Archive for the ‘General’ Category

A Final Fanfare

Welcome to the final viola studio blog from the Shepherd School of Music.

The combined viola studios at Rice

The combined viola studios at Rice

We would like to thank all of you who have followed our blog throughout the academic year and hope you have found it as interesting and stimulating to read as we have in thinking and writing about all things related to the viola! It has been a great privilege to offer our thoughts to you, and we would like to sincerely thank the American Viola Society for giving us this opportunity. Special thanks must go to David Bynog, who has collated our work each week and posted it on the AVS web page.

We would also like to thank Joan DerHovsepian for her invaluable contributions on playing and preparing orchestral excerpts and to all of our students and alums who have spent time preparing posts on such a wide variety of viola related topics.

A final, huge thanks must go to our wonderful TA’s, Stephanie Mientka and Jarita Ng, for making sure all topics were covered, that our posts were written on time, and for sending them on to David Bynog.

As a final gift we have embedded a video of a work we played recently at a Shepherd School recital with the combined viola studios and some special guests. The concert focused on the fact that we had some rather special instruments on stage, basically three Giovanni Grancino violas from the late 1600s and a Gasparo da Salò viola from 1585! Added to the mix was a double bass, also by Grancino. Our guest violists were Kathryn Plummer and Aloysia Friedmann alongside Professor of Bass at Rice, Paul Ellison. Another very special guest, whom we persuaded to play as she was coming to the concert anyway, was Kathryn Steely from Baylor University! The work, an arrangement by Sam Bergman—member of the Minnesota Orchestra—was Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man (or Common Violist, as we put in the program). It was a fun concert, which included viola duos, trios, quartets, and the Gordon Jacob octet before the grand finale offered here.


Wishing all violists out there every success, now and for the future!

Ivo van Der Werff and James Dunham


Ten Things I Learned During My First Year at Rice

by Leah Gastler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring Break

Thank you so much for reading our blog! We’ll be on Spring Break this week (March 3-7) but will return with new entries next week!

On Motivation

By Rebecca Gu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• What is your favorite thing about playing the viola?

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Suzuki to Conservatory

by Edward Schenkman

I am a Suzuki kid. I started violin lessons at age 5 and continued with a Suzuki teacher until graduating high school. I don’t claim to be an expert on the Suzuki method and the pros and cons of different styles of teaching, but I would like to share my experience of going directly from a Suzuki program to a major conservatory/school of music.

My Suzuki training wasn’t completely traditional; my teacher had me leave the books early in high school. Among conservatory students, although some started on Suzuki, most people changed while still fairly young. Some believe Suzuki is not the best way to go about musical training, but while there are some minor flaws in its preparation for conservatory I truly loved the Suzuki environment, and I believe it is a perfectly viable option for music education.

Suzuki works on building music appreciation from a very young age and doesn’t just focus on technical prowess. Starting at such a young age is, for the most part, a wonderful thing. The Suzuki method is all about opening up musical education to everyone, not just the select few who will go on to become professional musicians, and so the teachers tend to emphasize the love of music—maybe at the expense of rigorous discipline and technique. This creates a good learning environment, especially for the younger students; I never came out of a lesson in tears.

The Suzuki method focuses a lot of attention on students learning pieces by ear, which is an invaluable skill to any musician. However, many people complain that Suzuki kids lack sight-reading abilities. Many teachers have begun to counteract that by supplementing with extra sight-reading practice. I was fortunate enough to have a teacher who gave me weekly sight-reading, and I attended chamber music camps from a young age, which helps enormously in sight-reading.

Suzuki tends to lack almost any competitive edge, which is something that I really loved about it. I don’t think that  would be at a music school if it weren’t for Suzuki. Music, in my opinion, shouldn’t have a competitive aspect. There’s always some kids asking, “What book are you in?” as if Suzuki volume directly correlates to musical skill, but in general it’s a friendly atmosphere. Part of that, I think, is that not everyone—in fact most kids in Suzuki—plans on becoming a professional musician, which is great. But when you go to a conservatory and are surrounded by high-powered, extremely talented musicians, it can be a little intimidating. And because most of them do, indeed, wish to become professional musicians, it’s hard for there not to be a competitive aspect.

One thing that Suzuki definitely did prepare me for was the performance aspect of my music education. Suzuki emphasizes frequent performances to make the students comfortable with performing. Not only did I get a lot of practice performing, but I also had to memorize everything, and memorizing pieces has never been difficult for me. Of course, I still get a healthy amount of nerves before I perform, but it’s something I’ve been doing multiple times a year for thirteen years. It is, however, a slightly intimidating experience going from performing for parents and young children to professors and graduate students; but that’s life.

In short, I think Suzuki does a wonderful job of fostering an appreciation and a philosophy of learning with love. Although, I certainly think supplementing Suzuki with études and technique as well as sight-reading is essential to developing the necessary skills for a potential music career.

The Musical Spectrum by Megan Wright

There is no such thing as worthless music.

Any work of music, of any genre, by any artist, can help you become a better musician. All music has a use and benefit.

Being aware and listening to all types of music not only makes you a better musician but also makes you more marketable. The more knowledge obtained about various genres of music, the more “tools” a musician has in his or her “belt.” A musician should strive to be a “jack of all trades.”

Some musicians may consider work by pop, country, and “mainstream” artists to be trash. Instead of disregarding these works, keep an open mind. You don’t have to like what you hear, but know that what you hear can be useful. Try turning on your radio or online listening app and look for variety—things you aren’t familiar with. Listen to the “top 10,” to country, Latin, jazz stations; anything of variety you come across.

Use these popular songs to sharpen and refresh your aural skills. For example:

• Brush up on hearing harmonic structure, chord inversions, solfège, etc.;

• Practice hearing intervals;

• Use the metronomic precision of Latino and rap beats to hone your rhythm . . . develop a “groove”;

• Practice melodic dictation in your head.

However simple, repetitive, boring, or unfamiliar songs may seem, use them to your advantage. Someone else out there in the world appreciates them, and it will be beneficial for you as a musician to be aware of them too.

Life is full of surprises and little unexpected windows of opportunity. A musician should be prepared for any opportunity presented to him or her. A gig is a gig, and you should never turn one down if you can take it. You are not “too good” for a gig. You are not above playing for any group of people or above any music that cannot be cataloged as “classical.” Experience is experience. Money is money. You never know whom you might meet and what he or she may want to hear you play. Being versatile, flexible, and proactive is key to being successful in any musical situation.


You have an opportunity to play for a wealthy donor who wants to contribute to your arts cause. This donor initially has no experience with classical music. What if the donor makes a song request, maybe a favorite show or fiddle tune, and you just look at him or her and say, “Uh . . . sorry, don’t know that one . . .” That won’t look too impressive on your behalf.

From personal experience, I can’t count how many times I’ve gone to visit my grandparents over the holidays, and my grandmother, wanting to hear me play, asked to hear Orange Blossom Special or Ashokan Farewell instead of the Bartók Concerto or a Hindemith Sonata. You may not know every popular song that exists, but you can start broadening your repertoire.

How may one increase his or her awareness of all music? Start with an open, proactive mind.

• Go through the iTunes top 10 every now and then;

• Buy a book for keyboard with classic songs of every generation. Look through it, learn the melodies, and get the harmonic structures of the pieces in your ear;

• YouTube

• Listen to mariachi groups; observe them and their style the next time you’re at a restaurant;

• Ask grandparents and elderly friends what songs they would like to hear you play some time. Listen to and arrange these songs;

• Research popular show tunes, Broadway, Disney, Latino music, Jazz, Asian music, American tunes, Hymns, Irish, Folk, Rap, Pop, Indie music, even commercial jingles; anything imaginable that someone could ever ask you to play;

• Take a class in improvisation

In order for our typically narrow musical field to survive, audiences need to be “hooked in” again. This may not be achieved through performing exclusively classical music. Having a musical awareness to create an initial crossover between musical worlds may be the key to connecting classical music with every facet of society. All that society needs to cross this musical bridge is a bit of positive, familiar exposure with instrumental music. Once you’ve given the “outside audience” something they are comfortable with and enjoy, people may be drawn back into the traditional concert halls out of curiosity, to perhaps eventually again appreciate classical works.

So to all those YouTube-orchestral instrumentalist-cover stars and violinists playing love songs on city-street corners: thank you. You give society the key to the gateway into a rare and masterfully crafted form of music; the music we practice in our universities and conservatories, “common practice period music,” music of the great masters, and works that will open the eyes, take the breath away, and bring hope into the world. It’s our duty to give back to society the kind of music we make as classical musicians. Enhancing our own awareness of every element of music is the most effective way to share the beauty that we create with the world.

Studying Overseas by Chi Lee

Five years ago, when I knew that I had the chance to study in one of the most prominent and diverse countries on the world, I felt my dream had come true. I was overwhelmed by joy and excitement. But now, I still remember the day that I left my parents and sister behind and went on the flight to the United Sates alone to begin my undergraduate study. All I had with me were two suitcases , my viola, tears, and an aching heart.

As an international student, I get to meet lots of friends from all over the world and to explore this new country together, but I also have to deal with culture differences and language issues and take care of myself. As a musician, specifically, I get to meet many great players and terrific teachers.

Here are some great things that I want to share with you about studying overseas, especially as a musician. First of all, there is no better way to learn a foreign language than living and speaking in the native place. Secondly, observing the different culture and interacting with people from another culture enriches your musicality. In addition, learning how to take care of yourself physically and emotionally when you are in a foreign place helps you become a stronger person. Most importantly, you get to experience different teaching styles and school systems. For example, when I was in Taiwan I was expected to do what my teacher told me to do, and I didn’t have to talk a lot during lessons, but I realize that I have to think and ask questions during lessons here. It took me quite a while to get used to the new approach.

On the other hand, here are some things that I would be aware of when studying overseas. First, culture difference might upset you for a while. And there are some moments when I just miss my family and my country so much, but there is nothing I can do about it. Then, traveling with my viola sometimes can become an issue. For example, there was one flight attendant who insisted I leave my viola at the luggage compartment, and I had to argue with the person for a long time before she would let me carry my viola on the plane. Also, the life style of different cites may take you some time to adjust. In my case, I did my undergraduate in New York City, which is one of the busiest and compressed cities in the world. So I had no problem taking public transportation everywhere in the city—doing grocery shopping and so on. When I moved to Houston for my graduate study, I realized that having a car was necessary (and safe) for the daily life here.

Studying overseas is definitely one of my most important life decisions. I am grateful to be at Rice and study with my wonderful teacher, Ivo. If you are planning to explore the world and be a stronger musician, then pick a place where people speak a different language to begin your journey. I have learned so much from studying overseas. It has not only made me a more flexible person but also has colored the music that I make. However, the only thing that I never feel easy to do is to say goodbye to my family and country at the airport every time I am leaving them!

Vaughan Williams’s Romance by Sergein Yap

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

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

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

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

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

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

S1Morning mist in Prussia Cove

S2Cliffs of Cornwall, England

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

Ivo van der Werff:

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

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


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


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

Hartmut Rohde:

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


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

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


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



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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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

The Application Process by Ashley Pelton

As I am approaching the halfway mark of my senior year, I have begun to reflect on the past four years of my life. Each and every one of us has had a wildly different journey at Rice and can share a handful of stories highlighting our experiences. The Owl Chronicles will be a series of posts exploring the lives of Rice undergraduate violists and their growth as musicians and adults since having matriculated at Rice.

It wouldn’t be fair to begin the Owl Chronicles without a post about the application process, especially as application deadlines approach! Before moving to Houston, I too went through the long and arduous process of applying to college. Unfortunately, I would be lying if I said it got easier after April 1. However, with a little self-reflecting, hours and hours of research, and many pros and cons lists, you can make the decision process a little smoother and simpler.

In selecting colleges to apply to, and in April mulling over your acceptances and rejections, I would suggest asking yourself these questions:

• Am I looking for a conservatory, a dual-degree program, a university with a music school, or a university with a music department?

•To what extent are academics important to me, and how much can I honestly balance? How much time do I need and want to practice?

• What kind of extra-curricular activities interest me?

• What qualities am I looking for in a teacher, and will they help me achieve my short- and long-term goals?

• What kind of environment will challenge me and allow me to thrive most?

•Location: How far is it from home? If visiting home is important to you, what is the cost of travelling back and forth? To what extent are the surrounding areas important to me? (Food, cultural events, other schools, work opportunities, etc.)

• What scholarship opportunities and kinds of financial aid are available?

• How much of an emphasis on solo/chamber music/orchestra is important to me?

• Will I be motivated by my peers and the environment around me?

• Could I see myself fitting in here?

• What kinds of resources are available to me?  (Career services, health services, counseling services, physical therapy, etc.)

• Living accommodations? Food? Will I need a car or bike to get around?

This last question is difficult to answer, and I can assure you, how I may have answered this question four years ago is certainly different from how I would answer it now. For most of us, this answer will change and will continue evolving as our lives go on. However, if you have the courage to answer it or already have some ideas in mind, it is worth taking in to consideration:

• What are my long-term career/life goals, and where do I THINK might be the best place to help me achieve these goals?

Most importantly, if you have the opportunity to visit a school, whether it is during an audition or just an ordinary visit, GO!!! I cannot emphasize this more. Your visit to that conservatory or university will tell you infinitely more than any website or brochure you read. At the least, you will be thankful for the insight you gain purely from walking on the campus and interacting with faculty, staff, and students.