Archive for February, 2016

Life before Telemann: Andrew Justice discusses the untold riches of the Baroque viola repertoire.

When people ask me what I play and I tell them Baroque viola, it’s always interesting to see their reaction: casual listeners of classical music will often feign some polite understanding or appreciation, and a few will mention Brandenburg 6. Meanwhile, fellow musicians usually respond as if I had just admitted to being the world’s foremost authority on the music of Mozart’s lesser-known cousin Bill!

Yes: I am a “full-time” Baroque violist.

Of course, I don’t make a living solely off of being a Baroque violist (although I know of a select few who actually do): my day job is music librarianship, which enables me to be more selective with the performance opportunities I pursue– a very fortunate situation indeed.

How I became acquainted with the world of performance practice was pretty standard: my Master’s program required one term of Collegium Musicum. By the second or third class meeting, I realized that the techniques of earlier music caused me to play with less tension and the musical approaches to phrasing and ensemble performance were right up my alley.

Combining that with a growing sense of “how in the world am I going to make a living as a freelance performer and teacher” over the course of my Master’s program, I decided after graduation that I wanted to focus exclusively on performing earlier works using historical approaches. At the same time, my interest in music history and how it intermingles with those techniques motivated me to study musicology at the doctoral level.

Suffice it to say that it didn’t work: the predominant musicological attitude of “Publish or Perish,” and the ensuing lack of emphasis on teaching (and certainly performance,) disillusioned me right out my coursework after only one year. Fortunately, I eventually realized that what I really enjoyed about my year of musicology was all the time I spent in the music library, regardless of content or outcome.

So I ended up getting a job at the Cornell music library and completed a Master’s of Library Science from Syracuse (mostly online). I came to UNT in February 2007 as Music Librarian for Audio and Digital Services and was promoted to Associate Head Music Librarian in 2013; by the time you read this in early 2016, I will have taken up my new post as Head of the Music Library at the University of Southern California.

Working in a library is obviously a huge benefit to my performing career, and vice versa: I can easily find music to play or program and my various gigs introduce me to new repertoire, scholarly studies, recordings and other materials to seek out for my library’s collection.

It also enables me to observe certain trends among college music students, one of which I’ll begin to address with this blog post: the prevalent belief that viola music basically doesn’t exist before the Telemann concerto.

While it’s true that we count this piece as the earliest well-known example of solo writing for our instrument, it is probably not the first and definitely not the only extant resource for understanding the viola in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

First, it’s important to realize that how most of us are taught to think about viola repertoire tends to be a result of the late nineteenth- and twentieth-century “conservatory to concert hall” mindset, where one’s worth as a performer leans more toward how accurately you can play the Prelude and Fugue from the  Bach C-minor Solo Suite than how you contribute an excellent viola voice to Brahms’ Op. 51 Quartet of the same key.

I think this mentality is changing, but at a glacial rate: as long as we can trace our pedagogical tree back to Auer or Joachim or even Corelli, we will probably continue adhering to this solo-centric tradition…or at least until professional concert audiences are regularly outnumbered by the number of performers on stage.

So if the general idea of the viola “coming into its own” as a solo instrument doesn’t really exist until the Brahms sonatas (and even those are problematic: clarinet), how then does it make sense to retroactively impose a twentieth-century notion onto music of 200 or 300 years prior?

Clearly, Stamitz and Rolla didn’t approach the viola in the same manner as Dvořák or Hindemith. However, to go back even further in time from the first two means that one must redefine what a violist (and indeed, the other members of the violin family) actually was in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century string writing.

Our instrument family, alongside that of the viola da gamba, has an early history in the Renaissance-era courts of Italy as a quiet inner voice belonging in a chamber ensemble– the “musique de chambre”– played indoors, in contrast to the militaristic pomp of loud exterior ensembles which included shawms, brass, and drums.

As the seventeenth century developed, ensemble compositions appear by composers like Giovanni Paolo Cima, Dario Castello, and Giovanni Battista Fontana for interchangeable numbers and ranges of instruments…it’s not until later with Corelli and Vivaldi that our instrumental voices become codified into “The Orchestra”.

There is a fair amount of documentary evidence (treatises, employment records, etc.) to support the notion that, if a seventeenth-century violist was available to play a part (which may or may not have laid comfortably on the instrument, to say nothing of clef), they probably did so.

Scholars and performance practitioners alike mostly agree: they worked with what they had.

Exploring this repertoire, playing with ensembles in the alto/tenor role but also reading and transposing music clearly for soprano or bass voices (Uccellini sonatas work quite nicely, as does playing along with basso continuo lines), these are ways of wrapping one’s head around early Baroque string writing.

Moving into the eighteenth century, studying the dedicated viola lines of Corelli, Muffat, and Buxtehude opens up a world of how the “instrument of the middle” can actually drive the overall ensemble…and this is not to mention the orchestral music of Lully!

But seriously: spend some time listening to and studying the scores of Corelli’s Op. 6 concerti grossi, paying close attention to the viola line – it’s not a third violin and it’s not a little cello, the structure would simply fall apart without that voice and I believe it’s because those pieces were written by a string player who keenly understood how the different voices of the violin family did and could work.

The second major factor in this discussion is: how to find repertoire and resources, and I’ll lead off by saying that relying upon free online options like IMSLP is fine, but you’re only seeing part of the picture and you’re tacitly accepting editorial decisions which could be completely wrong.

Grove (also known as the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and/or Grove Music Online) should be a default resource for basically all of us. The articles in both the paper and online versions include comprehensive works lists and bibliographies, which nearly always outperform Wikipedia and other sources in their depth, breadth, and reliability. In the U.S., almost every library with a decent music collection should certainly allow you to access one or both versions.

In addition to Franz Zeyringer’s Literatur für Viola and the Primrose International Viola Archive at BYU, the most valuable resource I’ve found for Baroque- and Classical-era viola music is Michael Jappe’s Viola Bibliographie: das Repertoire für die historische Bratsche von 1649 bis nach 1800.

Organized alphabetically by composer, I usually start with the indexes which include subsections for Solo Viola, Violin-Viola Duos, Viola-Viola duos, etc. The entries for the compositions almost always include manuscript and publication information, as well as incipits; in the past 15 years, I have used this resource to find and program works at least 50 times.

Once you’ve found that something exists, then you need to figure out how to get your hands on it. After searching your local library catalog, you should definitely not forget about WorldCat, which is essentially the largest worldwide database for library holdings.

For any given item, WorldCat will sort the holding libraries so you can either plan a trip or make an Inter-Library Loan request – using the latter, be sure you note the OCLC number for the item, which will guarantee you get the right thing.

It’s extremely important to not give up on the research process, just because you can’t find a PDF of the piece for download within three minutes of searching. Current general thought tells us everything is digital, and that’s simply NOT true…especially when it comes to something as contentious (from a copyright standpoint) as music.

If you’re digging deeper than the Primrose or Katims editions of Bach suites (and you absolutely should, in my opinion) or that tired old Bärenreiter edition of Telemann, you’ll quickly start finding that it requires time spent in a library and/or employing some pretty serious critical thought.

But as the Italians and Spaniards say: vale la pena (it’s worth the pain). There is an entire galaxy of untapped material awaiting the violist who is curious about “life before Telemann”, and you don’t necessarily have to play with historical performance techniques to appreciate this repertoire.

Study scores/parts, listen to recordings, read about the people and places and trends; sink your teeth into it, and feel free to ask for a librarian’s help!

What it’s like to share a stand with Dr. Dubois, by Amber Sander

Have you ever tried the practice technique where you put headphones on and play along with a favorite recording? I think this is a really fun way to shake things up in the practice room, and I always notice an improvement in my sound afterward. I’m not completely clear on why this works but it reminds me of the hilarious rubber hand illusion. For two weeks this December I experienced a live version of this sitting next to Dr. Dubois at a gig. We both had microphones on our instruments and were using in-ear monitors so I could hear her really clearly in one ear. This gave me an entirely new perspective on her playing and I felt like I was having one “ah-ha!” moment after another. This experience has had a profound impact on my playing and I would like to share some of my biggest realizations of what really separates out elite players like Dr. Dubois from the pack.


  1. Every note she plays is beautiful. If you are thinking “I already know that her sound is incredible,” then you’ve missed the point. Every note she plays is beautiful. It does not matter if it’s one lonely 16th note, a fourth finger (my nemesis), an unfortunate series of 5ths, or a whole note repeated for dozens of measures. Every note she plays will be full of life, depth, and character. The commitment to excellence and the level of focus this requires is astounding. I had never realized how many dead notes I let slip by until I pushed myself to follow her lead. It’s exhausting!


  1. Her playing is incredibly consistent and she is very focused, things I struggle with in my own playing. Have you ever had to redo a beautiful recording because you lost focus and made silly mistakes? I sure have and it is really frustrating. A few years ago I realized that this stems from bad habits in my practicing like letting myself get away with zoning out, or thinking about all the other things I need to get done. It is something that I am working to improve, but once again it’s exhausting!


  1. The number of different colors she plays with make Matisse and Van Gogh look like slackers. The analytical type-a part of me wishes we could have a musical version of paint by numbers so I could analyze all of the vibrato and bow control combinations she was using. However, even if something like this did exist it wouldn’t produce the same result because it would be so technical that the music would have no soul. I think this personal connection to the music is the real key. After that it’s just a matter of experimenting with your technique until you find the sound you’re looking for.


  1. She is a total pro. She is always on time, always prepared, always in a good mood, always paying attention, always kind to those around her, etc. I hope someone has shared with you how important these things are. The music world is very small, and you can’t afford to make a bad impression. You never know who will be in a position to hire you in the future… or spy on you at a gig and write about it. Dr. D really impressed me by remembering the names of people she hasn’t seen in years. She makes a point of meeting people she doesn’t know, and treats the aspiring artists the same as the seasoned vets.


  1. She makes mistakes just like the rest of us… thank goodness! These mistakes are far and few between, but what I noticed is that she doesn’t make a big production about it. There is no dramatic face or sigh, and she doesn’t let it taint the music coming up. Mistakes are simply marked and never missed again.


So what was it like to share a stand with Dr. Dubois? It was so much fun to spend this time with her, and it was really inspiring. Watching Dr. Dubois out of the corner of my eye was like having a silent lesson every day. I would hear her do something that I liked and then watch her hands to see how she did it. I made two little tweaks to my hand position and vibrato, and am sounding better than ever! Thanks for the tune up Dr. D!


Introducing Amber Sander

Amber Sander HeadshotWhat is your name?

Amber Sander

Where are you from?

I grew up in Lubbock, TX.

How are you connected to the UNT viola studio?

I am an alumna.  I had the wonderful opportunity to serve as the Teaching Fellow from 2008-2010, and completed my DMA in 2013.

Who is your favorite violist? 

I really love the richness and depth of Roberto Diaz’s playing. I have never studied with him and have never even had an opportunity to hear him play live, but  I always find inspiration when I listen to his recordings.

Did you choose the viola, or did the viola choose you?

Technically both, however I think that the viola came looking for me. The day before I signed up to  play the viola I had never even heard of it!  My first orchestra teacher came to my elementary school and played for us. I was dazzled by the instruments and knew I had to learn to play.  I signed up immediately and never looked back. I still remember sitting outside of the school after our first class and plucking hot crossed buns for my friends. I am so thankful that I wasn’t absent from school the day the viola came looking for me!

Do you have any skills that your studio members wouldn’t know about?

I can wiggle my ears! This is completely useless but can be very amusing.

What made you want to pursue music as a career other than a hobby?

When I started playing viola at the age of 12 I was a shy and awkward kid that couldn’t quite find my place in the world. Discovering the viola for me was like finding a missing puzzle piece under the couch. All of a sudden I was complete. Playing the viola gave me a sense of purpose and belonging. It helped me find my voice and my place in the world, and most importantly it helped me develop a deep inner confidence that I desperately needed. I never actually made a decision to become a professional musician. As  I went through my studies there was an evolution from amateur to young artist that happened very organically. When it was time to apply for college I was already working as a musician and there was no question in my mind what my major would be.


If you could play any non-viola piece, what would it be?

I would really love to learn to play jazz. The creativity and soulfulness in jazz really speaks to me, and I think jazz viola sounds incredible.


Who has been the most influential musician in your life?

I am so thankful for Jeff Irvine at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He took a big risk by accepting me into his studio because when I auditioned for my master’s degree at CIM I had major technical gaps in my playing that were seriously holding me back.  He saw potential in me, knew I was a hard worker, and accepted me despite those problems. Irv helped me begin the process of deconstructing my playing and filling in the holes. He was there for me when this process broke me down emotionally, and he helped me get my first job which I loved. He is also one of the kindest and most generous people I have ever known. He changed my life and I am so grateful.

What is your favorite memory, thus far, of being a musician?

Before I started college I dreamed of becoming famous. I don’t mean that  I wanted to be like Yo-Yo Ma or Itzhak Perlman, classical artists who have become household names across the world. I wanted to have a tour bus with my name on it, a private jet, a hair and makeup team, and play every night to sold out crowds with thousands of people screaming my name. What I had imagined  for myself would be today’s equivalent of being Adele, Beyoncé, or any other top 40 mega-star. My bubble was quickly burst when I realized that there isn’t a market this big for Brahms Viola Sonatas.  However that doesn’t mean I haven’t gotten to taste that life. When you work as a freelance artist, sometimes you have an opportunity to play with mega-stars like this when their tour comes through your area. I have gotten to do concerts like this several times, and I love being a part-time rockstar! One of my favorite memories as a musician was the very first time I played a show like this. It was for Kanye West’s Touch the Sky Tour. Because of the staging I got to be the first one to walk out on stage. As soon as I was visible 20,000 people began wildly cheering. I knew they were excited to see Kanye West, but in that moment I pretended they were cheering just for me. Afterwards people begged for our autographs… which we happily gave! It was a dream come true for my inner child, and I will certainly never forget it.


Have you ever had a viola crisis? How did you deal with it?

I actually laughed out loud when I read this question. YES, I have had many viola related crises in my life. Both in the literal sense… broken viola the day before a concert, and the figurative sense… career crisis. These things will happen to you too, and you will make it through it. Making it through the broken instrument crises is fairly easy. Make sure you have instrument insurance, and a good relationship with an instrument shop or friend that you can borrow from in a pinch. If the worst happens and your instrument breaks during a concert, do the best you can to make it work. If that’s really not an option, you really have no choice but to laugh it off like Yuri Bashmet did in this famous viola fail.

Making it through the career crisis is much harder. Before I tell you my story you need to understand one of the fundamental things about me. I like stability and schedules and plans, and I need to work full time to feel balanced and safe.  Many people love the freedom and variety of being a freelance musician and make a great living as a freelancer. I in no way seek to belittle their work. We are all different and that what works for one person may not work for another. You know the saying about round pegs and square holes right? … Now on to my story.

I had two mini career crises when I was in school where I was worried that I would never be able to get a job, and one major career crisis after graduating where I was swimming in the shark tank of people trying to get jobs. This is a rough business and struggle is unfortunately part of it. Full time positions are extremely difficult to come by, and the process of trying to land one of them can physically, mentally, and emotionally wreck you. It can also be a years-long process. For the first time in my life I found myself questioning whether being a musician was worth it or not. I started looking for new careers and even sent in several applications. Living through this was awful, and I am so glad that it’s in the past. What got me through it were my incredible family, friends, and mentors who so patiently talked with me every time I needed them. They couldn’t make the crisis end but they made it bearable. The crisis ended when I started my current job as a Suzuki Strings specialist for a the Hurst Euless Bedford school district, which I greatly enjoy. I gained the stability I need to feel balanced and safe, but I also still have time to practice and perform. It really is the best of both worlds and I am very happy now.

Introducing Andrew Justice, former Associate Head Music Librarian at UNT

What is your name?

Andrew Justice1779722_10152806287841011_45770707839496034_n

Where are you from?

Born in Los Angeles, grew up in Oregon

How are you connected to the UNT Viola Studio?

I am the Associate Head Music Librarian at UNT and am also a professional Baroque violist.

Did you choose the viola, or did the viola choose you?

Having started on violin at age 6, people began suggesting a switch to viola as I filled out my 6′ 4″ frame / wingspan / hand size; I resisted this notion for quite some time, as I thought of the violin as my instrument and wanted to explore more repertoire / technical challenges. In the second half of my Bachelor’s degree, however, I started playing viola in symphony, then I divided my senior recital between viola and violin, and by the time I started my Master’s degree, I was a full-time violist.

Tell us about your viola! Who made it? How did you come to play this instrument? Does it have a name?

My viola was made by Howard Sands of Eagle Point, Oregon in 1996; I purchased it during my senior year of undergrad. Over the years, I’ve switched out the modern bridge and tailpiece for Baroque versions, but otherwise it’s a modern instrument which has served me quite well in various performance situations.

Who is your favorite violist? (To listen to or as a mentor)

It really depends on the era and genre, but I find myself listening to a fair amount of Kashkashian for 20th c., Dutton & Tree for quartets, and Primrose for historical recordings. Wolfram Christ’s recording of the Bartók concerto (especially the second movement) specifically inspired me to study that piece. My teachers/mentors on viola were Marlan Carlson at Oregon State University and Leslie Straka at the University of Oregon. Both taught me incredibly important lessons, in vastly different ways.

If you could only play the works of one composer for the rest of your life, who would you choose and why?

That’s such a hard question to answer, but my gut (no pun intended) says Arcangelo Corelli; if you’ve ever played any of the Op. 6 Concerti Grossi, you know why. There’s something about his experience as a violinist, combined with 17th-c. harmonic techniques that just gets to me…in the right hands, performances of Corelli can be wildly exciting from a string/bow technique standpoint and then simply wreck your heart with simple chord changes in the slower movements.

What is your favorite piece to play?

I’ll have to put my foot down here and say: I can’t answer that. I will say, however, that I usually find at least one piece or movement or phrase or even moment on every program that I really try to sink into and suck all the marrow out of, because there’s almost always something, and what’s the point of doing all of this if you’re not going enjoy it to that level?

If you could play any non-viola piece, what would it be and why?

Instead of piece, I’ll say instrument: drums, because the coordination it requires is something different than strings or winds or keyboards, and as I get older I find myself focusing on the drums when I listen to [non-classical] music.

Do you come from a musical family?

Yes, my parents were always involved in church choirs (my dad used to direct; my mom sings basically all the time) and my stepfather played LP records when I was very young, which probably explains why I asked to learn violin at age 3 and now work with all kinds of sound recordings, both digital and analog.

What are your career goals?

To have a long and successful career as a music librarian and continue performing as a Baroque violist until my hands and/or ears will no longer allow me to do so.

What made you want to pursue music as a career rather than as a hobby?

When I was a senior in high school and contemplating my college/career path, I basically had to decide between music and being recruited to play college football — for me, it was never really a possibility to do anything other than music. Ever since I was young, I’ve basically lived music so studying it in college was an incredibly easy decision.

If you couldn’t be in music, what career would you choose?

Maybe something with computers or technology, maybe teaching. Or maybe living off the grid and growing all my own food, hiking and other outdoor pursuits, etc.

If you could take a lesson from any person, alive or deceased, who would it be and why?

I’d be really interested to see what Stamitz played like, or Mozart…maybe Joachim. I think we would all be surprised to see/hear what they REALLY played like, and it could seriously change how we approach music of those eras.

Who has been the most influential musician in your life?

Marc Vanscheeuwijck, musicologist and Baroque cellist at the University of Oregon: he speaks several languages, can lecture just as easily about art history as music history, plays Baroque cello like a house on fire, cooks some incredibly delicious meals and is easily the most approachable and intelligent person I know.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

I like to play with clean hands, nothing too obsessive but just a simple wash before I pick up the instrument. Sometimes I have a banana, sometimes a bowl of pasta with a modest glass of red wine. Because I’ve been performing since I was 6 (started with Suzuki), I’ve never really had an issue with stage fright or nervousness.

What is your favorite memory, thus far, of being a musician?

Ha, like that’s possible to answer fairly — probably the most recent high point was performing with Manfredo Kraemer, who can do things you wouldn’t believe with the shortest Baroque bow you’ve ever seen. He’s one of those people who you feel like playing Twinkle with would be a life-changing experience…they don’t come around often, though, so enjoy it while you can!

Do you have any skills or hidden talents your fellow studio members wouldn’t know about?

Most of my colleagues (library or music) probably don’t know that I really enjoy cooking and baking; I’m not a superstar or anything, but I have received compliments on my pasta dishes, homemade pizza (with dough), grilling skills, and apple pie.

Introducing Rui Li



What is your name?

My name is Rui Li.

Where are you from?

I am from China, Liaoning Province. It is located in the northeast of the country. I earned my Bachelor of Music degree at Central Conservatory of Music, in Beijing and my Master of Music degree at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

How are you connected to the UNT Viola Studio?

I am currently a first year student in the Doctor of Musical Arts program at UNT.

Did you choose the viola, or did the viola choose you?

I began on the violin at the age of 6. However, at the age of 12, I went to a viola recital. After that, I decided to change to viola because I love the warmer sound and C string.

What is your favorite piece to play?

It is hard to choose, but I would say Hindemith Op.11 No.4. The beginning of the first movement has a dreamy and calm mood because of the lyrical melody. I love it so much.

What are your career goals?

I would like to be employed as a professional orchestra violist and become an instructor at a university.

If you couldn’t be in music, what career would you choose?

Music is my life. If I chose another career, I think I would be a medical doctor because I want to help people around me and take care of them.

If you could take a lesson from any person, alive or deceased, who would it be and why?

William Primrose. After reading this book “Playing the Viola: Conversations with William Primrose”, I wish I could have had a lesson with him. Also, I can learn from every person because everyone has something unique to offer.

Who has been the most influential musician in your life?

My most important musical influences have been my mentors, specifically the teacher I studied with for my undergraduate degree, Wing Ho.

Do you have any skills or hidden talents your fellow studio members wouldn’t know about?

I love cooking especially Chinese food. There are “Eight Culinary Cuisines” in China. I am especially good at cooking spicy food. I hope I can cook those for my friends in the future.


Welcome back, and welcome to “From the Studio” 2016!

Dear Readers,

UNT’s Viola Studio has been teeming with activity since the beginning of the year. We’ve taken a winter recess to update some features of the blog, and are excited that you can now subscribe to “From the Studio” and receive the blog in your email account directly, every time we publish a new post. Thanks to Allan Lee for helping me incorporate this feature into the blog! Look to your right– the subscription box is right there…add your email, confirm, and voilà…viola happiness should flow into your inbox!

New Year’s brings change and new beginnings. As of January, we have said goodbye to two important members of our viola community, who have moved on to new positions and cities, so I will start this semester by sharing their contributions and wishing them well in all their new endeavors. We begin with DMA student Rui Li, who has moved to join her husband in Houston for the year. And we’ll continue with Andrew Justice, who recently left UNT to begin an exciting new post as Head of the Music Library at the University of Southern California.

UNT is big and keeps us busy, busy, busy…in the last two weekends alone we have heard auditions from dozens of new string applicants, (including several wonderful violists from all over the world!) We’ll soon catch you up to the concerts that have taken place…(next week we will reach concert #600 for the school year already…!) ….and this week many students and faculty will leave excitedly to attend TMEA in San Antonio. There is never a dull moment (and hopefully never a dull viola sound…!!)

Happiest wishes as 2016 Spring semester flies by…. We hope you will continue to enjoy sharing in the life of our viola studio!