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Michael Capone on Getting Organized

Hi everyone – my name is Michael Capone, and throughout the year, I’ll be sharing some of my reflections on a couple different topics. First, as the Teaching Fellow for our viola studios this school year, I’ll be teaching about ten students each semester who are either working on music degrees with a concentration in viola as their primary instrument, or who are working on non-music degrees but still wanting to take lessons during their college career. Second, my passion for new music has informed many of my activities at UNT, and I’ll be sharing some of the viola-related new music events that are happening at the University.

        I’ve found that there’s always a bit of a frenzy at the beginning of each new school year. Whether you’re moving to a new location as you start off your first college experience, or if you’ve been in college for years and are just ready to kick off your last first day of class, there’s usually some shuffling that has to go on. You’re busy deciding when your lesson and coachings should fall each week, figuring out what repertoire to tackle next, trying to remember where to shift in your F#-minor scale, getting to know a new chamber group… the list goes on and on!

        Although the semester has already begun for us at UNT, and we have started to settle into a groove, I’m finding that I’m still getting all my materials set and organized so I can have a successful year. This is the first semester in which I’m not just thinking about my own schedule and my own needs – I am teaching students this semester too! Fortunately, some of these students were (and are) also my classmates, so at least I already knew their names and personalities, and had some ideas as to what everyone would need from me as a teacher. Right away, it has become apparent that one of the many things that will be essential for my success is to stay as organized as possible.

        I come from a background in Viola Performance and Music Education, so thankfully, this is not my first semester teaching. It is, however, my first experience teaching at the collegiate level, and right away, I realized that I had never before taught so many students with different needs in terms of musicality, technical prowess, and career goals. I had to come up with a way to keep track of each of my students – although, realistically, ten is not that enormous a number – and their goals, dreams, and experiences. Additionally, I have to know what my own goals and expectations are for each of my students as well!

        Before I began teaching lessons, I started by gathering information from each of my students. This information ranged from “housekeeping” questions (What’s your major? What does your schedule include this semester? Do you have a preferred weekly lesson time?) to more inspired, personal questions. (What are your goals for this semester? For the year? For your career? Are there pieces that are on your wish list? What pieces have you enjoyed playing recently?)

        Getting this kind of information from everyone allowed me to feel extremely comfortable as I began teaching. Not only could I keep track of everyone’s schedule and begin fitting lessons into my own schedule, but I could also already start to form plans for what our first lessons together would look like. A student wants to start the Arpeggione Sonata? I had better start listening to more recordings and make sure I have my own ideas about fingerings, bowings, and style – I need to give myself a refresher on what I already know of that piece. Another student really enjoys playing duets and wants to get into a university orchestra? Great! I can find some level-appropriate duets to start working on ensemble playing fundamentals, no problem.

        Everyone has his or her own method of keeping all of this information organized. I have found it immensely helpful to get a huge binder with dividers for each student. At the front, I include all of the general studio documents – contact lists, attendance records, handouts, etc. Each student has his or her own section with a folder for their current repertoire, class schedules, and goals. I also include about twenty or so sheets of loose-leaf paper to write down weekly lesson progress, notes, and assignments. This allows me to easily look back over the course of the month and see what we’ve worked on, what the week’s assignments were, and therefore, what my expectations will be for the next lessons. Reviewing these sheets before each lesson and throughout the week also allows me to assess my own teaching. Am I addressing the topics for each week thoroughly and clearly? Am I consistent from student to student with my expectations of preparedness? Have I addressed something with one student that might also apply or be helpful to another?

        Though this is only week 5 of my teaching, I am finding that staying organized like this has already been a foundation for my success. Keeping close contact with students, communicating effectively about their wishes and needs, being clear about expectations, and tracking one’s own teaching are the basic tools of any teacher, regardless of subject matter. Surely I will continue to learn more about how to be an even more effective teacher as the year develops. I’m looking forward to sharing more with you soon!


Teaching in Brazil, Part 3: The National Viola Competition of Paraíba



The final component of the I Encontro Nacional de Violistas in Brazil was the Concurso Nacional de Violas, a competition for young violists, with three grand prizes: a master’s degree scholarship to Valdosta State University, a performance with the Paraíba Symphony Orchestra, and a beautiful bow crafted by Brazilian maker Willian DeMarchi. I had the pleasure of being a judge for this competition, whose five finalists played extremely well. I was also truly impressed by the integrity and excellent work ethic of my fellow judges. Every aspect of the competition went extremely smoothly, and should be a credit to viola competitions anywhere. Given what one hears lately about the shenanigans of international competitions, I found this really refreshing, and was proud of my colleagues for doing such a great job.

Here is a picture of the three prize winners, Gabriel Polycarpo (Concerto prize), Jessé Pereira (Bow prize), and Fábio Saggin (Valdosta prize.) Bravo to each of you!!! Parabéns, Queridos!!!


I sat down during an airport layover and subsequent flight to interview our Brazilian colleague Hella Frank about the importance of these events:

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Hella and I have known each other since 1985 (!) but we began working collaboratively to organize viola events in Brazil in 2012. The first gathering we organized at the university where she teaches drew 52 violists and 4 guest teachers to the city of Porto Alegre. Two years later, we organized a second gathering with Professor Glêsse Collet at Universidade Nacional de Brasília, in the nation’s capital. This year, we had the great pleasure of being among the 19 guest teachers invited to the first Encontro Nacional de Violas in João Pessoa, which brought together nearly 100 participants. It was a very historic occasion for violists in Brazil, because it was the first event sponsored by the ABRAV- the Associação Brasileira de Violistas, which is newly established as a non-profit organization, and will be an official chapter of the International Viola Society.

Why is it important to have a national gathering of violists?

One of the most important reasons is to bring all the most important viola professors from around the country to meet each other, to observe each other’s work, to exchange ideas, and to come together around the idea that we are all rallying around a common cause.

All the invited artists have very different teaching styles and artistic backgrounds to share with the students, and this created a very rich learning environment for all of us to share.

For the students it was very important to see that even as teachers approach things differently, they ultimately had the same goals and outcomes in mind.

Brazil is a very large country, so it was also amazing for all of us to network and create relationships and connections that will bring people from different states together. Over time, this will energize the viola community from the whole country!

The level of playing in the country has risen dramatically in the last ten years. More and more students are playing, and they are playing at an ever higher level.

Perhaps most of all, for students from around the country, it was a huge stimulus and encouragement, to meet so many peers from other regions and cities, and fostered an amazing sense of camaraderie and mutual support.

With this in mind, do you think there is any particular value in bringing international artists to take part in this kind of event?

It’s very enriching for the students here to be exposed to new or different teaching methodologies. This year for example, with Susan and you, we were able to learn so much about Karen Tuttle’s teaching style– it was wonderful for the students to be able to work on Coordination over several days. Also, it’s really important for the students to have an idea of what they are already doing well– playing for a foreign teacher can be a really validating experience, it can show them that they are being well taught at home, and it can help them understand what level of playing they have, in relation to a larger peer group, and to see in what areas they still need to grow, or to make technical changes.

Were there particularly strong themes in the programming?

Yes, one really important aspect of the Encontro and the Competition was showcasing modern Brazilian viola repertoire. Twenty eight works were programmed over the four days, some of them standard and others new to the audience. This was great for the students, so they could be more widely exposed to the music of our composers, and it was important overall to highlight the diversity of styles in our country’s modern repertoire.


A key element of the Encontro was the National Viola Competition of Paraíba. What was it like for you to have two student finalists who did so well?

Naturally I was very happy and satisfied to have two of my recent graduates place among the five finalists. It’s wonderful to see their work blossom and bear fruit– each of them was able to reach a new level of expression in their playing.

The competition took place in the far north of Brazil, and it was nice to have them perform so far away from home and receive validation for their work from our colleagues from other parts of the country. It’s easy here in Brazil for violists to feel isolated– a great outcome of the competition was having winners from different parts of the country, knowing how hard each of them worked to get to the point of winning, and celebrating the fruition of that work with their teachers. It is really something that brought me great joy!

Thank you Hella! 

Note: this post concludes a three-part series that attempted to to capture the rich experiences of this trip. Teaching and sharing these kinds of activities with musicians around the world is one of my chief joys, and certainly a huge reason for being a university professor. I am thankful to everyone who made this trip possible, including UNT, Susan Dubois, Hella Frank, Cristina Capparelli and Fredi Gerling, Ulisses Silva and ABRAV, and the UNT viola studio teaching fellow Michael Capone, who kept things running very smoothly at school during our absence. May these wonderful alto clef journeys continue!


Teaching in Brazil, Part 2: Encontro Nacional de Violistas, João Pessoa, Paraíba

Under the guidance of Professor Ulisses Silva and the board of the newly founded Brazilian Viola Society (Associação Brasileira de Violistas, ABRAV), the first national gathering of violists under the auspices of the International Viola Society took place between October 8-12 last week. It was a momentous occasion, bringing together 19 guest teachers, three orchestras, and close to 100 participants from all over Brazil and neighboring countries.

Each invited teacher was asked to present two master classes, and perform in a faculty concert. I enjoyed working with students on several works, including Weber Andante and Hungarian Rondo, Forsyth Concerto, Bartok Concerto, Bach and Brazilian repertoire. I performed pieces by Rebecca Clarke (Passacaglia), Vaughan Williams (Romance), and the Brazilian composer Ricardo Tacuchian (Toccata). Joining me to close the last faculty concert was Carlos Maria Solare, President of the International Viola Society. We had a lovely time performing Bulakhov’s enchanting Barcarolle. It was also special to be joined on stage by Cristina Capparelli, as we had not performed together on stage for nearly 15 years in Brazil. The congress closed with a large and raucous viola orchestra, which ended up being very fun, so I’ve included a couple pictures of that as well.



Susan Dubois performed the Bruch Romanze with the Municipal Orchestra of João Pessoa in the closing concert of the congress, which was a special honor. The audience went wild for Hindemith Op 25 #1 Sonata as an encore! Most exciting of all, her performance was filmed and shown on the news on TV! The standing ovation went on for several minutes… cheers!!!

The students were incredibly eager to learn, and many played at a very high level. Teaching them in master classes was really wonderful. I think I enjoyed myself doubly, because I spent a week teaching in Portuguese, and also had the pleasure of translating some of Susan’s classes for her. One of the most touching requests of the week was perhaps when Susan was asked for a lesson, but all the classrooms were full. Undeterred, the student led Susan outside to his favorite practice tree, and a lesson took place, under the branches, in the breeze!

There are two thoughts that really stayed with me throughout the week as a result of spending the week at Universidade Federal da Paraíba, which headquartered all the Encontro’s activities:

• We are very fortunate in the viola world, to work with generous colleagues who want to develop activities for all the young people in Brazil. Every teacher present was so clearly delighted to be there, and so engaged in the cause of good teaching and creating opportunities for each other. On the last day of the gathering, the faculty had a round-table discussion that turned out to be a fantastic forum for sharing ideas and transmitting knowledge to the students.

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• Our students in the US are so fortunate, but maybe don’t always realize it, because they are also always under so much pressure to succeed. They have access to such a wealth of material and intellectual resources that are harder to come by for students in Brazil. Coming home to UNT always reminds me how lucky we are to have good facilities, spacious studios, beautiful halls to play in, easy access to supplies and accessories for our instruments, and excellent libraries right next door. These are things not to be taken for granted; I’m grateful that they make our work possible each day.

Part three to follow!

I hope you’re enjoying following these adventures.


Teaching in Brazil, Part 1: Porto Alegre and João Pessoa

As some of you may know, Susan Dubois and I travelled to teach in two cities in Brazil between October 6 and 14. We made a first stop in Porto Alegre, to teach and perform at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, where we were hosted by Prof. Hella Frank. Hella arranged a wonderful three days of activities for us, including a recital on Tuesday evening, where we previewed the repertoire we are performing at the I Encontro Nacional de Violistas in a few days. We also had two very full days of teaching, with about 7 hours of master classes in all. In Porto Alegre we were joined by pianist Cristina Capparelli Gerling to play a joint recital. Despite the short amount of rehearsal time, it was a really joyous occasion, to perform in my hometown, for an enthusiastic audience. Many students I have worked with over the years came to see us, including a very special group of students from IPDAE, a wonderful outreach organization that serves over 200 students from under-privileged backgrounds. Two of the violists from their group travelled north with us to the congress as well. Here is a post-concert picture they requested:


On Thursday we travelled from the Southern end of Brazil to the Northeastern tip of the country. João Pessoa, the capital city of Paraíba State, is a booming city of one million, but is considered by Brazilians to be a “smaller”, more tranquil state capital, given that so many cities here are so large. A neat geographical feature of this city is that it is the eastern-most point in South America!



This area is known for stunning beaches, but this week it is simply teeming with violists coming from all over Brazil, the US, and neighboring Latin American countries. We know the beach is there because we walked to it the first evening we arrived, but we have been solidly viola-ing for every waking hour since!

Proof of beach:

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Proof of teaching 😉 !!



I will share the remainder of this week’s adventures in a couple more posts over this weekend.

Warm wishes,




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.
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 Conversation with George Papich, Director of the Center for Chamber Music at UNT, by Ruben Balboa

IMG_3162 (1)I have had the distinct privilege during my graduate degree to be a part of the Bancroft String Quartet. Every week , we meet with two professors to go over our progress. One professor, in particular, is Dr. George Papich. He has been a teacher here for nearly 50 years and has taught classes such as Music History, Music Appreciation, Opera, Performance Practice, and Chamber Music. Dr. Susan Dubois and I sat down with Dr. Papich to speak with him about his life and time here at UNT.

Before becoming a professor at UNT, Dr. Papich was called upon to serve in the United States Army whilst in the middle of completing his doctoral degree. During his service, he was the principal violist of the Seventh Army Symphony, with whom he performed throughout Europe; completing 20 concerts in 20 days. Upon returning from his tour of service, he became an elementary music teacher, since the need was there and his course of study had previously been interrupted. He taught there for a year, but was not satisfied with the administration, though he thoroughly loved teaching and the students alike. By happy coincidence, it was then that Northern Michigan University requested that he continue his course of study for his doctorate at their school, which would later lead to Dr. Papich becoming faculty there.

Around the year of 1967, Sandy, his wife, wanted to live somewhere new as she wasn’t fond of Michigan, or the cold weather that accompanies the state. So, Dr. Papich then gave her a list of five universities, and promised if one those universities had an open position, and if they were interested in him, then they would leave Michigan. Shortly after this compromise, he would fulfill his promise to her. Just two days after making this promise, the University of North Texas called offering him a job. At Northern Michigan University, he was making $9,200 a year; UNT offered him $13,000 without even blinking, and even allowed his brother to attend UNT tuition free as a part of his contract.

He then arrived at UNT to teach two viola students, nineteen chamber groups, and several university courses. As a musician he went on to maintain a thriving teaching studio, and performance career. Many of his students have gone on to win orchestral auditions, perform in the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Ft. worth Symphony Orchestra, Austin Symphony Orchestra, and many prestigious chamber groups and quartets. Not only has teaching at UNT for 48 years afforded him to meet and touch many lives, but it has proven that Mrs. Papich’s request to move is one that brought upon a decision they have both been happy with throughout the years.

In the year 2000, Dr. George Papich decided to retire from the University of North Texas, only to return three years later. When asked why he returned to teaching, he said that there were three things most important in his life: family, music, and the people he would interact with and teach. During his brief retirement, he made furniture, played golf, and found that it didn’t bring him as much joy as teaching. “Training young people is something really special,” Papich said, “It’s never perfect but there are times when it is just so good. “  The joy of coaching for Dr. Papich is seeing his students take the next step forward, not being afraid of the challenges, and to hit them head on.

During his time here at UNT, he developed the Center for Chamber Music supported by the Dean of the College of Music, Dr. James Scott. Dr. Papich believed that Chamber Music needed to be more of a priority at UNT. The program started with a piano trio that turned out to be very successful. The trio competed for, and won the Plowman Chamber Music Competition, Colbourn Chamber Competition, and Fischoff Chamber Music Competition.

This primary success has evolved into what chamber music at the University of North Texas is today. Chamber music at UNT currently enrolls over 200 students every semester. Out of those students, 17 musicians are chosen for the Center for Chamber Music Studies. The Center for Chamber Music Studies is comprised of a woodwind quintet, piano trio, brass quintet, and a string quartet. Every week, coaches listen to these groups and there is a final performance every semester. The goals for these ensembles are that when the musicians graduate and leave to go on in the professional world of music, they are capable of being in a chamber group, and know how to efficiently work as a musician and person. They do this by not only teaching students how to play certain pieces, but why we play the pieces the way we do and how to appropriately give our own interpretation.

As we drew closer to the end of the interview, we asked what his thoughts were on the past 48 years of teaching. “It’s been a good job for me”, he said. “The whole concept of growing from two students to thirty students is just amazing. I’m so proud.” He then said, “I feel like I’ve established a good thing, and whoever took over for me would benefit from it. I’ve had the pleasure of watching this enormously talented young lady (Dr. Dubois) follow me, and do a better job than I ever could have.”

When asked what were some of his favorite memories, the amount far surpassed the appropriate length of this article and I have been hard pressed to choose just one to give you insight into the personality of this amazing teacher, man, and musician. It was very clear that he has had a great time here, and true to his humorous personality, has proved to be quite a jokester. He said, “There are plenty of musical memories and then there are some that are just plain fun.” One time at a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, in between the two acts, Phil Lewis (one of UNT’s Violin Professors) chained and locked up Dr. Papich’s viola. When Dr. Papich asked Mr. Lewis to unlock it, he said that he didn’t have a key. So, Dr. Papich had to find a janitor to cut the chain. In return, Dr. Papich grabbed Mr. Lewis’s violin, and hung it up on Lewis’ dartboard. Dr. Papich then proceeded to put darts all around the violin. He remarked that it was very pleasant to have their offices next to each other because he heard a big scream when Mr. Lewis returned to his office. “We lived in a different time. Everyone wasn’t so serious back then. It was a special time”, Papich said.

Dr. Papich has clearly done a multitude of wonderful things in his lifetime for UNT, and more importantly his students. He has touched so many people with his humor, dedication, knowledge, and love. I am so honored to have met him and thankful to him for passing his knowledge onto me and many others.


Until next time,

Ruben Balboa III