Viola Masterclasses Notes by Carey Skinner

So far this semester, the viola studios have had the privilege to welcome two wonderful guests for master classes. At the beginning of October, Kathryn Plummer from the Blair School of Music visited for an inspiring class and, more recently, Garth Knox was able to give master classes and a solo performance. These are some quotes and comments from those master classes.

Kathryn Plummer Master Class

Megan Wright from Professor Dunham’s studio performed the Schumann Adagio and Allegro, op. 70.

Because the piece is originally for horn, not viola, Ms. Plummer said, “We have to think of something original to define our identity as a violist. We can’t compete with the horn.” An example of applying this was to take advantage of the expressivity of shifts, which horn players cannot do.

Ms. Plummer encouraged Megan to play into the string more to be heard over the piano. She used the example of stage makeup and how singers and actors have to “really cake it on for the audience to see it.” She related this to the viola saying that what may sound like too much under your own ear will not be over the top for your audience.

Rebecca Lo from Professor Dunham’s studio performed the first movement of the Vieuxtemps Sonata, op. 36.

“The very first thing a violist has to have is a good sound,” Ms. Plummer said of the opening to this sonata. She asked Rebecca to imagine being a tenor or baritone singing the beginning. If the tempo is too slow, you would run out of breath. Make sure to determine the tempo in a way that makes sense with the phrasing. She also suggested that when starting a piece for which you are using music, you should face the stand “like you’re going to dance.”

Ms. Plummer says of playing in tune, “I think of pitch like I hit a hot stove. You have to be sensitive enough to adjust immediately.”

Rebecca Gu from Professor Van der Werff’s studio performed the first and second movements of Hindemith’s Viola Sonata, op. 11, no. 4.

Ms. Plummer said that body movement is good but to keep your torso stable and not “dip” down. Keeping your torso upright provides a stronger quality of sound. She also said to take plenty of time in the transition between the first and second movement and not to rush that moment.

On practicing, Professor Plummer said to “always practice within a tempo—even if it is incredibly slow.” In addition, she reminded us all to use the same bow speed, vibrato, articulation, etc., in slow practice that we would at the desired future tempo.

Marie-Elyse Badeau from Professor Van der Werff’s studio performed the third movement of Hindemith’s Viola Sonata, op. 11, no. 4.

Ms. Plummer described this movement as “getting on a train you can’t get off of.” To start this difficult movement properly, she told the class of William Primrose’s dedication to always start from the string, when the context would allow it. She said that the bow should not already be in motion, except for those special instances when you would want that “gentle airplane landing” sound. For this movement, she suggested that Marie-Elyse start from the string.

Ms. Plummer wanted Marie-Elyse to use gravity and natural arm weight to make a strong sound, rather than exerting herself trying to press into the string. She demonstrated a good exercise of playing the viola like a cello to explore contact point and using gravity to make a naturally rich sound. For this she just slid around with her left hand while allowing her right arm to sink into the bow on the string.

Professor Plummer said you should “stand like a tree that’s planted” when playing. Specifically, she mentioned that moving around too much in your feet would undermine the solidity needed for the last page of this sonata.

Garth Knox Master Class

Blake Turner from Professor Dunham’s studio performed the first movement of the Shostakovich Viola Sonata.

Mr. Knox wanted Blake to be aware of his relationship to the audience. He said, “You can’t assume they know the piece, so you need to show it to them.” Mr. Knox demonstrated this by facing more toward the audience and showing his phrasing and cues to the audience rather than just the pianist.

Mr. Knox asked Blake to have more resistance in his bow. He described the work as a “long, slow, Siberian piece,” and said this could be demonstrated with a more sustained sound. He said to hold back to accentuate this and to “make the string stand up to your bow.”

One specific comment on the piece Mr. Knox made was to imitate the sound in the piano with the viola pizzicato.

Leah Gastler from Professor Dunham’s studio performed Wild Purple, by Joan Tower.

Mr. Knox began by saying, “Dynamics in contemporary pieces are often more extreme; they can go further.” He explained that one of the strengths of the viola is its ability to be very quiet and that our weakness is in playing loudly. In order to diminish the weaknesses, he said to play on our strengths and accentuate the quiet moments so there is more contrast. Specifically with the beginning of  this piece, he said to start from nothing and even allow the instrument to make that soft “buzz” that sounds like a whisper, because it will make it seem more important and will capture the attention of the audience from the beginning.

Both specifically of this piece and in general with contemporary works, Mr. Knox encouraged Leah to emphasize dissonances and to act out silences. These are things we do not get to do to such an extreme measure in our standard repertoire.

Jill Valentine from Professor Van der Werff’s studio performed a portion of the first movement of the Schnittke Viola Concerto.

Mr. Knox demonstrated how the viola should meet the bow in order to “find ways that the viola can stand up to you.” This provides resistance in the sound so that the weight from your arm into the string actually has somewhere to go. From there, he explained that you can “steer” the resistance how you want it to fit the phrasing.

Mr. Knox encouraged Jill to play with different techniques placing and removing the bow from the string in an effort to vary phrasing. He demonstrated using the base and first knuckles in your right hand to take the bow off the string but to also use them as “landing gear” when putting the bow down. He also said she should think of using the bow like playing golf in that you follow through with your stroke; your arm movement does not end with the note.

Meredith Kufchak from Professor Van der Werff’s studio performed the first movement of the Walton Viola Concerto.

Mr. Knox told Meredith that since the piece was English, not German, it could show more emotion in general. One specific example is the sixths section at rehearsal Number 9. He said it could show more yearning and that she should stress some notes within that phrase more than others to help with that.

Of the double-stop section at rehearsal Number 14, he said to switch the balance between the two strings back and forth to differentiate between the two voices and bring out the conversational aspect.

We all left with new ideas and things to try out, but it can also be useful to hear similar critiques you have received before in new words. We are so grateful to these two incredible violists for taking the time to come teach us! We all learned so much.

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