A Final Fanfare

Welcome to the final viola studio blog from the Shepherd School of Music.

The combined viola studios at Rice

The combined viola studios at Rice

We would like to thank all of you who have followed our blog throughout the academic year and hope you have found it as interesting and stimulating to read as we have in thinking and writing about all things related to the viola! It has been a great privilege to offer our thoughts to you, and we would like to sincerely thank the American Viola Society for giving us this opportunity. Special thanks must go to David Bynog, who has collated our work each week and posted it on the AVS web page.

We would also like to thank Joan DerHovsepian for her invaluable contributions on playing and preparing orchestral excerpts and to all of our students and alums who have spent time preparing posts on such a wide variety of viola related topics.

A final, huge thanks must go to our wonderful TA’s, Stephanie Mientka and Jarita Ng, for making sure all topics were covered, that our posts were written on time, and for sending them on to David Bynog.

As a final gift we have embedded a video of a work we played recently at a Shepherd School recital with the combined viola studios and some special guests. The concert focused on the fact that we had some rather special instruments on stage, basically three Giovanni Grancino violas from the late 1600s and a Gasparo da Salò viola from 1585! Added to the mix was a double bass, also by Grancino. Our guest violists were Kathryn Plummer and Aloysia Friedmann alongside Professor of Bass at Rice, Paul Ellison. Another very special guest, whom we persuaded to play as she was coming to the concert anyway, was Kathryn Steely from Baylor University! The work, an arrangement by Sam Bergman—member of the Minnesota Orchestra—was Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man (or Common Violist, as we put in the program). It was a fun concert, which included viola duos, trios, quartets, and the Gordon Jacob octet before the grand finale offered here.


Wishing all violists out there every success, now and for the future!

Ivo van Der Werff and James Dunham


Ten Things I Learned During My First Year at Rice

by Leah Gastler

1. Get distracted sometimes. There is so much going on in this school/city/country/world beyond classical music. If you let yourself out of the bubble, you’ll find that it refreshes your imagination more than spending the extra time in the practice room.

2. Chamber groups are like relationships. They’re fundamentally about mutual trust, respect, consideration, and care. Importantly, they’re about looking at yourself objectively. You can only truly improve upon your own self; you can’t expect to change another person. Always work on yourself before looking at the other.

3. On the other hand, in classical music, you do and don’t have to tolerate egos that are through the roof. When you can say “no” to playing chamber music with such people, go for it.

4. We all have to define our own “success.” In other words: what makes you happy in life. Really think about it. There is no point in pursuing something that does not fully satisfy you. Life should be fun— seriously. There’s no sense in climbing someone else’s ladder, higher, faster.

5. You’ll perform so much better if you stop trying to prove yourself. Remember how well you nailed that run in the practice room, alone? Well, you’ve proved you can do it, period. Let yourself go and do it.

6. Go to your lessons with questions. We all have questions. We should be able to identify our questions and curiosities in an effort to grow and explore our personal curiosities in the direction that interests us.

7. Don’t try to rush time. Enjoy where you are. Every prior moment of your life has led you here. Look around and appreciate now to its fullest; you won’t get to relive it later. (I’m referring to, “I can’t wait for orchestra to be over,” or “this is the longest rehearsal of my life! When will this end for crying out loud?!”)

8. Don’t forget to eat enough food and hydrate yourself well. If you don’t fuel your body and mind, you’re cheating yourself of your own ability to put in your best effort. Even if it means scheduling in 30 minutes for a lunch break!

9. Most people work from 9 to 5 or for some other allotted time period, and then they experience this mystical thing called “free time.” We don’t really have that, because we decide that all of our “free time” is the same thing as “rehearsal time” or otherwise it is certainly “practice time.” Why? This kind of goes with lesson number 1, but free time is important. You can give yourself permission to do something else, to think of something other than music, to have new and unrelated experiences. As long as you keep up with your obligations, which you will.

10. Keep in touch with your friends, family, colleagues, and teachers. Past and present, these people are your community. Don’t take their presence for granted. Go to their recitals, wish them happy birthday, say “hi,” say “congrats,” say “let’s get together,” say “I miss you,” talk on the phone, send a post card, send an e-mail, whatever. Don’t be silent and don’t choose to make yourself distant from the people who share your world.

Community: Why It Matters by James Dunham

As Ivo, our two studios, and I near the end of our participation in Year Two of the AVS Blog, I have been thinking about the role of “community” among all violists:

• Between ourselves in Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music;

• With our sister conservatories and universities in the U.S. and abroad; and

• With our respected and admired colleagues throughout the world!

In the larger sense, we violists are a resilient few, and to a degree we are often underappreciated for all we can and do accomplish. It is quite true that no one can fully understand another without “walking a mile in their shoes.” As such, the role of the viola and the violist—frequently a subtle, understated one—is easily misunderstood and even overlooked. As violists, it is our responsibility—to our instrument, to our role, to each other—to support one another and carry our message to the world with a unanimous energy and sense of purpose. Within a university or conservatory setting, it is easy to feel that a few years’ difference in age is a considerable chasm, but in “real life” that difference wanes to nothing: we are all truly in this together! The friends and colleagues you meet as students and young professionals will be with you throughout your career. Now is the time to nurture that relationship for the future! To those of you who are still “studying” in school, please continue, as I have, to “study” for your entire life. And believe me, I am already welcoming you as my new colleagues in this great world of music. Please join me: let us unite to carry forward the beauty of the viola, its repertoire, and all music!

I invite you to explore the following short list of organizations—and please consider joining them! There are many more groups, often at the State level (TMEA: Texas Music Educators Association, among many!) but these are a good start. They each make incredibly important and diverse contributions to all that we hold dear as performers, students, educators: lovers of the viola and music!





I wish you all success!

Sightreading, Faking & Other Truths by Jill Valentine

My final contribution to our year of blogging will discuss a peculiar set of skills; skills we don’t want to have to use. We practice so that we can avoid using them, but they still end up being the most useful tools we have. When we go to conservatories we get used to having a recital program every year that we have months and months to perfect. We can forget that most of our careers will be spent flying by the seats of our pants, showing up unable to perfect, let alone even look at, everything before (or after) the first (or last, or only) rehearsal. We must learn to fly gracefully by the seats of our pants just as much as we need to learn how to play a concerto perfectly.

Viola parts are “hard” to sight read in a unique way, I have found, because it’s often a lot of stuff like this,

0422a Handel

with just a passage or of two’s worth of this:

0422b Strauss

It’s so easy while reading a viola part to switch off, except for that out-of-nowhere two bars of torture (Above third position? Or just second position? Forget it!) that you totally missed because you were thinking of what to eat for dinner during your offbeats. It’s a different kind of “hard” than a first-violin part, which would probably require more evenly distributed focus. It’s easier to stay a medium-level of involved the whole time than to check out and try to switch it on where it matters, especially if the challenging passages sneak up on you.

So here are the most helpful things I’ve been told or have noticed myself in my very unglamorous attempts at sight reading when I shouldn’t be:

1.         There’s a hierarchy to what matters in sight reading, according to my fantastic high-school orchestra director, and it has stayed very true for me ever since.

A.        Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm, if all else fails, because at least you’ll look right. If you get the right pitch at the wrong time, no glory for you. It’s still wrong.

B.        Then, and only then, pitches.

C.        Bowings are flexible given the situation. Are you in orchestra, shamelessly faking at the concert? He who does the bowings, does the notes, for all the audience knows. I hate bowings. Often it’s these, not the notes, that mess with my mind most when reading. I often ignore them if it’s an orchestra reading or in chamber music with only me on my part. It’ll fall into place eventually. Our job as violists is to eventually change all our bowings to match other people anyway.

D.        Dynamics. Always a plus.

E.         Articulation, blend, mutes?? Subtleties = bonus points.


2.         Watch like a hawk. Save yourself a grand pause solo and catch onto some key unison bowings you’re missing.

3.         Listen around. Notice if you tend to double other parts, or when phrases end, to figure out an entrance you forgot to count. Nail down a rhythm you are confused about by hearing that someone else has it too.

4.         Look ahead, especially at the ends of lines. Look even further ahead! See as much big picture as possible! Put on a recording on the way to rehearsal and get an idea of big tempo changes.

5.         See notes in groups, not as individuals. Count repeated accompaniment figures in measures, or in as big of a value as possible, to avoid getting bogged down. Sacrifice a clean run for the contour (Strauss), and move on.

6.         Pinpoint every clef change beforehand, maybe even with a highlighter. The peskiest are at the ends of lines.

7.         Acclimating just to the visual layout of the part is comforting. How many pages is it? Any clutch page turns? What do the pages look like—are any of them completely offbeats, or completely black?

8.         Look good. An aura of being in control goes a long, long way. Are you totally lost at the wedding gig because the music they asked you 10 minutes ago to “add on at the end, is that okay?” is a piano reduction of a Bruno Mars song that makes no sense, is 15 single-sided pages long, and is blowing off the stand outside? Learn the chord progression by ear as quickly as possible and work from the bass notes in a clutch.

Again, this is hopefully a situation we won’t be in often. We aim for 90 percent, 90 percent of the time. The fact that many orchestras put sight reading on their lists shows how aware they are of this reality. So it’s worth brushing up on your theory knowledge, which helps immensely with sight reading, picking up some mystery excerpts every once in a while, and testing your winging-it skills in the practice room.

My First Beethoven Quartet by Bailey Firszt

If you study with Ivo, he’ll tell you at least once (but probably about ten times) that playing the Beethoven quartets was what he lived for as a quartet violist. After hearing him praise these quartets for the last four and a half years, I knew I had to see for myself what all the fuss was about. My quartet-mates and I decided to study Beethoven’s opus 74 quartet, nicknamed the “Harp.” From the very beginning of the piece, Beethoven draws the listener in with the most organic music imaginable:


The beginning is especially scary, because the quartet has to strive for a perfectly blended, sotto voce sound, but not be too scared to start playing! Another challenge that we encountered in this opening was bringing out the rhetoric in the musical lines. Beethoven writes two statements of the same motive but resolves them with different harmonies underneath the first violin part. How do we make the first iteration sound like a question, but without giving away the mystery or darkness of the second? The entire Adagio is like a speech, filled with dramatic pauses and questions left hanging in the air. I love that it doesn’t gain any momentum until the very last measure, when Beethoven finally writes a crescendo, and the piece can really start!


 At last!

The second movement, Adagio ma non troppo, is really just a set of variations on a beautiful melody. My favorite “variation” starts in measure 87, the most intimate music of the movement. The viola part is made up of several measures of slurred thirty-second notes, which have to be completely smooth without sacrificing expression.


After very tastefully lengthening the beginning of every single beat (oops), I eventually settled on playing it basically straight while vibrating the important notes.

In the third movement, Presto, you have to be careful not to blink, or the music might pass you by. I really had to concentrate when we performed this movement, otherwise I would forget to come in! We found it beneficial to drill large sections several times to make sure it never fell apart. Since the movement goes by so quickly, it’s important to play it enough that you can take a step back and see the bigger musical picture as you’re performing, rather than simply trying to keep up with the tempo.


 Are we in 2? Or 3? What’s going on?

The end of the agitated Presto transforms into a lovely Allegretto con Variazioni.




This movement is especially tricky, because it’s in 2/4, but beat 2 sounds like the downbeat rather than the pickup. We struggled with whether to bring out this ambiguity or to just play it emphasizing the “wrong” beat. I don’t think we ever reached a consensus . . . nor did we ever figure out why in the world Beethoven did that! One of the movement’s variations is a viola solo made up of flowing, winding triplets. The biggest challenge I had to overcome with that variation was phrasing the melody without making it sound “seasick,” as one of my quartet-mates lovingly called it. (That, and my fear of the spotlight!)


The movement’s coda is a thrilling sixteenth-note passage that ends, instead of forte as you expect, with two piano chords. After leading us through four joyous movements, Beethoven ends the piece with a clever joke. I think I heard my dad laugh out loud at the end of our performance!


My first encounter with a Beethoven quartet was both thrilling and unsatisfying. One semester and one performance were not enough for this brilliant piece of music, but hopefully I’ll continue to play Beethoven’s quartets for the rest of my life.

Music in Churches by Rebecca Lo

I have been playing the piano and the viola at churches since I was 12. It may seem simple to many musicians who have received good training from their schools and teachers, but it actually requires many different skills including organization, leadership, and creativity. 

Every service is around two hours long. Aside from the pastor’s message, almost the whole service is filled with music.

Starting with the prelude: I usually play a calm and more serious piece. This is used to gather people’s attention, announcing that the service is beginning. The prelude piece is the most solo-like out of the whole service. I usually play the piano, or sometimes, the viola with a pianist. Bach and other more “serious” pieces are often good choices for the prelude.

Worship music follows next: it is usually played by a mixed group of different instruments and people. I usually play the viola if there is a pianist. The role of the pianist is important: it is significant to know how to provide the correct chords and be able to transfer from song to song acting as a bridge tying all the songs together. Creativity is also important. Improvisation skill is necessary for the worship music. I grew up in a traditional church, so we sang traditional hymns in addition to the worship music. The pianist needs to be able to lead the whole audience; this is when the leadership comes in to play. The pianist needs to not only play with enough volume but also needs to be able to play steadily.

The Holy Communion is served once every month. The pianist’s job is to keep the background music going while the Holy Communion is being served. The kind of music being played can be light, but it needs to flexible, mostly because you don’t know how long it will take for the whole audience to finish receiving their bread and wine.

The music during offering is very similar to the Holy Communion: it can be delightful, but flexible because you don’t know how long it will take for the basket to go around the church.

Special Music is usually a short performance when people praise to the Lord with their music. I have played Bach on the viola or short Christian pieces during this time. Churches with choirs often perform during this time too.

Benediction pieces are usually pretty standard (varying by church), followed by the amen song that is played every service.

Last, but not least, is the postlude. The music for this can be as delightful, cheering, and relaxed as possible, because this is the background music being played when the audience is leaving the church.

Above is based on the experience I have gotten from playing in churches for many years. I would say over all that technique and how well you play isn’t the most important thing. Being able to know how the timing works and how to cooperate with the audience and people on stage leading the whole service are the most crucial skills to have.

Organization Helps by Daniel Wang

As far as I can remember, I have always been a very disorganized person, and I know that there are a lot of people like me out there. Growing up, I drove my parents absolutely crazy by losing or misplacing things all the time. I remember being scolded by my teachers and parents countless times for forgetting homework assignments either at school or at home. Even now, I still have trouble with simple things like finding where I park my car every day. I somehow always managed to get by, so I figured why should I change?

The truth is, organization is very important to us musicians. For me, it took failure after failure (after failure) to realize that my lack of organization was killing me. For any musician who is struggling to be more organized, here are a three pieces of advice that have helped me greatly in the past few years.

1) Keep track of important times and dates. Nobody wants to work with or hire anyone that is unreliable. For me, it helps to keep a schedule/calendar and multiple back-up schedules of upcoming events, such as rehearsals, lessons, recitals, and auditions. For me, I have a schedule in my phone, post-it notes all around my desk reminding me of things I need to do, and a calendar on my wall with important dates circled. Good friends who will remind you of other important events is also a plus.

2) Plan ahead; have goals. If you have a performance, audition, or recital coming up, it helps to have some sort of game plan on how to prepare for it. For me, I like to create spreadsheets on excel where I can keep track of tempo markings, repertoire, and dates in an organized fashion to check my progress.

3) Be organized in your practice. It helps me practice more efficiently when I  think about the music and my technique when I wake up (brushing my teeth, showering, eating, driving), at random times of the day, and reflecting on what I accomplished before I go to sleep at night. Another thing that helps me to be more organized in my practice is to try and understand the music by listening and analyzing it, knowing precisely how I want to sound, knowing what fingerings and bowings I want to do, and being honest with myself in what aspects of my playing that I need to fix.

Balancing the Viola in a String Quartet

by Camden Shaw

Shmuel Ashkenasi, first violinist of the Vermeer Quartet, said to my quartet once in a coaching: “There are only four causes of balance problems in a quartet: ignorance of the score, ego, register, and quality of instrument.” At the time, I remember thinking how unremarkable the list was: each problem was understandable, and I didn’t really find any of them to be a revelation. But then, over time, I got to thinking: if these causes of balance issues are so obvious, why are so few ensembles well balanced? If we all understand the basic causes of imbalance, how is it that 99% of ensembles don’t allow the listener to hear everything of importance? And why is the violist either way too quiet or way too loud?!?

After studying my group and my own playing, I have to say that I was disillusioned on many levels. The first thing I learned was that of the four causes, ego is by far the most prevalent in ALL of us and trumps every other balance issue: regardless of knowledge of the score, for instance, if someone WANTS to sound impressive or to revel in their own sound, they can quickly drown out what we need to hear. I don’t exclude myself from this problem—in fact, after paying attention, I realized that when I find myself playing too loudly, most often it’s because I like hearing myself; I don’t want to sound thin or stingy.  Also, if I’m honest, I love it when after a concert people say they loved my sound, or compliment me on my instrument; and while this is shallow of me, I know that problem is not unique to me. I’ve witnessed it with all four members of my quartet and in almost every ensemble I’ve ever heard: when one is playing in a chamber setting, it is easy to feel lost in the mix, and we all want to feel noticed and appreciated.

Ego, however, is something that affects all four instruments roughly the same, in the sense that it has more to do with humanity than it does with instruments. So, why is it that of all four instruments, the viola seems the hardest to balance? (Although you violists are, in general, a modest and wonderful bunch!) I would say that 80% of groups don’t have enough viola sound in the mix, and 10% have too much. Is that the fault of the violists?  Not usually, and never exclusively! Assuming all four members in a quartet have instruments of approximately equal power, the viola still has the greatest natural disadvantage: register. The viola is not only in the middle of the sonic spectrum most of the time, but it’s the LOWER middle. (Goodness. That gets about as much attention as fat-free vanilla ice cream. That’s being a nerd at math camp. That’s being the “boring guy” in your accounting firm.) Compounding this problem is that the viola’s f-holes, even if the violist sits on the outside of the group, are pointed backward and not out to the audience; still, with a certain amount of “turning out” now and again, it is, in my opinion, better than sitting in the back with the second violin, because in that setting the f-holes are pointed to the side, which hardly helps, and the two most easily heard instruments are on the outside of the group.

These are all issues we know—the violist is in a tough register, the violist’s f-holes are pointed back, the violist is now in a bad mood. But again, I wonder, why is it that we all know these problems and yet don’t fix them? Here’s the fun part: the solution! First, we need to address the fact that if you’re not being heard in a passage where you’re the primary voice, it does not matter what register you’re in. It doesn’t matter how crappy your viola is! You need to be heard. If you can’t be heard, can you play more without departing from the desired character? Probably. Most of us play too shyly for a big hall. But if you’re being forced outside the character of the line, stick up for yourself and make sure your colleagues realize you’re the primary voice. Study the score so that you’re also sure when you’re the primary voice, and don’t be distracted by fancy writing (e.g., the first variation in Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet, movement 2: the melody is in the second violin, NOT the first violin. The first violin has only decoration and is not primary material, and yet in 99% of performances the audience is completely fixated on the first violin instead of how the decoration enhances the second violin’s tune.)

Assuming that everyone in your ensemble always knows who is primary (never assume that by the way), there is a very important tool to help multiple parts be heard: playing with very different types of sound. Not necessarily different volumes, mind you: only qualities. “Color” of sound, although all too cliché, is a valid way to bring attention to a line without sacrificing volume from the others. In my quartet, Milena is such a wonderful balancer because she can change her quality of sound so quickly; if she has to come out of the texture even for a two-note motif, she’ll do so in a way that gives her sonic profile without seeming brash or just “loud.”

This brings me to the idea of having a “quartet sound.” Having a quartet sound is not only about blend, as so many people think; of course, one must be able to blend with one’s neighbor. But just as much as it is about blending, ensemble sound is about structure.  Constructing a quartet sound is much like constructing a building—but unlike a building, a quartet sound is almost never the same texture all the way up. By this I mean that it is very rare for all four players to be playing with the same proximity to the bridge, and therefore the same “density.” Instead, a quartet sound is sometimes like a brick sitting on top of an exercise ball—sometimes a feather on an anvil—sometimes like a peach, all fleshy and sweet on the edges but with real density in the middle. What this means is that the cellist, for instance, doesn’t always play with the most “core,” as some suppose. The cellist can support from beneath without being the densest sound in the group; and if we really understand the difference between volume and density, the melody could technically be the quietest thing in the group in volume but have such density that it’s indisputably primary to the listener.

In my quartet, we believe that the primary material should have first choice as to the quality of sound it desires, as well as the quantity; and we then frame that sound with sounds that either support it with similar quality or distinguish it with contrast. This type of balancing deals mostly with knowledge of the score, as little ego as possible, and a manipulation of density of sound. In my opinion, therefore, the 10% of violists who play too loudly, (against all odds!) are the ones that do not understand the difference between volume of sound and function of sound. They are worried about projecting and therefore play louder than the other members of the group in order to compensate for their disadvantages; but this is not a solution to the problem. What we need to do is tailor our quality of sound, as well as the quantity, to the ever-changing musical situation at hand.  So the next time you can’t hear yourself, or your colleague, go through Mr. Ashkenasi’s list honestly, and fix the problem with the qualities of sound being used! And don’t tell the violinists about their ego, it’ll only make them worse.

— A cellist and admirer of great violists

Camden Shaw

Introducing Camden Shaw

0414a Camden Shaw

Are you a current Rice student? If not, what is your association with Rice?

I was at the Shepherd School for two years in the string quartet program with the Dover Quartet.

Why did you choose to play cello?

I started playing cello when I was six, because my parents wanted to play string quartets as a family—being born last, I had no choice which instrument to play. My first cello had to be re-varnished, because I cried on it so much while practicing—but once I grew to love the cello, I never looked back!

Where and with whom have you previously studied, and who is your current teacher?

Some of my major teachers were Peter Wiley at the Curtis Institute, Steven Isserlis at IMS Prussia Cove, and Norman Fischer at Rice University’s Shepherd School.

What or who are your most important musical influences?

The quartet studied with Norman Fischer, James Dunham, and Kenneth Goldsmith, and they shaped the way that we rehearse and experience music tremendously. More than that, they had so much insight into the life of a quartet musician in ways that we’re just now discovering, and their mentorship was absolutely invaluable.

What do you like about Rice and the Shepherd School of Music?

What I especially loved about the Shepherd School was the attitude of the students; so many music students in the world end up being resentful of the opportunities afforded them—orchestra, coachings, lessons—out of a desire to stay alone and practice their concertos. Not at Shepherd. Everyone was excited about everything!  Orchestra was something to look forward to. People attended each other’s recitals—and not out of obligation, but out of support. The practice rooms were always full with people getting better, and loving the process. It’s a wonderful place!

What was one of your best musical experiences?

My most powerful musical experience was performing Beethoven’s string quartet opus 131—the only page turn that was impossible was the last page of the piece, so for the whole performance I saw the very last page waiting there on the stand.  Something about that really stuck with me—about being somehow aware of the end, through our whole journey—it seemed to match so perfectly with the piece and with Beethoven grappling with the idea of the ultimate end. By the time we were playing the last page, I was almost in tears onstage. What great music!

Bloch’s Suite Hébraïque – Edward Schenkman

For my final blog post, I wanted to write about one my favorite viola pieces of all time: Suite Hébraïque, by Ernest Bloch. I have a strong attachment to this piece and was fortunate enough to play the first movement with the Central Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra as a senior in high school.

One of the most interesting facts about Ernest Bloch that I discovered while playing his piece was that he was not in fact Jewish. His composition style was, however, influenced by Mahler, who was Jewish, which is why much of Bloch’s music incorporates Jewish elements. One example is his use of augmented seconds that appear throughout the Suite Hébraïque, which are characteristic of klezmer music.

Suite Hébraïque was composed for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations as a token of appreciation for a concert in Bloch’s honor. There were originally five separate pieces: a rhapsody, three processionals, and a meditation. The publisher released the processional and the meditation as separate pieces and combined the other three into what is now the Suite Hébraïque.

The first movement is written in an improvisatory style that conjures up a gypsy-like atmosphere. A cadenza-like passage in the middle marks the emotional climax of the piece, which slowly winds down to a resigned conclusion. The second movement opens with a march rhythm from the harp and pizzicato strings, which ushers in the viola with a confident Phrygian melody. The third movement, another processional, was renamed Affirmation and is characterized by sprightly dotted rhythms and frequent use of augmented seconds.

This first solo performance with an orchestra was an incredible experience for me. I learned that the anxiety that I felt leading up to the performance only enhanced the energy and musical connection I felt on stage. I hope to one day perform this masterpiece with a more informed perspective and improved technical ability.