Borrowing from the Future by Rebecca Gu

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Beyond producing beautiful music, I love playing the viola because I am constantly challenged to grow with my technique. Musical development requires personal development.

Two years ago, in a coaching on the Theme and Variations movement of the Schubert “Trout” Quintet, Professor James Stern encouraged me to “borrow the sound from the future.”

I was to lead the transition into the variation where the viola carries the melody, but I struggled to achieve that deep, rich viola sound. I felt anxious and frustrated with myself, unable to produce that sound without tasteless crunching. So in order to get around the fact that I wasn’t able to do it, I had to channel an imagined future in which I was. It was one of those pithy, spur-of-the-moment pieces of advice that really stuck.

Other lessons have come from the practice room: the patience required to master a shift, or the type of intense concentration that objective, non-judgmental introspection requires. There are skills I still struggle with tremendously, but when I work on them through my music, I try to let the thoughts I collect in the practice room inform how I tackle challenges in the remainder of my day, and vice versa.

Sometimes, the resonance of a viola-related discovery emerges only much later. Living abroad in Austria last year, I realized I was not taking enough risks out of fear of failure. I was flipping through a notebook of viola notes when I came across a remark Lynne Ramsey had made in a trial lesson about “YES”-bowing as a component of the Karen Tuttle coordination approach.  She suggested drawing up bows in an affirmative, vertical “YES” motion, which allows one to free up the shoulder and back muscles and get deeper into the sound, rather than the negative, horizontal “NO” motion. This trick was an effective way of conceptualizing the arm motion. What’s more, all the good things that happened to me in Austria came from saying “yes” to opportunities, particularly when the requisite decision was uncomfortable. Had the musical impetus not been there, I wonder how different my experience abroad would have been.

I enjoy learning and growing with the viola, and I look forward to the next discovery!

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