Archive for the ‘Tuesday’ Category

Sightreading, Faking & Other Truths by Jill Valentine

My final contribution to our year of blogging will discuss a peculiar set of skills; skills we don’t want to have to use. We practice so that we can avoid using them, but they still end up being the most useful tools we have. When we go to conservatories we get used to having a recital program every year that we have months and months to perfect. We can forget that most of our careers will be spent flying by the seats of our pants, showing up unable to perfect, let alone even look at, everything before (or after) the first (or last, or only) rehearsal. We must learn to fly gracefully by the seats of our pants just as much as we need to learn how to play a concerto perfectly.

Viola parts are “hard” to sight read in a unique way, I have found, because it’s often a lot of stuff like this,

0422a Handel

with just a passage or of two’s worth of this:

0422b Strauss

It’s so easy while reading a viola part to switch off, except for that out-of-nowhere two bars of torture (Above third position? Or just second position? Forget it!) that you totally missed because you were thinking of what to eat for dinner during your offbeats. It’s a different kind of “hard” than a first-violin part, which would probably require more evenly distributed focus. It’s easier to stay a medium-level of involved the whole time than to check out and try to switch it on where it matters, especially if the challenging passages sneak up on you.

So here are the most helpful things I’ve been told or have noticed myself in my very unglamorous attempts at sight reading when I shouldn’t be:

1.         There’s a hierarchy to what matters in sight reading, according to my fantastic high-school orchestra director, and it has stayed very true for me ever since.

A.        Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm, if all else fails, because at least you’ll look right. If you get the right pitch at the wrong time, no glory for you. It’s still wrong.

B.        Then, and only then, pitches.

C.        Bowings are flexible given the situation. Are you in orchestra, shamelessly faking at the concert? He who does the bowings, does the notes, for all the audience knows. I hate bowings. Often it’s these, not the notes, that mess with my mind most when reading. I often ignore them if it’s an orchestra reading or in chamber music with only me on my part. It’ll fall into place eventually. Our job as violists is to eventually change all our bowings to match other people anyway.

D.        Dynamics. Always a plus.

E.         Articulation, blend, mutes?? Subtleties = bonus points.


2.         Watch like a hawk. Save yourself a grand pause solo and catch onto some key unison bowings you’re missing.

3.         Listen around. Notice if you tend to double other parts, or when phrases end, to figure out an entrance you forgot to count. Nail down a rhythm you are confused about by hearing that someone else has it too.

4.         Look ahead, especially at the ends of lines. Look even further ahead! See as much big picture as possible! Put on a recording on the way to rehearsal and get an idea of big tempo changes.

5.         See notes in groups, not as individuals. Count repeated accompaniment figures in measures, or in as big of a value as possible, to avoid getting bogged down. Sacrifice a clean run for the contour (Strauss), and move on.

6.         Pinpoint every clef change beforehand, maybe even with a highlighter. The peskiest are at the ends of lines.

7.         Acclimating just to the visual layout of the part is comforting. How many pages is it? Any clutch page turns? What do the pages look like—are any of them completely offbeats, or completely black?

8.         Look good. An aura of being in control goes a long, long way. Are you totally lost at the wedding gig because the music they asked you 10 minutes ago to “add on at the end, is that okay?” is a piano reduction of a Bruno Mars song that makes no sense, is 15 single-sided pages long, and is blowing off the stand outside? Learn the chord progression by ear as quickly as possible and work from the bass notes in a clutch.

Again, this is hopefully a situation we won’t be in often. We aim for 90 percent, 90 percent of the time. The fact that many orchestras put sight reading on their lists shows how aware they are of this reality. So it’s worth brushing up on your theory knowledge, which helps immensely with sight reading, picking up some mystery excerpts every once in a while, and testing your winging-it skills in the practice room.

Balancing the Viola in a String Quartet

by Camden Shaw

Shmuel Ashkenasi, first violinist of the Vermeer Quartet, said to my quartet once in a coaching: “There are only four causes of balance problems in a quartet: ignorance of the score, ego, register, and quality of instrument.” At the time, I remember thinking how unremarkable the list was: each problem was understandable, and I didn’t really find any of them to be a revelation. But then, over time, I got to thinking: if these causes of balance issues are so obvious, why are so few ensembles well balanced? If we all understand the basic causes of imbalance, how is it that 99% of ensembles don’t allow the listener to hear everything of importance? And why is the violist either way too quiet or way too loud?!?

After studying my group and my own playing, I have to say that I was disillusioned on many levels. The first thing I learned was that of the four causes, ego is by far the most prevalent in ALL of us and trumps every other balance issue: regardless of knowledge of the score, for instance, if someone WANTS to sound impressive or to revel in their own sound, they can quickly drown out what we need to hear. I don’t exclude myself from this problem—in fact, after paying attention, I realized that when I find myself playing too loudly, most often it’s because I like hearing myself; I don’t want to sound thin or stingy.  Also, if I’m honest, I love it when after a concert people say they loved my sound, or compliment me on my instrument; and while this is shallow of me, I know that problem is not unique to me. I’ve witnessed it with all four members of my quartet and in almost every ensemble I’ve ever heard: when one is playing in a chamber setting, it is easy to feel lost in the mix, and we all want to feel noticed and appreciated.

Ego, however, is something that affects all four instruments roughly the same, in the sense that it has more to do with humanity than it does with instruments. So, why is it that of all four instruments, the viola seems the hardest to balance? (Although you violists are, in general, a modest and wonderful bunch!) I would say that 80% of groups don’t have enough viola sound in the mix, and 10% have too much. Is that the fault of the violists?  Not usually, and never exclusively! Assuming all four members in a quartet have instruments of approximately equal power, the viola still has the greatest natural disadvantage: register. The viola is not only in the middle of the sonic spectrum most of the time, but it’s the LOWER middle. (Goodness. That gets about as much attention as fat-free vanilla ice cream. That’s being a nerd at math camp. That’s being the “boring guy” in your accounting firm.) Compounding this problem is that the viola’s f-holes, even if the violist sits on the outside of the group, are pointed backward and not out to the audience; still, with a certain amount of “turning out” now and again, it is, in my opinion, better than sitting in the back with the second violin, because in that setting the f-holes are pointed to the side, which hardly helps, and the two most easily heard instruments are on the outside of the group.

These are all issues we know—the violist is in a tough register, the violist’s f-holes are pointed back, the violist is now in a bad mood. But again, I wonder, why is it that we all know these problems and yet don’t fix them? Here’s the fun part: the solution! First, we need to address the fact that if you’re not being heard in a passage where you’re the primary voice, it does not matter what register you’re in. It doesn’t matter how crappy your viola is! You need to be heard. If you can’t be heard, can you play more without departing from the desired character? Probably. Most of us play too shyly for a big hall. But if you’re being forced outside the character of the line, stick up for yourself and make sure your colleagues realize you’re the primary voice. Study the score so that you’re also sure when you’re the primary voice, and don’t be distracted by fancy writing (e.g., the first variation in Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet, movement 2: the melody is in the second violin, NOT the first violin. The first violin has only decoration and is not primary material, and yet in 99% of performances the audience is completely fixated on the first violin instead of how the decoration enhances the second violin’s tune.)

Assuming that everyone in your ensemble always knows who is primary (never assume that by the way), there is a very important tool to help multiple parts be heard: playing with very different types of sound. Not necessarily different volumes, mind you: only qualities. “Color” of sound, although all too cliché, is a valid way to bring attention to a line without sacrificing volume from the others. In my quartet, Milena is such a wonderful balancer because she can change her quality of sound so quickly; if she has to come out of the texture even for a two-note motif, she’ll do so in a way that gives her sonic profile without seeming brash or just “loud.”

This brings me to the idea of having a “quartet sound.” Having a quartet sound is not only about blend, as so many people think; of course, one must be able to blend with one’s neighbor. But just as much as it is about blending, ensemble sound is about structure.  Constructing a quartet sound is much like constructing a building—but unlike a building, a quartet sound is almost never the same texture all the way up. By this I mean that it is very rare for all four players to be playing with the same proximity to the bridge, and therefore the same “density.” Instead, a quartet sound is sometimes like a brick sitting on top of an exercise ball—sometimes a feather on an anvil—sometimes like a peach, all fleshy and sweet on the edges but with real density in the middle. What this means is that the cellist, for instance, doesn’t always play with the most “core,” as some suppose. The cellist can support from beneath without being the densest sound in the group; and if we really understand the difference between volume and density, the melody could technically be the quietest thing in the group in volume but have such density that it’s indisputably primary to the listener.

In my quartet, we believe that the primary material should have first choice as to the quality of sound it desires, as well as the quantity; and we then frame that sound with sounds that either support it with similar quality or distinguish it with contrast. This type of balancing deals mostly with knowledge of the score, as little ego as possible, and a manipulation of density of sound. In my opinion, therefore, the 10% of violists who play too loudly, (against all odds!) are the ones that do not understand the difference between volume of sound and function of sound. They are worried about projecting and therefore play louder than the other members of the group in order to compensate for their disadvantages; but this is not a solution to the problem. What we need to do is tailor our quality of sound, as well as the quantity, to the ever-changing musical situation at hand.  So the next time you can’t hear yourself, or your colleague, go through Mr. Ashkenasi’s list honestly, and fix the problem with the qualities of sound being used! And don’t tell the violinists about their ego, it’ll only make them worse.

— A cellist and admirer of great violists

Scordatura Tuning in Bach’s Fifth Suite by Meredith Kufchak

When I started learning Bach’s fifth suite, I decided to play it using scordatura, with the A-string tuned down to a G. This is how Bach originally intended the cello to be tuned to play this suite, although it is not uncommon for performers today to play it with standard tuning. The reason I initially chose to play with scordatura tuning was because that was how the suite was originally written, but I discovered several other reasons for and against the scordatura tuning as I was learning the piece.

First of all, I should address the difference in difficulty of fingerings between the two tunings. For the most part I would say that the scordatura tuning makes the piece easier to get under your fingers. It minimizes the amount of shifting you have to do, especially for chords and double stops, and it fits more comfortably into the hand. Another thing that’s great about the fingerings is that those nasty fifths on the upper two strings are now played with the hand shape of a sixth, which feels much better in the hand. On the down side, fourths, which are hard enough to play in tune as it is, are now played how you would normally play a fifth. Also, in some passages that go higher than the D one octave above middle C, you have to shift up to reach notes that you wouldn’t have to shift for in standard tuning, but I would say that on the whole, the scordatura tuning minimizes shifting and makes the fingerings simpler.

Another benefit that I really enjoy about the scordatura tuning is that I can play every note in all of the chords. Those extra notes are so important to creating full sounding chords, even though leaving out one note can seem insignificant. But I love that I can play chords that aren’t normally possible with standard tuning. For example, there are so many C-minor triads in the suite with the open high G string on top, and I can’t imagine having to choose which of those notes not to play. It’s not physically possible to play all the notes in standard tuning, unless you awkwardly break the chord to be able to sound all the pitches. There are so many chords that have to be simplified with standard tuning, and I feel that taking away those notes really detracts from the rich harmonies. 

Another reason I really love playing with scordatura tuning is because of what it does for the resonance of my viola. With two G strings, the higher one of which is an overtone of the C string, my viola resonates so much more! That added resonance is another reason why the chords sound so rich and full.

One difficulty that I initially encountered when learning the suite with scordatura tuning was simple coordination. I realized how much we take for granted that what we see on the page comes out sounding how we expect it to! It took me a while to get used to the fact that what it feels like I’m playing in my hand is not at all what is reaching my ears. I was a Suzuki kid, so playing by ear comes very naturally to me. When I am playing with scordatura tuning, I have to be very attentive to not slip into playing by ear, because then I start putting down the fingers that I would be using if I were playing with standard tuning.

This same thing is true regarding memorization. I prefer to memorize Bach suites for performances, because I feel that I can give a more natural and spontaneous performance if it is memorized. However, I have so far been unsuccessful in memorizing the fifth suite with scordatura tuning. When I memorize pieces, I usually don’t consciously try to remember specific fingerings. Rather, when I am familiar enough with a piece to the point where I have all the notes in my head, my fingers naturally find where they are supposed to be as I am playing. This does not work with scordatura tuning! Since we are so accustomed to our standard tuning, our fingers just try to go where they would go when we’re playing by ear, and what comes out is a bunch of wrong notes. You have to be constantly alert while you’re playing to override the automatic response of your fingers to go where they think they should go. When you’re playing with the music, the pitches on the high G-string are notated a whole step above how they sound, so you don’t have to think too hard about where you’re putting your fingers. But when you take the music away, it’s very difficult to keep playing those same notes!

I think that some violas are more conducive to the scordatura tuning than others, depending on each viola’s sound. Some violas will sound really good tuned down and will resonate more. Some violas have a tendency to sound very nasally with the A-string tuned to a G, and sometimes it is difficult for the nasally sound of the high G-string to blend well with the tone of the other strings. It tends to stick out of the texture if you’re not careful about it.

One more thing to consider, if deciding whether or not to use scordatura tuning, is the style in which you prefer to play Bach. Some people take a very romantic approach to Bach, and I feel that the scordatura tuning is not well suited to that approach because of the open, more nasally sound that the viola has with the high G-string. But if you play Bach in a Baroque style, I think that the scordatura tuning sounds more natural. For me, that means playing more simply and not overusing vibrato.

Scordatura tuning is definitely something to consider when playing Bach’s fifth suite. I have really enjoyed playing the suite with scordatura tuning, even though it felt strange at first. Re-tuning the instrument can give the viola a different, unique tone and open up so many new color possibilities. It’s also fun just to try something different and explore the possibilities of your viola!

Healthy Practice Habits by Rachel Li

Have small goals to achieve during a practice session.

It’s really good to have intentional guidance from the start; it motivates you to focus on achieving that goal instead of wasting time doing mindless play-throughs of the piece.

Use the metronome.

Of course a metronome is not needed at all times, but a metronome helps keep you accountable with your tendencies to rush or slow down, as well as aiding in maintaining a consistent tempo when necessary. Overall, using the metronome creates a grounded foundation from which the piece can grow.

Take the time to work on technique, not just the pieces you are working on.

Working on technique exercises on the side will keep you on your A game, and therefore, help you play your pieces better. It also keeps you accountable with consistently strengthening your general weaknesses.

Slow practice, especially for technically challenging areas.

Slowing difficult passages down helps you pinpoint what is making the passage so hard.  When you slow down, you also become more grounded and feel more secure.

Record yourself.

As painful as it is to hit that play button and listen to your own playing, this is a good habit to maintain. It teaches you to be your own teacher and reveals to your ears so many things that you are not noticing in your playing. It also keeps you accountable with your progress on the piece.

Find the difficult sections and make sure those sections are practiced daily.

It’s easy for us to play the easy sections over and over again, because it feels good to play well.  However, it saves a lot of time if we, from the start, pinpoint those gnarly sections and focus on them first, and then work on them daily.  This helps prevent the buildup of overwhelming frustration when you get stuck in a passage.

Look at the score.

When you are collaborating, it is so helpful to see your part in context with the other parts. It guides you toward knowing what it is that you need to focus on when you are learning the piece.

Take breaks.

You’ll actually realize that you focus better if you take small breaks. This is also good for preventing injuries.

Buying a Bow by Ivo-Jan van der Werff

Finding a good viola that suits one’s style, concept of sound, and physical build can be very challenging. I feel that finding a good bow is even more of a challenge. Bows tend to be more subtle in their characteristics; often not so obvious as to what they can do. How many string players have been into an instrument store and tried out bows, not really knowing what to look for or how to try them?

In my experience it is often worth looking at your bow before even considering another instrument. Every now and then we feel a need to “upgrade” and get something that better suits our talents. Often we are right, but, how often is there a financial issue that stops us? Getting a better bow or one more suited to your instrument can be a cheaper option and can often delay that dreaded (but exciting) day when really serious money needs to be spent. I’ve seen many of my students’ instruments sound so much better with a different bow.

So, what constitutes a good bow? I admit to being a bit of a bow nerd. Not that I have extensive knowledge of them, but I just love them. I love the workmanship, the wood, the amazing differences they can make. I’ve been very fortunate to have owned a few beautiful old French (and English) bows. Currently my two best create a problem every time I open the case . . . which one do I use? The problem is really about the fact that they do different things. One is rich and dark, very strong and powerful; great for a composer like Brahms. The other is lighter, not as powerful, but actually can make a bigger sound due to the resonance it creates from my viola. I can’t use it in the same way; it needs a different technique. I can’t use the same amount of arm weight, and it needs more horizontal motion to create the amazing sound.

The first thing you have to understand is that no bow will do everything you want it to. Like any instrument, bows are always something of a compromise. Some are fantastic at legato strokes but don’t bounce easily. Some make a great sound but might not be strong enough. It depends so much on your instrument and you, the player. Some violists prefer a bow with a weightier tip; others prefer more weight at the frog. These things can often come from your particular bow technique. How much are you prepared to subtly change things in order to play a different style of bow?

A good starting point is to think about your viola. Is the sound darker or brighter? If the former, you might want a bow that enhances the treble frequencies; if the latter, then you want a bow that brings out more of the lower frequencies. Ideally, there is a balance between what your viola produces and what a bow can produce on your instrument. If you want a rich, dark sound and your viola already produces that, then what can a similar sounding bow add? Perhaps you can get more color and clarity with a bow that enhances the higher frequencies.

When trying a bow for the first time, ideally have someone you trust listening. What you hear under the ear might be very different even a few feet away. Listen first to the quality of the sound . . . do you really like it? Does it inspire you? Will it help you create a bigger palette of colors? If not, whatever else the bow might do well doesn’t really matter. Sound must come first. If I’m trying a bow for the first time, I like to play whole bows on open strings to see how the weight distribution feels; how the bow resonates through its length. Don’t forget to see how quietly the bow plays. We all get excited about playing loud, and, of course, the bow must be strong and flexible enough to do this, but try playing a real pianissimo on the C string. If the sound is clear right up to the tip, then the bow suits your viola.

If a bow doesn’t do these things, it doesn’t mean it is a bad bow, it just means it isn’t the right type of bow for your viola. When I bought my current viola, the bow that I had been using before (a beautiful Tubbs) just didn’t work well. It was a wrench to part with it, but I learned a lot then about what to look for.

If you like the sound, then try different bow techniques: spiccato, sautillé, martelé, etc. Find where the optimum balance is. Bows can feel so different in the hand. Don’t be put off by this. Like playing a different instrument, we have to learn how to utilize our arm weight. Some bows can take more vertical weight into the stick and a slower bow speed, while some work better with less weight and a faster bow speed.

Cost is an issue and can become a real problem if you have a budget for both a viola and a bow. How much should be spent on each? My advice would be to leave enough to get a decent bow, perhaps 15–30% of your budget. Or, as probably happens most often, one falls in love with and buys a viola first, playing on a lesser quality bow and then, a few years later comes the consideration of upgrading the bow.

Especially if you’ve never considered bows before, do try as many as you can, not just 1 or 2 but 20 or 30, or more. Either go to dealers or try friends and colleagues’ bows just to get an idea of what sound you like, what balance suits you, what weight of stick feels the best (viola bows can be anywhere from about 66–75 grams). If you’re spending $1,000 or $100,000, these are all things to consider.

A final thought is this: I can be ridiculously enthusiastic about bows and want to share their amazing qualities by asking friends to listen. I expect to get a strong reaction. Disappointingly, sometimes they can’t tell the difference from one bow to the next; the differences are just too subtle. This can be frustrating, but the important thing is that if a bow makes you feel you can play better, then whatever someone else might think doesn’t really matter. I liken it to an artist who can create a wonderful painting with just two colors, but if they had three or even four colors, imagine, given time, how that can open up their imagination!

Having given this advice, I have to admit to not following it always myself. With the last bow I purchased, I knew after playing just one note that I had to have it even though I didn’t know whom the maker was and how much it was going to cost me. I just fell in love with the sound straight away!! (After selling another bow and 3 years of payments, I’m happy to report this bow is very nearly mine!)

Comments from Students:

Mr. Van Der Werff has written a great entry on how to assess bows for trial and what characteristics to look for in a bow that would better match one’s viola.

I’m in the process of finishing up an extensive bow search (having tried many bows from different shops/makers, finding what I thought was “the one,” only to have to part with it the week I was expecting to purchase it, and then having to start the search all over again). I agree with Mr. van der Werff that sound and color should be at the forefront in choosing a bow, then feel and playability. If one ends up in the predicament where two or more bows are so similar that friends/colleagues/teachers can hardly pick out the differences, then playability will most likely be the determining factor between those bows, granted that cost is within the same range.

When trying bows, there is only so much you can hear under your ear when playing. What might sound clear and focused to you may not actually be carrying through to an audience further away and vice versa. In an effort to be less of a nuisance to others, I spent many hours on my own playing and recording the bows I had on trial, giving each one a fair chance. After narrowing my choices down to about 3–5 bows, I then played for friends and in studio class to help pick the final one. This was certainly an enlightening experience! Exquisitely crafted bows from renowned makers that felt great and played well ended up not sounding the way I had hoped when paired with my instrument. This is important to remember: don’t let price tag or a bow maker’s reputation pressure you into thinking a bow is the right match. What may be great for you and your instrument isn’t necessarily going to be a good match for someone else. Friends often joke that finding a bow is like a wizard finding his wand. Trip to Ollivander’s, anyone?

Some resources and shops I used to help in my bow search:

Gennady Filimonov, a violinist in the Seattle Symphony and bow dealer, has a great website that I highly recommend browsing through. He lists many of today’s award-winning bow makers along with their biographies. I found it helpful to speak with Mr. Filimonov about these makers and how to go about acquiring bows for trial. Filimonov represents quite a few of today’s top makers but unfortunately did not have any viola bows available.


Benning violins:

Eric Benning has a nice selection of bows from modern makers that are listed on Gennady Filimonov’s website.


Ifshin violins:

They also have a number of bows from renowned makers.


My best advice is to do as much research as possible and scour the Internet. You’ll be surprised to find what bows are on the market and at what shops. Eventually you’ll end up with a number of leads, and hopefully will find some good options. Commissioning a bow from a maker is another option and one I look forward to eventually doing. Depending on the maker, however, be prepared to expect a 3-month to 2-year waiting period.

-Sergein Yap, student of Ivo van der Werff

Being Your Own Worst Critic

by Megan Wright

Like all things in life, self-criticism is all about balance.

Criticism can be a great tool, when it’s constructive.

Mr. Dunham showed me a quote from the prose poem “Desiderata” in one of my lessons.

“Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.”

The problem with being overly critical of oneself is the tendency to get stuck in a rut and miss the big picture of a piece. Don’t get me wrong, paying attention to detail is vital in performance preparation, but issues arise when one becomes fixated and devastated over the smallest errors. Progress in preparing a piece crawls. The overarching theme, the point of the piece, can easily be forgotten as focus shifts.

The key is balance between obsessing with self-criticism and glossing over huge mistakes. The ability to hear flaws in your playing, and to efficiently address them without too much drama, is the key element of improving ability. If you don’t recognize what to fix, how can you ever get better?

Recording yourself is one of the most effective and efficient methods of judging your playing. Recordings don’t lie. By recording, you can pinpoint where specific issues are located and keep a clearer track record of progress. Sometimes, I’ll record a run through of a piece and isolate my listening to a measure or a section. My friend and fellow studio mate Yvonne Smith suggested to me the idea of creating a numerical rating system in various categories for my recording/listening sessions (exs.: intonation, rhythm, musicality, dynamics, etc.). This way, you can find things in your playing that need a bit more attention and also the things that you did well. Over time, after addressing these observances in your practice, the number ratings should steadily increase in your run-throughs and listening sessions.

Don’t beat yourself up. Anyone else can do that for you. Be smart about your musical progress. Balance is key: listen for what can be improved, but also find at least one positive thing you like about what you heard. There will be something. What’s the point of pursuing a performance career if you don’t appreciate anything you produce?

Ergonomic & Cutaway Violas

by Marie-Elyse Badeau

0311a Erdesz Violas

A cutaway viola made by Jehpin Liew at Old Violin House

The reactions I encounter when I open my case usually vary from surprise to interest. Ergonomic or cutaway violas, even if more and more popular, still raise a lot of questions. My decision to buy such a viola was motivated by a lot of factors, and I will gladly share them with you as well as giving you an insight on them directly from my viola-maker, John Newton.

At first, the size of my former viola was not a problem, but since I’m rather small and short, with even smaller hands, reaching high positions for a long practice session could be tiring. As I had to buy an instrument (I was using the school’s), I started looking at modern violas, following the advice from my teacher and other students. After I heard from other violists about Iizuka’s and Erdesz’s ergonomic violas, I researched them and learned how this type of viola could work better for me. I was worried at first about a change in the sound, a lesser quality because of the “cutted” part, but since the air volume in the instrument is the same, the quality doesn’t change, whether you have a “standard” instrument or cutaway. The ergonomic violas often have a larger lower body than a standard instrument to compensate, so be careful when you buy a case for those instruments; you don’t want to have a bad surprise!

The convenience of buying a modern instrument can be a wonderful experience. You can actually ask for exactly what you wish in a viola, from the form to small details like colors. After speaking with the maker about my viola and trying the instrument, I realized that it needed some modifications to meet my need. We decided I needed a smaller neck, so he thinned out the neck for me. This can be an option for any instrument and solves a lot of tension problems for the left hand. Even for people with bigger hands, comfort while playing is so important!! Moreover, since the repertoire of the viola often includes fifths in profusion (think about Bartòk or Rosza concertos), we decided to modify the nut of my viola and use a violin-sized one instead. After all, even if our instrument is bigger, our hands are not!

0311b myviola

My John Newton viola

And now introducing John Newton and some more thoughts on cutaway violas!

Violas are often large, awkward, and even clumsy to play. I consider an ergonomic viola to be one that deviates from the standard historical form—highly variable though that is—to enable the user to play it with greater ease and efficiency and with no sacrifice of the expected musical character and quality. A viola of unusual shape must still be able to successfully perform all of the standard repertoire with appropriate beauty of sound, as well as with improved technical ease. There are several modifications that can achieve this, and I have worked through a number of them over the years, in various combinations. To my knowledge, the old master makers never tried these kinds of modifications, other than simple variations in size. The first luthier to seriously attempt this was my teacher, Otto Erdesz, who made a great number of conventional violas before making a radically asymmetric instrument in the early 1970s. This viola had a large cutaway on the treble side to facilitate high-position playing, and he found it so successful that he made a series of them. The solo instrument of his former wife, Rivka Golani, is a well-known and much-recorded example. The conventional wisdom in the craft of lutherie was that symmetry in construction was absolutely necessary for a successful result; there were various asymmetric guitars that were excellent, but the conservatism of the classical bowed-instrument world prevented anyone experimenting with it. I made my first such cutaway viola around 1980 as Erdesz’s student and have been making them ever since. The fear that such radical reshaping would result in wolf notes, unevenness, off-color tone, and loss of power turned out to be completely incorrect. Since my time with Erdesz, I have also been encouraged to make experimental violas through my association with Gerald Stanick, who was not afraid to design and commission such instruments. Stanick came to feel that eliminating the corners was also a useful modification, and one which can be observed (though rarely) in the work of the old masters, including Stradivari. The corner-less outline gives greater clearance to the bow and bow hand, and the shape is structurally stable, in my experience. These two modifications can be combined successfully; add to them a shortened string length and an indented outline at the lower block, and the viola has become significantly easier to play. When an instrument is easier to manage, the player can realize a higher percentage of the potential sound with the same effort. I have built such violas in a number of sizes, from about 15 1/2” to over 17”. I have also observed that players who suffer from physical injury from coping with large, awkward traditional violas can be helped by instruments with these design features. Violas of alternative design are now much more accepted than they once were, and I greatly enjoy the challenge and variety of designing and making them.

– John Newton, Toronto, CAN:johnnewtonviolins@gmail.com

I also encourage you to read those articles and books about viola shapes and standardization:

Viola design: some problems with standardization, by Sookyung Claire Jeong:

The evolution of my viola models, by Hiroshi Izuka

The History of the Viola, by Maurice Riley


Concert Attire: What’s the Big Deal

by James Dunham

It is very tempting to dismiss proper attire for concerts with a wave of the hand and see it as a boring bother. After all, we in classical music have been trying for years to show our audiences that we are, in fact, just people like them and to make the concert stage less of a divide between “us” and “them.” We have even come under considerable criticism for our seemingly stuffy and “out-dated” white tie and tails or tuxedo outfits and the black or gem-colored gowns for women.

Let’s think about the bigger picture for a moment, though. A concert, whatever the musical style, is an event, a presentation, an offering. When creating something of importance for our families, our friends, our public, it is always important to create an atmosphere of anticipation, of excitement, of sharing. By dressing appropriately for any particular concert, this includes our own sense of ownership, our respect for our audience, and most importantly, our respect for the composer!

Formal vs. informal:

Are there widely varied styles of appropriate attire? Of course there are! Charith Premawardhana,  one of my former students, has created an organization called Classical Revolution, which now has chapters around the U. S. Presentations range from true concerts of rehearsed chamber works in unusual venues to Facebook calls to meet at a given bar or restaurant simply to read chamber music for the assembled clientele! I suppose you could wear a tuxedo if you wanted to, but you are really more likely to see blue jeans and casual clothes.

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Here I am with Classical Revolution founder Charith Premawardhana at a recent event in Houston!

But a major concert in a major city? While tuxes, tails, and gowns are sometimes seen as a bit too much, when done well, a fine outfit, say, with a great summer white tuxedo can still look very sharp! Please allow me to show off just a bit: here I am backstage at the Aspen Music Festival, where white tuxedos are still very much in evidence. With me are dapper Gil Shaham, glorious Sabina Thatcher, and the elegant David Halen!

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Me, Gil Shaham, Sabina Thatcher, David Halen

All Black:

It has become very common to wear all black for concerts, sometimes with a jacket for men, sometimes without, with or without a tie. We often call it “New Music Black,” since it is frequently the “uniform” for contemporary concerts. It works, looks appropriate, and can also be more comfortable for works requiring extended techniques of all kinds!

While this next photo isn’t the crispest, I thought you would enjoy seeing the participants, all in black. Ivo van der Werff and I were invited to play a viola quartet in Boston to help celebrate composer John Harbison’s seventieth birthday. Here we are with Marcus Thompson and John himself, who insisted on playing Viola 4 in his own viola quartet, Cucaraccia and Fugue!!

0225c Harbison attire

Ivo van der Werff, Marcus Thompson, John Harbison, me

Suits: Ties or no ties?

Frequently, a business suit for men and an elegant dress for women is a common performance outfit. Ties, especially for ‘cellists and upper string players, can interfere with the way we interact with our instruments. A nicely buttoned shirt can look fine with a suit, or in the case of Paul Kantor in the picture below, there are elegant alternatives.

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Paul Kantor, Frank Huang, Ling-Ling Huang, Evelyn Chen, Brinton Smith, me

I confess, I did have an issue with a recent concert that I heard. The male members of this ensemble came out to perform in a professional concert in a major U. S. concert hall, wearing suits. To my dismay, while they were wearing appropriate ties, the top buttons of their shirts were open, and the ties were loosened to about three inches down their shirt front. It looked like what one does after the concert, back in the dressing room. It felt, to me, like cavalier disrespect of the audience, the venue, the composer, and, ultimately, themselves. Concerned about my potential “old fogey” factor, I checked with my own Studio. Luckily, everyone agreed that this felt very inappropriate for this particular circumstance.

A very positive incident took place at a chamber concert that I played recently. I had chosen to wear all black, with jacket, and a glorious red tie that my wife had presented to me. To my delight, a group of children surrounded me at intermission! Greatly impressed by the concert, they were even more impressed by my tie!

Girl one: “Can I touch your tie??”

Girl two: “You can’t ask that!!”

Me: “Of course you can ask it, and of course you can touch it!!”

A little too much excitement for an iPhone photograph, but you get the picture: classical music is alive and well!

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A final story:

I heard of a master class given by the great Pablo Casals. It was at a summer festival, un-air conditioned, hot and humid, in the days when coat and tie were the only way to go. The performer, nervous and sweaty, asked the maestro if he might take off his jacket before he played. The reply from Pablo Casals? “Why, of course: anything you would do in a concert . . .”

We have come a long way since those days!

JS Bach’s Influence on the Viola throughout the Baroque Era

by Meredith Kufchak

During the Baroque Period, the viola da braccio rose in popularity and began to blossom into the versatile instrument that it is today.  Although the viola had existed since the 16th century, it was mainly used as a supporting instrument to accompany vocalists or other instruments. Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the first composers to write a significant composition featuring the viola. J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 transformed the role of the viola in Baroque music from a background harmony instrument into one that was capable of virtuosity by disregarding and inverting the prevalent instrumental hierarchy.

The majority of early viola parts were written for tenor violas, which were larger than a modern viola but still played on the shoulder, making them incredibly awkward and uncomfortable to play. Because of this, the popularity of tenor violas decreased and, although the large violas were produced throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, they eventually fell out of favor.1 The viola’s large, awkward size made it difficult to play, so composers were not inclined to write difficult parts for the viola. For these reasons, the viola’s role in music was either to play the harmony or to double the continuo.

The event that most constricted the growth of the viola as a solo instrument was the creation of the trio sonata, which was standardized by Corelli. Trio sonatas were most often composed for two violins with continuo, or two oboes, flutes, or cornets. This meant that the most popular form of chamber music in the Baroque period excluded the viola and also that composers failed to see the viola as a solo instrument. Another popular genre of music in early eighteenth-century Italy was the concerto grosso, which was standardized by Corelli and Vivaldi. The concerto grosso is scored for two groups of instruments, the concertino and the ripieno. The concertino was the small group of soloists, and the ripieno was the orchestral group that supported the soloists and sometimes doubled their parts to play as a full orchestral group. The instrumentation of Corelli’s concerti grossi was most often two violins, cello, and keyboard for the concertino, and two violins, viola, cello, and continuo for the ripieno. Before Corelli, it was typical to have two viola parts in the ripieno. However, the transition from five-part harmony to four-part harmony again diminished the demand for violists.

There are very few examples of solo works for the viola because they were not in high demand, but there are a few examples from the middle of the seventeenth century. The Florentine organist Nicholaus à Kempis published a Sonata for Violin and Viola in 1644. The Venetian organist Massimiliano Neri published a Viola Sonata in 1651. Another Sonata for Viola by Carlo Antonio Marino appeared late in the seventeenth century. In the second half of the century, there is evidence that some German trio sonatas did include a part for the viola and even that in the traditional trio sonata for two violins, it was preferred if the second violin part was instead played by a viola.2 In addition, Daniel Speer composed two trio sonatas for two violas and continuo in 1697 that he intended to be played by amateur violists. Opera arias were occasionally accompanied by a solo viola in late seventeenth-century Venice and early eighteenth-century Hamburg.3 Handel did this in his opera Almira, composed in 1705. The first ensemble piece with viola as part of the concertino was Locatelli’s concerto grosso in 1721.

J. S. Bach was among the first composers to realize the full potential of the viola.4 As an accomplished musician, Bach played the violin, viola, and most famously the organ. He was employed as a professional violinist and violist by the Duke of Weimar but left the position within a year to become a composer and organist for the church in Arnstadt. As a proficient violist, he understood the full technical capabilities of the viola and could see that it had potential beyond that of a harmony instrument. In addition, the viola was Bach’s favorite instrument to play in chamber music, because he enjoyed playing in the center of the harmony.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 (BWV 1051) was written around the year 1718 and is thought to be the earliest of the Brandenburg Concertos.5 The instrumentation of the piece is two violas da braccio, two violas da gamba, violoncello, and “violone e cembalo” for the continuo. This instrumentation was unique for the time period, because in this Brandenburg concerto, the two violas have the melodic and most challenging parts. Although Bach does not designate a concertino or ripieno, the way the parts function is that the two violas da braccio and the violoncello have the important melodic and thematic material.6 However, Bach most likely did not intend for the work to be played like Vivaldi’s ripieno concertos were sometimes performed, with a small group of soloists alternating playing with the full orchestra. He more likely intended for it to be performed in a chamber-music style with one player to a part.7 It is also important to recognize that this is not a concerto for two violas. Rather, Bach titles the work Concerto 6to à due Viole da Braccio, due Viole da Gamba, Violoncello, Violone è Cembalo.8

The question remains then: Why did Bach choose the instrumentation that he did, with the violas da gamba in a more subordinate role to the violas da braccio? Up to this point in the history of music, the viola was a harmony instrument, while the gambas were more respected, playing a broad range from continuo to solo pieces, including playing in the concertino of concertos.9  Gamba players were often very skilled technically, so they played difficult parts. Bach himself wrote a viola da gamba sonata. The violoncello had also acquired more status as a solo instrument by the end of the seventeenth century and had been included in the concertino of concertos. The violin was immensely popular at the time, so it seems odd that out of all the instruments that are included in his Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, Bach gives the most important parts to the two violas da braccio and does not include any violins at all. He also gives the violas da gamba and violoncello a supporting role to the violas da braccio. This was an unusual voicing, because it flipped the instrumental hierarchy upside down and took out violins completely. He gave the instruments known for their solo capabilities and virtuosity an accompaniment role, and gave the violas da braccio, the least respected of all the instruments, the important solo roles.

The most likely explanation for why Bach chose the specific instrumentation is that he was simply writing for the musicians that were available.10 The Brandenburg Concertos were performed at the court of Prince Leopold of Köthen, who was Bach’s employer at the time. The prince preferred to play the viola da gamba, so when he played he would take the first seat and the court viola da gamba player, Christian Ferdinand Abel, would move to the second seat. Bach would have played the viola part as his preferred instrument, and the principal violinist, Joseph Spieβ, would have played the second viola part because it is unlikely that the court violists were capable of playing the difficult part. The cellist Christian Bernhard Linigke was also a very capable musician. This reasoning provides an explanation for the unique instrumentation and the roles that each instrument takes. Bach and the best violinist would play the virtuosic parts, as well as the cellist; the same cellist for whom Bach wrote the famous six cello suites. Prince Leopold was not as skilled a musician, so Bach wrote a less demanding part for the gambas. This idea that Bach wrote for the instrumentation that was available to him at a specific time is also consistent with the remaining five Brandenburg Concertos.11

Bach may have been after convenience when he chose the instrumentation of his Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, but the untraditional swap of roles between solo instruments and accompaniment instruments still had significant implications. It is not simply that Bach wrote virtuosic viola parts, or that he wrote simple accompanimental viola da gamba parts, because this had been done before, both by Bach and other composers. Rather, the significance is that he uses these two techniques simultaneously, upsetting the conventional roles of the gambas being superior to the violas da braccio.12  It was common for both the gambas and the violas da braccio to play ripieno roles, or for the gambas to play in the concertino while the violas played the ripieno, but it was very uncommon for the violas to play the concertino while the gambas played simple ripieno parts. He placed the violas da braccio above the violas da gamba in terms of importance and difficulty of parts.

Bach was not the only Baroque composer who wrote virtuosic music for the viola; although it could be argued that his Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 is the greatest masterpiece of the music written for violas in the Baroque period. Telemann was another prolific composer during the Baroque era who took a special interest in the viola. He wrote several trio sonatas for violin, viola, and continuo; a viola concerto; a concerto for two violas; and works for viola and keyboard. Vivaldi composed six viola d’amore concertos during his life. The next great composer for viola was Karl Stamitz, who wrote several viola concertos, the most famous of which is his Concerto in D Major for Viola and Orchestra, published in 1774, which brings us into the Classical era.13

J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 greatly influenced the role of the viola in the Baroque era by creating virtuosic melody parts that allowed violists and composers to realize the full potential of the instrument. He put the violas in a solo role above the violas da gamba and the violoncello, both of which were more traditionally solo instruments while the viola was seen as solely an accompaniment and harmony instrument. Bach’s concerto was a step toward the viola becoming a solo instrument, and although the viola was not instantly a successful solo instrument, more and more composers began to write virtuosic viola parts and solo pieces. Today the viola is no longer seen as simply a harmony instrument, but an instrument capable of great virtuosity.


1. Robin Stowell, The Early Violin and Viola: A Practical Guide (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 34.

2. Maurice W. Riley, The History of the Viola (Ann Arbor: Braun-Brumfield, 1980), 105.

3. Wolfgang Hirschmann, preface to Telemann Concerto in G Major for Viola, Strings, and Basso continuo (Basel: Bärenreiter Kassel, 2002), 7.

4. Riley, The History of the Viola, 111.

5. Michael Thomas Roeder, A History of the Concerto (Portland: Amadeus Press, 1994), 95.

6. Norman Carrell, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (London: Scholarly Press, Inc., 1978), 110.

7. Arthur Hutchings, The Baroque Concerto (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978), 234.

8. Malcolm Boyd, Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 91.

9. Michael Marissen, The Social and Religious Designs of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University press, 1995), 56.

10. Boyd, Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos, 35.

11. Friedrich Smend, Bach in Köthen, trans. John Page (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1985), 40.

12. Marissen, Social and Religious Designs, 57.

13. Riley, The History of the Viola, 120.

Slow Practice by Rachel Li

Turtle Photo

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

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

From James Dunham:

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

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

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

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

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

From Ivo van der Werff:

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

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

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

From Jarita Ng:

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

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

From Yvonne Smith:

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