a pristine perfectionist. Something even more basic and primitive than soil is at work in our hands; intonation is a gift.

Go and be human.


Scelsi – Manto

About 10 years ago, I learned a piece by Giacinto Scelsi called Manto. The performance note for the third movement is “for singing violist (necessarily female).” Having taken voice lessons throughout high school and college in addition to my viola studies, I was convinced the piece had been written for ME! Well, not really. But it did seem pretty perfect.

After performing all three movements a few times, I started programming the third movement of Manto on its own. Audiences were really into the piece, I loved it, and I really connected with this idea of singing and playing simultaneously. I wondered how many of my composer friends and colleagues would be interested in the challenge of writing for a “one-woman duo.” Not being the most coordinated person in the world (at my best, I can stand up somewhat straight without falling over; at my worst, I tumble off 10-foot stages and shatter various bones), I am still not sure that this idea was my most brilliant one as far as something that’s naturally easy for me, but I have ended up with some amazing pieces. More are on the way!

Because this technique of singing and playing simultaneously was not nearly as simple as I’d hoped it would be, I had to train my body to do it. Taking my cue from an old Cleveland Quartet method of playing scales together in thirds (ending up with stacked seventh chords, which result sounds AWESOME), I practiced scales with myself in thirds, fourths, fifths, octaves, quarter tones, etc. In the privacy of my own home. Alone. I’m sorry to my cat.

But guess what? The heinous-sounding scales got better! And easier! You’re welcome, Cat! And I realized that this technique was not only helping my singing violist intonation – it was helping my violist violist intonation! What a great side effect, right? I started practicing Bach the same way: after doing basic harmonic analysis, I’d sing the root of a chord throughout a measure while I played the written notes slowly and tuned to my voice. It was so much better than using a tuner, because the pitch was a physical part of me rather than an external machine. (I feel the same way about metronomes, though I use my metronome a lot – I need to make sure I’m feeling the pulse instead of just hearing it and using it as a crutch.)

Try it for a couple weeks. Don’t worry about the quality of your voice, as long as you feel confident that you can sing in tune. I usually do two octave scales between C and F because my range ain’t what it used to be, but even an octave in any comfortable key will help. You can also displace octaves, of course, which is an added mental exercise. Let me know what you think!

wmrichman@ua.edu


Professor George Taylor’s Inaugural Address

So..what is it that you are here to do? You are here to follow a passion, a calling, something in you that says, “This is what I want to do with my life.” When you realize fully that it is not the only thing that you can do with your life, you appreciate the choice that you have made. You are all capable of many other things, and you should acknowledge and appreciate that fact right away. But, you choose to be a violist, and more importantly, you choose to be a musician. Your job is to graduate from being a violist towards becoming a musician who plays the viola. I take that metamorphosis very seriously because it is in the act of becoming a musician and striving to be an artist that you become a better violist. It is not one or the other.
Now, of course that does not mean that it is all pie in the sky. Guess what? If you miss that run in Don Juan and someone else doesn’t, they get the job. There is a great deal of work and self-observation in front of you. But, it is all modeled, formed, and driven by our love for sound. We are all sonic creatures, and you are all creators. Truth is, the viola does not really give two shakes about you. If you put it in the case, go off and do something else, have a nice life,  and don’t come back for 10 years, It is still going to be in that case. Whatever it is that the viola means to you, you walk around with it every day. It is not some separate thing from you, it is something you live with every day. You put bow to string and you create worlds. There is a well known story where someone says “Mr. Heifitz, your violin sounds so beautiful,” and he walks over to his case and says, “Funny, I don’t hear anything.” It doesn’t sound unless you make it sound, and you get to build and choose the soundscape.
My job is to help to facilitate your dream. My job is to know what it takes for you to get a job and lead you towards getting a job but my job is not to help you get a job. So what is getting a job? What does being a musician mean? All of us have high aspirations, and that means lots of work. It’s been proven that doing anything well is one percent talent and ninety nine percent sweat. I don’t really like that analogy, I like things that are fun. It should be fun to practice scales. It should not be drudgery to play etudes. You should be using all of your faculties and hard work to enjoy what you do. Ok, some of it may be drudgery, but it will be mindful drudgery. Through it all, you will find your musical voice.
I’m very different from a lot of teachers. I don’t have a “method”, actually I teach and use many methods. Everyone here gets a different lesson. You’re different people, why should you get the same lesson? You hear and understand information differently. My first job with upperclassmen is to continue the vocabulary and the strategy that gives the most purpose and information to that student. For those of you who I do not know, we are going to dance. It is a wonderful dance. We will dance for a few weeks as I learn your vocabulary and you learn mine. I do not deal with teaching as a one-way street. I don’t give you information and expect you to say “yes sir” in dutiful and respectful acquiescence.   I like to engage you in dialogue. It is important to me that you become an active participant in your own training.
Remember at this point in your life, you’ve had more contact with your Kindergarten teacher than any of your string teachers. Think about it, you’ve spent hours a day every day with them-for a year!! You don’t get that many viola lessons. And you won’t get that many viola lessons in your lifetime,  so the goal of the lesson is to be effective. It has to be incredibly effective. It has to give you the information that sends you on the journey of exploration so that you may begin to think for yourself.

Revelations based on Historical Performance

by Kyle Miller (2010)

Hello, everyone! I graduated from the Eastman School in 2010 as a student of Carol Rodland, and I’m delighted to revisit Eastman (virtually) to share a couple of my postgraduate experiences. After I finished at Eastman, I shipped out to NYC to continue my studies, and in the Big Apple I began to get serious about something that rests upon a relatively unbeaten path: the Baroque viola. I’ve had some eye-opening experiences in the realm of historical performance over the past four years, and I’ve been mulling over what might be of greatest interest for this blog. In the end, I’ve settled on two related experiences that I would like to share with you. The first is more of a cerebral experience, an enlightening discussion that I overheard and have since pondered and will now recount. The second, which took place more recently, involved me personally as a performer. While different in nature, both experiences have helped to steer my musical thinking in a single direction. Check it out:

Tale the First: Of Slurs and Other Trifles

Last January, the students of Juilliard’s historical performance program (of which I was still a member) were invited to attend a master class given by members of the London Haydn Quartet (LHQ), a string quartet that specializes in period instrument performance. I decided to attend, and boy was I glad that I did: It was there that I had Experience the First.

One could say that the setting for the class was austere. It took place in a classroom, with a handful of students and a couple of faculty members looking on from classroom desks (the kind whose desk table flaps from a hinge so that one isn’t forced to slide into the chair from the side). Two members of the LHQ were present, also seated in desks: first violinist Catherine Manson and violist James Boyd. The master class ended with a Q & A pow-wow, and that’s when things got crazy interesting.

A couple of my fellow students grilled the two LHQers on how their quartet prepares for a performance, and the matter of performance editions arose, in particular for Haydn’s string quartets. (Given their name, it should come as no surprise that the London Haydn Quartet specializes in Haydn.) The question of the day was this: When the LHQ performs a Haydn quartet, do they use parts reprinted from an early edition (e.g.: late 18th- and early 19th-century printings such as those by Artaria of Vienna), or do they use a respected modern edition (e.g.: Henle)?

I was immediately stimulated by this question because the previous year I had performed a Haydn quartet — Op. 20, No. 4 with the Diderot String Quartet, of which I’m a member — using an early edition (that of J. J. Hummel (not to be confused with the pianist-composer J. N. Hummel)). While we (the DSQ) were preparing the quartet, it was my understanding that our use of the Hummel edition was mostly one of convenience: none of us owned a set of Henle parts, and we would have been unable to check out a set of parts from a library for more than two weeks at a time. For those who have not yet had the pleasure of performing from an early edition of Haydn’s quartets, here is a representative scan, taken from the Hummel edition, of the viola and cello parts in mm. 25-30 of the first movement of Op. 20, No. 4:

Miller Ex. 1

Hummel Edition

The parts are in alto and bass clefs, respectively. If you squint, you’ll notice that the articulation markings in the third measure are not aligned between the two parts. This phenomenon runs rampant in all four parts throughout the entire piece. Tisk, tisk, Hummel! How did all of that refuse slip past quality testing? Now, here’s the same passage as presented in the Henle edition score:

Henle Edition

Henle Edition

(The parts are still in alto and bass clefs, respectively.) Much tidier, right? One might think that performing from the Hummel edition would accomplish nothing beyond necessitating additional rehearsal time, as the players would have to align their bowings for practically every measure (and also need to squint to make out the notes). Arguments would break out over whose bowings are the best, chairs would be thrown and stands knocked over, mouths would foam with impatience, and the group would permanently dissolve in a cloud of baboon-like rage. How could Hummel allow this to happen?

Are these printing discrepancies genuine mistakes, or did he (and whoever helped him) simply not think that aligning every articulation marking was something of great value? When I worked on this piece with the Diderot Quartet, we did indeed spend quite a bit of time coordinating our bowings and even dynamic markings, which sometimes were drastically different. (I should note, though, that we still had a grand ol’ time and that no baboon-like states were reached.) Given this experience, my evaluation, at the time, of what the Henle and Hummel editions respectively brought to the table was something like this:

HENLE

– Graced by a cleaner, more spacious layout (everything large and well-spaced, with more room between staves to make pencil markings)

– Edited by respected scholars so that the work is rehearsal-ready (articulations and dynamic markings reconciled between the parts, with editorial alterations tidily marked between brackets)

– Based upon Haydn’s own autograph score

– Blessed by the miracle of measure numbers

HUMMEL

– Nothing

So, back to the master class: Why would the London Haydn Quartet, composed of seemingly well-balanced and logical individuals, choose to perform from the baboon parts? As Catherine and James began to explain their choice, it quickly became clear that their analysis of the editions’ features was roughly the same as mine but that they valued wildly different things. I suspect that their list of table-bringing would look something like:

HUMMEL

– Graced by a more distinctive and varied layout (not everything is of uniform shape and size, so it’s more fun to look at)

– NOT edited by respected scholars (a number of performance decisions have not been made beforehand, allowing the performer more freedom to decide for herself)

HENLE

– Printed on much nicer paper (probably)

It turns out that Catherine and James did not consider unified bowings to be a necessary thing. In fact, they claimed — and continued to claim, in the face of extreme hypothetical situations tossed at them by myself and others — that their quartet spends exactly 0% of their rehearsal time discussing bowings. When it comes to bowings, all four players are left to their own devices. Each person, for any given musical gesture, may play the bowings in his own part, use a different bowing that he witnesses another player use, or simply invent a new bowing entirely. The members of the LHQ exercise these rights in their rehearsals, and they do the same in live concert. It’s possible that any homophonic or imitative passage will receive four different bowing treatments. Catherine compared the effect of the alternative — four people playing the same bowing, with the same gestural inflection, at the same time — to the effect of four people suddenly saying the same thing, with the same inflection, at the same time, during a conversation. To her and to James, the painstaking care that’s poured into the homogenization of articulation markings in a modern edition produces something unnatural.

With their alleged liberation from premeditated bowings, it was clear that the members of the LHQ valued spontaneity very highly. Imagine choosing a new bowing, live in concert, just because you feel like it, guilt-free, even if the person sitting next to you is playing the same musical figure. It’s pretty liberating. I had the great pleasure of watching the LHQ’s concert in NYC the night after the master class, and they did indeed practice what they so passionately preached: bowings didn’t always line up.

I took special note that the four players changed their bowings on the repeats of sections. The result? Everything felt wild and free and fresh, and the differences in articulation were not distracting — as, I confess, I’d expected them to be — but engaging. There were four distinct personalities onstage, and I was delighted whenever when they did slightly different things.

Perhaps the Hummel edition’s greatest value, when compared to the Henle, is that its pages present more musical possibilities for the player’s consideration. If, say, the viola plays an identical passage more than once within a movement — say, the theme of a rondo — then that passage (in the Hummel, or in pretty much any printed edition from around the same time) is almost guaranteed to have different articulation markings each time it appears. I find that this happens much less often in modern editions, where slurs and dots — albeit in editorial brackets to announce their intrusion — are added so that the articulation markings are consistent for a recurring gesture. The same treatment is given to a motive that’s passed around between different instruments. If the LHQ’s mission is to be spontaneous when it comes to articulation, then it simply wouldn’t make sense for them to use modern editions. By using an edited modern edition, the quartet would be paying money to support scholars whose painstaking work they would largely end up ignoring in the heat of the moment.

I should make it clear that I am neither denouncing modern editions of old works nor criticizing performances to which those editions give rise! I am simply sharing, for your delectation, an interesting concept that was presented to me. Indeed, the LHQ could play exactly as they do even if they were to read from Henle parts. They probably just find it easier to feel a sense of freedom when looking at the less homogenized typesetting and less toiled-over markings in an 18th- or early 19th-century edition, and that’s a personal choice. Given that there are so many articulation discrepancies in early editions, one could imagine that musicians of the time took similar pleasure in approaching articulations with a certain amount of freedom.

With their alleged liberation from premeditated bowings, it was clear that the members of the LHQ valued spontaneity very highly. Imagine choosing a new bowing, live in concert, just because you feel like it, guilt-free, even if the person sitting next to you is playing the same musical figure. It’s pretty liberating. I had the great pleasure of watching the LHQ’s concert in NYC the night after the master class, and they did indeed practice what they so passionately preached: bowings didn’t always line up.

I took special note that the four players changed their bowings on the repeats of sections. The result? Everything felt wild and free and fresh, and the differences in articulation were not distracting — as, I confess, I’d expected them to be — but engaging. There were four distinct personalities onstage, and I was delighted whenever when they did slightly different things. Perhaps the Hummel edition’s greatest value, when compared to the Henle, is that its pages present more musical possibilities for the player’s consideration. If, say, the viola plays an identical passage more than once within a movement — say, the theme of a rondo — then that passage (in the Hummel, or in pretty much any printed edition from around the same time) is almost guaranteed to have different articulation markings each time it appears. I find that this happens much less often in modern editions, where slurs and dots — albeit in editorial brackets to announce their intrusion — are added so that the articulation markings are consistent for a recurring gesture. The same treatment is given to a motive that’s passed around between different instruments. If the LHQ’s mission is to be spontaneous when it comes to articulation, then it simply wouldn’t make sense for them to use modern editions. By using an edited modern edition, the quartet would be paying money to support scholars whose painstaking work they would largely end up ignoring in the heat of the moment.

I should make it clear that I am neither denouncing modern editions of old works nor criticizing performances to which those editions give rise! I am simply sharing, for your delectation, an interesting concept that was presented to me. Indeed, the LHQ could play exactly as they do even if they were to read from Henle parts. They probably just find it easier to feel a sense of freedom when looking at the less homogenized typesetting and less toiled-over markings in an 18th- or early 19th-century edition, and that’s a personal choice. Given that there are so many articulation discrepancies in early editions, one could imagine that musicians of the time took similar pleasure in approaching articulations with a certain amount of freedom.

Tale the Second: Of Adventures in Bass Clef

This August, I — along with a few of my colleagues who also are recent alumni of Juilliard’s historical performance program — had the pleasure of spending a couple of weeks in Thiré, a small town near the western coast of France. The eight of us were there to rehearse and to perform at a festival with members of Les Arts Florissants, a Baroque musical ensemble that specializes in early opera. The group is directed by its founder, William Christie, in whose massive and elaborate private gardens (seriously, the stuff of royalty) many of the rehearsals and performances took place. The entire trip was We starry-eyed New Yorkers stayed our nights in the nearby town of Sainte-Hermine, and we slept in a sprawling 17th-century château. There were huge, dusty tapestries, original oil paintings, massive spiral staircases, and trophy boars’ heads mounted above a grand fireplace. From reading a description of the mansion in a brochure, we discovered that our temporary home was quite definitely haunted (or so we convinced ourselves, since the notion made us giddy). At some point in the mansion’s history, a woman had murdered her husband and subsequently been sequestered at the top of a tower for seven years.

For the two weeks we were present, the eight of us were the only inhabitants of the mansion. During the day, our experience was one of non-stop rehearsing and performing, mostly outdoors and largely of operas. In the second week of the festival, the major project was Actéon, a late-17th-century opera by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. (If you haven’t yet heard the music of Charpentier, you might want to check it out. It’s beautiful.) The opera’s libretto is based upon a tragic story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which a hunter (Actéon) accidentally lays his eyes upon the goddess Diana while she bathes in a woods. As punishment, Diana transforms Actéon into a stag; and his own hunting dogs chase after him, eventually tearing him apart. Sad, no?

Here’s where the theme of improvisation weaves into this tale. I was playing viola in the opera, alongside two of the violists from Les Arts Florissants: Galina Zinchenko and Simon Heyerick. Our role in the opera was an unusual one. Why? Because Actéon has no viola parts. Instead of playing parts that had been written out for us beforehand, we rehearsed and performed from a slightly modified basso continuo part. There were a few passages in C-clefs in which we played along with the vocal alto and tenor parts during choruses, but most of the time we had only the following in front of us: a bassline (which was already being covered by some combination of cellos, bassoon, string bass, theorbo, and harpsichord) and figured bass symbols (again, the chords already being played by theorbo and harpsichord). Almost everything was notated in bass clef.

What I had to do that week was completely ordinary for someone who plays basso continuo lines for a living, but the experience was eye-opening for me and has made me think differently about the role of the viola as an ensemble instrument (and how its role might be fulfilled by a performer). Galina, Simon, and I spent some of our time playing the written bassline an octave (or two octaves) higher than notated, with a gentle tone that blended into the sounds of the other continuo instruments. This practice likely has precedent throughout the Baroque. The three of us also spent some of our time harmonizing above the bass, aided by the figured bass symbols. Since I’m not a seasoned thorough bass reader, I tried my hand at harmonization with great caution. That week, I had more than one nightmare in which I played a bogus note during a tender, highly exposed part of the opera, eliciting the frothy contempt of all present. I managed to avoid that fate in waking reality, but I still hope to sharpen my skills over the years so that I can accomplish more sensational feats of harmonization. There’s nothing cooler than hearing a continuo team confidently lay down thick swaths of chords in groovy rhythmic patterns.

Postlude

As someone who is beginning to specialize in early viola performance, I’ve come to enjoy being given very little information on a page of sheet music. I now view such a lack of ink as an opportunity to spice a piece of music with my own flavor as I see fit. In a pre-19th-century world where viola parts to ensemble works are sometimes written out by the composer’s students or underlings — a simple counterpoint exercise, true “filler” — a violist can’t always take the part he’s playing from too seriously. A d could have been an f, a quarter-note could have been two eighth-notes, et cetera. Almost nothing is too sacred to alter. In our own way, we violists are as liberated as the basso continuo section, free to improvise as we wish, as long as what we conjure up makes some amount of harmonic sense. The fun that I had with my basso continuo part in Actéon is in the same spirit as the liberties that the London Haydn Quartet members take with their bowings. The common thread is a sensation of musical freedom, and that’s what I wanted to share with you today. I look forward to a lifetime of evermore daring ornamentation and deviation from the ink, and I hope that you’ll join me.


Life after Undergrad: A Field Guide for Unicorns

by Erin Kirby, BM Eastman School of Music ‘12

Here is a list of things I wish someone had told me earlier, or things people told me a lot but took me a while to understand, and also some things no one could have told me. Most of these things apply for me on a micro level and a macro level: the practice room, the stage, the career path, everyday life. I hope you can find something helpful which rings true to you.

1. This task was appointed to you, Frodo of the Shire. If you do not find a way, no one will.

You have to believe in yourself before anybody else can. It’s just practical. A wise and acclaimed violist once told me that I had to find what it is that I do better than anyone else in the world. My immediate thought was, “It probably has nothing to do with the viola.” Uh oh! That’s weird! Time for some introspection, no? After a long while, I think I’m starting to figure out what it is (and yes, it has something to do with the viola). Life and auditions have been a lot better since. You are physically capable of every challenge presented to you in viola playing (except, maybe, tenths). It’s not arrogant to think you have something of your own to offer musically. It’s a true and necessary idea to keep you going as an artist. Give it a try!

2. You’re a unicorn.

People want to hear YOU. They really do. If you go into an audition and don’t play like you, who are you playing like? If you’re not playing like you, can you really believe in what you’re doing? And that brings us back to the Frodo factor. Besides, it’s really fun putting your whole self into your music— your suffering, ecstasy, and wit. No need to be contrarian, just do your thing. Dig deep; that’s where the interesting stuff is hanging out. Another part of what makes you you is your body. It’s different from everybody else’s. It’s not going to look or function exactly like someone else’s when you play because you’re you! Hallelujah! That keeps things interesting.

To get on stage and play like you, first you have to practice like you, though. Who are you? Well, only you really know that. What makes you tick? What keeps you interested? What kinds of technical approaches just make sense to your hands and brain? See what happens if you really go with that.

3. You can’t please everyone all the time.

It’s normal to feel a little afraid of showing the world who you are, because then they might not like you, and wouldn’t that be the worst thing ever? Nope! Haters gonna hate. And dude, YOU’RE A UNICORN.

Everybody has an opinion. They can be useful and help you grow, and it is good to remain open to growth. But in the end, you have to know how to filter. Recently, a Big Deal Violist told me (in short), sorry, you’re a good musician, but you have too many sound production problems, you are too old to be fixed, and probably also too small. Just a few days later, another Big Deal Violist told me I was not only a great violist, but a great musician and artist. And I should start doing competitions as soon as possible. They assured me they’ve had much older students who have made great leaps. Who’s right? Welp. It doesn’t really matter. I still play the viola.

4. Fear is your friend.

My personal motto recently has been, “If you’re afraid of it, you should probably do it.” It can be extremely unpleasant deciding to do something you fear, but in the end you always realize the struggle wasn’t as bad as you had anticipated, and there’s nothing to be afraid of. You’re still alive. That makes you inclined to take more risks in the future. A big part of why I continue to play is that I have to be honest with myself and confront my own demons to improve. Even, and especially, in the practice room. No matter who you are, at any given time, there’s probably some crud deep down which desperately needs a scrubbing. When you scrub the emotional grunge, your light shines brighter.

If you’re afraid of what’s there, now’s a good time to take a peek, before it gets gnarlier. (I think of it like something molding in the fridge.) Look for your darkness. Emotional pain, like physical pain, is usually trying to tell you that you could be doing something better. A good way to locate that good ol’ grimy grunge, for me, it is to observe how my actions might be negatively impacting others. Usually, I’m doing the same thing to myself with my thoughts. Acknowledge it, heal it, and then use it to your advantage when you find it in music. You can’t work it out if you ignore it. But you can’t even ignore it if you don’t realize it’s there. Don’t worry— it’s not just you. It’s everyone. Let your musical practice be your spiritual practice.

5. Failure is your other friend.

If you’re not failing, you might not be trying. Reach. The more you can embarrass yourself, the better. You are missing out on too much growth if you are afraid of what people will think of you. Break the rules. Be ridiculous. Just try it! Anyway, everyone’s too busy thinking about themselves to care.

Frustrated about being waitlisted at the same “fancy” festival (and a whole lot of other stuff) time and time again, I complained to a friend. This wonderful musician friend suggested that maybe I just hadn’t found the right festival yet, and persuaded me to audition for even more ridiculously-difficult-to-get-into festival. So I did, and guess what? I got waitlisted at that even FANCIER festival. (It’s cool, I’ll get it next year . . . .) But it was way beyond what I thought I was capable of even applying for, simply because my resume didn’t have all the “normal” precursors. You are not your resume.

School especially is your time to fail. That’s pretty much what it’s for. There are almost no real-world consequences to testing your limits in school. I played regretfully badly in the new music ensemble a couple of times, not because I didn’t try, but because I just wasn’t equipped at that particular moment. It was a crappy feeling at the time, but then I knew what skills I needed to seek.

6. Politics are real.

Sometimes you won’t win an audition because someone else is stronger than you are at that time. But sometimes, you’re just as “good” as whoever won that audition, and your teacher just wasn’t on the panel. Oops! Their loss. There’s so much you can’t control. In fact, you mostly can’t control it. All you can do is keep improving. Keep finding your truth. Everyone with the power to help you on your path is you looking for something different, and if you keep asking yourself the hard questions and putting yourself out there, eventually you’ll meet the people who have been looking for you.

Your path isn’t going to look like anyone else’s. If you’re treading on well-worn territory, are you advancing your art form? Maybe! Maybe not. Just because you didn’t go to School X and Festivals Y and Z all before the age of 22 doesn’t mean you are useless. It just means you haven’t been in the right place at the right time yet. Maybe it’s a treasure hunt and not a ladder.

7. So you might as well have fun.

This is your one life! Try to enjoy it. At a certain point, I realized most of the musicians I admire have a very joyful and curiosity-driven relationship to music which translates into their study of the instrument. A lot of them play many styles of music, not just classical. Most of them are also whole people with other interests which often inform their playing. Remember a time before Don Juan when you used to like this? That time can be now!

8. Enough about you! What about the composer?

Should you honor him or her? Yes, please! Do your homework. Have legitimate reasons stemming from the original text for why you’re doing what you’re doing. Good news, composers are people, too, and they were probably trying to express something about the human condition. Everything is fair game. They did it in music, though, at a specific point in time and in a particular style. So it can’t hurt to have an idea of what the heck is going on. Take it from me, graduate of the School of Hard Knocks: it’s really embarrassing when someone asks you why you’re doing what you’re doing in your interpretation and you don’t have a very good answer.

9. No rules.

Dude. It’s art.


Back to School

At the beginning of a new school year, we are presented with a most tantalizing buffet of delectable musical possibilities. We are so enthralled by the menu laid before us that we want to indulge immediately and fully in everything that is available to us. We are passionate about our art and hungry to learn and grow as violists. Why shouldn’t we avail ourselves of all of these delicious treats offered by our wonderful institutions?! We want to maintain the excitement we feel at the beginning of the semester throughout the entire course of study. In order to do so with success, joy, and good health, it is important that we pace ourselves sensibly at the buffet!

Depending on your age and your year in school, your violistic dietary needs will vary significantly. It is important to discuss with your major teacher what he or she thinks your priorities should be in terms of the balance between solo work and ensemble playing. If you are a freshman, for example, much as you would like to dive into everything you see, it might be important that you retool some aspects of your technique. In this case, playing in a lot of ensembles could be detrimental to the ultimate outcome you are seeking in terms of making technical changes; the majority of your time spent with the viola needs to be “you” time, as you focus on developing a healthier and more efficient technique. If you are an upper classman or graduate student and everything is functioning smoothly on the technical front, you could benefit greatly by exploring large bodies of repertoire and networking with your colleagues on a large scale. What better way than delving into an abundance of meaningful and challenging ensemble work? In other words, is this a semester best spent as an introvert, working at your own pace and responding to your own inner cues, or as an extrovert, collaborating and gathering intellectual and musical information?

Once that important strategy has been established, it is very important to commit to some serious time-management consideration, so that you are certain to achieve the goals you have set for yourself in terms of your development as a violist. As your calendar quickly becomes jam-packed with lessons, rehearsals, and classes, if you are not careful, the day is over before you know it and you have not fulfilled your obligations to yourself in terms of individual practice and self-care. It is not uncommon for freshmen to arrive at college never having been responsible for planning their own schedules. If you are new to being your own self-manager, planning your entire week out ahead of time can be very beneficial. Look at your class and rehearsal schedule for each day of the week and decide when and where you will practice and for how long. Add this to your written schedule so that you are just as responsible for showing up for yourself in the practice room as you are for showing up for class or a rehearsal. Actually planning which part of your lesson assignment you are going to practice during which practice segment is also very helpful. Of course, you must be flexible here, as once you delve into the work, you might find that something is taking more time to learn well, and something is taking less time to learn well. Be both vigilant and flexible in your practice. When doing a technical overhaul, it is very helpful to work on the new skill you are trying to implement often throughout the day, but for short periods of time. You will learn it more completely if your mind and muscles are fresh each time you approach it.

Included in your schedule should be some time for self-care. Playing the viola is also an “athletic” endeavor! If you want to do it to the best of your ability, you must commit to taking good care of yourself both physically and psychologically. (Of course, this is a good strategy for a happy and healthy life anyway!) Having a regular warm-up/ cool-down routine of stretches, breathing exercises, and flowing movements before and after practicing is essential for good health and stamina, as is a regular exercise program away from the viola, which includes some combination of both cardiovascular and strength training and stretching. I find core strengthening work especially helpful for violists. Well-taught Pilates or Yoga classes and lessons can be both fun and beneficial.

Committing to some form of mind-body work such as The Feldenkrais Method, Alexander Technique, Tai Chi, Chi Gong, or the aforementioned Pilates or Yoga, is also extremely beneficial for your playing and for your general well-being. The better we know ourselves from the inside-out, the more communicative, healthy, and joyful we can be as performers. All of these modalities can help us to deepen our awareness of how we move and why and how we do what we do. In addition to physical exercise and the development of mind-body awareness, I also encourage students to find a meditation practice that works for them in order to strengthen their ability to concentrate and focus.

And then back to the diet! You need to eat well if you want your mind and body to function at their viola-playing best. You also need to get enough sleep and to be mindful of your caffeine intake, as relying on caffeine rather than sleep can result in a shaky bow or excessively tight muscles. And finally, cultivate your joy in your work process. Attend as many concerts as you can. Avail yourselves of that rich resource that is your school library. Pick your professors’ brains and brainstorm with your classmates. In other words, do “pig-out” at the buffet, but do it mindfully and in a way that is healthy and beneficial for you!

Wishing you all a healthy and happy new school year!


Welcome

Greetings, dear Violists and Viola-Enthusiasts!

We are excited to welcome you into our Eastman Viola Community via the 2014-15 AVS Studio Blog!

It promises to be an exciting school year, and we look forward to giving you a taste of the viola life at Eastman as well as sharing our thoughts with you on myriad viola-related topics. You will be treated to posts by faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, Eastman alumni, and various friends of our Eastman Viola Community.

We hope you enjoy and we look forward to spending the virtual school year with you!

Warmest wishes,

Carol Rodland, George Taylor, and Phillip Ying