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

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