Archive for November, 2015

A Master Class with Sheila Browne, viola professor at UNCSA, by Kathleen Crabtree

Internationally-acclaimed violist Sheila Browne is Artist-Associate Professor of Viola and Director of the UNCSA Karen Tuttle Viola Workshop, which takes place January 9-11, 2016. She visited the UNT Viola Studio recently to conduct a masterclass, give an interview, and play a recital. Read on for her keen insights on Brahms, Bartók, and more!IMG_0681


To begin the class, the first performer, Jorge Luis Zapata Marin, performed Henri Vieuxtemps’ Elegie. Ms. Browne encouraged him to explore the different characters of the piece, especially evident in the register changes and distinct voicing. She noted that his pacing could undergo another look: when looking at the music, the tempo can be pushed and pulled, like a rubber band. She encouraged him to set the scene for the drama by keeping the musical line rising, so the audience could ride the “wave of tension” he created, and to darken the flats– play them flatter, to make the most expressive inflections sadder–bringing out  “your blues note”– that special moment that makes the phrase.

In the second half of their session Jorge and Sheila worked on releasing tension in his lower body. Much to the enjoyment of those present in the hall, they did squats (while still holding the viola in place), and folded in half, looking upside-down at the back wall. Ms. Browne explained that this exercise was to keep his hips loose, so that his left hand could release easier. With that in mind, she moved to his vibrato, mentioning exercises with the wrist in, practicing oscillations between two notes with  a falling back motion. She reminded Jorge that above all, the hand must not be rigid. She told him to  “contain the vibrato energy at the beginning, then let it bloom” as the phrase developed. For the vibrato to achieve that full bloom, they noticed Jorge needed to release his neck more, and that he needed to play on the fullest part of each fingertip in the left hand, for the lushest possible contact with the string.


Next was Josip Kvetek, who played Paganini’s Sonata per la Grand’ Viola. Ms. Browne urged him to “ham it up” even more, like sprinkling cayenne pepper onto his interpretation. Instead of a passage being dolce, think of a stronger word like “flirtatious” to make a powerful statement. Another way to think about the different voices in this piece would be to mimic an instrument such as an oboe or clarinet for one phrase, or even a little bird. Paganini uses the viola’s entire range in this piece, especially very high on the A string (Sheila referred to it as the “dog pitch register”!) She noted that it is easy to forget to sing through these passages, as violists are usually uncomfortable playing so high up on the fingerboard. One of the strongest take-aways of the master class was what she said to Josip at this point: “Your top priority is to keep things musical, no matter what hoops you’re being asked to jump through. That’s just a classy way to operate.”

Josip’s natural, shimmering vibrato gave his playing a lovely sound, but Sheila Browne cautioned that his articulation was overcome by his vibrato. While the composer writes in many characters, some do not need such an operatic quality. The big picture must be taken into account, so it is important not to “give it all away” to the audience too soon. Above all else, Ms. Browne asked Josip to remember that the bow shows more than the left hand and vibrato, so focusing on the right hand will yield more favorable results.

Ethan Rouse then took the stage to perform the first movement of Brahms’ f-minor Sonata, Op. 120, no.1. To begin, Ms. Browne shared a concept by Leon Fleisher – that every composer has a certain “viscosity”. To her ears, Ethan’s interpretation was too “watery” and bouncy. Brahms’ textures call for a thicker, caramel-like feeling. Sheila encouraged Ethan to think more about the darker overtones that set the mood for this section of the movement, because it wasn’t coming across as “held and mysterious” enough. Then, in what proved to be a theme for the day’s masterclass, she again referred to the contrasting characters of the movement. The rich harmonies give clues to where the character changes, as well as the octave shifts. And just like working with Jorge on his physicality, she encouraged Ethan to loudly exclaim, “Hey!” during the rests that preceded subsequent entrances. This expulsion of air aided in feeling the music in a distinct way, so that there was a clearly defined articulation at the beginning of first notes, and a clearer rhythmic impetus to the gestures.


The last performer of the day was Edwardo Rios, playing the first movement of the Bartók concerto. Sheila commented first that the hardest thing to manage while performing is to “put on the brakes to help yourself nail something” as instead he was doing the opposite. When echoing a phrase, the performer must remember that “cooling down” a passage is just as important as singing out in a full forte. Conversely, she admonished Edwardo to re-consider the dynamics in this concerto: a piano is soloistic, more like a speaking voice level; pianissimo, however, is akin to a whisper.

She asked Edwardo for an adjective to describe the opening, and he responded with, “mysterious.” By magnifying that word, she replied, we can achieve a clearer understanding of the beginning and therefore, communicate the phrase more successfully. “Despondent” and “desolate” reveal another level of emotion, perhaps closer to the feelings Bartók experienced while writing the piece. The concerto can be interpreted as having moments of loneliness and hopelessness to mirror the emotions the composer endured while dying of cancer. The prominent tri-tone, especially evident in the opening solo phrase, needs to be emphasized to clue the audience in to these feelings.

Great masterclasses not only encourage performers, but also inspire those in the audience on their own musical journeys. Sheila Browne’s masterclass accomplished just that. Her thoughtful comments showed true mastery in the analysis of soloistic viola playing, from delving deeper into the possibilities of phrasing and becoming acquainted with a piece’s historical context, to identifying tension in one’s physicality and exploring the full range of emotions available to bring a piece to life. Ms. Browne utilized these techniques to great effect in her own recital with harpist Jacqueline Bartlett later that night. Her refreshing interpretations of both classic and new repertoire, along with shrewd thoughts on performing, made for a successful and sweet stay in Denton that the studio won’t soon forget!



An interview with Sheila Browne, by Kathleen Crabtree

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During Sheila Browne’s recent visit to Denton, I had the opportunity to interview her over coffee. We covered everything from the world-wide decline of the honeybee and the geographical spread of dianthus flowers (or pinks, from which her Fire Pink Trio derived its name), to traveling (she toured China with the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra in eighth grade as its youngest member), and the intricacies of putting out an album (these days, one does not simply and quickly acquire funding for a CD). Read on for a fascinating look into the life of one of the premiere violists of today.

Kathleen: You’re from Philadelphia, have dual citizenship in the United States and Ireland, and live in North Carolina. Where do you consider “home?”

Sheila Browne: I will always be from Philadelphia. There’s no question in my mind that that’s where my most formative years were spent. When I was growing up there, Philadelphia was a mecca for violists – Primrose, Karen Tuttle, Joseph DePasquale, and Kim Kashkashian were all there. Philadelphia as a city was totally seminal in setting up my values. It’s a nice city because it has more of a local feel even though it’s big, but it’s not New York. My dad’s side of the family is from New York – Brooklyn, Queens, all the five boroughs. I grew up spending a lot of time in New York, so those northeastern cities for me are very much a part of who I am. These are colorful places where you can walk down the street and see people from twenty-five different countries on one block.
In North Carolina, I live on a farmette with four acres. I’m a homey person. Since my mom grew up on a farm, I’ve always been fascinated by that lifestyle that is disappearing. I’ve always loved being outdoors, and I love animals. So a few years ago, I decided to move outside the city – I have one goat, four chickens (down from seventeen, after one of my two dogs decided that she likes to kill chickens). And I had a potbelly mini-pig – Cosmo – but he passed away this summer.
K: Were your parents musicians?
SB: My dad was a rocket scientist – a chemical engineer. But he listened to classical music constantly. My mother grew up with a piano in her house and she also played organ. So my sister and I grew up hearing her play piano, and she started us playing it at 5 and 6. We took to it very quickly because we loved it and thought it was so amazing that our mother could play piano, so we wanted to play it too. And my dad was all for it. We had a lot of creativity in the house – we also did drama, dance classes, and visual arts. My mom made sure that we were exposed to all these different types of art forms.
K: Since you had this rich cultural upbringing, did you imagine yourself going into the arts from a young age, or did you originally want to follow your dad into science?
SB: I was always more arts-oriented. I really enjoyed physics, which of course is so important to teaching and understanding how to play the viola. But I guess I always just loved the creative stuff. My sister very quickly surpassed me at piano because I never wanted to practice, and she always did. She got to go play outside because she had already done her hour of practicing, and I was still inside the house, whining that my mother was telling me to practice!
In the Philly suburbs (Main Line) school system, you got to pick an orchestral instrument to play in the 4th grade, and I picked viola because it was a really beautiful name. And then I had something to do that was my own: not my sister’s, not my mother telling me what to do, and that was very important to me, because I was always very independent, so it gave me a focal point where I could blossom on my own. And by the time I was in 8th or 9th grade, it was very clear that I wanted to pursue viola.
K: You’ve been in quartets, you do recitals alone and with your Fire Pink Trio, you’re an educator. What are your goals moving forward, and what do you think – or want – your legacy to be?
SB: Ah, the “L” word! I love the varied diet I have. I want to be known as a great teacher and a great player. I also want to be known for expanding the repertoire and to do a lot more recordings. We’ve all turned to recordings when we’re learning something. And I love listening to them to hear what other people have done, and it’s always fascinating to me to see how one artist solves a technical problem. To see what each individual brings to the table, is of course, why we love going to live performances, isn’t it? So YouTube is very helpful for that, and I definitely want to get more pieces on YouTube.
I love to do transcriptions, and they’re always great, but people don’t even think of the viola as a viable option. I think a lot of people have stereotypes about what a violist is or what the viola can do. Expecting respect and not getting it out of ignorance…it can be daunting. How many times do we get asked what instrument is in our case? And that’s where we’re starting from.
K: I had a guy ask me once if I had a tuba in my case.
SB: He knew what a tuba was, but not a viola?!
K: That’s our “norm;” that’s what we have to put up with.
SB: Yes. And one of these days, the world will find out what a viola is.There’s something about it that speaks to the human condition. It doesn’t have to be brilliant and flashy and showy all the time in order to be self-satisfying. It’s a very earthy instrument, and in our lives, we definitely need more of that as modern people. I cross my fingers and really hope that one day, there will be a shift and people will start to discover something that is so helpful for humanity. I wish I had some sort of master plan to put that into effect! At a meeting once when I was on the board of the American Viola Society, I said, “The other day, I was at the store and saw G-clef pasta. Maybe we can get C-clef pasta!”
K: You mentioned earlier about your pig Cosmo passing away this last summer. The death of a pet is, as we know, very traumatic just like any other tragedy. And you had to play a concert that night. How do you approach the mentality of “the show much go on” under those circumstances?
SB: Music has always been an incredible emotional outlet for me. And it is where we turn when there’s no where else to go. As a civilization, we turn to music because it provides an emotional connection when we need it most. So when you’re going through something personal as a performer, that can be the hardest time to open up, but sometimes it can be the easiest. It depends on the situation and the work you’re going to perform. But many times for me, it ends up being a kind of salve that helps to comfort me. In these situations, you don’t necessarily want to be in front of people, baring your soul, but it shows something incredible about us – a testament that you are still standing upright, with your bow in hand. It’s a testament to life – that life goes on. As hard as that may be, it is a step in the process to getting through it. It is who you are and what you do.
K: So do you draw inspiration from those times?
SB: Absolutely! As violists, we have so much sad music. And there is something about the nature, or at least, one side of the viola, that does draw out those emotions. There’s great beauty in that. We live in a society where everyone wants to be happy and pleasant all the time. Life is full of “negative” emotions, but we don’t have to classify them that way. People are afraid to talk about fear and anger, but it’s all part of the human condition. If we all spent the time acknowledging the fact that we have these emotions, we would be in a better place. So that’s what the stage can be good for – drawing out those sorts of emotions that no one wants to touch.
I thanked Ms. Browne for her time and we hurried off to the afternoon masterclass. I felt so lucky to get a glimpse into her mind and creative process. As a student, it seems as though people are constantly telling me what we as musicians can or can’t do (“You won’t make money at this profession unless you play in an orchestra!” Or, “Viola soloists don’t exist,” etc.) Yet, our time together proved that you can indeed have it all and stay grounded. Passion for performance, while pushing the limits of how violists are imagined, makes for a fulfilling, thrilling, and successful life.

El primer “Post” de Ruben, en Español

unnamedHemos pensado que para nuestros lectores hispanohablantes seria interesante ofrecer traducciones de algunos de nuestros “posts.” Gracias a Jorge Zapata Marin tenemos hoy el primer aquí. Buen provecho, y dejen sus comentarios!

Dra. Gerling


“Ser parte de un cuarteto de cuerdas es una de las experiencias mas gratificantes que cualquier músico de cuerdas puede tener.

Hay algo muy especial en ser un músico de cámara y es que se debe compartir y transmitir. No es solo transmitir tus ideas personales, sino también combinarlas con las ideas de los otros tres miembros de el cuarteto y así crear un solo discurso o expresión musical.

Tengo la maravillosa oportunidad de hacer música de cámara en La Universidad de North Texas con el cuarteto de cuerdas Bancroft (Bancroft String Quartet). Ser parte de este cuarteto es una de las becas remuneradas que ofrece UNT para los estudiantes en el nivel de maestría. Ver la carta de aceptación junto con la beca fue como un sueño hecho realidad. Finalmente conseguí lo que siempre había querido: tocar en un Cuarteto de Cuerdas, aprender nuevo repertorio y tener un salario por hacerlo. VIVIENDO UN SUEÑO. Sin embargo, esto no es y a sido sencillo. Aprendí rápidamente que hay muchos factores que pueden hacer de este trabajo algo complicado, como: limitaciones de tiempo, aprender diferentes estilos, diferencias personales, comunicación, y algo tan simples como la vida en general!.

El año pasado fue mi primer año en el cuarteto y definitivamente fue un aprendizaje. En los cuartetos que hice parte anteriormente fueron formados con amigos como una forma de esparcimiento y diversión, pero ser parte de un cuarteto como este es una sensación diferente, es como ser parte de un matrimonio arreglado; no conocía ha nadie en el cuarteto, yo era el mas joven, era el único estudiante de maestría (los otros eran estudiantes de doctorado) y claro…, era el chico nuevo. Ésta también fue mi primera vez experimentando las barreras de el idioma ya que cada integrante hablaba una lengua diferente. En fin hubo algunos obstáculos para nosotros y no solo por el idioma, también por la dinámica de el cuarteto, en el cual un integrante puede cambiar en cualquier momento. Como dije antes, esto afecta un ensamble. Para nosotros, no es solo nuestra evolución como grupo, sino también nuestro desarrollo individual. El año pasado en mi opinión, fue un exitoso año de aprendizaje, crecimiento y de hacer música con nuevos amigos y colegas.

Este es mi segundo año en el cuarteto y ya no soy el mas joven, el único haciendo maestría y no soy el nuevo chico. Este año, hay dos integrantes nuevos en el Bancroft y la dinámica de el grupo ha cambiado. Podremos tener algunos de los mismos problemas que el año pasado, pero también habrán nuevas y diferentes situaciones para experimentar ya que la mitad de el grupo es nuevo. Los ensayos ya empezaron y cada uno esta encontrando su única voz en la música, a la vez como la de el cuarteto. Estoy ansioso por aprender de cada uno de ellos, hacer increíble música, y compartir con ustedes nuestro diario vivir como el Cuarteto de cuerdas Bancroft durante este año.

Hasta la próxima.