Archive for the ‘Pedagogy’ Category

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!


Ashley Salinas introduces the teaching of String Methods Class

IMG_2267Greetings fellow violists!

In my undergraduate studies at Sam Houston State University, Dr. Matthew McInturf (Director of Bands and the Center for Music Education) once asked the class, “Performance majors, raise your hands. Guess what? You will be teaching someday in addition to your performing engagements. Education majors, raise your hands. Guess what? You will still have to perform in addition to your teaching responsibilities.” His message was clear: just because you are majoring in one subject field does not mean your future work will be limited to only that subject. Several of my non-string-playing classmates from SHSU have indeed ended up in front of an orchestra class.

Although my major field of study shifted from music education to performance when I started at UNT, I believe that the ability to effectively teach greatly impacts my own approach to problem solving in the practice room. So here I am, two performance degrees later and teaching a strings class (MUAG 1121) for music education majors. Dr. McInturf was right!

Functional knowledge of all instruments is an important factor in the success of any instrumental music teacher; an understanding of the basic principles of string playing will greatly enhance the effectiveness as a music educator, conductor, or composer/arranger. My central goal of this class is to prepare music education students for teaching basic string instrumental techniques in the individual and heterogeneous class settings.

By the end of the semester students will demonstrate basic performance skills on one string instrument, understand terminology unique to string performance, demonstrate an understanding of fingerboard geography (in the first position) and the relationship of pitches across strings. Additionally, my students will have experience teaching each other and be able to diagnose and remediate common technical problems in string playing. Each student is required to compile a final notebook that will serve as a professional resource.

IMG_2264Strings class is offered to a variety of undergraduate students– mostly music education students (all instrumental and vocal areas), a few miscellaneous jazz, composition, and theory majors, and, on occasion, a non-music student who wishes to learn a string instrument for elective credit. Many students are excited to open the case and begin to make their first sounds! Some students catch on quite quickly, while others struggle to find comfort holding this foreign object– it depends on the level of physical awareness and similarity they have through their own major instruments.

Since many of my students are picking up a string instrument for the first time, I begin the first few weeks of the semester simulating a beginner string orchestra class through a combination of Essential Elements for Strings (Robert Gillespie, Michael Allen, and Pamela Tellejohn Hayes), Mastery for Strings: A Longitudinal Sequence of Instruction for School Orchestras, Studio Lessons, and College Method Courses (William Dick and Laurie Scott), and Strategies for Teaching Strings: Building a Successful String and Orchestra Program (Donald L. Hamann and Robert Gillespie).

Being a violist gives me a great advantage in teaching other instruments. We, as violists, spend so many hours critically analyzing sound production across the wide tessitura of the viola (bridging the gap between cello and violin) and, as an active performer, I have found myself analyzing how my string playing colleagues achieve tone. Since viola is so similar to violin (which I began my own musical studies on), this is physically the easiest part of teaching the course; the similarities between viola and cello are helpful (i.e. I only have to modify fingerings); bass, on the other hand, is a whole different ballgame and requires my attention more than the other instruments. In contrast, I feel that being able to play basic patterns on each instrument benefits my own physical awareness and flexibility in producing sound on the viola.

As a viola performance major, I have had to better manage my practice time in order to maintain my bass and cello playing chops. I also have to keep in mind that not too long ago I was in my student’s shoes (balancing multiple ensemble commitments, heavy academic course loads, professional performances and private teaching opportunities, and personal practice time) while maintaining reasonable, yet rigorous, standards for what each student needs to know when they finish with this course.

I absolutely love teaching this class! Observing student’s progress through the semester is gratifying, especially when a student who has been struggling finally understands the technique being presented. I enjoy watching my students interact, observe, and teach each other. I also love the possibility of engaging students who are eager to learn and aren’t afraid to ask questions. On a personal note, my greatest success so far while teaching this course has been balancing classroom teaching and my own viola practice, even if it means arriving on campus before 8AM!


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!