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Playing Chamber Music with Wind Instruments

by Yvonne Smith

As violists, we are often accustomed to being an inner voice in a string quartet or a string trio. We eagerly embrace the string quartets of Brahms, Beethoven, or the other wonderful options . . . But what happens when we are asked to play chamber music with wind instruments?

In high school, I played in a clarinet-viola-piano trio named Skittle Alley, after Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio, K. 498, for our instrumentation. “Kegelstatt” translates to skittles, another name for bowling, which is apparently what Mozart was doing when he wrote the piece. The Skittle Alley Trio was one of the primary influential forces in my early chamber music instincts and career. Formed by my two close friends and me, the trio performed Mozart’s trio most often, but our repertoire also included Bruch’s Eight Pieces and Schumann’s Fairy Tales. We rehearsed several times a week and built an even stronger camaraderie over three years. Our hard work paid off; we were semi finalists in the Junior Division of the 2008 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition and performed extensively throughout Maryland. Throughout my undergraduate years at Rice, I would fly back to Baltimore even after my parents moved away to play concerts with Skittle Alley.

0320a Skittle Alley

Skittle Alley Trio: Matthew Dykeman, clarinet; Yvonne Smith, viola; Patrick Merrill, piano (Photo credit: Wasin Prasertlap)

While I have played in and enjoyed my time in several string quartets since then, Skittle Alley will always hold a special place in my heart. Since Skittle Alley, I have also played Loeffler’s Deux rapsodies, for oboe, viola, and piano, and currently I am enjoying my time in a trio with flute and harp as we perform the Matthias and Debussy trios.

There are several perks and differences in playing with winds instead of with string players:

1) NO TIME HAS TO BE SPENT ARGUING ABOUT/DISCUSSING BOWINGS. Need I say more?

2) The viola takes on the role of a soloist more often, as composers often treat it as an equal with the wind instrument. This means that instead of being the rhythmic motor or filling out chords as an inner voice of a string ensemble, the violist gets more melodic material.

3) The viola gets to blend with winds. Blending with winds is different than blending with strings, because the sound of a wind instrument is produced so differently than the sound of a string instrument. Instead of matching bow speeds or vibrato as you would in a string ensemble, violists have to emulate the sound of a wind player by imagining their line played by the wind instrument and adjusting accordingly. For example, if I have a soft melodic line that needs to imitate a flute, I imagine how they would use their breath and probably play closer to the fingerboard but with a good contact point in the angle of my bow. Composers of pieces with viola and a wind instrument love using unisons to bring out the colors that can be created with the blend of two very different instruments. In unison passages, one instrument’s color can be more prominent, creating an even deeper palette of colors in the sound.

0320b Debussy trio

Aaron Perdue, flute; Yvonne Smith, viola; Emily Klein, harp. After a performance of the Matthias trio (Photo credit: Phyllis Smith)

Tips for playing with winds

1) Cultivate a solid, beautiful tone always, even in sul tasto passages. The sound of wind instruments can almost always overpower our sound, so having a good contact point and resonant tone are of utmost importance. In doing so, keep an eye on your posture. Resist the urge to press the sound out of your viola.

2) Let yourself be a soloist. In a group with winds, we have an opportunity to be divas and exaggerate our musical ideas (within good taste, of course).  If, like me, your tendency in chamber music is to follow the lead of others, playing in a chamber music group with winds gives you an opportunity to invite your colleagues to follow your musical lead.

3) Be open to new ideas and don’t be afraid to discuss your thoughts. Some wind players might be looking for you to produce a kind of sound that is more easily discussed than actually accomplished. Instead of telling them that it can’t be done, expand your vision and find a way to make that special sound or articulate those notes in a certain way. You’ll surprise yourself, gain new ways to make sound, and be a great person to work with!


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