Archive for the ‘Tuesday’ Category

The Importance of Stretching by Ivo Jan van der Werff

We have to remember that as violists, we are athletes. Not perhaps always in the sense that we go running every day or go to the gym (though that is a pretty good thing to do!), but in the way that especially the fingers of our left hand have to be athletic. They have to be strong, quick, flexible and accurate. The following exercise is one that I encourage my students to do before any “real” playing. Any athlete does warm ups to literally warm up the body, help its flexibility, and, most importantly, to help prevent injury.

The notes after the exercise explain that you should never over stretch or go through the pain barrier. The idea is to stretch the fingers in the given patterns gently, without undue force.

Even if your practice time is really limited, it is still worth doing these exercises if only to help keep the left hand in good, flexible condition. If your hand lacks flexibility, then no matter how much you practice scales, etudes, etc, they will not improve as much as you might hope. Stretching in this way helps condition the fingers so they can manage the technical issues we encounter.

Stretching Exercise

On the Nature of Habits by James Dunham

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on Rhythm

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

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

0121a Ivo rhythm cropped

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Searching for the Proper Set-Up by Aaron Conitz

One of the biggest challenges we violists face in playing such (at times) an unwieldy instrument is finding the most comfortable and efficient way to put it on our shoulders and underneath the chin. A number of variables come into play here: How high is your neck? Are your shoulders broad or narrow? Do you have long or short arms? The list continues to grow longer as we search for that perfect set-up with which we can deliver the biggest sound with the least amount of harmful tension.

The two most obvious elements in one’s set-up are the shoulder rest and the chinrest. I believe that these two elements have equal importance and playing around with the various ways that they can individually affect your overall set-up is incredibly useful. The third, less obvious variable that I usually consider is the thickness of the viola. Because no standardized set of measurements exists for our instrument, this element can profoundly affect the products selected as the chin and shoulder rest.

Rather than speak abstractly about the various elements that go into the process of discovering one’s set-up, I thought that I would present a documentation of my own process and experience in finding the right equipment. When I acquired my current instrument, I faced the challenge of finding (again) a new set-up. The viola was a bit smaller in thickness than my previous one and was equipped with a very thin chinrest, mounted on the left side of the tailpiece. I knew that I had a long neck and needed to increase the amount of material (whether it was in the form of a chin or shoulder rest) between my shoulder and my chin, but I also had to factor in the reality that my shoulders slope downward. I figured that because the chinrest was so thin that I would need far more height underneath the instrument to be compatible with my neck length than I was comfortable with, so I decided to also increase the overall height using a thicker chinrest. However, I figured that I should deal with one variable at a time to reach a more accurate conclusion (scientific method, anyone?).

Thus began my search for a shoulder rest. In the past, I had found success with a simple mousepad grip and the Play-on-air methods, but I definitely knew I wanted more height than either of these options could offer, but I also felt that the aforementioned choices cover a significant portion of the instrument, limiting overall resonance. A shoulder rest with raised feet seemed to be the best idea; the question now was which one? Each option came with a host of pros and cons. The BonMusica seemed a bit too restrictive, taking away some of the flexibility I wanted in my shoulder. I liked flat platform style of the Resonans and Wolfe’s, but they weren’t solid enough and felt flimsy and insecure on my shoulder. I turned to the ubiquitous Kun-style rest and, after some experimentation, learned that I liked the solidity of the platform but didn’t care for the shaped wood. I then followed a colleague’s recommendation and tried the Kun Bravo; while the high price tag was initially deterring, I bit the bullet and bought one. Surprisingly, the difference was huge. The contour was much more subtle, and the wood felt more secure than the plastic (and, yes, it is much prettier). I still missed the flat platform that the Resonans offered and decided to start modifying the shoulder rest with some cosmetic sponges and rubber bands. By adding one sponge to the contoured end I was able to achieve a more flat surface—et voilà!—the perfect combination. Depending on what type of shirt or jacket I’m wearing I have to adjust the height of the feet, which the rest does quite easily.

After a few years, I decided it was time to experiment with chinrests. I wanted something that would allow me to bring the viola a bit into my chest so I wouldn’t have to push out my bow arm as much and figured that something mounted above the tailpiece would allow me to achieve this. I tried several center mounted rests and wasn’t quite convinced it would ultimately solve the situation; how about, I thought, something that combined both the side and center mounted ideas. I discovered the Ohrenform chinrest that mounted over the tailpiece with a flat platform (not raised or molded like other models) extending from the tailpiece so that I had both a center and side-mounted chinrest. I was able to place the viola a bit more on my collarbone and have a greater range of movement in my head due to the flat platform of the chinrest.

Through this taxing and lengthy (sometimes seemingly endless) process, I reached a number of conclusions:

•Evaluate your physical needs before considering the options; each of us is physically unique so what may work for “most people” might not necessarily work for you.

•Listen to your body; if something feels strange or uncomfortable, trust your instincts.

•Talk to your colleagues. Your teachers and fellow violists are an incredible resource allowing you to try their own equipment or offer advice.

•Be patient! No matter how frustrated you become, the end product will be worth it.

•Be creative. Sometimes you have to think outside of the box to reach the right fit.

Vibrato by Ivo van der Werff

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

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

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

Tracks 14,15,16,17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embrace the Unknown by Daniel Wang

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

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

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

2. Practice hard and well.

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

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

The Position of the Viola in a String Quartet by Ivo-Jan van der Werff

Since I first played in a quartet, aged 13, I have always sat between the second violin and cello. When I moved to the USA—to Rice University in 2007—and played in my first faculty recital, Mozart’s G-minor string quintet, I found myself on the outside, feeling distinctly uncomfortable! I knew quartets had different seating arrangements but never really thought about it till that day. Broadly speaking, British quartets sit with the violist on the inside, American quartets with the violist on the outside. “So what?” one might ask? Well, I have thought long and hard about it (and actually really enjoyed thinking about something that I had always taken for granted and, after nearly 40 years, was such a habit for me), and I have discussed this with many eminent colleagues and friends (and we are probably all too used to the habitual way we do things to change), and these discussions did make me consider things differently.

The arguments I hear most in favor about having the viola on the outside are the following (there may be others I’ve not considered!):

• With the cello on the inside it helps focus the intonation and also allows the cellist to be heard more strongly.

• With the violist on the outside, the viola sound is closer to the audience; it is basically louder.

My first reaction to this is that the back of the viola faces the audience, not the front. It also means that to project a solo line above the texture one has to turn out, which to me causes all sorts of physical discomforts. I have to admit, though, that the viola does gain a presence in its sound, but I feel this is at the expense of being rather isolated, rather than being part of the texture.

In my quartet, our cellist always sat on the outside but turned very slightly out toward the audience, reflecting the position of the 1st violin. There never seemed to be any balance problems  related to hearing the cello.

I then considered what a quartet is made up of. Four instruments, of course, but one can consider a quartet as Six pairs of instruments: Violin 1 with violin 2, with viola, or with cello (pairs 1–3); violin 2 with viola or with cello (pairs 4–5); and viola with cello (pair 6).

My next question is: Which are the most important pairings in a typical, classical quartet (take any from Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, etc.)? In order (viola based naturally!):

violin 2 and viola;

viola and cello;

violin 1 and cello.

My reasoning? Well, how often does a classical quartet start with a down beat on the cello followed by an accompaniment on the middle instruments and a melody on the 1st violin? If the middle parts are separated by the cello, it makes it much harder to play together and sound as a unit. Often the “outer” voices of the 1st violin and cello have answering melodies. Also, it makes logical sense (at least to me) that there is a progression of strings from the lowest to the highest. The ears of the audience can be led from right to left as a melodic line or pattern moves from the bass up toward the treble, or it can work in the opposite direction. There are so many times when a composer will not follow this pattern, but on the whole this is probably the most common.

As a few examples, take Beethoven op 59/1, where the cello starts with the melody and the middle parts take the accompanying eighth notes. Or the start of Mozart’s G-minor quintet, where the melody is in the 1st violin with accompanying eighth notes played on violin 2 and viola 1. Viola 1 then takes the melody with viola 2 and cello accompanying. I personally find it aurally and visually confusing as an audience member not being able to follow where the line has gone when the 1st viola is separated from the 2nd violin.

As to the presence of the bass line being more in the center of the quartet and easier to tune to, that is a very compelling argument, but it is not enough to persuade me due to all the other considerations.

In conclusion, I always ask my students to consider which chair they take. I really don’t mind as long as they have good reason. I am a creature of habit, as are the majority of long standing (or sitting!) quartet players; we often do things because that is the way we do things . . . no other reason. I’ve had fun working out why I feel as I do, though I’m certainly willing to be convinced otherwise!

I would love to start a dialogue about this. I want to know if my assumption of important pairings is correct or if the importance of a descending or ascending line is relevant. I know there will be many examples from the standard, core repertoire that can make one think one way or the other. The bottom line is that we probably do what we were brought up with.

Finally, I want to add that there is probably no “correct” way, but very few musicians I have spoken with have really considered this thought, hence my writing this blog post!

Considering the Left Hand Frame by James Dunham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Left Hand by Ivo van der Werff

Everything we do in playing the viola has to be toward one aim; the creation of a good sound. Before even getting on to expressive elements in playing such as vibrato, you can gain a better sound through a good left hand position and good intonation.

With the left hand, balance is again a key word that comes to mind. Just as your general posture needs to be natural and unforced, so does the position and shape of your left hand. If you put your arm in a playing position (without the viola), try moving the hand backward and forward, rocking on the wrist, as far as it will go and observe where the tension comes and goes. Just as in finding the optimum position of the arm in front of the body, the optimum position of the hand is one where the opposing muscles on the front and back of the forearm are in balance or equilibrium. Thinking of gravity, one would assume that the hand would be least tense in a more upright position. Any other position and one has to “hold” the hand in place, through tension. Generally this will result in a slight outward curve of the wrist (i.e., curving away from the body). This natural position of the hand also reflects the shape of the right hand when placing the middle of the bow on a string.

Tudor Fieldhouse

Optimum position of the wrist

The height of the hand when holding the viola is dependent on how vertical the fingers are. To create a rich sound it is better to use the fleshy part of the fingers just behind the tip so the fingers do not land on the fingerboard in too upright a position. Hence the hand should not be too high. The thumb should support the neck of the viola somewhere between the underneath and side. Do not grip the neck between the thumb (which should be relaxed) and the base joint of the 1st finger (a common fault), as this will detract from left hand mobility. This can also create undue tension, which could have a detrimental effect on the vibrato.

Tudor Fieldhouse

Fingers in correct position

It is very important that the thumb is flexible. It does not have a fixed position, with any upward stretches it might want to move in the opposite direction. But again, thinking of balance, there is an optimum position for the thumb probably somewhere between the 1st and 2nd fingers. You can experiment by holding the hand in a playing position and moving the thumb backward and forward and noting where the muscle tension lies.

The fingers should always be in a position where they can strike the string, i.e., the hand might need to be turned in toward the fingerboard more so that the 4th finger generally is approximately above the string.

A good exercise is to hold the hand in a playing position and twist the forearm–wrist–hand round in each direction. This is not a natural, everyday movement, so it is worth looking at.

Although the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd fingers will always be curved, depending on the length of the 4th finger, this might well have to flatten out when striking the string.

There is no need to change the attitude of the hand to the fingerboard until one reaches at least 4th position, and the movement of the hand should be smooth and even; the less unnecessary movement the better.

Good intonation (creating a good, resonant tone) is achieved by learning the relationships between the fingers. If one has a different hand shape for each finger or position, this becomes increasingly complicated.

A common fault is to lock the fingers together at the lower knuckle, especially between the 1st and 2nd. It is very important that each finger can move independently from the lower knuckle and that there is always “daylight” between the fingers.

Good intonation can only be learned through repetition. When practicing, if a note is out of tune, DO NOT move the offending finger until it is in tune. Rather, listen and decide which way the finger needs to move on the repeat. If it is still incorrect, repeat again. In this way you will learn the exact relationship of one note to another, and by repeating many times the memory of that relationship becomes instinctive.

Good intonation is a combination of “muscle memory,” acute listening, and concentration.

Comments from Students:

As I am a person with smaller hands, I tend to let my thumb lay more toward my second finger, as it also gives me more space to make extensions, especially with the first and fourth fingers. I am currently working on placing my left hand with the palm facing the fingerboard and I agree with the idea since my fourth finger can more easily be played and is more relaxed than before. It also allows me to play faster passages because my fingers are closer to the strings. I also practice to stay in one position and keep a good hand frame through different finger extensions. I think we have a tendency to move our hand a lot when we play, as opposed to keeping it steady and relaxed. Thinking about the position you are in and using extensions (in contrast to a complete shift every time to play a half-step lower note) allows a better knowledge of your instrument as well as better intonation

– Marie-Elyse Badeau

Play with a Beautiful Sound by Daniel Wang

“Play with a beautiful sound.”

This is advice that wise, older violists often share with younger violists. People say this to me from time to time, and my first reaction is to think to myself technically: “Okay, I should probably use more vibrato here, make sure the ends of my phrases sound good, have more resonance to my sound . . . etc.”

But if you take a step back, what the heck does it really mean to “play with a beautiful sound”? The word “beautiful” is ambiguous, because people have different ideas of what “beautiful” is. What makes music beautiful?

My perception of “making a beautiful sound” changed during a master class at Schleswig Holstein Music Festival back in 2012. A very talented violist played parts of the Bartók Viola Concerto for a coach who specialized in mental practicing. After she played, she was asked what she was thinking about when playing the very first phrase, and like a good student, she answered, “I was thinking about making a beautiful sound.” Then the coach asked her to be more specific. The girl gave a great answer and talked about the technical things that she did, like vibrato and bow placement . . . but then to everyone’s surprise, the coach still wasn’t satisfied with the answer. She wanted the girl to somehow be even more specific! The girl paused for about thirty seconds and answered:

“My music is beautiful when I play from my heart.”