Archive for the ‘Repertoire’ Category

Studio Thoughts on Bax, Bach and Hindemith

Today we have part two of a series in which Molly Carr poses questions to members of the studio about their repertoire.  In this installment, we cover the Bax Sonata, Bach’s Suite No. 3,  and the Hindemith’s Der Schwanendreher.

Deanna Anderson and Katy Ho on the Bax Sonata

1) How long have you played this piece? Have you performed it? Multiple times?

DA: I have worked on the Bax Sonata throughout the school year and have performed it several times, including in my graduation recital.

KH: I have played this piece for half a year because this is my graduate school audition piece. I have performed it in studio classes and on my graduation recital.


2) What do you like about the piece?

DA: This sonata is so imaginative and colorful! I love the lush harmonies and beautiful melodies in the first movement; it’s not every day that a violist gets to play a piece in this style. The second movement is quite exciting; I love how the opening is edgy and aggressive, and other parts are playful or longing. I can definitely picture it as a film soundtrack. The melancholic third movement is incredibly expressive—lots of opportunity to dig into that C string!

KH: I fell in love with this piece when I heard it for my first time. I love the variety colors, tones, and techniques in it.


3) What do you find is most challenging about the piece – (musically and/or technically and/or other…)?

DA: The opening is a challenge. I want to get the right color, the right atmosphere. To me, it’s like a morning sunrise, the earth is awakening, and you have to emerge from nowhere. In order to do this, I played around with contact point and bow speed to create a fluid sound, and searched for vibrato that is also “waking up.”

Another challenge is creating long lines with the phrases. It’s important to map out what is going on and where you want to take your listener. There are so many long legato phrases where I had to make sure my right arm was not interrupting the line.

KH: I think besides some technical issues of this piece, what challenge me most is actually getting different tones and colors in the movements.


4) Can you describe one way you worked/practiced to overcome this challenge?

DA: (see #3)

KH:  I practiced slowly for the difficult spots, and listened to some recordings. Moreover, recorded myself when I performed and listened back to it.


5) How did you prepare in the days leading up to the performance? If you performed the piece multiple times, was this preparation different for each performance? – Explain…

DA: I would practice the harder technical spots slowly (i.e. octaves, shifts, and fast passages) to make sure it was solid. I would work on expressivity and play through my favorite parts for inspiration. I would also do more mental practice to hear exactly how I want it to sound in my head. Visualizing your performance is a great form of preparation.

I did put the piece away and bring it back out again a few times, and the hard part about that is finding a way to still be “in the moment” while playing it and to have a fresh approach. It’s important to remember to exaggerate characters.

Also, playing the sonata in a hall for the first time made me thing more about projection in my practicing. Especially for the second movement—finding the right stroke.

KH: For the first performance, I just tried my best to prepare it – both technically and musically. However, it didn’t go as well as I practiced when I first perform. Then, I paid attention to the spots that I need to be improved and focused on them. And also listened to the recording of my performance and see where I can improve. This really help a lot!


6) Tell us about the performance experience – would you offer any advice on what one should focus/not focus on while performing the piece?

DA: It’s a long sonata, so it’s important to pace yourself. And as with any piece, it’s good to have one ear in the audience—to listen to yourself in third person, in a way. Most importantly, have fun and be as creative as possible, and make your story come alive. Remember that perhaps everyone in the audience is hearing it for the first time!

KH: I think playing this piece should focus on the colors and tones, rather than the small technical issues or intonations in this piece.


7) Any additional thoughts, tips/tricks, or advice for learning/practicing/loving/performing/struggling through/etc this piece that you would like to offer your readers?

DA: One more thing—learn to let go and trust yourself in performance. For me, I often worried in the climax section of the first movement that the notes in the stratosphere would squeak or that my octaves would be out of tune. The best thing is to play confidently and trust your hands, and if you can hear it in your head while you play, it is sure to be successful.

Ok, one last thing—Bax was definitely a leftover romantic. Enjoy the opportunity for romantic slides and expressive choice of fingering, make the most out of it!

KH: I think this is a really beautiful piece that I want to play it again and again. Falling in love with this piece will definitely help you to play better!


Marie Daniels on Bach’s Suite No. 3

1) How long have you played this piece? Have you performed it? Multiple times?

MD: Of the six cello suites, this one was the fifth one that I have learned. At the end of my junior year I was discussing with my teacher which one to learn for my senior recital and graduate school auditions and the two I had yet to play were four and six. Both of these are challenging, but I really love the exuberant Prelude and thought it would be the best for performance in auditions and in my recital.


2) What do you like about the piece?

MD: I really love the contrasting characteristics that each of the movements have, in my opinion, more so than other suites. The Allemande is particularly interesting, as it flows with such a beautiful melodic line, but is in fact deriving its motion from a simple but exciting bass line. Transposing the suite to G major I found works very well, as it provides lots of opportunity for singing and ringing open strings. With that, I also enjoyed learning this piece, knowing that it was originally written for a 5-stringed instrument and confronting the challenges of having to make decisions at certain parts which must be changed to accommodate the viola. Another challenge I met in this piece was its sheer length. It takes a lot of stamina to play through all six movements and deep concentration to remain focused and with good musical intentions (especially when performing from memory).


3) What do you find is most challenging about the piece – (musically and/or technically and/or other…)?

MD: Unfortunately, I cannot say that I have found the perfect solution that works for everyone for how to prepare for a performance of such a large work. It is a personal journey. However, here are a few things that I myself found to be helpful:

-Divide the movements into sections, creating a mental map that you can follow. *this is also particularly helpful for when it will be performed in an audition situation in which movements may be selected and there is possible jumping around between movements

-Once the movement is memorized (or whole suite is memorized), play through it at least once each practice session without stopping, even if mistakes happen along the way. This helps prepare for emergency recoveries and helps build stamina.

-Understanding the harmonies is incredibly helpful, and something that I must admit I often don’t take the time to do. This helps influence good musical decisions and can also contribute to the “mental road map” which you create for each movement.

-I also have enjoyed learning these suites in a baroque style. Of course these suites can be performed convincingly in many styles, but I would recommend one to at least have a slight understanding of basic baroque style and of the basic dance forms, dance steps, and dance characteristics. It can also be helpful in decision making for bowings, phrasing, etc. (Fortunately you don’t actually have to dance 🙂


Daniel Getz on Der Schwanendreher

1) How long have you played this piece? Have you performed it? Multiple times?

DG: I first picked up Der Schwanendreher a little over 4 years ago. I learned the whole piece and performed it in a studio class, and also played it in a school concerto competition in which I was a runner-up. Since then, I have used the first movement as an audition piece on multiple occasions. I have never performed it with orchestra.

2) What do you like about the piece?

DG: It has so many highly expressive moments. Particularly in the second and third movements, there are a lot of harmonies typical of the German Romantic period. This is really the only viola concerto where we get to explore that.

3) What do you find is most challenging about the piece – (musically and/or technically and/or other…)?

DG: Varying color! It is tempting (and often, seemingly necessary) to play very squarely throughout, particularly in the first movement. But that is boring. This may be the least accessible of the three major viola concerti, so a monotone approach can make for a dull performance.

Intonation is a huge problem. Hindemith really seems to have liked writing fourths and sevenths into his music, and those intervals can be hard both to hear and to catch.

And of course, the third movement is an endurance test. Every time I performed this movement, I worried that it could fall apart during some of the passagework.

4) Can you describe one way you worked/practiced to overcome this challenge?

DG: Color: I confess that I have not quite worked this out yet! One possibility is to look at the pulse. There are a lot of tempo and character changes throughout the concerto, and each change brings about a shift in the attitude of the pulse. Noticing and reacting to that may ultimately help to vary the sound quality.

Intonation: There is no easy solution. Fourths are perfect intervals, so we can simply be strict in our practicing about getting them to ring. Sevenths are trickier, and maybe slightly more subjective. Sometimes I practice seventh-passages by hearing each voice horizontally rather than as vertical double-stops. Melodic lines that happen to converge into sevenths are easier to hear than vertical sevenths. But with that in mind, I just had to be really strict with myself regarding intonation. I listened very carefully, and went over anything that faltered.

Endurance: Perform it over and over again until you’ve built up the strength. I played for my roommates a couple of times before going out in public with the third movement. That helped me to assess where my concentration and physical endurance fell, and I was able to solidify these sections in my practicing.

5) How did you prepare in the days leading up to the performance? If you performed the piece multiple times, was this preparation different for each performance? – Explain…

DG: In all instances when I performed this, I had many other pieces to prepare as well.  Mostly, I played through the beginning a couple of times, looking for good intonation and a strong, confident sound.

6) Tell us about the performance experience – would you offer any advice on what one should focus/not focus on while performing the piece?

DG: As I was getting ready for a big audition (my most recent performance of this piece), someone advised me to focus almost entirely on remaining stubborn in my opinion that Der Schwanendreher is a wonderful piece.  As I mentioned, many people find this piece to be somewhat inaccessible, so it is especially necessary for the performer to believe the opposite.  This attitude made me play bigger, stronger and more confident than I thought I could.

7) Any additional thoughts, tips/tricks, or advice for learning/practicing/loving/performing/struggling through/etc this piece that you would like to offer your readers?

DG: I really like this as an audition piece because it forces me to play with strength. Starting some of the other concertos, I often feel as though I am walking on eggshells, but with the Hindemith I can flex my “muscles” immediately. When I get to start an audition with that big C major chord, I have the confidence that I need to carry through the rest of the performance.

Edward Klorman on Brahms’ Clarinet Sonatas

The following post is by Edward Klorman.

The two sonatas of Brahms’s op. 120 enjoy a central position in the viola repertoire. As these two pieces were originally conceived for clarinet—and later transcribed for viola—every violist must come to terms with the differences between the two versions and make his or her own decisions about which text to follow in performance.

To that end, I wish to recommend an excellent article by the American/German violist James Creitz entitled The Brahms Sonatas, Op. 120 for Viola and Their Textual Challenges. Creitz’s article provides a detailed account of the circumstances that led to the creation of the published viola version, which Brahms created at Simrock’s urging in accordance with the longstanding tradition of issuing clarinet works in alternate versions for violin or viola. [If you haven’t seen the Creitz article, I recommend you read it now, before finishing this blog post.]

That the viola version was created for an amateur market may explain some of the choices Brahms made particularly with respect to register, and may invite some modern violists to consider restoring the original clarinet versions. As Creitz notes, the considerable haste with which Brahms prepared the viola version is evident from the original manuscript of the viola part, written out by copyist William Kupfer, on which Brahms quickly wrote out the minor corrections and alterations that now appear in Urtext editions of the viola version. This manuscript, which is in the collection of the Brahms Archive in Hamburg, can be viewed at this link Brahms op 120 viola part (Brahms Archiv), and is worth serious study by all violists.

But while violists continue to fiercely debate which version is “best” or most “authentic,” it’s likely Brahms’s wouldn’t have taken sides in this conflict; he more likely would have encouraged players to find their own way. This is borne out in a number of anecdotes recounted in the volume Performing Brahms: Early Evidence of Performance Style, edited by Bernard D. Sherman and Michael Musgrave. I’ll quote just two examples:

* When the violist Alwin von Beckerath wrote to Brahms to ask the proper metronome marking for the finale to his Second String Quartet (and to settle a dispute with Becherath’s first violinist), Brahms’s provided this sarcastic reply: “In your case … I can quite easily start you on a subscription for metronome markings You pay me a tidy sum and each week I deliver to you—different numbers; for with normal people, they cannot remain valid for more than a week! Incidentally, you are right, and the first violin as well!” (letter to Alwin von Beckerath, January 1884, quoted in Performing Brahms, 21).

* Shortly before the premiere of his Third Quartet, Brahms wrote the following to Joseph Joachim: “In the difficult passages, particularly in the first movement, would you alter a few notes for me? To me, fingerings [written in the players’ parts] are always just evidence that something is rotten in the violin scoring. But a few open strings here and there, they delight my eye and calm my spirit” (letter to Joseph Joachim, 18 October 1876, quoted in Performing Brahms, 26).

While I wouldn’t encourage anyone to “alter a few notes” in Brahms’s scores today, this latter anecdote does reveal his deep concern that his music be idiomatic and playable, a consideration that surely figured into his arrangement of the op. 120 sonatas for domestic use by amateur violists. In the former story, Brahms’s refusal to provide a metronome marking—a common thread throughout his correspondence—betrays his value on a certain flexibility, freedom, and personal touch in performance over a doggedly literal adherence to a single “correct” performance.

Fanny Davies wrote that Brahms told performers “Do it how you like, but do it beautifully” (“Machen Sie es wie Sie wollen, machen Sie es nur schön”; quoted in Performing Brahms, 176). May this wise words continue to inspire beautiful performances of Brahms’s music for centuries to come!

Studio Thoughts on Walton and Rochberg

Today we have part one of a series in which Molly Carr poses questions to members of the studio about their repertoire.  In this installment, we cover the Walton Concerto and the Rochberg Sonata.


Jessica ChangCaterina Longhi, and Jocelin Pan on the Rochberg Sonata:

1) How long have you played this piece? Have you performed it? Multiple times?

JC: I started working on this piece in October 2012– and at Heidi’s suggestion, began with the second movement. I have performed it once in its entirety, and the 2nd/3rd movements on an ACHT recital.

CL: I’ve been playing this piece since last summer. I learned it initially for my graduate school auditions, and after playing it for 3 auditions I am now about to perform it on my graduation recital.

JP: I worked on the piece for about 10 months. I used it for graduate school auditions and played it on my senior recital.


2) What do you like about the piece?

JC: I admire the piece for its architecture and struggle. The way that thematic fragments link the three movements is fascinating, and there’s hardly ever a sense of complacency or throwing in the towel.

CL: The authenticity of its emotion. Before this piece, Rochberg was a highly-acclaimed serial composer who after the death of his son to brain cancer, started writing tonal music saying that non-tonal music just didn’t express enough for him anymore. I like how the movements sum up the stages of grief, moving from anger and despair to acceptance and reminiscence.

JP: I love the emotional range of the piece. Rochberg repeats material in each movement, but uses it in very contrasting contexts.


3) What do you find is most challenging about the piece – (musically and/or technically and/or other…)?

JC: One technical challenge for me, particularly in the first movement, is the large shifts and leaps– and getting them to both have a good sound and be in tune.

CL: Tapping into a part of me that can only sympathize with the profound pain Rochberg experienced. I struggle to get across the range of emotions that the music portrays.

JP: I find the intervallic leaps in the melodies very difficult to connect technically and musically.  I found it challenging to sing through the line and still create a emotionally intense atmosphere.  Also, those double stops in the first movement are terrifying!


4) Can you describe one way you worked/practiced to overcome this challenge?

JC: I try to sing the interval in my head and work out my bow distribution for the shift before I play the passage.

CL: Breathing and trying to think within the moment, but at the same time constantly going back to what the movement or section represents in Rochberg’s grand scheme.

JP: With the melodies, I practiced shaping them first with only my left hand, focusing on vibrato and connected shifting.  I then did it only with bow speed, pressure, and contact point.


5) How did you prepare in the days leading up to the performance? If you performed the piece multiple times, was this preparation different for each performance? – Explain…

JC: I had two dress rehearsals– one in a classroom and one in the actual performance space. I also worked on the shifts that scared me the most at a slow tempo.

CL: Leading up to playing this piece, I would go thru stages of practicing. First I started with just securing the intervals, especially in the beginning, just because they aren’t comfortable sounding or easy. Then I would practice breathing in preparation of different sections to make sure that in the performance or audition I would make it clear what my intention was.

JP: The main focus for me was to KEEP CALM! In order to do all the large shifts up and down, my left arm had to be relaxed and free.


6) Tell us about the performance experience – would you offer any advice on what one should focus/not focus on while performing the piece?

JC: During the performance, it was most helpful to me to think about the timing of each phrase, rather than all the technical details within each. That is, large scale emotional picture and timing over shifts, double stops, and bow technicalities.

CL: I know that I wished i focused more on my breathing and gestures in the actual performances. I ended up getting caught up in playing the notes and forgetting all the musical gestures I praticed that really make the piece.

JP: I would suggest trusting your ears!  Sing ahead mentally and let all the practicing you have done guide your hands.  Keep your ears open!


7) Any additional thoughts, tips/tricks, or advice for learning/practicing/loving/performing/struggling through/etc this piece that you would like to offer your readers?

JC: It was helpful for me to consider Rochberg’s closeness to our lifetimes. Having gone to school in Philadelphia, where Rochberg taught and lived extensively, I felt drawn into the sonata instantly, and am looking forward to performing it again soon!

CL: Running the whole sonata for stamina a couple times before a performance is important for this sonata I think. It’s not that long, but i requires so much mental and physical effort especially just getting thru the first movement! Also I know this is morbid, but sitting and thinking about WHY Rochberg wrote this piece, and how big the impact his son’s death was on him really puts it in a whole new place in my head at least.


Stephanie Block on the Walton Concerto

1) How long have you played this piece? Have you performed it? Multiple times?

SB: I began this piece at the beginning of my junior year of high school, and competed/auditioned with it several times throughout junior and senior year. This year, I am still playing it for various auditions and recently performed it with my youth orchestra back in Chicago. It certainly has run quite its course in the past few years!


2) What do you like about the piece?

SB: I like that the whole setup of the concerto isn’t always what you would expect. The second movement is the fast and lively one, and the first and third movements have so much changing substance through various tempos. I like how the third movement brings back previous themes and beautifully wraps up the entire concerto.


3) What do you find is most challenging about the piece – (musically and/or technically and/or other…)?

SB: What is challenging about this piece is not hacking through it, making it sound effortless. The first movement is all about gliding through uninterrupted musical lines, the second about keeping control and leading the phrases in the right direction, and the third about tying everything together in a graceful manner, creating a story. My biggest challenge is learning not to rush through the second movement! It’s supposed to sound majestic and joyful, not anxious…


4) Can you describe one way you worked/practiced to overcome this challenge?

SB: LOTS AND LOTS OF SLOW PRACTICE. Everyone says this but doesn’t do it nearly as much as they should. Also, practicing the various runs and octaves and sections is important. The string crossings in the last ten or so lines are tricky, so work through those especially slowly.


5) How did you prepare in the days leading up to the performance? If you performed the piece multiple times, was this preparation different for each performance? – Explain…

SB: My most important performance of the concerto this year was when I performed it with Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra’s Encore Chamber Orchestra. In past experiences with playing it, I sort of knew how to prepare, but most of the time I was just focusing on the first movement, not so much the second and the third. For this particular performance I played the second and third movement and really took into account that I knew this piece pretty much backwards and forwards – there was just small tweaking that needed to be done. I took everything in the smallest sections in order to really nail every passage and every note.


6) Tell us about the performance experience – would you offer any advice on what one should focus/not focus on while performing the piece?

SB: William Walton is a British composer, and it was often in British tradition to mask one’s feelings with a layer of dignity. Walton’s music is not brash or uneasy, its emotion takes more time to figure out. Playing a concerto like this requires grace, but visible passion. Be sure to balance both. Also, focus on the musical lines of almost any long phrase – it’s sure to lead into another very important part of the musical story.


7) Any additional thoughts, tips/tricks, or advice for learning/practicing/loving/performing/struggling through/etc this piece that you would like to offer your readers?

SB: A concerto like this can take time to really understand and play like a true musician, even if it isn’t as technically difficult as Bartok or Hindemith concertos. Do research on Walton and learn about him! It will help create the mood of this piece. Never let anxiety, fear, or anger come across in this piece, because that’s not the right feeling you want to get.

Fundamental and Noteworthy from Studio Class Part 2

This is a continuation of last week’s post about studio class.

Misha Amory on:

Sarabande of the 6th Bach Suite

First try playing the melody alone without the chords.  In doing so the melodic tension is no longer interrupted.  Next, when playing with the full chords, the note before the chord can help keep the melodic tension going through the gap introduced by the chord.  Keep your bow speed greatest at the top of the chord.


Brahms Eb Sonata, 1st Movement

Think of the opening as a singer would vocalize it.  In the notes which appear before a rest, let them trail off with no definite point of ceasing.  Don’t feel rushed during rests, even small ones.


Franck Sonata, 4th Movement

In the canon at the beginning of the movement, follow the piano’s line.  The quiet and loud moments won’t line up, and that’s a good thing.  It’s a game of tag between two people in love.


Hsin-yun Huang on:

Walton Concerto, 2nd Movement

Think and play and big gestures. What does this actually mean?? – Communicate toward the audience, but also retain a huge awareness of what’s behind you (100 people!).

When do people usually rush? When they want more direction, but the sound is ’empty’ or lifeless. How do you fix this? Put characters into the arrival notes in order to give life and interest to the sound.

Enjoy those yummy Walton moments that we are all wanting to hear! The distance between you and the music should be like skin and blood.

Use the bow to your advantage in showing rhythmic vitality; there’s more POWER at the frog – and you definitely need power when the orchestra is so huge.


Steven Tenenbom on:

Bruch Romanze

In romantic music like this, bow distribution is the key to bringing out emotive phrasing.  Use bow speed as the main element to convey leading towards and coming away from a phrase, as opposed to pressure.


Arvo Pärt Fratres

The viola is a commentary on the piano.  Use a bow stroke comprised of only small wrist motion (as opposed to upper arm motion) in the beginning arpeggios to keep the viola from breaking the spell of the piece.


Heidi Castleman on:

Walton Concerto, 2nd Movement

Practice ‘body percussion’: clap everything with the desired sound and depth of each note played on the instrument. Bring your arms closer to your torso, use your back, and release and relax to help with resonance. It also helps to realize that your arms start at the collar bones – actually all the way at the middle of your chest. Use this exercise to help your body find how to produce the articulations needed between each note in running 16ths.

Fundamental and Noteworthy from Studio Class

Every week in the ACHT studio class, students perform and receive feedback from their peers and professors.  Today’s post offers a sampling of this feedback.


Hsin-Yun Huang on:

Rochberg Sonata

Drama comes from large intervals, from unusual intervals.  When playing, think of it as singing, not bowing.

Hindemith Sonata, Opus 25, #4

For fluid right arm, imagine conducting the part with your right arm.

Brahms Sonata in Eb, Opus 120, #2

Move your body the same way while playing as you would while singing.    You rarely speak from the top of your breathe.


Steven Tenenbom on:

Clarke Sonata

To practice, play each phrase separately with different feeling, stopping in between.  Then go back and join them together.

Mozart Sinfonia Concertante

Mozart was great at changing personalities on a dime.  Don’t smooth that over.


Molly Carr on:

Bridge Lament

Think of your instrument as if it’s your voice.  Your voice has a huge range of sounds it can make.   Direct your attention to your voice box; this also will help relax your back and shoulders.


Misha Amory on:

Prokoviev, Romeo et Juliette

While playing a phrase, think of the color of the next phrase so you can effectively set yourself up.

Bach Sonata 1, Adagio

Needs to be very dramatic.  Think about the bass vs. the top line. Drama comes from tension.  If there’s a dark sound, the notes have an opportunity to really clash with one another.


Heidi Castleman on:

Walton Concerto (Second Movement)

With piano, clap and bring out emotional character using only claps.  Clap from your back.  When playing with the viola, keep the looseness you had when clapping. Keep in mind that your arms where the collarbones meet.

Enesco Concertpiece

From where do you listen to yourself?  On the bridge or from the back of the hall?  Notice how your vibrato projects to the back of the hall. Play the space/room as if it’s your viola, instead of just playing your viola.

Criteria for Heavy/Light Beats in Bach by Misha Amory

The following post is by Misha Amory.

1.  Which beat in the bar is it – hierarchy of downbeat as strongest, and the third beat is stronger than the second and fourth.

Example: Suite No. 5, Prelude:


2.  Where is the beat in the contour of the melodic line?  At a gentle or an intense point?

Example: Suite No. 2, Prelude:


3.  What is the bassline doing?  Is it the dominant force in the relative importance of beats?

Example: Suite No. 4, Bourree II:


4.  Is there a dissonance or a resolution on the beat?

Example: Suite No. 3, Sarabande:


5.  Harmonic Rhythm.  Is there a harmonic change on the beat?

Example: Suite No. 6, Allemande:


6.  Is there a new bass note on the beat?

Example: Suite No. 3, Courante:


7.  Where does the beat fall in the larger phrase?  In the middle of an arch or rounding off the end?

Example: Suite No. 6, Gigue:


8.  Is there an unexpected harmonic change suggesting a new color?

Example: Suite No. 6, Allemande:


9.  Is there a sudden register change?  (Role-playing or dialogue?):

Example: Suite No. 4, Bourree I:


Getting Your Musical Vision Across: Playing and Recording by Victoria Voronyansky

The following post is by Victoria Voronyansky.

With greater familiarity of the physical properties of sound and the technology of microphones comes a reasonable question of how to put all of this information to practical use in a recording situation.

The first point that needs to be addressed is frequency versus volume.  Since the scope of frequency response in a microphone goes beyond the actual needs of a violist, while volume response is significantly below the typical level used by violists, one has need of a solution for keeping a wide dynamic range while not sacrificing the genuine qualities of sound: this solution is to move the microphone a significant distance from the source of sound (viola).  Furthermore, it helps to use less pressure and more bow speed in getting the string to vibrate to its maximum ability during instances when high volume is desired.  What this accomplishes is an illusion of greater volume through increased scope and resonance of the overtone series above each fundamental note.

The next point is how low is too low, when it comes to dynamics. When the microphone is set close to the player (1 to 5 feet), one can use a palette of colors typically unavailable when playing in a hall for 1000 people.  Occasionally so-called “air” in the sound becomes a commodity rather than a defect when one aims to play with a whispering, soft sound.  Sound that is very focused and direct often becomes one-dimensional when recorded, and loses roundness or a sense of space. Sound in soft dynamics does not always require a solid core.  The string needs the space to resonate and vibrate in softer passages, and a more relaxed, even breathier approach to sound production can bring unexpected and wonderful results.

Vibrato is another “Achilles heel” when it comes to recording. Often, vibrato – without the player even realizing it – is too narrow or tight. When this happens, it does not come through as a tone enhancing tool, but rather makes the sound simply flat and dull.  Vibrato needs to be on a slightly wider side for recording, and frequent enough to be warm and noticeable – but not so frequent as to sound frantic.  The tip of the vibrating finger needs to be loose in order for the string to have the maximum chance to vibrate on its own.  If a vibrating finger presses down on the string too much, it cuts the string’s natural flexibility and vibrations and the vibrato’s effect is thus minimized, since the string does not respond favorably to force.

In conclusion, recording is a highly personal journey.  The information listed above can aid in resolving many practical matters in a recording process, but as with all theoretical knowledge and self-criticism, it is important to never lose sight of what you set out to do from the start of any recording process.  Ultimately the goal should be to share your musicianship with the audience, and in the process grow and learn a little bit more about yourself.

Musical Performance and the Historical Imagination by Edward Klorman

The following post is by Edward Klorman.

Musical Performance and the Historical Imagination
Let’s begin with an analogy: A master chef crafts a recipe for her signature dish, drawing from her own personal taste, style of cooking, and years of training and experience. The beauty of culinary arts is that, each time she prepares the dish, it is created anew—yesterday with a pinch more salt, tonight a touch less cilantro, or tomorrow substituting a fresh catch of trout for the usual salmon. But when our chef attempts to capture this dish in a written recipe, she faces a challenge, since the recipe renders the dish’s steps permanently in a fixed, unchanging form, and it is impossible for a recipe capture the sum total of her experience and intuition. Home cooks who use the recipe may approach it literally (following the instructions to the letter), more freely (interpreting the recipe creatively to match their own taste), or somewhere in between. (These ideas are loosely adapted from Adam Gopnik’s brilliant book The Table Comes First.)

To some extent, the relationship between our chef, recipe, and home cook is analogous to that between a composer, written score, and performer. As performers, we are charged with reading the score and transforming it into musical sounds, just as the cook transforms the recipe into a dish. But a musical score has its limitations; it cannot communicate every nuance a composer might imagine, nor should it, if the performer is to have room for expressive freedom. Yet, just as a cook who is at home with Italian cuisine might need to master new flavors and techniques to undertake “authentic” French or Asian cooking, a violist immersed in modern performance styles has much to gain from exploring Baroque and Classical styles of performance. (On the other hand, another cook might be more interested in creating a new fusion cuisine than mastering the traditional preparation of a dish—just as Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach offers a thoroughly twentieth-century take on Bach’s eighteenth-century music.)

This post explores what violists may want to learn to develop a feel for the “flavor” of music from different historical styles. Even though we can never reproduce exactly how music was played in the time of Bach, Stamitz, or Schubert—to be sure, we may not even want to—our performances of their music are nevertheless enriched by learning about their musical worlds. For more recent viola composers, recordings by Hindemith playing his own music, by Walton conducting his concerto, or by violists who studied Ligeti’s or Kurtag’s works with these composers may inspire our own approaches, even if we probably don’t want to directly imitate or reproduce these recordings.

To begin to get a sense for the musical worlds of the Baroque and Classical eras, I offer the following historical accounts:

A 1702 description of Arcangelo Corelli’s violin playing

“His eyes will sometimes turn red as fire, his countenance will be distorted, his eyeballs roll as in agony, and he gives in so much to what he is doing that he doth not look the same man.”
Click here for to hear Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr perform the Sarabande from Corelli’s Sonata for Violin in D Minor, op. 5, no. 7 (NB: Manze improvises his own ornaments on the repeats)

Excerpt from W. A. Mozart’s account of the premiere of his Symphony No. 31 in D Major, K. 297 (“Paris”); letter to Leopold Mozart (dated 3 July 1778)

“I prayed [to] God that it might go well—it is all for His greater honor and glory—and lo and behold, the symphony began…. Just in the middle of the first Allegro there was a passage I was sure would please. All the listeners went into raptures over it [and] applauded heartily. But as, when I wrote it, I was quite aware of its effect, I introduced it once more toward the end and it was applauded over again.

The Andante pleased them too, but the last Allegro even better. I had heard the final Allegros here [in Paris] must begin the same way as the first ones, all the instruments playing together, mostly in unison. I began mine with nothing but the first and second violins playing softly for eight bars—then there is a sudden forte. Consequently, the listeners (just as I had anticipated) all went “Sh!” in the soft passage—then came the sudden forte—and no sooner did they hear the forte than they all clapped their hands. I was so glad that, the minute the Symphony was finished, I went to the Palais Royal, ordered a good ice cream, said my Rosary as I had vowed to do, and went home.”

Question: In your opinion, which of these two performances captures the spirit that Mozart describes in his letter?
Scottish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Karl Böhm (NB: Spotify account needed)

Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart’s description of the Mannheim Orchestra and Karl Stamitz’s viola playing (1784)

“No orchestra in the world has ever surpassed the one in Mannheim in beauty of execution. Its forte is a thunder, its crescendo a cataract, its diminuendo a crystalline brook babbling from afar, its piano the breath of spring….

Stanitz [sic] the younger [i.e., Karl] is the most celebrated viola player in Germany and one of our most charming composers. He has made a profound study of the peculiarities of the viola and therefore plays this instrument with a suavity never heard before…. Surely nothing better has yet been written for the viola than he has produced. One finds so much truth, so much beauty and poise in his instrumental pieces, that he is generally regarded in Germany, Italy, France, and England as a darling of the Graces.”

Some observations:

The performances described in these three accounts clearly made strong impressions on their listeners—Corelli’s fiery playing elicited a vivid description from Raguenet, the wittily unexpected opening to Mozart’s finale surprised and delighted his audience, and Schubart was impressed by the Mannheim Orchestra’s powerful dynamics and Karl Stamitz’s unprecedented viola virtuosity. Eighteenth-century musicians were deeply concerned with music as a form of communication and music’s ability to depict the affects or moods, but we shouldn’t assume that their approaches to musical expression were the same as our own. Some basic principles of eighteenth-century musical expression include the following:

  1. Musical performance was often compared to the art of rhetoric. The musician, like an orator, strives to stir the passions of the listeners.
  2. In the Baroque era, most movements explore a single main affect or emotion; later in the century, musical style increasingly featured contrasting affects or styles within a single movement. (For example, compare the fugue—the quintessential Baroque genre, which adheres to a single primary subject—to sonata form—the quintessential Classical genre, which often presents contrasting themes.)
  3. Most musicians in the eighteenth-century were trained, at least to some extent, in composition and improvisation. Performance and composition were conceived as two aspects of the same discipline, not separate disciplines.
  4. Members of the nobility, as well as musicians, were trained in the art of dance. Even stylized dances, such as those in Bach’s suites (which were not meant for actual dancing) would conjure associations with real dances and choreography for musicians and listeners in the eighteenth century. This is especially true of dances that were still in vogue, such as minuets, bourrées, and gavottes.
  5. Solo works, sonatas, and chamber pieces were most commonly played in aristocratic domiciles or in salons, often for the players’ own enjoyment. Our modern concert rituals have their origins mainly in the nineteenth century. (See images below.)
  6. The Baroque bow naturally fosters a non-legato, “spoken” style of playing. Slurs generally signified an emphasis on the first note and a release at the end (especially on two-note slurs). This contrasts with the more sustained style of playing that emerged during the nineteenth century. For instance, Beethoven described Mozart’s playing as “choppy and staccato” (according to Beethoven’s student Czerny).
  7. Vibrato was described as an ornament, that is, a way to enhance expression on selected notes at the performer’s discretion. Different eighteenth-century authors encouraged more or less use of vibrato, but no author described it as a basic part of the tone to be used on every note.

Painting of Haydn (right) leading a string quartet in a salon. Julius Schmid, 1907 (Vienna Museum).

Joachim Quartet performing in the Berlin Singakademie. Engraving after painting by Felix Possart, c. 1900 (whereabouts unknown).

What is a modern violist, playing on metal strings and in modern concert halls to do with this information? While it would be naïve to attempt to reconstruct or recover a single correct, “authentic” performance style from a bygone era, it is equally naïve to think that our instincts alone tell us everything we ought to know to read scores intelligently, with a sense for the style and all expressive possibilities. Basic questions, such as “What might the composer have meant by dolce as opposed to espressivo?” or “What was an appropriate tempo for a gigue?” warrant a little research to gain a sense for the style, after which point we can make informed choices and trust our instincts. Perhaps experimenting with using less vibrato may open new possibilities for expression with the bow. Or exploring Schubert’s Lieder may deepen our sense of phrasing and articulation in the “Arpeggione” sonata.

George Szell wrote: “In music, one must think with the heart and feel with the brain.” Perhaps, then, there is no competition between our desire as performing artists to rely on our own instincts and intuition (to play with heart) while also seeking to gain the knowledge of music history, analysis, and performance practice to understand the repertoire we perform in a deeper context (to use our brain).

I’ll close this blog post by listing a few books about music history and historical performance practice that may inspire your own historical imagination. Happy reading—and happy music making!

Primary Sources
NB: many of these are summarized in the secondary sources below.

Bach, C. P. E. Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments [Berlin, 1753–62]. Translated by William Mitchell. New York: W. W. Norton and Company 1949.
Baillot, Pierre. The Art of the Violin (Paris, 1843). Translated by Louise Goldberg. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1991.
Mozart, Leopold. A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing [Augsburg, 1756]. Translated by Editha Knocker. New York: Oxford University Press, 1941.
Quantz, Johann Joachim. On Playing the Flute [Berlin, 1752]. Translated by Edward R. Reilly. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001.
Türk, Daniel Gottlob. School of Clavier Playing [Leipzig, 1789]. Translated by Raymond H. Haggh. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

Source Books (excerpts from a range of historical texts)
McClintock, Carol, ed. Readings in the History of Music and Performance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979.
Weiss, Piero and Richard Taruskin, eds. Music in the Western World: A History in Documents. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Group, 1984.
Treitler, Leo, ed. Strunk’s Source Readings in Music History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.

Secondary Sources: Introductions to Historical Performance
Lawson, Colin and Robin Stowell. The Historical Performance of Music: An Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Stowell, Robin. The Early Violin and Viola: A Practical Guide. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
. Violin Technique and Performance Practice in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Tarling, Judy. Baroque String Playing for Ingenious Learners. St. Albans, Herfordshire: Coda Music Publications, 2000–01.

Secondary Sources: The “Authenticity” Debate
Butt, John. Playing with History: The Historical Approach to Musical Performance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Taruskin, Richard. Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Kivy, Peter. Authenticities: Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Secondary Sources: Other
Bartel, Dietrich. Musica Poetica. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
Bilson, Malcolm. “Do We Know How to Read Urtext Editions?” Piano and Keyboard Magazine (August 1995): 24–30.
Drabkin, William. A Reader’s Guide to Haydn’s Early String Quartets. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Ledbetter, David. Unaccompanied Bach: Performing the Solo Works. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
Lester, Joel. Bach’s Works for Solo Violin: Style, Structure, Performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. [Not about historical performance, but highly stimulating analyses and ideas about performance.]
Little, Meredith and Natalie Jenne. Dance and the Music of J. S. Bach. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
McCreless, Patrick. “Music and Rhetoric,” in Cambridge History of Western Music Theory. Edited by Thomas Christensen, 847–79. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Musgrave, Michael and Bernard D. Sherman. Performing Brahms: Early Evidence of Performance Style. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Ratner, Leonard. Classic Music: Expression, Form, and Style. New York: Schirmer Books, 1980.
Sherman, Russell. Inside Early Music: Conversations with Performers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Stowell, Robin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the String Quartet. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Commissioning and Performing New Music by Nadia Sirota

A number of year’s later Nadia Sirota’s 2005 ACHT Studio presentation on New Music still distills essential “how-to’s” for this field.

Working with composers and approaching new works

How to go about commissioning a piece of music.

Find Composers

Start with people you know and like.  Friends are always the easiest to approach and most aware of your resources, interests, and playing style.

If you don’t have anyone in mind, go to a lot of concerts. Figure out whose music you like, who has studied with them, who is friends with them, and who has worked with them.  Start talking to these people and figure out whom you would love to work with.

When you approach a composer, some key points are: what you like about their music, why you would love to work with them, and what kind of performance opportunity you have available for the potential new work.  Composers also love working with people whose playing and personality they know, so invite them to concerts, give them recordings and generally be friends.  Collaborations are fun, Yayl

Have something in mind

Once you have approached a composer about a commission, it is important to explain to them what kind of piece you would like from them. Where is it going to be played? What else is on the program? What instrumentation would you like, and how long would you like it be? Also, very importantly, by when do you need it?


It is always better to pay something than it is to pay nothing.

1) As students, however, we rarely have access to the kind of general funds or even grants necessary to commission a work on a professional scale. However, with or without money, think of what you can give the composer in exchange for his or her writing you a piece. This is often a performance opportunity, publicity, or a good recording.  It can, however, be an exchange of goods and services (i.e. a website, time in your studio, etc.) Always remember that it is a composer’s job to write music, and writing you a piece of music will take a significant amount of time and energy and should in some way be compensated.

2) When you graduate/ When you get rich/ When you have access to grants/ etc. etc. etc

If you have a budget, assess how far the amount of money will go given a professional environment.  At the highest level, commissions can be up to and way beyond $1,000/minute.  This kind of budget is appropriate for an orchestral commission by a headlining composer.  However, if you can swing it, $5,000 for a 20-minute quartet is a conservative but completely realistic estimate of expenditure. The closer you are to a composer, the less hemay charge you, but as a good rule of thumb, the older they get, the more they tend to rely on their compositions as a significant source of income.  Bottom line: in general, you can get more for less from a younger composer. This brings us all the way back to, commission your friends.

Working with composers

When you and your composer have settled on the fact that she is going to write you an 8-minute piece for amplified viola and tam-tam to be premiered on the fourth of July in the bandstand in the community park in your home town, a whole new world of questions and interaction arises.

It is important at this point to address what kind of criticism is helpful, and what kind isn’t at all.

The composer will probably come to you with questions at a certain point. These will range from: “Can you show me some cool stuff you can do on your viola?” to “Can I write this double stop?” “How high can I write for you?” and, “I mean, how far can you stretch, really?”

Then they will send you the piece and there may still be some issues.

Before you say anything at all, it is a good idea to try and figure out how the composer has assembled the piece.  If you end up making suggestions about note changes, try and figure out why the notes are there first. This will win you points with the composer and save a whole bunch of time.

If a composer makes what you view as a stupid mistake (i.e. writing a low B below the C-string), let him know of the mistake, but don’t immediately assume that this means the composer is an idiot. There’s a lot of stuff to remember about a lot of different instruments.

Always, always, always be respectful of your composer and the time he or she has put into this work. Working with a live composer is great, and the collaboration is totally helpful, but there is the same opportunity of ego-bruising as in chamber music, etc.

If a passage is particularly difficult:  Assess whether or not it is meant to sound hard.  Virtuosic passages are great when they are supposed to sound that way, but it’s a good idea to let the composer know when something that is meant to sound light and easy is really, really hard. Also: sometimes, while certain things may technically be possible, they are very awkward strung in a row. Let yourself admit when things are really hard, explain to the composer why they are hard.

Working Without Composers/Approaching a score

When, as is most often, you do not have the benefit of a real live composer, you have to turn to other sources of information. If a composer is using non-standard notation, make sure to spend some time really looking at the legend and making sure that you understand every symbol before you attack the piece.

Try and be familiar with other works by this composer, and any context the piece might have, aka part of a set of three pieces, employing folk elements, based on the sound of an indigenous instrument, influenced by social or political events, etc.  Ask the composer and the internet for program notes, another seemingly obvious point, and yet many times, particularly in ensemble settings, players don’t read the program notes until they actually see the program.

Figure out the form of the piece. Figure out pacing.

Assess rhythmic issues; slash your part if it’s helpful. Assess note issues.

Approach difficult passages methodically.

If there are notation issues, try to figure out the intent of the passage. Don’t get pedantic about symbols.

If there are extended techniques: spend time practicing the techniques.  Just because it’s symbols doesn’t mean it’s not difficult.

Don’t assume that just because your composer lives in France he will not want to discuss the piece with you.  Spend some time trying to get in touch with him or her.  If you are confused at all about style, form, character, or anything else, the composer will be able to help you.

Finally, approach this music with the same creative ear you approach any other piece. Come up with creative solutions, interesting phrasing, make it yours.

Janice LaMarre on Recording Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata

The following post is by Janice LaMarre.

In preparing the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata for a CD recording and recital in Weill Hall, I have enjoyed the long preparation process.  I have played the piece for sixteen years, on and off, in recitals, master classes, and informal recordings.  Through continuing to polish it until the recording sessions and recital were completed, I was able to gain an even deeper understanding of the piece and how to refine my playing of it.  In-depth rehearsals with ACHT pianist, Yi-Fang Huang, helped in pushing this work forward, through giving us the opportunity to try many different ideas together in order to find one that convinced us both.  The recording process was incredibly exciting, and I wanted to share with you my own experience of learning this great work with you.  Although the performance and recording sessions are over, the adventure will never be finished; a piece like this will always have more nuance and meaning to discover.  However, I was able to reach a point in which I felt ready and confident to share my interpretation.  Here is an outline of the methods I used in reaching this point.  It’s my hope that even just one aspect of the outline might be interesting to you, despite the different ways in which we all work.