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Archive for the ‘Thursday’ Category

Bringing the Past to the Present by Leah Gastler

Performing historical music is a balancing act. We hold tradition and history in the highest regard, yet we must also make personal decisions that allow music to breathe a new life; to be alive today, affected by our humanity, artistry, and also our modern standpoint. Like learning how to draw the correct proportions of the human figure, we have a responsibility to understand the structure, form, and intention of a composer’s work before imposing our personal opinions upon it.

When we perform a Mozart string quartet, for instance, we are affected by so much more than our own musical sensibilities. We want to adhere to the manuscript or discuss the values of the first edition notation, or we want to read Mozart’s letters and incorporate the historical context into our understanding of the work. Even more basic, we understand the form and function of the genre of the string quartet itself and its own historical context.

Then we listen to recordings, and we like the way one group does this or another does that, and we acknowledge that one recording might now be “out of style,” a rather mysterious qualifier itself. We incorporate all of these influences. We receive input from our mentors, who may disagree among each other, but who always present great arguments for his or her own interpretation. They provide quotes and anecdotes from their teachers and mentors—relics of the revered old-style performance that we so admire but can never relive. We make decisions based upon these ideals. We cannot adhere to every angle, because there is no “correct”; there is only “informed.” After the information, it is our duty to make the music alive.

Personal commitment makes music alive. The spirit of music originates within the performer, here and now, not within the composer or the history or all the information behind our output. We have to know what our personal impression is—what we want to convey and what moves us emotionally and convinces us of the validity of this music. It is our duty to make this history valid now, to us and our world, and it requires a challenging balance of imitation and innovation. This is what Mozart “should” sound like. This is what Mozart “did” sound like. This is what Mozart sounds like now; or, This is what my Mozart sounds like. This is what Picasso’s bull looks like:

0130a Picasso Bull

In new music, the role we play as the performer is much more of a creative process. We embrace unknown techniques and notation, and we imagine what sound, image, or feeling the composer intended. Sometimes we are lucky enough that we can even ask the composer. We are not beholden to centuries of tradition before us or even the qualities of beauty that we have learned to recognize. Sometimes we are even asked to actively reject these ideals and reinvent; start anew with a different palette, different medium, different-sized canvas, and different tools. Or sometimes only one of those variables may change.

Being the first to bring this music to life, we are allowed to bring our creative process to the foreground of our work. We have to decipher, interpret, and enact this music without the influence of what came before, setting the stage for performances to come and defining the meaning and relevance of this music. We have to relate to this work, as we are contemporaneous beings, and introduce our audiences to the musical expression of our time. We have to convince the audience of a work’s greatness, value, expression, relevance—that it should be heard again and given new life.

Whereas a Mozart quartet will survive into the future regardless of how many heartless performances it receives, a new work requires a level of commitment that believes in the future of this repertoire. We have to send this expression off well. This is Joseba Eskubi’s contemporary expression of something nameless, in mixed-media.

1030b abstract painting


How to Find and Produce Your Inner Voice by Ryan Fox

I stopped keeping track at 110; a completely abstract number, yet definitive moment where I realized that finding my dulcet, bratsche doppelgänger would take some time. Trying so many instruments certainly inspired some feelings of “oops,” but when I finally did find my viola “d’amore,” I knew my efforts weren’t wasted.

My 1902 Muschietti viola holds me accountable to my extensive search, and refuses to let me make excuses for my playing. Taking so much time away from my daily scales regiment to find an instrument really impacted my playing—but to allow my technique to take a step back in order to see a once-obfuscated world of potential is a decision I don’t regret.

Many people urged me to settle after about a year spent allegedly spinning my wheels. I feel this would have been an enormous mistake having already dedicated so much time to finding what I knew was out there . . . and I would urge anyone who reads this, if ever in my shoes, to realize that one can be successful despite years of being a viola vagabond. Richard Young of the Vermeer Quartet expressed the feeling that “he couldn’t even walk onstage with the rest of his quartet” as their instruments were probably twenty times the price of his.  He chose, however, to take twenty years of searching over a compromise—and is quite content from what I could gather.

Of course, I hope that if you are searching, that your search won’t lead to as many frequent flyer miles as mine. I would also implore you to consider my advice, as there is absolutely no reason you would want to learn some of these things firsthand. 

First of all, have a definitive amount of money actually set aside. The promises of patrons can be quite capricious, leaving you in a situation where money could, for once, have bought love.  Don’t let that one go unrequited.

I then will strongly suggest that you don’t by any means assume—for any reason at all—that anything you know or think you know about the qualities of and characteristics of instruments applies to violas in any way shape or form. Even other violas. Even among the same makers.

During an orchestra rehearsal at Rice, I heard the concertmaster of that particular cycle demonstrate a passage to the first violins. Her brilliant technique and wonderful touch were transmogrified into music somewhere inside a violin made by Pierre Pacherel. It was, to my ears, empyrean. Being at the threshold of creative possibilities on my old and faithful viola, I decided I would find an alto by this guy, and then continue to better myself.  I found one—but it was just wrong for me in every way. Shallow in tone and murky in response, and it resonated neither my soul nor any other nearby instruments.  A stark contrast to Peter Slowik’s sage viola-judging triumvirate of terms, 1.deep, 2.clear, and 3.ringy! I then learned to not be star struck, as million-dollar Bergonzis and Amatis were quite objectively inferior to the plethora of modern instruments available at prices one can actually count to in one’s lifetime.

So thrilled with the modern makers, I tried a number of violas by Peter Greiner and Sam Zygmuntowicz, eventually commissioning one from Sam. Unfortunately I wasn’t the only one who had a case of “never meet your heroes,” and I still have to wait about three years until it is completed.

By this time however, I had fallen into a state of disrepair both musically and mentally. I would advise others to watch out for this, as it really is something totally avoidable. It is good to have the highest expectations of a tool that sings the glorious sounds, but the line between idealistic and having no idea what is going on can be easily crossed. Rather than seeing the qualities of instruments that I’d been trying, I only could see (hear) the things not present. I even came back to the beloved instrument that I was loaned in my undergraduate years, which was to me a perfect balance of what I wanted and could do without . . . only I played it years later and hated it! This made me see that I had lost all objective decision making skills. After a long, hard look (listen) at what my true desires were, I learned to play instruments rather than impose my style of playing on them. Back on track, eschewing once-serious thoughts of quitting playing, I gave it a final hurrah. $40,000 short of actually owning a Storioni, my sponsor backed out, and I was faced with realism again—but now with the knowledge to find something that would not be a compromise, but a companion I could work with. I found my viola, and just doing so came with such a lesson of its own. I had gone from soloing with orchestras to being incapable of playing excerpts from Mozart Symphony No. 35 at a middle-school level of acceptability. But my search unearthed levels of determination and forced me to persevere through conditions and feelings I thought I never could, and these experiences when applied to my practicing now left me with no barriers but myself. Now, in a week, I can do what previously would take two months. The viola is a part of the equation, but the experience is of at least equal consequence.

I will end this dissertation-of-a-blog by saying that a viola you buy is both a physical instrument of its own beauty and also an instrument that translates your talent, passion, and hours of work into sound. If either side of that dichotomy is treated with nonchalance or flippancy, the imbalance will lead to frustration. I do not even care if all the red-eye flights took a couple years off my life, because a life lived knowing that I didn’t do everything in my power to pursue such a desire as my love of music and performing just wouldn’t be one I could ever have satisfaction in.  After all, music truly is the egregious and the melodramatic and deserves to be pursued with equal conviction.


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.


Vaughan Williams’s Romance by Sergein Yap

The Vaughan Williams Romance has been one of my favorite works for the viola for many years. I first heard the piece back in high school during studio class when my teacher decided we would spend the class listening to recordings of various pieces from the viola repertoire. The recording we listened to for the Romance was of my teacher’s longtime friend and colleague, Paul Coletti (professor of viola at The Colburn School in Los Angeles), with pianist Leslie Howard. It wasn’t until my senior year at CIM that I started to work on the piece after graduate school auditions were over. Unfortunately, timing didn’t work out to thoroughly prepare the piece, and I never performed it. I picked it up again this past summer and worked on it with Ivo van der Werff at his summer program in the Catskills; Hartmut Rohde in Baden-Baden, Germany; and Thomas Riebl in Bad Leonfelden, Austria. Though it is a short piece, it is full of heart-tugging melodies, gorgeous colors, and quite a bit of virtuosity. Coming back to the piece now is like visiting with an old friend. I have wonderful memories associated with my performances and study of the piece in Rosendale, NY; Germany; and Austria. Being able to experience the emotions that I associate with the music and remembering what each teacher had to say about the work is one of the greatest joys about being a musician.

The short preface at the top of the piece written by violist and editor Bernard Shore:

There is no information about the approximate date on which this work was written. The manuscript was discovered with others, without any clue, among the composer’s papers after his death. All that can be said is that it was probably intended for the great virtuoso Lionel Tertis, for whom Vaughan Williams had composed his two major works for the viola—Flos Campi in 1925 and the Suite in 1934.

This work was first performed by Bernard Shore and Eric Gritton in a Macnaghten concert on 19 January 1962.

The Romance is composed in arch form, opening with tranquil pentatonic syncopations from the piano, expanding into a rather melancholy and songful aria for the viola. The middle poco animato (appassionato) section presses forward with sweeping and restless waves from both the viola and piano before transitioning to the restrained Largamente section. The Romance proceeds with a return to the opening theme iterated in the piano and eventually closes with the viola muted, playing a withdrawn and placid variance of the poco animato section. The pentatonic modality is used throughout, though there are also stirring false relations featuring mode mixture and chromaticism. 1
1. With reference to Wikipedia

The first question each teacher asked was if I have ever been to Cornwall, England and Prussia Cove. Unfortunately I have not been to Cornwall or Prussia Cove, but having heard each teacher’s description of Cornwall/Prussia Cove and now seeing stunning photographs online, I’d have to agree that the effect and imagery certainly suits the Romance.

S1Morning mist in Prussia Cove

S2Cliffs of Cornwall, England

Thoughts and suggestions from Ivo van der Werff, Hartmut Rohde, and Thomas Riebl. *For ease of understanding, I have written these as bullet points or quotes.

Ivo van der Werff:

  • Opening: Very calm and not too expressive. Imagining the morning mist of Cornwall, England. The syncopation in the piano part gives it swing/flow. Vibrato should be relaxed without any sense of nervous energy.
  • S3 Slower shifts, delaying and elongating the notes prior to peaks/climaxes.

e.g., m. 17: Take plenty of time getting to the minor 6th on beat 2. Make this a big arrival!

S4

e.g., mm. 48–49: The shift from 1st position D to the higher octave doesn’t need to be so fast. (I tend to rush my shifts.)

S5

  • No hard edges throughout the piece. In general, make sure that beginnings and endings of notes are not initiated or released vertically. I had the tendency of clipping ends of notes.
  • Professor van der Werff and pianist Simon Marlow joked about the piece being a part of the “cow pat music” genre. For those of you not familiar with the term, check out this explanation.

Hartmut Rohde:

  • Vibrato on double stops: Professor Rohde used the analogy of ripples in water. When you have different amplitudes (clashing speeds of vibrato for each finger) they disturb each other, ultimately resulting in inconsistent changes in pitch.

S6

  •  Professor Rohde talked a lot about bow speed, contact point, and amount of hair used.

e.g., mm. 40–44: save bow at first, then use generous amounts of bow while making contact point closer to the bridge and on the left side of the C string (inside the C bout).

S7

e.g., mm. 52–56: utilizing flat hair and emphasizing the bottom notes of the chords.

S8

S9

  • Mode mixture creating dissonances: Ex. mm. 16–19

Professor Rohde wanted me to emphasize the tension between the adjacent B-flat and B-natural. S10

 

  • Opening: not getting too loud or too fast too soon. Save forward motion for the poco animato section. “Sitting near a fireplace, close to the ocean…” (Prussia Cove)
  • “Don’t use your brain too much, but in the opening you have to . . . why are you starting in the lower half of the bow for the first two notes?” Ergo, start in the upper third of the bow.
  • End of m. 17 needs to connect to the downbeat of m. 18—suggested doing the printed slur and not the edited splitting.

S11

  • M. 24: “one slur, three notes, three strings . . . why?” Professor Riebl suggested starting in 3rd position to avoid the color difference between three strings.

S12

  •  One measure before the Largamente: slight ritardando, expanding up to the D.

S12a

  • Poco animato: the main indication here is appassionato . . . more important than the poco animato.” Yes, move ahead, but it needs the breathless/restless quality. Very much like waves crashing upon the cliffs. Goes along with Ivo saying no hard edges. Waves envelope and swirl . . . always in motion. “Huge waves coming over the cliffs . . . huge rocks and the waves burst over.”
  •  “Free yourself from the limitations which you have inside your head . . . become part of the wave!”

S13

  • “Rubatos must not be unpredictable for the pianist . . . maintain pulse in an organic way. Pulse is the heartbeat . . .” Essentially he was comparing my pulse to heart arrhythmia.
  •  “Always be true to the score and the composer’s intentions.” Professor Riebl made it a point to say this to every student. He firmly believes in maintaining the integrity of the composer’s writing regarding slurs, dynamics, and tempi. We shouldn’t change these aspects of the music solely out of convenience.

Ironically, none of the teachers mentioned the emotion of love associated with romance. After my first performance of the Romance a fellow student asked me to share what I’m thinking about while I’m playing the piece. My answer was love. Obviously every person will have a different response . . . unrequited love, love of nature, and the ineffable landscape that makes Cornwall, England, unique—family, or friends perhaps? My strongest piece of advice for this work is to wear your heart on your sleeve . . . as cheesy or tawdry as that may sound, it’s truly what I believe will captivate and enrapture your audience.


Fernande Decruck’s Sonata by Jarita Ng

Fernande Decruck (1896–1954) was a French composer who studied organ at the Paris Conservatory. Her husband, Maurice Decruck, was multitalented in clarinet, saxophone, and bass, was also a student at the Paris Conservatory. The couple moved to New York in 1928, and Maurice soon won a job at the New York Philharmonic as the principal bassist. He also auditioned and was invited to play the saxophone solos with the orchestra. It was when they were in New York that Decruck started composing for saxophone.  Back then, musicians and audiences did not pay much attention to Decruck’s music, and the sonata that I am going to introduce was only rediscovered 28 years after her death, at the World Saxophone Congress in 1982.

Jarita 1 Marcel MuleMarcel mule

At a saxophone congress!? Yes, at a saxophone congress. The piece is Sonate en ut# pour saxophone alto (ou alto) et orchestre (Sonata in C-sharp for alto saxophone or viola and orchestra), composed in 1943. While Fernande’s husband played saxophone, this particular sonata was composed for Marcel Mule, a friend of Fernande’s who had recently been appointed the saxophone professor at the Paris Conservatory. There is a reduction for saxophone or viola and piano, which is the version that is commonly played, by saxophonists. I was introduced to this piece by my saxophone colleagues at the University of Michigan, where I went for my undergraduate studies; the piece is a standard in their repertoire study. I didn’t pay much attention to it for a couple years until I listened to the recordings played by saxophonists Claude Delangle, Professor of Saxophone at the Paris Conservatory, and Donald Sinta, Professor of Saxophone at the University of Michigan. They both are renowned soloists and pedagogues. The sonata works beautifully for and showcases the saxophone—so many colors, so much flare, and so . . . Romantic, may I say. I decided to perform it on my senior recital in April 2012, and I enjoyed working on and performing the piece. After a couple months of work, I was ready to debate with my saxophone-playing friends about whether this piece was written for the saxophone or the viola first.

Jarita 2 DelangleClaude Delangle

Jarita 3 Donald SIntaDonald Sinta

In addition to giving a recital at the University of Michigan, I presented the sonata for the saxophone studio at Michigan State University. There was one common comment among all the saxophone players I discussed this with—the sonata was written for the viola. There were discrepancies between the saxophone and viola parts—the viola part includes a wider range of pitch, use of harmonics and pizzicato, longer arpeggios in the cadenza, and non-stop arpeggiation compared to some rests in the saxophone part, which are interpreted as breathing spots, etc. I agree with all of them. The piece sounds great on the saxophone, but I think the piece sounds even better on the viola due to those additional effects and color changes. However, I pointed out to them some elements of the piece that did not work well on the viola.

Firstly, the piece is in C-sharp!!! C-sharp! It is among one of the most difficult keys to play in. The scale of C-sharp provides minimal resonance on the viola. Secondly, the slurs in the part do not seem to indicate bowing but phrasing/breath marks. There are some long slurs over a crescendo, which are pretty challenging to execute. I ended up redoing a lot of the slurs/bowings. Thirdly, there are some note errors and clef change errors that are somewhat obvious. But the errors could have happened during the publishing process. Lastly, the piece ends on a high G-sharp on the A string on fff with the piano playing seven notes also at fff. It takes a lot, a lot, A LOT of effort to be heard under such circumstance. Well, at least it took me a lot of bows, and I had to ask the pianist to not play too loudly. But no matter which instrument Decruck wrote it for, the sonata is an extremely beautiful piece.Jarita 4 music

One of the many scales and arpeggios (note: seven sharps!)

Here is the live recording of the sonata, played on the viola, at my senior recital in 2012. The sonata has four movements. The first movement, Très modéré, expressif, is as the title suggests, an extremely expressive movement in both the viola and the piano parts. The extensive use of pentatonic scales creates a unique sonority. In the second movement, Noel, one can hear an altered version of the melody of a traditional French carol Noël nouvelet, which is known as Sing We Now of Christmas in English. Fileuse, which means spinning, is the title of the third movement, comprised of quick scales and arpeggios that resemble the movement of spinning wheels. This movement, in contrast to other slower, more expressive movements, provides a virtuosic and melodic element in the piece. The final movement, Nocturne et Rondel, has a calm opening that gradually transitions into the Rondel with exciting and dance-like passages, including some passages where saxophonists show off their double-tongue skills. The piece ends with an emotional, melodic section that leads to an ending note at the limit of the viola (the G-sharp that was mentioned earlier).

There is a commercial recording of the sonata on saxophone by Claude Delangle, which can be found here. There is a website where you can download the tracks, but it would require some searching through the list and the pages. The sheet music is published by Gérard Billaudot and can be found here. A commercial recording of the viola version is also available by Hillary Herndon and can be found here. And there is a 2010 dissertation that includes errata for the viola part, which can be found here. In 1954, an LP called Le Saxophone, Vol. 1 with Marcel Mule playing Andante et Fileuse by Decruck and other works was released. Andante et Fileuse starts with an introduction in a style similar to that of the sonata, then goes into the Fileuse exactly the same as the sonata. He did not record the sonata in its entirety.

Sonata in C# showcases the mellow sound and the capabilities of the viola. The Brahms, Clarke, Hindemith, and other “canon” sonatas are undoubtedly well-written and convincing music. But compared to the violin and cello, we violists don’t have as much repertoire to choose from. The Decruck sonata is one worthy piece to be given a chance to be played and be added to our viola repertoire.


Viola Masterclasses Notes by Carey Skinner

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

Kathryn Plummer Master Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garth Knox Master Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Studio Notes by Rebecca Lo

Like Ivo’s studio, James Dunham’s Studio Classes are on Tuesday afternoons, and over the course of the year we will share reports from some of these classes. Here are comments from our September 17 class.

Glinka Sonata – Teddy Schenkman

Ashley Pelton suggested that the each note can be more connected, instead of playing them individually. Don’t just cut the ending phrase, try to make it beautiful; thinks that Teddy can be more interactive with the audience in general.

Rachel Lo suggested that the lower strings need to sound clearer, and the quality of the notes can be more consistent.

Dan Wang said to try and breathe before you play and think more about color (such as wider vibrato).

Aaron Conitz liked the sound and the phrasing but noticed that Teddy’s left hand is tight, so it prevents him from having fluid vibrato. Experiment with how much pressure you need to put on the strings; maybe experiment with arm vibrato. Leah Gastler followed up by saying that passing notes can have vibrato as well as the long notes.

Jarita Ng liked the character but thought the bow speed could be more even, instead of slower in the middle and faster near the tip and frog.

Mendelssohn Midsummer Night’s Dream Scherzo, first page – Megan Wright

Yvonne Smith: for the stroke, start from the string. The instrument should ring a lot; lighten your elbow and let the string bounce.

Blake Turner noted that at a fast speed the bow will bounce itself. Think of the character, practice slowly, and make sure each note sounds beautiful. Also, make the dynamics more extreme.

Aaron thought that the piano should be healthier and that the excerpt should start from the string. Don’t use too much vibrato at first, and the crescendo is gradual; you tend to get louder when you get to the C string, so be careful. For the bow, you might try a vertical drop: drop the bow and get in motion from the drop of the bow. In the spiccato section on the C and G strings, all of the sixteenth notes should consistently sound the same.

Rebecca Clarke Sonata, Mvmt I – Rachel Li

Mr. Dunham suggested that the beginning can be bolder and should link more with the piano chords. Be sure to give good retakes, and a few of the string crossings seem bumpy—lean in a bit more on these. Teddy also thought that the beginning could start with more confidence.

Yvonne loved the sound and different colors. Try to connect the notes between shifts more.

Leah thought that the different sections can have more different characters. Dance more in certain sections, be more grounded in others, and have a more buoyant feeling in others.


Thoughts on Hindemith’s Viola Sonata, op. 11, no. 4, by Rebecca Gu et al.

Practicing the first page of Hindemith Op. 11, No. 4 by Rebecca Gu

Right now Ivo is having me do a lot of left-hand framing work, both in terms of my execution and mental approach. As my left-hand technique gets better, I notice that I’m able to conceptualize longer and longer chunks of notes as a perceivable unit. Beyond going for better musical flow, I’ve been trying to make use of this “reframing” as a means of efficiently choosing note groupings for technical practice. Here are a few thoughts on practicing the first page of Op. 11, No.4, as an example.

Structurally, I see this page as one long introduction, phrase, and cadenza (longer than the phrase itself); the three sections connected by the plaintive three-note opening motive.  But technically, the most difficult spots for me are some unconnected segments within these sections.

One such segment is measure four:

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I practice by finding the two hand frames necessary to play it (1st and 5th positions), then the transition between them (shifting on the A-sharp on the D string), as well as the transition into and out of the bar. Then I set a drone on F-sharp and practice at an extremely slow tempo, note by note, with rests in between. While playing the F-sharp, I sing the next note, A-sharp, out loud so that the feeling of an in-tune A-sharp is clear and memorable in my ears and body. Then I play A-sharp, gauging whether it’s in tune, too sharp, or too flat; if it’s out of tune, I decide how far sharp or flat and go back to the F-sharp and try again, until I’ve practiced it more times correctly than not (an Ivo tip). Playing the A-sharp now absolutely in tune, I sing the next note, C-sharp, and repeat the process, until the whole measure is in tune. Depending on my mood, I try some variation of putting it together—either removing the rests or speeding up the tempo with rests, or using a different drone.

Another spot that I find extremely difficult for intonation is near the end of the cadenza, particularly the stretch of the repeated D–G fourths on the C string. Though I perceive the cadenza as one unit musically, I think of it as having two technical units for practicing.

1031b Hindemith cadenza

At the beginning of the cadenza, my thumb is higher/closer to the fourth finger, because this allows my hand to stay more relaxed without sacrificing clarity in the fast run. Near the end, though, my thumb goes slightly under and back, so that the fourth between D and G can be in tune, even though this does not feel comfortable. To save time, I don’t practice these two sections together, except when I am practicing playing through larger chunks.

Those are just a few ideas. I am still working on finding efficient practice techniques, so I would be very grateful for your input!

Hindemith Op. 11, No. 4 by Marie-Elyse Badeau

Even with the four of us playing the same piece in the same studio, I can’t help but love this sonata and enjoy it each and every time it’s performed. I think, however, that the most difficult part when starting a piece that has been played (and heard) over and over again is to find a way to come back to the basics; in other words, what is written on the part. After hearing so many recordings and live performances of Hindemith’s 11/4, a sort of “tradition” of playing becomes part of your mind, and that “pre-learning” is often far from being accurate. I recently decided to go back to the simplest rhythm-intonation-sound practice in Hindemith’s sonata in order to better understand what to do with the music and feel free within its frame, while being meticulous with the composer’s writing. I feel that when practicing the sonata, I need to constantly tell myself to find my own way: my personal interpretation of that piece that everyone knows. I need to renew it from a different perspective and create an interpretation that would be mine, without all the preconceptions that I carry from my multiple hearings of it. It is a challenge for me to achieve that on top of all the obvious technical difficulties, but I know it will greatly benefit the piece as well as my approach to learning and playing music. I can’t wait to perform it!!

Hindemith Op. 11, No. 4 by Jill Valentine

Hindemith has been my favorite composer to listen to and to play for a long time, and it’s exciting to finally work on this, one of my favorites of his works. 11/4 is so compelling to me because of the balance Hindemith achieves between classical form, folk nostalgia, and modern harmony. Granted, Neoclassicism is what he is known for in all his compositions, but 11/4 in particular is so . . . well . . . beautiful. Compared to his other solo viola works, this earlier composition is still very connected to the conventional harmony of the previous age, and audiences tend to enjoy it very much. That said, 11/4 requires a conscious effort to phrase and emote in a more Romantic manner, but translating Hindemith’s melodic and harmonic language can be difficult. Finding a balance between the two makes 11/4 more difficult for me to play than most of his other solo viola works, even though technically the others are “harder.” Some of the louder, stronger variations in the second and third movements tend to be on the harsh side for me if I’m not careful to think of long phrases, sustained bow distribution, and vibrating consistently. The more tender variations, by contrast, risk sounding too weak by comparison and still need that very German, Hindemith-ish sense of presence. Overall my goal is to make the phrases as long and Romantic as I can, despite the curious harmonies and changing of characters. I think any character can be romanticized, especially in this masterpiece where Romanticism and Modern meet halfway.

Hindemith Op. 11, No. 4 By Meredith Kufchak

This sonata is so beautifully melodic and lyrical. One of my favorite parts of the piece is the theme at the beginning of the second movement, because the melody itself is so simple, but incredibly beautiful when played with the wonderful harmonies in the piano. It’s really interesting how each of the variations in the second and third movements has its own distinct character. The performer must be sure to take all the different sections and characters into account and make them relate to each other and form one cohesive work. Another aspect that I really like about this piece is that much of the second and third movements lack a consistent meter. When a composer isn’t catering to a specific meter, it gives him or her much more freedom, and the listener hears the larger phrases instead of primarily hearing the meter. Because the sonata is so melodic and lyrical, I like to think of taking the necessity to change bow out of the equation and think how the larger phrases would sound if we never ran out of bow or had to change our bow direction.

One thing that I find difficult about this sonata is the range of loud dynamics. This piece has a dynamic marking of fff several times, and at the very end reaches ffff. When we see a passage marked forte we think that we should play loud, but in this piece, forte is right around the middle of the piece’s dynamic range from pp to ffff. Because this piece has such loud moments, I also find it difficult for the middle register of my viola to project enough.

This sonata is one of Hindemith’s earlier viola works. I’ve played a few other Hindemith pieces, such as his solo sonata, op. 25, no. 1 and Der Schwanendreher. This sonata in comparison with some of his later works is more tonal sounding, with fewer dissonant chords. There is also much more of a focus on the melodic aspects of the piece, whereas Op. 25, No. 1, for example, has more of a focus on short motivic ideas and rhythmic aspects and is much more chromatic. One similarity between the two sonatas is that Op. 25, No. 1 also lacks consistent meters, making the phrases a little more ambiguous to the listener.


Repertoire on Repeat by Leah Gastler

During our formative years studying the viola, we spend the majority of our time learning repertoire “for the first time.” We all have to learn the Bartók Concerto for the first time, the Brahms Sonatas for the first time, and the six Bach Cello Suites from scratch. We spend a lot of time learning the right notes, planning functional bowings and fingerings, and trying to execute the dynamics, phrasing, and characters on top of all those fresh technical elements. We rely on our teachers’ information for a lot of the decisions we make when we first learn a piece. We absorb many of the “traditions” of the piece through recordings and suggestions from those who have already come to know the music. At their urging, we try to navigate “good taste” and “tradition” while allowing our expressiveness to carry our music into a palpable reality. Nevertheless, usually we find ourselves consumed with the execution of technical details at the expense of musical conviction.

It has taken me many years to get to the point where I can start relearning repertoire. When I began relearning the Brahms E-flat Sonata, I realized that this was an entirely different process than any I had undertaken so far in my learning of the viola. I didn’t have to learn the notes—I had already done that. Bowings were still marked in from the first time I played them. Notes were scrawled all over the pages: “more!” “singing!” “use bow!” “don’t crunch chords” “stand tall—confidence!” The record of months of learning “for the first time” every detail and direction mapped out so that I would not forget. I was coming at this piece with a foundation of understanding built into my memory and my fingers, and this foundation became such freedom.

The joys of re-learning a piece include decision-making. Sometimes the old bowings don’t serve the phrase as you hear it, and you can change them! Sometimes your old fingerings were terrible, and now you know better! Sometimes you want to play that passage on the C string, and you can pull it off now. What is so great about this is that the music in your head is paving the way for the technique of the piece, not the reverse. You have an idea already, you “know” the piece already, and now you can see through the technical demands to the music that you’re striving to create. That feeling is truly reinvigorating.

Musically, your vision of a piece will change as you learn other music and then come back to it. Your musical understanding has gained experience and vision in the meantime, and you will approach certain passages with different points of view. This is one of the most exciting facets of relearning music: the moments of, “I never heard it that way before!” or “this reminds me so much of that passage in … !!” or “after having listened to Brahms’s song cycles, I totally get this now.” Even, “I know everyone makes a ritard here, but I’m really not sure that suits the harmony.” This is where real music making begins. Relearning is where you can really explore, test the waters, take chances, play it one way and then a different way and be aware of the difference.

In many ways relearning is a far more gratifying experience than learning a piece for the first time, but it is also a very challenging process. Keeping your ears and mind open, not falling into routine and habit can be a true challenge. When habit takes hold of one’s playing, the conviction of the music suffers. The thought behind it is not alive, and hence the music will no longer feel alive. Without active thought behind the notes, music loses its meaning. This is especially difficult for us classical musicians, as the music we play is and has been performed over and over again. We have to always do something with the notes. In re-learning our repertoire, we have reached a point where it becomes our duty to re-imagine the way we’re doing things, in the same way that the traditions we learn must also be challenged and re-imagined. Re-imagining is a true challenge because you’re never done, but it is the essence of what makes our art and our voice relevant. It’s what makes our repertoire fun to play time after time and what keeps our audiences asking to hear it again.


Borrowing from the Future by Rebecca Gu

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Beyond producing beautiful music, I love playing the viola because I am constantly challenged to grow with my technique. Musical development requires personal development.

Two years ago, in a coaching on the Theme and Variations movement of the Schubert “Trout” Quintet, Professor James Stern encouraged me to “borrow the sound from the future.”

I was to lead the transition into the variation where the viola carries the melody, but I struggled to achieve that deep, rich viola sound. I felt anxious and frustrated with myself, unable to produce that sound without tasteless crunching. So in order to get around the fact that I wasn’t able to do it, I had to channel an imagined future in which I was. It was one of those pithy, spur-of-the-moment pieces of advice that really stuck.

Other lessons have come from the practice room: the patience required to master a shift, or the type of intense concentration that objective, non-judgmental introspection requires. There are skills I still struggle with tremendously, but when I work on them through my music, I try to let the thoughts I collect in the practice room inform how I tackle challenges in the remainder of my day, and vice versa.

Sometimes, the resonance of a viola-related discovery emerges only much later. Living abroad in Austria last year, I realized I was not taking enough risks out of fear of failure. I was flipping through a notebook of viola notes when I came across a remark Lynne Ramsey had made in a trial lesson about “YES”-bowing as a component of the Karen Tuttle coordination approach.  She suggested drawing up bows in an affirmative, vertical “YES” motion, which allows one to free up the shoulder and back muscles and get deeper into the sound, rather than the negative, horizontal “NO” motion. This trick was an effective way of conceptualizing the arm motion. What’s more, all the good things that happened to me in Austria came from saying “yes” to opportunities, particularly when the requisite decision was uncomfortable. Had the musical impetus not been there, I wonder how different my experience abroad would have been.

I enjoy learning and growing with the viola, and I look forward to the next discovery!

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