Archive for the ‘Technique’ Category

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.

Slow Practice by Rachel Li

Turtle Photo

Every musician has been told to take the time to practice a piece or a passage slowly.  Slow practice is something that we all know about but need extra self-discipline to follow through with it. While it’s beneficial in many ways, it is essential to make sure you are doing the slow practice properly. I feel that, like all practice, your brain should be constantly focused and active, always having a set goal in mind. It is easy for slow practice to become mundane to the mind to the point where the slow practice becomes aimless and, therefore, useless.

I have accumulated very insightful comments regarding slow practice from the viola teachers and students here at Rice:

From James Dunham:

I think slow practice is important at all stages of learning, but the most important thing is that it be very mindful practice! This is not a rote learning exercise that takes a while as you look out the window and make shopping lists in your mind! When done well, this pays off in a big way.

One of my favorites is to take running passages and play them, slurred, with exaggerated dotted rhythms.

First: long–short–long–short, so that every quick motion is identical, nimble, and precise. In my experience, there will be some that “limp,” for who knows what reason? But it will make the passage uneven at the most refined level, thus throwing off the bow coordination. We often “blame” our poor 4th finger, but sometimes my “limp” might be 1st to open string! Go figure . . .

THEN, I do the opposite: short–long–short–long. After doing both of these opposite rhythms 6 to 8 times each (or more!), I’ll then run the passage straight the way it is written. Usually, the coordination is hugely improved, and the passage can be quite brilliant.

The “bad” news? You just saved up ONE good run . . . and you spent it! I consider this like a savings account: so you save up another one, and over time you’ll likely have 2 or 3 “good” ones in the bank, and you only need one for the performance! (Nice to have a spare or two . . .) Then before the performance, I’ll sometimes save up one more backstage and NOT spend it. It adds confidence for the performance and allows one to play this passage with freedom and expression!

From Ivo van der Werff:

Slow practice is essential; normally to be able to hear and correct intonation, but . . . it is not good to practice TOO slowly. I feel there must always be some sort of relation to the tempo that it will eventually go. The reason for this is that when something is played really slowly, the approach of the left hand might actually be detrimental to playing the passage fast. When at tempo, the movement of the left hand might be a lot less than when played slowly. If you only play slowly for a long time, you can get into bad habits very easily and quickly, and these will stop you from being able to play up to tempo. I feel it is better to practice very small parts of a passage, even 3 or 4 notes at a time, at a reasonable tempo and build up to playing the whole passage by gradually adding these parts together. If there is a big shift involved, then practice the passage on either side of that shift so that you learn exactly where the left hand is going from and where it is going to. Isolate the shift, again not too slowly because a shift needs a certain momentum to actually make it viable, then add it into the passage.

Another reason not to practice too slowly too much is that often the bowing just won’t work. In this case I would practice a passage with a different bowing style (often slurred) till a reasonable tempo is reached where the written bowing can kick in. I would save really slow practice for basic technical work where you might be playing a scale, for example, and want to control the pitch and sound and learn the relationships between individual notes.

Slow practice before a concert can be beneficial in order to make you feel at one with the instrument, with its sound quality, with the weight of the bow in the string, etc. It might also have a calming effect!

From Jarita Ng:

Once I know the piece well enough and know that I can play up to tempo, I almost only do slow practice (to different degrees), with the exception of when I decide to do a run through. When I play slowly I am more able to pick up on the little things—intonation of faster notes, the resonance of the note with the instrument, the beginning and end of notes, bow changes, feeling the shift, etc. Slow practice allows me to feel more grounded both in the practice room and when I play up to tempo. So when I run through the piece or perform it, the “in tempo” would only feel like a faster version of the slow work. Maybe it’s just me, but if I practice everything fast, I have the feeling of flying through things without having a solid foundation (hence a lack of grounded-ness).

I always practice half tempo, if not slower, the day before and the day of a performance/audition.

From Yvonne Smith:

For me, slow practice always facilitates major improvement if I do it correctly—that is, if I am listening carefully to my sound and I have a vision of the sound I want. I like doing slow practice throughout the period of time in which I am preparing a piece for performance, but it has really been beneficial to me to use slow practice the week of a big audition, so that way I’m not just repeating everything fast and practicing in what I don’t ultimately want in my performance.

On the Nature of Habits by James Dunham

In our fast-paced world, it has become usual in our music lessons to take for granted that which has gone well and immediately focus on things that are deemed “problems.” Frequently when teaching, after a student has played, we immediately start in with criticisms and suggestions for what should be improved and made “better.” I was impressed when my wife, a professional double-bass player, took teacher training to become a certified Yoga instructor. After each student demonstration, the instructor would ask: “What went well?” I loved the concept of starting with this recognition before moving into corrections and technical adjustments. I tried this in my Studio Class shortly afterward, and my poor confused student, who had just performed Weber’s Andante and Hungarian Rondo from memory for the first time, was at a loss. Finally he said: “Well, I didn’t fall down!” It’s a start.

I am especially interested in our notion of “bad” versus “good” habits of playing. When a new student tells me they have this or that terrible habit they have to fix, I try to point out that even with this “bad” habit (no doubt inadvertently trained over many years) they have still achieved a great deal: success in their high school programs, in All-State orchestras, and at summer camps, not to mention their recent admission into the Shepherd School of Music! My preference is to say, “Thank you” to the “old” habit for all it has done to get us this far and to begin creating a “new” and more helpful habit! How much trouble it is to undo something then attempt to retrofit it with a “better” way. I find it much easier simply to create a new habit from the beginning. Of course, the old habit is quite offended by this (!) and constantly tries to move back. Rather than being irritated, we simply say: “Thank you very much for all that you have done. We are now trying a new way.” It is not instantaneous, since the “old” habit has usually been around for quite some time, but it will eventually relax into retirement. (Mostly . . .)

The next stage, I find, is that the “new” habit quickly begins to feel so much better physically, and the results are therefore much better musically, too. Then comes “the” performance. Something feels a bit anxious, focus is perhaps lost a bit, and who shows up just when you don’t want it? The old habit, leaping in to save the day! Don’t be mad—it’s a very stubborn old “friend,” and all we do is say once again: “Thank you so much for your help. We are now playing in a new way.”

•Are there habits that don’t serve us well? Of course there are!

•Will it be in our best interest to be rid of these habits? Of course it will!

But see what happens if you acknowledge the “old” with gratitude and craft the “new” with care. Much less aggravating and perhaps a more streamlined road to the new, more streamlined you!

Thoughts on Rhythm

Rhythm is something we all have to work on at some point in our playing life. Making music depends a lot on how we understand and manipulate rhythm. Before we can manipulate it, we have to understand how it feels to play totally in time, with not just a rhythmic left hand but also a rhythmic right hand; in other words, controlling bow speed.

The following, simple exercise is one that I have found helps develop a good, strong rhythmic sense. The following notes (taken from my book, A Notebook for Viola Players) explain how to practice this exercise, and the attached video clips show the exercise in action.

0121a Ivo rhythm cropped

Do not “try” and play with the beat by tapping a foot or moving the viola up and down. Invariably this causes tension, which can actually prevent you from playing with the beat. Rather, relax and “allow” yourself to play in time. This is very important. Whenever we find something difficult it is easy to tense up. By doing this we actually make the passage even harder. It is better to relax and “allow” the fingers to move in time. Only feel the beat internally; do not fight it.

Once you are comfortable at 40 beats per minute (per quarter note) , move the metronome to 80 (per eighth note) and repeat.

Note: the tempo remains the same. This way you have 3, 5, and 7 against 2. This is very useful practice.

If you have a metronome that can emphasize the quarter note beat, start this way. Be more aware initially of the emphasized quarter notes and play to those. As you become more comfortable, allow yourself to become more aware of the subdivided quarter notes and observe how they interact with the rhythms you are playing.

Repeat now with eighth note = 120 (triplets, so three notes per beat) then sixteenth note = 160 and sixteenth note = 200 (quintuplets!).

Your final goal is to play these exercises without any emphasis.

Once you have mastered the above, try mixing the rhythms, i.e., going from 4’s to 7’s to 3’s or 1’s to 5’s to 2’s. Try any combination you can. The most common fault is to rush each new rhythm.

Studio Notes by Rebecca Lo

November 5, 2013

Zodiac trio by William Mathias—Yvonne Smith and her chamber group, Aaron Perdue (flute) and Emily Klein (harp)

Mr. Dunham thought that Emily could use more nails on the harp to make it sound “weirder” in the beginning. Also, the harmonies could be a bit louder before the viola solo comes in. Mr. Dunham also thought the accents in the viola part could be more evident and more leaned on.

Morpheus by Rebecca Clarke—Yvonne

Aaron Conitz pointed out that when Yvonne tried to express more in the lower half of the bow that she raised her shoulder, which would create tension.

Mr. Dunham thought Yvonne could include the audience a bit more in her performance. She could start the music more intimately, bring the audience to her toward the middle of the piece, and end with the intimacy again.

November 12, 2013

Suite by Bloch, Movement II—Ashley Pelton

Blake Turner thought that Ashley had really good energy, but the soft places can have more depths. Rachel Li suggested that Ashley could play and flow more with the harmonies, and Dan Wang felt that Ashley could dig in more on the C string.

Viola Sonata by Rochberg, Movements II and III— Aaron Conitz

Blake loved the conviction with which Aaron played. However, the start of the third movement could have more power; it didn’t sound like it was exactly set.

Mr. Dunham thought it was very nice and had a lot of colors, though Aaron could have less vibrato on the lean sounds. In measure 25-40, it could have a very big gesture on the climax. The last three pizzicatos could take more time. Start the movement with a shimmery and deep sound.

Viola Sonata, op. 25, no. 1 by Hindemith, Movements I and II—Teddy Schenkman

Mr. Dunham, commented that Teddy had a strong and flexible sound.

Jarita Ng recommended that Teddy write “breathe” on the music to remind him to relax his hands. She also suggested that he could come down a bit more in the beginning so there is room to grow when it the piece reaches ff.

Ashley thought Teddy could play with different weights and lengths of the bow, because the sound is very similar now. Blake suggested that Teddy could think of the resonance to find the stroke, and Rachel felt that Teddy shouldn’t constrict the bow—he could have more resonance by using more bow.

Cello Suite No 4 by Bach, Allemande and Courante—Ashley Pelton

Most of the comments for Ashley related to tension and the body. Jarita noticed that Ashley twisted her hand when she played with the first two fingers and suggested to practice under tempo—being totally aware of her body and stopping right away when she felt tension to release it. Rachel suggested that Ashley be conscious that her thumb is not tight, while Dan realized that Ashley didn’t move her elbow. Aaron thought Ashley could have a more balanced left hand and could rotate the shoulder for movability. Blake suggested Ashley think of speed when releasing the left fingers.

Lastly, Rachel thought Ashley could think of the phrasing instead of the notes, because it sounded too “notey” and stressful—don’t emphasize everything and work too hard.

November 19, 2013

Cello Suite No 4 by Bach, Prelude and Allemande—Rebecca Lo

Like with Ashley’s performance the week before, Blake noted some tension issues in the left hand, indicating that the piece looked like it was difficult to the audience. He noted that though Rebecca’s feet are far apart, she should be sure to stand securely with proper posture.

Jarita thought the Prelude could have more direction and suggested thinking of the movement coming from the back and opening up the body and shoulders.

Dan thought the intonation was generally very good, but the diminished chords could be even more in tune.

Ashley thought the soft notes could have more core.

Vibrato by Ivo van der Werff

Perhaps more than any other aspect of playing technique, vibrato can show the soul or personality of a player. Every vibrato is individual and unique and forms one of the most important expressive tools at our disposal. But, like every other aspect of viola technique, there are certain common principles that relate to every player.

The initial left-hand position is the determining factor that decides the basic vibrato of the player. I have already written about the optimum left-hand position that enables the greatest freedom and flexibility. If, for example, the wrist is pronated to an extreme position either way, then the vibrato becomes tight, the wrist is inflexible, and only an arm vibrato can be used. Many players naturally choose an arm vibrato, but even so, for it to work properly, the wrist still needs to be in the correct position.

Ideally, a player should be able to utilize both wrist and arm vibrato. On the video are a series of exercises that are much easier to view than explain in writing.

Tracks 14,15,16,17

There are some basic pointers I would like to share. Once the vibrato is working, you have to be able to vary the speed, amplitude, and weight. This latter is most important and an aspect not all players take into account. For a deep, rich, “viola sound,” you need to utilize the weight of the finger on the fingerboard. Putting the finger down is not unlike the feeling of putting the bow on the string: a comfortable, weighty, but easy feeling. If you support the shoulder of the viola with your right hand, take away the support of the left thumb and feel the weight of the whole left arm sinking into the string through your fingers. Of course, when playing, we have to use the thumb to support the neck of the viola (rather like the right thumb supports the weight of the arm with the bow), but this feeling of weight and depth will add to the quality of sound you produce.

I find it useful to consider vibrato, not just from the initial movement of the arm or wrist, but also from the finger itself. The joint that has to be most flexible, regardless of what the arm and wrist do, is the joint just behind the fingertip. If this is held tight, no amount of movement elsewhere will help create a flexible vibrato. With your hand in a playing position, get someone to push on that first joint on each finger. If it is tight, you need to learn to relax it. If it is flexible, look in a mirror and observe the way your wrist or arm moves. This movement may not be large, but this could be a basis for your general vibrato.

One way to free a tight vibrato is to literally trill using vibrato rather than the movement of the fingers. By doing this quite fast, keeping the upper finger close to the string, try playing a trill by rolling the hand from the wrist in order to put the upper finger down.

If you find it hard to move the wrist, play a trill in 4th position. Make sure the hand is resting against the shoulder of the viola to isolate the wrist from the arm. In other words, the arm cannot move.

Many players use this type of action for a fast trill. I personally much prefer to move the fingers rather than the hand as this makes for a cleaner trill, but, for this purpose, it is a very useful exercise.

A good vibrato is a rhythmical vibrato. Try varying the number of “vibrato beats” that you put into a whole bow. Put a metronome on 40 bpm with one whole bow per beat. Start with 2 vibrato beats per bow, then 4, then 6, etc. The movement should initially be large and exaggerated. As the beats increase, the movement should lessen. You can do this on any note on any finger or, alternatively, you could do this exercise using any scale, either normal three-octave scales or one-octave scales up each string in turn. This latter is particularly useful as you will learn to vibrate in any position on any string on the viola.

Make sure that, at all times, you are really listening to the sound you are producing. It is very easy to switch off and let things go. We always have to think about the notes, the intonation, the shifts, etc. but never forget that these are only the vehicles to recreate a piece of music. Our tone is THE most important tool that we have, and our vibrato has a very big part to play. So, always listen and consider what type of vibrato you should be using for a particular passage; how fast, how wide, how deep the vibrato should be. Always support the bow with the left hand; more weight in the bow generally means more weight required in the left hand. Ideally it becomes second nature by allowing the hand and arm to do what is necessary to create the “ideal” sound that you have in your imagination.

Embrace the Unknown by Daniel Wang

When we perform, there will always be variables and things beyond our control. Most of the time, we can’t predict exactly how our viola will sound or respond in a new space or hall—the temperature, acoustics, humidity, who is in the audience, placement of the music stand, lighting, etc., are all potential variables. When taking auditions or getting ready for important performances, inevitably, there is always something that goes wrong, such as a bad night’s sleep, a loose peg right before you walk onstage, the leather in your bow suddenly shifting around, being stuck in traffic, injuries, etc. Other common variables that can affect your playing include the clothing and shoes you wear, the new equipment you try, pressure from social situations, sicknesses, etc. The list could go on and on, and I have unfortunately experienced all of the above and let them negatively affect my playing. As musicians, we strive hard to achieve excellence and consistency in our playing, but the truth is that whether we like it or not, there will always be things in our lives that we didn’t see coming and there will always be variables in performance settings.

So how do you deal with it? How do you perform with consistent excellence under pressure like Jascha Heifetz or Kobe Bryant despite all the unknowns that inevitably come in high-pressure situations? The truth is: I don’t know. But I used to completely choke under pressure, and by learning from my mistakes I have created a small list of rules that I follow, which have helped me improve vastly over time.

1. Eliminate stupid variables. If you know that you will be performing in a dress shirt with a collar, practice in a dress shirt with a collar from time to time and take note of how you feel. If there is something you know you can eliminate, take care of it.

2. Practice hard and well.

3. Rely on your fundamentals. Know who you fundamentally are.

4. Embrace the unknown. Take those risks—go on an adventure!

Considering the Left Hand Frame by James Dunham

Something that is incredibly important to me is the unity and cohesion of the left hand. With a thumb and four fingers (not to mention wrist and arm!) we are constantly shifting strings and position—the potential for disorganized movement is huge. For instance, a motion that I encounter far too frequently is the shift from low position to higher where the left index finger precedes the rest of the hand. This leaves all the other fingers (and the hand itself!) behind, only to catch up and reposition later, always a few seconds too late!

My initial goal (and please stay tuned for the wonderful exceptions!) is to have all the fingers be “good friends” with each other: if they are in a position, they are all in that position! The exercises designed to help train this unanimity are legion: Schradieck, Kreutzer, double-stops in scales, Ševčík, and on and on. There are also newer versions (some in scale or étude books) by Alfred Uhl, Michael Kimber, and a unique system that Peter Slowik wrote about in the ASTA Journal (vol. 40, no. 4; Autumn 1990) called “Pick Four.” This is a creative and very stimulating system for organizing the left hand and the essential finger patterns we encounter. (A “tip o’ the hat” to my former student, Molly Gebrian, DMA!)

I also use a Yost inspired shifting exercise to help the hand learn to move steadily and easily from position to position: slowly, perfectly, learning the tactile sense of the “feel” of the fingerboard, muscle memory of the distances involved, ear training for the expected arrival note and accompanying hand shape. At this stage, all fingers arrive together, all fingers are ready to play, and because of the ease and security of the shift, all arrive in place, poised to be in tune!

For me, this constitutes “hand frame”—the notion that at any time all the fingers, and in fact the left hand as a unit, are poised and ready at the same time for an eased, filled shifting gesture.

Now, if you read my “Blog Introduction” you read about the history of Karen Tuttle and “my” Gaspar. I was not a student of Miss Tuttle, but many of my good friends and colleagues were, and at a certain point I began picking up certain “Tuttleisms” that appealed to me and which I began using in my own teaching. It occurred to me that, to be honest, I should really play for her and get the ideas directly from the source! So, after I started teaching at the New England Conservatory, I made an appointment to go to Juilliard to have a lesson with Karen Tuttle! Well, following some charming conversation when we met, she asked me to play for her. I began with the Prelude of the second Bach Suite, and as I played, she walked around me, grabbing my arm, shoulder, side, just to see if I was tight and if so, where and how much. (Clearly, a teaching technique I was unlikely to adopt . . . !)

At a certain point, Miss Tuttle gave me a look that I know her students would recognize—one of intense interest and no little daring: “Do you teach hand frame?” she asked slyly? I knew there was nothing to do but confess that, yes I do, at which point she explained that she had become much more cautious about the terminology. I can only assume that too many times students returned to their next lesson with a hand “frame” more in the spirit of a picture frame or piano frame: rigid, tight, immobile! Not the point! Rather, in the words of my Diplomat father, we want our hand frame to be “flexible, but not limp!” This reliable shape, coupled with ease of shifting to exact positions offers great security as shifts gain precision and gesture.

And the exceptions I mentioned above? When the hand frame is secure, flexible, and reliable, there are then specific occasions when I love to go “out of bounds” with it! For instance, fingerings using extensions, forward or back, will reach “out of the frame” briefly, but as soon as the extension is complete, the hand easily comes back to its “proper” shape! No more spider legs across the fingerboard, just an easy motion from one place to the next.

I hope this makes sense to you! I often hesitate to put such technical, physical concepts in writing, even for my own students—I relish the individuality of each person, and I far prefer to broach such topics in person, on a case-by-case basis. Consider this carefully, use common sense in its application, and above all, love the beauty of our wonderful instrument!