Archive for the ‘Thursday’ Category

Ten Things I Learned During My First Year at Rice

by Leah Gastler

1. Get distracted sometimes. There is so much going on in this school/city/country/world beyond classical music. If you let yourself out of the bubble, you’ll find that it refreshes your imagination more than spending the extra time in the practice room.

2. Chamber groups are like relationships. They’re fundamentally about mutual trust, respect, consideration, and care. Importantly, they’re about looking at yourself objectively. You can only truly improve upon your own self; you can’t expect to change another person. Always work on yourself before looking at the other.

3. On the other hand, in classical music, you do and don’t have to tolerate egos that are through the roof. When you can say “no” to playing chamber music with such people, go for it.

4. We all have to define our own “success.” In other words: what makes you happy in life. Really think about it. There is no point in pursuing something that does not fully satisfy you. Life should be fun— seriously. There’s no sense in climbing someone else’s ladder, higher, faster.

5. You’ll perform so much better if you stop trying to prove yourself. Remember how well you nailed that run in the practice room, alone? Well, you’ve proved you can do it, period. Let yourself go and do it.

6. Go to your lessons with questions. We all have questions. We should be able to identify our questions and curiosities in an effort to grow and explore our personal curiosities in the direction that interests us.

7. Don’t try to rush time. Enjoy where you are. Every prior moment of your life has led you here. Look around and appreciate now to its fullest; you won’t get to relive it later. (I’m referring to, “I can’t wait for orchestra to be over,” or “this is the longest rehearsal of my life! When will this end for crying out loud?!”)

8. Don’t forget to eat enough food and hydrate yourself well. If you don’t fuel your body and mind, you’re cheating yourself of your own ability to put in your best effort. Even if it means scheduling in 30 minutes for a lunch break!

9. Most people work from 9 to 5 or for some other allotted time period, and then they experience this mystical thing called “free time.” We don’t really have that, because we decide that all of our “free time” is the same thing as “rehearsal time” or otherwise it is certainly “practice time.” Why? This kind of goes with lesson number 1, but free time is important. You can give yourself permission to do something else, to think of something other than music, to have new and unrelated experiences. As long as you keep up with your obligations, which you will.

10. Keep in touch with your friends, family, colleagues, and teachers. Past and present, these people are your community. Don’t take their presence for granted. Go to their recitals, wish them happy birthday, say “hi,” say “congrats,” say “let’s get together,” say “I miss you,” talk on the phone, send a post card, send an e-mail, whatever. Don’t be silent and don’t choose to make yourself distant from the people who share your world.

Music in Churches by Rebecca Lo

I have been playing the piano and the viola at churches since I was 12. It may seem simple to many musicians who have received good training from their schools and teachers, but it actually requires many different skills including organization, leadership, and creativity. 

Every service is around two hours long. Aside from the pastor’s message, almost the whole service is filled with music.

Starting with the prelude: I usually play a calm and more serious piece. This is used to gather people’s attention, announcing that the service is beginning. The prelude piece is the most solo-like out of the whole service. I usually play the piano, or sometimes, the viola with a pianist. Bach and other more “serious” pieces are often good choices for the prelude.

Worship music follows next: it is usually played by a mixed group of different instruments and people. I usually play the viola if there is a pianist. The role of the pianist is important: it is significant to know how to provide the correct chords and be able to transfer from song to song acting as a bridge tying all the songs together. Creativity is also important. Improvisation skill is necessary for the worship music. I grew up in a traditional church, so we sang traditional hymns in addition to the worship music. The pianist needs to be able to lead the whole audience; this is when the leadership comes in to play. The pianist needs to not only play with enough volume but also needs to be able to play steadily.

The Holy Communion is served once every month. The pianist’s job is to keep the background music going while the Holy Communion is being served. The kind of music being played can be light, but it needs to flexible, mostly because you don’t know how long it will take for the whole audience to finish receiving their bread and wine.

The music during offering is very similar to the Holy Communion: it can be delightful, but flexible because you don’t know how long it will take for the basket to go around the church.

Special Music is usually a short performance when people praise to the Lord with their music. I have played Bach on the viola or short Christian pieces during this time. Churches with choirs often perform during this time too.

Benediction pieces are usually pretty standard (varying by church), followed by the amen song that is played every service.

Last, but not least, is the postlude. The music for this can be as delightful, cheering, and relaxed as possible, because this is the background music being played when the audience is leaving the church.

Above is based on the experience I have gotten from playing in churches for many years. I would say over all that technique and how well you play isn’t the most important thing. Being able to know how the timing works and how to cooperate with the audience and people on stage leading the whole service are the most crucial skills to have.

String Types by Ryan Fox

String Types by Ryan Fox

Having found an instrument, I decided to try as many different strings to find which set/combination best suited my viola and playing style. It is important to have the instrument adjusted in order to compensate for lower or higher tension strings, but many of these qualities will be apparent on your instrument, regardless. I hope that my experiences and descriptions can help save time and money for those intimidated by the myriad string choices available to us!

I think it’s important to preface this by saying that just because a particular string or combination may work or respond on one instrument doesn’t necessarily mean it will work on another! I remember certain strings working very well on one trial viola and not at all on another. I have, however, found that most of these strings have distinct qualities, sounds, and speeds of response that are easily produced no matter what kind of instrument or bow you have.

Steel strings!:

While gut strings were certainly the most popular until the introduction of synthetics, steel strings were actually available and used—even back in the time of Stradivari and Guarneri. They have evolved quite a bit since then, and I find that the winding of steel strings has an enormous impact on these strings.

My experience with steel strings are as follows:

Larsen A

These strings are of the highest quality but fetch a high price-tag as well.

A: This is probably the most commonly used (for good reason) A-string on the market for violists. The response is easy, sound is clear and brilliant, complex, maintains its integrity in the upper register, and projects with ease. I also have found that they last a very long time and don’t die the sudden and horrible death that Evah Pirazzis seem to. I found it to have the most “core” of any other La as well.

Low-tension A: I found the sound to be a bit warmer than the medium-gauge A, easier in response, but “whiffed” when urged to play loudly in the high register (the second statement of the first-movement’s theme in the Walton concerto, for instance).

tl;dr [too long; didn’t read]: buy the medium tension and don’t worry about trying A-strings ever again.

Vision Solo A

This string is the only steel one of the otherwise synthetic-core set, and I found on many instruments that it was a bit soft (didn’t resist bow pressure like the Larsens), extremely whiny, thin-sounding, and excessively bright. Its redeeming quality would be the amazingly easy response, but for nearly the same price as a Larsen (but sans the quality of sound). I would go with the Larsen any day unless you are dead-set on having a matching . . . uh . . . set.

Jargar A

Like Larsens, these are popular steel strings with cellists, but MUCH more affordable (I think the in-store price A is like $8 as opposed to the ~$26 dollar Larsen [buy online…]). This string is a very good alternative if price is an issue, and the sound is more than passable. It is less colorful and harder to draw out intriguing sounds, but the response is there, and it is not so banal that it would ever cost you a job or anything (no string should). Not my favorite, but matches the

Vision Solo or Dominant sets WAY better than their respective A-strings . . . possibly better than a Larsen would.

Jargar Forte

I cannot see a situation where this much tension would be necessary except for Cello applications. Absolutely seized up and spoke like it was King George the VI.

Kaplan D’addario A

I like the rest of the set, but no.

Passione A

As an alternative to the aluminum-wound gut-core A, Pirastro makes a Chrome-steel A string for use with more modern and demanding repertoire. While the gut A is simply brilliant, it squeaks and cries above 4th position at mf dynamics and simply wouldn’t endure anything like Shnittke, Bartók, or Don Juan. The Chrome-steel A, however, is low in tension like the rest of the Passione set, but can withstand modern repertoire and has a remarkably beautiful tone! Round and colorful, but can attack sharply when asked. A fantastic option if one is looking to try something beautiful and clear, but lower in tension than Larsen or Jargar strings. And it’s not gut-core like the rest of the Passiones, so it’s vegan-friendly

Evah Pirazzi A

There is a definite reason you rarely—if ever—see the signature green and black Pirazzi designation on the a strings of most violists, despite them having Evah D, G, and C’s. They are shrill, high-tension, absolutely SCREAM, and don’t match the intriguing complexity characteristic of the rest of the Evah Pirazzi set. This one is a no-go.


Comes in two different winding options. Don’t go home with chrome. The silver, however, has a . . . sandy . . . quality that I find quite amazing. Response is different than synthetic G’s, but the density of these rope-core steel strings allows more area of the string to be played (pretty far over the fingerboard, actually), which opens up the potential for expanded possibilities of different timbre than most synthetics, and they can certainly pack a punch. The soft dynamics don’t sound vapid at all—even ppp will still have a great core to the sound, and can even withstand the bow pressure of the wild-stallion Yuri Bashmet.


Comes in three different windings: chrome, silver, and tungsten . . . but when people talk about using a Spirocore C, they undoubtedly are referring to the tungsten. It is everything that the G is, but responds 10x better than it or any other C, G, D, or A string I have ever tried. If you haven’t put one on, at least try it—it’s simply amazing. It’s the kind of tone and response where the first time I tried one, I played an open string and just laughed (for some reason). Many older instruments by legendary makers are described as having a gritty, grainy sound, and when pushed, this string will produce that sound. I don’t feel the need to corroborate my opinions with ridiculously credible credentials, but some other people might . . . so here ya go. Lawrence Dutton of the Emerson Quartet actually said: “Every viola needs a Spirocore C (and possibly the G if it works),” Lawrence Power mixes this string with Olivs, Yuri Bashmet is an advocate, as is Gilad Karni, and Roberto Díaz just uses a full set of Spirocores on his ex-Primrose Amati.

It’ll cost you $52 a pop . . . seemingly expensive, but I kid you not, there is a bass player in the Chicago symphony who auditioned on and played his ENTIRE CAREER on the same set of Spirocores.

They last for a while.

The Rest of the D’addario Kaplan set

I first heard these on the viola of a studio-mate and was flabbergasted at how incredibly clear and responsive they were. I mistook the wrapping near the top of the strings for Passiones but later discovered them to be steel Kaplan wonderbeasts. I was disappointed when I put them on my old Italian thing and they didn’t work, but Marie-Elyse sounds great, so these could very well be a cheaper alternative to a set of Spirocores for you to try. Just goes to show that strings are quite melodramatic in their reaction to the instrument they are applied to.



Really hard to go wrong with these. I haven’t found a single application in which they “didn’t work” on, but some violas absolutely shone with them (a Vuillaume and Storioni, in particular). Easy response, sweet sound once they break in (they sound pretty metallic for two days), great tone, but they don’t carry like Spirocores, Evahs, or have the nuance of gut strings. Both Dominants and Obligatos come closer to gut strings in sound than any other synthetic I’ve tried (I’m not counting Passiones as synthetic for this review). Still favored by Pinchas Zukerman as standard after a brief affair he had with Vision Solos. I would pair these with a Jargar A, however, as the A string is, in my opinion, totally wrong. James Dunham and Ivo-Jan van der Werff (both famous quartet players) used the heavy-gauge version of these before Passiones came around.

Vision Solo:

A remarkably easy set of strings to play, the C and G responding and singing with very little effort required. As you know, I dislike the A, but I particularly abhor the D—I find it to be the most intriguing and one-dimensional string on the market. With half of the set leaving me wanting, I’d personally shy away from these when you also consider that, despite the ease of playability in the low register, the whole set lacks a palette of colors to keep me captivated. Easy to ply, but just as easy to get bored with. I do, however, use these when I have no performances or auditions coming up and just need to learn notes/build left-hand technique. The ease of sound production allows me to focus on other aspects of my playing and to build my technique.


obbligato or music obligato (ˌɒblɪˈɡɑːtəʊ)

— adj

1.  not to be omitted in performance

— n , -tos , -ti

2.  an essential part in a score: with oboe obbligato

[C18: from Italian, from obbligare to oblige ]

These strings are one of the more commonly used sets, and for very good reason. They have a sound that darkens particularly bright instruments and a lower tension than Evah Pirazzis. This may actually make an instrument louder if it tends to be “choked” by higher tensions strings like Evahs or Spriocores. I don’t want to be redundant in my descriptions, so pardon my rightbrainedness and try to use your corpus callosum here. The sound is chewy and chocolaty on a lot of instruments that I’ve used them on, but my ear found their darkness achieved by suppressing particular overtones; making them dark, but not as resonant. Spirocores achieve their loudness in the same way, by utilizing lots of high overtones and getting a sound that is unique and cuts—Obligatos, I’d surmise, do this too, but by favoring some of the lower partials. This leaves a certain flatness to the sound and is my only complaint with these strings. The C-string is amazing in its response I would dare say it is responsible for the idiosyncratic “viola-sound” we all hear in our heads when someone says, “The slow movement of Beethoven 3.” Like their name implies, they can be an essential part in forming the sound you desire and are certainly worth a try. You will see these, Spirocores, Vision Solos, and Evah Pirazzi used more than any other string out there for viola.

Evah Pirazzi:

By a landslide, these dominate the market as the most used string here in the states (and I assume elsewhere). Their sound is brilliant when provoked but have a beautiful kind of plastic sounding aesthetic. They may lack cello-like depth, but I won’t complain—their sound is so unique that it’s the only other string set besides Spirocores that I can hear a recording and say, “Oh, this person is using Evah Pirazzis.” The Larsen A blends great and is almost essential considering how much of a terrible outlier the Evah Pirazzi A-string is. The C-string may be a bit tubby and require some extra effort to get moving, but the sound feels like a pleasantly full stomach and has a great balance between meatiness core and I-bet-you’ve-never-heard-theviola-part-of-this-quartet-before brilliance. Favored by genius performers, such as Kim Kashkashian, her students, viola-makers, Sergein Yap, Joshua Bell (I know, I know, a violinist . . .), and in between Ivo-Jan van der Werff’s time with Dominants and Passiones, he used these as well. As does Peter Slowik. And, like 8,000 other great and aspiring performers. The only real downside to these strings (besides the fact that they absolutely do not work on my viola despite any type of adjustment I’ve had done . . .) is that they die a sudden, terrible, and heinous death. Like an off-switch. “Hey guys, I gave 100% 24/7, so I’m just gonna die now without warning. Good luck in studio class today.” They are also quite expensive. Definitely worth a try if you haven’t—you may just find your ideal string. I, however, had to keep searching as they choked my instrument and wouldn’t resonate or respond . . . and I found that string when I bought my first set of…


We are obviously moving on to Gut Strings!!

Passiones are kind of weirdly in-between synthetic and gut, and since no one wants a science lesson in string theory (*crickets*) let’s just say they are very stable versions of gut strings that can withstand a bit more abuse. Take that with a grain of salt, though, because gut strings can’t take much abuse and are incredibly unstable compared to Vision Solos and other synthetics.


The sound combined with the relative stability is unparalleled, in my opinion. The sound they produce—though you can’t play as lazily with the right hand as you can with Visions—is oh-so dark brown! They cut, respond like you wouldn’t believe (when played correctly—they require obsessive attention to contact point and bow speed . . . closer to the bridge, slower bow speed, tighter bow hair, less pressure, you’ll get it), and may feel/sound soft under the ear, but they produce a sound that carries and sounds particularly unbelievable in the audience. If you try them, have someone else play your viola (preferably a violist) and listen to how they sound from afar. You can feel the chin rest and bow vibrating with sympathetic resonance and can create sounds which other strings just cannot. You can support the music you’re playing by evoking colors such as mournful or plaintive, 1950s, Cleveland Quartet, manic, English, dark-brilliance, water, and “whoa.”

You kind of just need to hear them/try them.

Ivo and Mr. Dunham have chosen these as their current string-of choice, and they also occupy

the D and G slots on my viola. (not Ivo and Mr. Dunham . . . Passiones . . .)


Would be my inner-string string of choice if I didn’t live in Houston. The irascible weather and humidity make these highly sensitive strings commit suicide fairly quickly. But their hypersensitivity will allow you to play with equal sensitivity and a truly special sound. Gut strings were used back in the day for symbolic reasons as well as aesthetic. They are, and were, made from lamb (NOT CATS), in homage to the Lamb of God, and to glorify said lamb by playing holy music on strings made out of materials that paid symbolic reverence.

And they sound worthy of the lamb (when Lawrence Power plays his inner-two strings, at least . . .). With projection, resonance, response and intriguing tone truly unmatched by anything else I’ve tried, the sound of these strings will never become antiquated. They do, however, die faster than every single synthetic.

You must, must, must buy the stiff version of these strings—if you do, they will be comparable in power and projection to Evah Pirazzis and can withstand much more bow pressure. Really worth a try, especially on older instruments that were designed for this type of material and tension. I have no idea how they would fare on a Greiner or Zygmuntowicz.

They carry a huge price tag . . . so give them a chance if you buy a set, don’t string ‘em up and throw them out. They require a different right-hand approach but are so much easier on the left hand. They might even be a great option to anyone unwilling to take a break, but who is suffering from left-arm pain.


Cheaper, softer, weaker, but for some reason amazing C-string on certain instruments. I found them to be less suitable for playing anything other than Bach, but the C-string (actually a tungsten-wrapped stiff-gauge string called Eudoxa-Oliv), just sounds glorious. They really are not comparable in my opinion to Olivs and were created to be a budget option to Olivs back in the day, but a dear friend of mine uses the C and sounds magnificent, clear, and loud—so yeah, that’s why we try different strings


Larsen D:

(These descriptions are shorter because my impression of these strings wasn’t terribly great, and I don’t have much to say on them.)

The Larsen D is quite flimsy under pressure (like 3x as bendy as gut strings), one-dimensional, loud, and quite frankly I have a hard time believing it’s from the same company that makes the A-string. They sound great on Celli, but we don’t play those behemoths.

Larsen G:

Better than the D, but equally weird and uninspiring. Seems to just produce pitch, not actual sound/music.

Spirocore D:

Doesn’t have any of the amazingness of the C or G, but isn’t as bad as the Larsen D. It is clear and full, but requires a lot of activity to make it work, to the point of tendon pain after a while. It lacks the unique qualities of the specially-wound C or G, and just kinda sounds like steel with rosin on it. Especially after hearing a gut string, it leaves a general impression of “whuck?” when you hear it.


Felt like noodles under my fingers (they are like half the width of all other strings). Crazy easy response—the entire Houston symphony viola section with the exception of one person was using them for a while (according to a local luthier). Not much else to say though, you can get so much better sounding strings if you’re willing to give up a bit of easy-bow-response.

To conclude, here’s some interesting c-c-c-c-combos used by famous/familiar people.

Roberto Díaz: Spiros

Lawrence Dutton:

Spirocore C,

Spirocore G

no idea for the D,

guessing Larsen A.

~”Every viola needs a Spirocore C”

Lawrence Power:

Spirocore C,

Oliv D,

Oliv G,

Larsen A


Pinchas Zukerman: Dominants with a Jargar A

Kim Kashkashian:

Evah Pirazzi C,

Evah G,

Evah D,

Larsen A.

James Dunham:

Passione C,

Passione G,

Passione D,

Larsen A.

Ivo-Jan Van der Werff: Passiones all across

Joan DerHovsepian

Evah C,

Evah G,

Evah D,

Larsen A.

Gilad Karni: Spiros

Yuri Bashmet

Sprio C,

Spiro G,

Larsen D,

Larsen A.

There are many, many more brilliant orchestral and solo violists out there whom I did not mention SOLELY because I don’t know for sure what strings they are using these days! Just wanted to give examples of what some of our heroes are using 🙂


I am using…

Spirocore C,

Passione G,

Passione D,

Larsen A.

Quincy Porter Viola Concerto by Aaron Conitz

0403a Porter


Drawing of Quincy Porter playing viola

During my final year of undergraduate at the Cleveland Institute of Music, I participated in a studio recital project that was to feature music by American composers written for viola. While there were some obvious choices, my colleagues and I encountered something of a vacancy in the viola repertoire: American composers. It was because of this endeavor that I discovered the rich and diverse repertoire written for the viola by Quincy Porter. Among Porter’s works, I found the Suite for Solo Viola (1930) to be extremely attractive; its rhythmic drive, lyrical nature, and extremely idiomatic feel was quite provocative. I performed the work at the studio recital in Cleveland and then once again as part of my first doctoral recital here at Rice University. Working on the suite was challenging and rewarding; his compositional style is engaging, technically demanding, and always fits the instrument well.

My first encounter with the music of Quincy Porter inspired further investigation. While preparing the Suite, I found myself turning to recordings of the piece, which lead to the discovery of more of his works for viola. Eliesha Nelson’s recording of Porter’s complete works for viola was particularly inspiring, not only because of the wonderful artistry and execution demonstrated by Eliesha, but also in the presentation of so many beautiful pieces that I had never encountered before. It was obvious to me that these pieces needed to be performed regularly. The first piece I would turn to was the Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. I would like to first give a brief biographical sketch of Porter to provide some historical context and, second, to describe my experience preparing and performing the concerto.

0403b Nelson

Cover of Eliesha Nelson’s Grammy-Award-winning CD of Porter’s music

Quincy Porter (1897–1966) was born in New Haven, Connecticut, to a musical family. His early interest in composition and viola performance brought him to pursue studies in composition and viola at Yale College (1919) and Yale School of Music (1921) with Horatio Parker and David Stanley Smith. In 1921 he received additional instruction from Vincent d’Indy while studying in Paris. Upon returning to America he began private composition lessons with Ernest Bloch; when Bloch was appointed the first president of the fledgling Cleveland Institute of Music, Porter followed him to Ohio. Porter’s involvement at the Institute was as a member of the theory faculty and violist in the Ribaupierre Quartet, the resident ensemble of CIM. Porter received a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to return to Paris for three years (1928–31). Several sources claim that his compositional style came to fruition during the time spent in Paris; notable works were composed during this period including his String Quartet No. 3, Suite for Solo Viola, and the Violin Sonata No. 2. In 1932 Porter was appointed as professor of music at Vassar College; this position would mark the beginning of his career as a composition teacher and music educator. He remained at Vassar until 1938, when he was appointed dean of the faculty at New England Conservatory. Porter returned to Yale University in 1946 as professor of music and remained in this position until his retirement in 1965.

Porter’s compositional output represents an amalgamation of his American and French training, with a strong emphasis on contrapuntal line within a rhythmic and polytonal harmonic environment. The Concerto for Viola and Orchestra strongly represents all of these distinctive qualities. Written in 1948, the concerto was first performed and recorded by Paul Doktor and later would be taken up by several other notable performers including William Primrose, the piece’s dedicatee. Primrose described the work as “one of the most engaging of viola concertos,” although it hasn’t received nearly as much attention as other works written for Primrose. Howard Boatwright, in his eulogy for Porter, suggested that the work’s lack of attention was largely due to the fact that it was directly contemporaneous with the Bartók Viola Concerto, even though “in many respects the Porter is a more satisfying piece.”

The work is comprised of four movements; the first three are performed attacca, with an optional break between the third and final movements. It follows a non-standard progression of slow–fast–slow–fast. The first movement is extremely lyrical and flowing, characterized by somewhat unusual groupings of five and six, slurred in such a way that the divisions of pulse are obfuscated, making it difficult for both the violist and accompanist to have a sense of metric structure. Examine the opening passage of the first movement—


Opening of the Porter Concerto

The rhapsodic gestures are rhythmic in nature but are given a more cantabile effect through the slurring (e.g., groupings across two sets of sextuplets). This particular feature is maintained throughout the movement; learning to feel the rhythmic gestures but also to establish a lyrical quality was definitely a challenge on an individual level, but also became problematic when putting it together with piano (Note: not a likely piece to be able to put together for a lesson in one rehearsal …).

The second movement opens with an extensive orchestral interlude, after which the viola enters with a more extroverted, but nonetheless lyrical, melody. I found that the largest challenge in approaching this movement was not learning and executing the notes, although they did pose some difficulty, but putting it to memory; its meandering, soulful melodic passages soar above the orchestra, but tend to have such similar harmonic quality that it becomes difficult in distinguishing where one phrase goes that another didn’t and vice versa.

Without a doubt the third movement is my favorite of the four. It has an intensely introverted quality that suits the viola so incredibly well. Porter provides a number of modal scales that serve as the harmonic underpinnings of the movement. An extended cadenza is at the heart of the movement; it displays a wide range of virtuosic passage work and double-stops. The cadenza has such juicy substance that was so much fun to work on and experiment with colors and effects.

The finale movement is a raucous, almost rustic, dance and is full of challenging scalar-passage work as well as ostinato-like double stops (reminiscent of the second movement of the solo suite). One particular passage was great fun to learn and also to play—the harmonies Porter travels through are wonderful!

0403d concerto2

Page from the fourth movement of Porter’s Concerto

This delightful movement has enormous character and flair, providing the performer with ample opportunity to demonstrate playing of the highest order. Unlike most viola concertos, the Porter ends with a bang!

My journey through discovering, learning, and performing this concerto was incredibly fulfilling, not only musically but also technically. The work displays such a range of technical and musical demands while remaining tonally accessible in a way that is certainly comparable to the “Big Three” concertos. I highly encourage everyone to explore and revive the works of Quincy Porter, for he is certainly an American composer to be heard.

My Favorite Beethoven String Quartet Recording by Chi Lee

Beethoven’s string quartets have remained vital in the string quartet repertoire. No professional string quartet can escape including a number of Beethoven’s string quartets in its central repertoire. Why? There are a number of great composers who input much energy into the genre, such as Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Dvořák, Bartók, and Shostakovich. The string quartet performers surely have a wide range of repertoire choices, just like pianists and orchestras. Why can they not escape the fascination of Beethoven’s quartets?

If the works of a composer are reflections of his mind and soul throughout his life, then the string quartets of Beethoven are the crystallization of these reflections. Through the string quartets, we can see every aspect of his life experience, both physical and spiritual.

Because my quartet group is learning one of Beethoven’s quartets, I recently decided to listen to lots of great recordings. My favorite recording is the Alban Berg Quartet’s live concert, which was recorded at the Mozart-Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna, in 1989 and it was published by EMI classics. In this recording, I especially love the quartet in C Major, Op.18, No. 4. For the Opus 18 quartets, I not only like their diverse color and the richness, but I also think that among all of Beethoven’s early works, these quartets are very Classical in their form while demonstrating the widest array of experimentation. They show a young Beethoven, excelling in the old compositional style, with tremendous drama and innovation, looking for his path. You will not want to miss the Alban Berg Quartet’s vivid playing with such passion in the third movement and the dramatic dynamic range combined with extraordinarily beautiful melody.

The Alban Berg Quartet is definitely one of the best string quartets in the world. Through their performances I feel their respect for the composers they interpret and the music they play. The recording paper insert says that “the ABQ had already made studio recordings of all the Beethoven quartets for EMI when, in 1989, the players thought they should risk remaking the cycle ‘live’ for both audio and video. They felt that any tiny imprecisions would be more than offset by the added frisson of the live occasion, and the result bore out their optimism.” I believe that is why this recording is really special, because they make you feel like they treat every note as if it were the most vital note they have ever played.

As a violist, even though we don’t get so many beautiful melodies like the first violin, we have an important role of giving the first violin support and blending the sound together with others. There are so many incredibly blended moments, such as the beginning of the Op.131 quartet’s fourth movement, that melt your heart. I really like how Mr. Thomas Kakuska plays even just a simple long note; he makes the note so round to support the melody.

The greatness of Beethoven’s string quartets not only lies in their wide palette of style and emotions and their spectacularity, the fascination comes more from the fact that they are so real and human. Through the quartets, one can almost hold Beethoven’s hand and speak with his soul.

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.

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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:


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.

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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!

Importance of travel as a developing young artist

by Stephanie Mientka

As a performing artist it is essential to find new avenues for the creative thought process.  There are many ways that we can grow as musicians, such as performing music from different genres, playing with different musicians, or studying with new professors. As a student, it is even more essential to find these various avenues in order to stimulate growth as an artist and find one’s own voice. To study in the country where a huge majority of classical music was composed would be one of the very best ways to expand the musical growth of a classically trained musician.

It’s always been important to me to travel and study music abroad. I believe that learning music in different cultural settings is crucial to discovering new ways of approaching music and one’s chosen instrument. I’ve been lucky in my life to have participated in many summer festivals abroad beginning at the age of 12, so I’m well accustomed to traveling abroad and can attest that it is well worth the many trials and errors that inevitably occur in both the planning and travel itself.

My parents were performing classical musicians and decided in the 1980s to move to Germany and make a concert career there. My country of birth is actually Germany, but my family moved back to the states not long after I was born, so I can’t say I remember that time of my life. However, in my youth I traveled back to Europe many times with my parents accompanying them on their various concert tours.

But adventures are scary!

Being a US citizen myself, I know that it is quite easy to remain in the states and study music in one’s home country. But due to my parents and their life as traveling musicians, I’ve always had the desire to travel and study music abroad. For many people it can be an intimidating idea, but I can say that everyone I know who has studied abroad in some capacity has appreciated the great opportunity.

Germany was a big draw for me personally, but it is also one of the best places to study classical music. Classical music has simply been a part of daily life in Germany for hundreds of years, and this relatively small country has produced some of the most notable classical composers in our history. This has deeply embedded a strong classical music tradition in German culture, as well as great respect and support for classical musicians.

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The master class I attended last summer was the Musikalische Sommerkurse, and took place in Leutkirch im Allgäu, Deutschland. It is a 12-day master class for violin, viola, and cello. The first evening the professors performed a wonderful concert, which kicked off the course in a very inspiring way.

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View of concert hall in Leutkirch

Each participant receives one 30 minute lesson every other day, and all the lessons are public, so the participants can observe all lessons taking place. Last summer there were four student performance opportunities, and these took place at beautiful venues in nearby towns and in Leutkirch.

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View from concert hall in Bavaria

The audiences were wonderful to play for; they were very appreciative and supportive. Every concert had a packed house, which was incredible. Along with private lessons at the course, there is also a professional pianist who gives the participants daily coachings (if you choose works with piano). These are almost as valuable as the lessons themselves. It is rare to have so much time to spend rehearsing with a pianist. This gives the violist the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the piano part, which in turns helps make you into not only a better violist, but also a better chamber musician. We had one long technique class led by Roland Glassl, which for me was alone worth going to the master class.

Advice for this type of course:

  • Prepare at least half a recital’s worth of music, and bring this repertoire to the course at the very highest level. In order to participate in the performance opportunities you must have repertoire that is performance-ready when you arrive.
  • Listen to as many lessons as you possibly can (as long as you get in your practice hours, of course!) There are violin and cello master classes going on as well, so when you’re sick of viola repertoire, go listen to a cello or violin class!
  • Take notes, record all of your lessons, and listen back immediately. This will help you to retain the comments and the progress that you make. It is a very intense 10 days, and it goes by very quickly!
  • Stay with a host family. The festival is kind enough to find host families for the participants, which is half the cost of a hotel at 15 euros per day. I’ve always had good luck with host families, and it really adds to the experience to be immersed in the culture.
  • And, of course, have fun and meet new people!!

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View from my room at my host family’s home

AND yes, let’s talk about cost

Lastly, I would like to comment on the cost of this type of adventure. It’s the first reason why most people don’t travel, and I understand it can be very expensive. However, if you do it right, the biggest expense is the flight, and that price varies.

Food and housing

Food is very cheap in Germany, and you can easily live on 10 euros a day or less. There are many opportunities to live with a host family, and most of the time they feed you, which cuts down the cost even more. One additional bit of advice on housing is to ask your friends if they have friends/family in the countries where you are traveling. You’d be surprised how many connections people have in far away places, and I’ve found that everyone loves to host traveling student musicians! I also know many friends who have had a lot of luck with hostels, although I haven’t had much experience myself.


As far as traveling within the countries, my favorite way to travel is the Eurail train pass. This allows you to travel and change plans freely without losing money. When traveling, the best thing you can do is to be flexible, and the Eurail pass allows you to do this.

Make money while traveling? Why yes!

One way that I have found to actually make money while traveling is busking on the streets. All towns in Germany have weekly, if not daily, street markets in the summer. And if you do it right, you can make good money. The tricky part is making sure that it is legal where you are busking (e.g., a lot of towns you can only play for an hour and then you have to change locations).

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Gift from wonderful host family!


Okay folks, my conclusion is to just do it. And don’t wait, travel while you’re young and have fewer commitments (kids, job, etc.) holding you back. The longer you wait, the more difficult it is to take the leap! You will never regret it. When you are planning, just remember to be creative and use the people and resources you have at hand, and before you know it you will be on a trip of a lifetime. Bon voyage!

Website for master class:

Website for Roland Glassl:

Eurail website:

Commissioning Composers

by Jarita Ng

Premiering music gives me the power that I don’t have over other music. I am always under the impression that when I play standard repertoire, 95% of the interpretation is controlled—in addition to notes and bowings, phrasing and general direction are predetermined because there have been many players who have played the pieces, thus some sort of “performance practice” for the specific pieces has been formed. But playing completely new music is an entirely different world. When I prepare and perform new music, I feel like I am a dog off the leash—I get to run as much as I want! However, just as a dog would not want to wander too far to make sure that it can go back to the owner and have dinner that evening, I can do whatever I want as long as it is within the given directions. Imagine the freedom!

Commissioning works is even more fun. Not only can one get the freedom in interpretation, but he or she also has some considerable influence on the formation of the piece. In most of the cases, the pieces would be geared toward the style of playing and preferences of the performers. I, along with some composer friends, believe that commissioning is an essential part in keeping the vitality of music going now. By commissioning music that we, the performers, enjoy playing, we help create the music that may get passed on.

If you have some composer friends, don’t be afraid to ask them to write a piece for you. I have found out that composers are mostly excited and more than willing to write commissions. But before you go ask them, there are a few things that you might want to think about. I sent out a set of questions to some of my composer friends with whom I have collaborated in commissioning and premiering works; six of them responded. They are Jeremy Crosmer, Tommy Dougherty, Michael-Thomas Foumai, Daniel Knaggs, Garret Schumann, and Roger Zare. You can find their information and links to recordings of their works involving viola at the end of the post. Here is the list of questions they received:

  1. What do you want us (performers) to do before we approach you for a commission?
  2. How clearly of an idea for the piece should we have before approaching you?
  3. How far ahead of time should we ask?
  4. What do you expect in return?
  5. Under what circumstance and for what reason would you accept or reject a commission?
  6. How and how much can we take part in the creation process?
  7. Do you like writing for strings? What do you enjoy and what are the challenges?
  8. If you had to write a piece for viola, which could be of any form or style, what would it be like?

What do the composer(s) want us (performers) to do before we approach them for a commission?

Even though the six composers stated that this is of personal preference, they all answered that they would like to have heard our playing and for us to have listened to their music (either live or recordings). It would be a huge plus if we have worked with them before on their other pieces, but not necessarily commissions or premieres.

How clearly of an idea for the piece should we have before approaching them?

Deadline, length, and instrumentation are the three pieces of information they all agreed upon that they would really appreciate to have. Other things like number of movements, characteristics, what else is going to be on the program, etc., are helpful. But some requests, such as an example that Daniel Knaggs gives, “I’d do anything to get a Kenny G. style piece” or Tommy’s example of “I want a piece that sounds like Stravinsky” might not be honored. As Tommy puts it, if asked to write a piece in the style of another composer, “I would feel as if I were writing someone else’s music, perhaps.”

We may have a lot of ideas to impart, but at the same time we should allow room for the composers to create, too, and understand that they may not take all our ideas into account.

How far ahead of time should we ask?

Talk to them as soon as you have a good idea of the deadline, length, and instrumentation! Some composers write fast; some not as fast. But giving a minimum of six months for a ten-minute chamber piece and about a year for an orchestral piece seems to be the average. They would have to figure out how to work your piece into other commissions that are already scheduled. Thus it is never too early to ask.

What do you expect in return?

The composers gave varying answers to this question. However, they all expect a premiere performance and an audio or video recording at the least, and most of them would appreciate some sort of compensation—money, food, beer (I did that a lot), etc.

Recording: I think it is important to make a really good recording of the commission so that the composer (and you) can share them to promote the piece. (To be honest, I still have three that are yet to be recorded. Apologies to Jeremy and Josh.)

Money: It is hard for students to come up with money to commission, I am sure we all understand. Roger suggests organizing a consortium of a number of performers to commission a new work, e.g., five people each pitching in $30 compared to one person paying $150. There are also funds and foundations that offer money to performers to commission composers—Fromm Foundation, Jerome Fund, the American Music Center, etc.

Dedication, continued interest, and promotion are very much appreciated by the composers. I think factors are also a responsibility that comes with commissioning. We want the works to be played by more than just one person or group! And wouldn’t it feel awesome if other people play the piece(s) because of our initiation?

Under what circumstance and for what reason would you accept or reject a commission?

The six composers that I asked are all students or recent graduates. They are really fantastic and are enthusiastic about writing. All of them stated that they would not reject any commission offer unless it does not work with their schedule, i.e., when they have another deadline that is close to the deadline we give them for our commissions, resulting in less than satisfactory music (to their standard). One of the composers added that he might not accept a commission if he does not have interest in writing for a the instrumentation.

How and how much can we take part in the creation process?

It depends on the composer. We might need to talk to him or her about how we can help. A large proportion of the composers that I have worked with (commission or not), especially non-string-instrument-playing composers, want to know what works and what doesn’t. They also appreciate you telling them about your individual strengths (or playing for them to show them) that they can tailor to our abilities (I love it when they realize that we can play more difficult things than they have written *insert evil laughter). One thing to bear in mind though is to “not step on their toes.” Jeremy offered this advice that gave me the light bulb moment: “Remember to separate the role of performer from composer. You are there to showcase the work, and we are there to set the parameters. You can guide our process, and we can guide your process, but in the end we have different talents.”

In contrast, some composers prefer working alone, either because they know how the instruments work, it is their habit, or for other reasons. In general, we need to communicate honestly and as much as possible about the expectation and the progress.

Do you like writing for strings? What do you enjoy and what are the challenges?

Of course they all expressed their love for string instruments since the survey came from a string player. They pointed out that our instruments are capable of playing “extremely fast, articulated, special effects and virtuosic acrobatics to deep, dark, and gorgeous sustained lines” (Michael). Jeremy likes how we can “get a nice, smooth, connected and blended sound, or you can vary the texture quite dramatically.” Yes, string instruments are pretty awesome.

For non-string-instrument-playing composers, the challenges are understandably: fingerings, jumps, impossible double-stops, harmonics, etc. The “special string techniques” that I have had to explain the most have been harmonics, both natural and artificial, how they work, the note coming out as which octave, how flat some natural harmonics are, etc.

For composers who play string instruments, the challenges of writing for strings lie outside of the familiarity of the instruments. They are personal and differ from each other quite a bit: balancing strings with other instruments (Garrett), getting outside of the comfort zone of the idiomatic writing (Michael), writing idiomatically that seems hard and complex but is not as difficult to play (Roger), and competing with the large amount of string repertoire there is (Tommy).

If you had to write a piece for viola, which could be of any form or style, what would it be like?

Four out of the six composers expressed interest in writing a viola concerto/concertino (yay!!!). I have to say playing new concerti would be pretty awesome. Roger likes the challenge of balancing viola against a large ensemble. He sees it as a problem-solving game. (One thing you should know about Roger is that he is an extremely scientific person. A lot of his pieces are named after science material, matters, phenomenon, etc, such as Tectonics (2012) for orchestra and Scintillation (2004) for viola and piano, among others. So, his looking at those horrible balance problems that we violists face as a game is not really surprising.) Even though the idea of premiering a concerto is exciting, I have been reluctant to commission one. It is because I am worried that I would not able to assemble a large enough group of musicians who are willing to play new works. As a solution for wanting to commission but not having enough performance opportunities, I think it is only fair to make an absolutely stunning recording of the concerto with an orchestra, so that the composer can enter the piece in competitions to have a chance for it to be known and played more widely.

Another solution offered by Tommy is to commission a concertino, which is a concerto with small ensemble accompaniment. This would be easier to put together and not as difficult to perform more frequently. You can have the best of both worlds!

Aside from a specific genre that the composers said they are interested in working on, they more or less expressed that they would tailor the style of the piece (be it concerto or not) to the abilities and preferences of the performers.

I hope this post has answered some of the questions that you might have regarding commissioning and has given you some interest in working with your composer friends. If any of you would want to commission a viola concerto, please let me know! We can organize a consortium!

Happy commissioning and premiering!

You can click on the composers’ names to go to their website.

Jeremy Crosmer

Thomas Dougherty

Michael-Thomas Foumai

Daniel Knaggs

  • Eventide (2013) for alto saxophone and viola
  • Snowdrifit (2012) for viola and live electronics

Garret Schumann

Roger Zare

Here you can click on their names for the scripts of their original response

Jeremy Crosmer

Thomas Dougherty

Michael-Thomas Foumai

Daniel Knaggs

Garrett Schumann

Roger Zare

On Motivation

By Rebecca Gu

Last semester, I took a career development class at Rice called “Advanced Mental Training,” taught by Dr. Elizabeth Slator. In spite of its somewhat imposing name, the class was an open forum for a small group of music students to share the ups and downs of our weeks and to discuss aspects of the various psychological skills affecting musical performance.

I felt so moved by the class that I thought it worthwhile to share one of the topics we discussed: motivation. As music students, we derive our motivation from a very personal, but vulnerable place—a love of music-making and perhaps a desire to be acknowledged for the expressions of our deepest selves. But how do we maintain that motivation and channel it in the face of setbacks, competition, and day-to-day stressors? What do we do when we are confronted with an external obstacle that tells us “no”?

Our class discussions helped me see that motivation is more a matter of managing emotional response than exercising sheer willpower (as Ivo always tells me in lessons…  “don’t try!”). We watched a videotaped interview with Dan Goleman, the author who coined the term emotional intelligence. He explained that at the root of every emotion is an impulse, and ultimately it’s our emotions that move us toward our goals in life. I need to always be conscious what motivates me to become a better musician and keep those impulses alive.

To probe at these impulses and increase our awareness of them, we broke into small groups and discussed the following questions (many are Dr. Slator’s, and I’ve added a few here):

• How did you start playing your instrument? When were you first introduced to playing the viola . . . Who introduced you?

• Who are and/or were your role models and mentors? How did they nurture and inspire you?

• Who are some of your favorite violists and why? What about their playing or their personalities excites you?

• What was “the moment” you knew you wanted to build a career in music? Was there a moment you fell in love with playing?

• What is your favorite thing about playing the viola?

• What is one of the most inspiring performances you’ve seen? What about it moved you? (Do you have any favorite recordings or pieces… why?)

• Tell a story about an experience you had while playing that you feel epitomizes your feelings about/relationship with your instrument.

• What would you miss most about playing if music/your instrument were taken from you?

• Does the social fabric of music-making mean something to you? What do you like about playing with others? Does the experience reveal something about yourself to you?

Taking the time to really think through these questions can only strengthen your connection to the viola. In addition, for me, discussing them with friends and (eventually) journaling about them forced me to verbalize my responses in a way that reminded me of their importance to me.

One final motivation tip is to write a blog entry about motivation! It’s time to go practice…

What is Fiddling by Blake Turner

If you are a violinist or violist, you’ve probably been asked at some point in your life, “Now is that a fiddle or a violin/viola?” Growing up in Texas, where there is a fiddler in nearly every country band, I’ve been asked that question quite a bit. I’m always happy to tell people that the answer is “both!” A fiddle and a violin are synonyms for the same instrument, and where the differences lie are in the style of play. Fiddling is a style that characterizes a type of folk music just as Bach’s music is defined by the Baroque style.

Some of the more distinctive elements that characterize a lot of fiddle playing include ornamentation, slides, double stops, and drones. Bowings also are a huge part of fiddle music, as they often give a piece its driving rhythm and seamless flow. Another two key aspects of fiddle playing are individuality and improvisation. This is due to the fact that most players learn tunes by ear, and as a fiddler gains more experience he adds his own flair and personality to the music.

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Now there are many different types of fiddling, which I find fascinating! For example, there are Irish, Canadian, Celtic, and Texas styles of fiddling, just to name a few. I am neither a music scholar nor an expert wordsmith, so for you to get an idea of the differences among some of these styles, I’ve included links to recordings at the bottom of this post.

Another fun and entertaining part of the fiddling tradition are fiddle contests. Through the years I’ve had the opportunity to participate in several fiddle contests, and they are a ton fun. Contests are sometimes held as events by themselves or as part of a state/county fair, and it is a time for fiddlers young and old to take the stage and show off their chops! Typically each contestant is asked to play a hoedown, a waltz, and a tune of their choice (often times a breakdown) with bass and guitar accompaniment. After everyone plays, the judges choose finalists to play one more tune with the band. Once the judges have deliberated which fiddler has the best total score in categories such as rhythm, tone, danceability, and style, a winner is chosen. The champion then takes the stage a final time for a winner’s round.

Duo Fiddlers

If you have found any of this at all interesting, I would encourage you to try some fiddling yourself. There are a ton of great videos and recordings online that can give you an introduction into this great musical style. The best part about fiddling is that it is not a style limited to just violinists, and it can be just as exciting to play on the viola!

Here is a link to a great presentation that Natalie MacMaster gave on Cape Breton fiddling, which has Scottish roots.

Mark O’Conner is one of the most famous fiddlers of all time, and here is a video of him playing one of my favorite tunes called Orange Blossom Special.

April Vanch in this video gives a very informative breakdown of different Canadian fiddle styles.