Category Archives: RSAMD

June happenings

Sorry, this blog seems to have been neglected over the past month or so, partly because events at the academy have been taking over my life a little! I’ll try and summarise what has been going on though, in case you’re interested…

On May 29th, I went to Stirling’s Albert Halls to help backstage with Sistema Scotland’s Third Birthday Concert. The 350 children who participate in the Big Noise project are all from Raploch, and receive a programme of free instrumental tuition, mentoring, musicianship and ensemble sessions from a team of musicians, some of whom are members of the BBCSSO. The system is based on the Venezuelan project El Sistema, which was set up by  pioneering musician and social innovator Jose Abreu to help children from the slums improve their lives and give them skills they could use to find jobs.


Most of the day was spent setting and resetting the stage with hundreds of tiny instruments (the mini cellos and basses were particularly cute), watching the children rehearse, and riding buses with audience members to the Halls for the afternoon concert. The performance was a resounding success (literally!), with members of the BBCSSO providing extra help and enhancing the performance. Particularly sucessful was the version of Holst’s Jupiter, which had been arranged by one of the tutors so that the children were playing one set of parts and the adult players another. The confetti cannons at the end were also great fun and were very popular with the children!






















Last week I went back to Raploch on one of the projects organised ‘learning visits’, where we got to see a range of sessions with the children, including a string ensemble, brass and woodwind session, a horn masterclass, a musicianship session with the more senior ‘Rinconada’ ensemble (in which we participated as well – good fun!) and a performance by a few of the groups to their parents. It was great to see the teaching methods and learning processes that are behind a performance like the one I saw at the Albert Halls.

This summer, I’m hoping to go back to Stirling and volunteer at the Big Noise summer school. It runs from 27th June to 5th August, but I’m starting on July 8th, as I only graduate on the 5th July.

Other things that have been happening include Stringfest, a three day festival of string music at the Academy, with concerts featuring students and staff of the academy, and a performance of Scgubert’s sublime quintet in C major by International Fellows the Brodsky Quartet with Robert Irvine. This concert was superb, and was made even more exciting by the fact the Robert’s bow broke spectacularly mid way through the third movement (the wedge at the tip that keeps the hair in place came out, taking all the hair with it!). He calmly walked off to retrieve his spare bow and the concert continued – it must have been pretty hair-raising for him (ha ha, sorry!)

I played in 2 concerts in Stringfest: I was principal viola in the string ensemble concert, in which we played Elgar’s beautiful Serenade for strings, Bartok’s footstomping Romanian Dances and Bach’s wonderful Ricercare, directed by Jim Clark (leader of RSNO). I also joined Gongbo Jiang, Wen Wang, Hua Zhong and Dave Sloan for a performance of Mozart’s Quintet in C major for 2 violas, which went well and was used for the chamber music component of my assessment.

More recently, a massive amount of my time has been devoted to rehearsing the Academy’s opera for this term, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, conducted by Tim Dean and with singers from the Academy’s Opera School. It’s a cracking piece, with some great tunes – my only sadness is that, from the depths of the orchestra pit, I can’t see what’s happening on the stage! All I know is that there are some very real looking trees up there, and that the gingerbread house is an ice cream van covered in giant lollys, cupcakes and candy floss…. The opening night is tomorrow (Sat 25th June) at 7.15pm, and the other performances are on Mon 27th, Weds 29th and Thurs 30th, all at 7.15pm in the New Athenaem theatre, so you can come along and see what I mean!

Oh yes, and I found out that I got Distinction for my Postgraduate Diploma – yay! Very pleased about that 🙂


Programme notes for Friday’s recital

Hot off the press (= RSAMD print room, thanks Craig!)

Below are the programme notes I have been writing over the past week for my recital on Friday as they appear in the programmes I have just printed (left!). Now all I need to do is practice some final corners and in theory I’ll be ready…

Programme notes

The programme of this recital contains three staples of the viola repertoire, two for viola and piano and one for viola and orchestra (here played with a piano reduction). All of the works performed here are from the Romantic period, and use the deep timbre and rich colours of the viola to bring out the differing moods and emotions of the music.

The order of these pieces progresses from a major work, the Brahms sonata, via a dreamy interlude (the first movement from the Walton concerto), to the virtuosic Enesco show piece, ending the programme with a flourish.

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)

Sonata in E flat Op 120 No. 2

I.                    Allegro Amabile

II.                  Appassionato, ma non troppo Allegro

III.               Andante con moto

Johannes Brahms, considered to be one of the greatest composers of the Romantic period by virtue of his exquisite gift for melody, was also a virtuoso pianist and premiered many of his own works. Both the virtuosity of the piano part and Brahms’ melodic charms are in much in evidence in the E flat sonata, which is the second in a pair of sonatas which make up the Opus 120, along with the F minor Sonata (Op 120 No. 1). These were originally written for the clarinet in 1894 and dedicated to the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld. However, Brahms himself transcribed the two sonatas for viola, and the viola’s rich sonority and palette of colours complement the sonatas’ emotional turbulence perfectly. These two sonatas, published as op. 120, along with a clarinet trio and quintet, were the last chamber works that Brahms wrote before his death in 1897; they are considered some of his finest compositions.

The E flat sonata is much lighter in mood than the F minor, with sweeter, more lyrical melodies than the stormy F minor sonata; it is less classically structured than the F minor, drawing on the freer development of themes of the ‘fantasy-sonata’ style. As in the F minor sonata, the phrases are incredibly long, demanding smooth legato bowing from the player and a sense of the arch-like phrase shapes. Themes are passed back and forth between the viola and piano throughout the sonata, in canon, duos and ‘stretto’-like sections; Brahms was pioneering in his equal treatment of both instruments in these sonatas, making them chamber music duos, rather than earlier sonatas in which the piano takes an accompanying role.

The lyrical first movement begins with a dotted Amabile melody, which forms the main theme.  This theme is continually developed throughout the movement, contrasted with a calmer, sotto voce second subject; triplets add movement and various keys are passed through before a final Tranquillo section in the home key of E flat.

The fiery second movement is the last Scherzo Brahms ever wrote, and is very much the centre-piece of the sonata. It is in the dark tonic minor key of E flat minor and is in 3 sections: the two outer appassionato sections are based around a triumphant rising melody which is first stated in the viola, then taken up by the piano; building to a climax, the energy leaves in downward scalic passages. The middle sostenuto section, in the bright key of B major, contains a melody (marked piano ma ben cantando – literally ‘soft but well singing’) which in my opinion is one of the most sublime Brahms ever wrote; it reminds me of an Elgarian ‘Nobilmente’: grand, heroic and supremely beautiful.

The third movement is an extended theme and variations, in 6/8 but simultaneously in a slow 2. The theme, a grandioso melody using falling and rising thirds with a dotted upbeat, is ambiguous in its phrasing, leaving the listener wondering whether the viola starts on the upbeat or the downbeat (I recently changed the way I play this melody to emphasise the downbeat, not the dotted upbeat). Brahms plays on this rhythmic ambiguity in the five variations and the coda. The variations (in order) make use of syncopation, a triplet countermelody against the theme, demisemiquaver question and answer phrases passed between the viola and piano, soft bell-like offbeat crotchets against piano chords, and a minor Allegro decoration version of the theme. The calmer coda, piu tranquillo, reverts to the major and develops all the ideas heard so far, before the sonata ends with a flourish in the home key of E flat.

William Walton (1902-1983)

 Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (1929, revised 1961)

I.                    Andante Comodo

William Turner Walton, an English composer born into a musical family in Lancashire, showed early promise as an singer and was sent to Christ Church Cathedral School in Oxford; he was later accepted at the age of 16 to Christ Church College, but never graduated as he neglected his non-musical studies. However, after befriending Sacheverell Sitwell (writer and art critic), he took up residence in the Sitwells’ attic in London and was treated as their protégée; through them he met influential figures such as Stravinsky and Berg.  An early experimental collaboration in 1923 with Edith Sitwell produced his first (albeit controversial) success with Façade: an ensemble of 6 players with spoken word accompaniment through a megaphone (condemned by the press as “relentless cacophony”).

Walton had more popular success with the Viola Concerto, which was written for the viola virtuoso Lionel Tertis at the suggestion of Sir Thomas Beecham. According to Susana Walton, in her book, William Walton: Behind the Façade, Walton was somewhat confused as ‘he knew little about the viola except that it made a rather awful sound!’ Nevertheless, the concerto was written and sent to Tertis, who promptly returned it, declaring it ‘too modern’. Walton considered re-writing it for violin, but it was suggested he send it to Hindemith, who accepted it and gave the first performance on 3rd October 1929, at a Promenade Concert in the Queen’s Hall with the Henry Wood Symphony Orchestra and Walton himself conducting (although this was not without its problems, as at the first rehearsal the orchestral parts were all wrong, and Walton had to stay up all night to correct them). Walton rescored the concerto in 1961 for a smaller orchestra and changed tempo indications and dynamics; since then a newer edition has been brought out by OUP (with the viola part edited by Frederick Riddle) which incorporates several significant differences to Walton’s original bowings and articulation. In this recital, we are using the original 1961 version of the piano reduction, and I have reinstated many of the original bowings and phrasings (though not all).

The concerto is inscribed ‘To Christabel’, referring to Christable McLaren, Lady Aberconway, whom Walton harboured unrequited feelings for; Michael Kennedy wrote that “there is no need to know this to appreciate the lyrical melancholy and poetic longing at the heart of the music.”

The work was an instant success, as Christopher Palmer comments:

“It was a work of such obvious mastery that it probably did even more than Façade, Portsmouth Point and the Sinfonia Concertante—all already behind him—to establish his place in the vanguard of contemporary English music. The concerto exceeded all these in emotional depth, richness and profusion of ideas and technical assurance. The viola is not an easy instrument for which to write an effective concerto. The violin is a multi-faceted personality; and it can always ride on top of the orchestra. The luscious cantabile and expressive power of the cello can command attention at all times. But the viola is more introvert, a poet-philosopher, conspicuously lacking in brilliance of tone and ever liable to be blotted out by an unheeding orchestra. Yet in Walton’s Concerto we are never aware of any of these limitations….”

The whole concerto is characterised by Walton’s use of lush chromatic harmonies; flowing, searching melodies, an ongoing dichotomy between major and minor, and the romantic idiom for which he is famous. The first movement, Andante comodo (‘at a comfortable speed’) opens with a rising chromatic motif in the orchestra; the viola enters above this with the searingly beautiful melody that forms the main theme of the concerto (marked cantabile espressivo), which rises and falls, at times building to climaxes then subsiding, at others accompanying wind solos in the orchestra.  A more animated section climaxes with a dramatic series of parallel double stopped sixths (of which Walton is especially fond). A dreamy, meandering passage then leads to the animated middle section, with stringendos, driving rhythms and virtuosic spiccato and martellato semiquavers for the viola (which incorporate some very hard string crossings!). After the flowing Meno mosso with its rising melody harmonised in sixths, an unsettled ‘inquietamente’ section accelerates into an extended orchestral tutti (shortened here for time reasons). The double stopped, harmonically shifting viola cadenza emerges out of a low tremolo in the basses and celli, before a recapitulation of the opening melody on the oboe, accompanied by rapid scalic passages in the viola. In the coda, Walton restates earlier themes and uses a falling motif, harmonised again in parallel sixths, to bring the movement to a meditative close.

Georges Enesco (1881 – 1955)

Concertstück for Viola and Piano

Georges Enesco (also known as Enescu) was a Romanian composer, violinist, pianist, conductor and teacher. A child prodigy, he entered Vienna Conservatoire aged seven, then continued his studies in Paris, where he remained for much of his life. His works are heavily influenced by Romanian folk music and their melodies; his output includes two Romanian Rhapsodies, an opera, symphonies and much chamber music as well as solo works.

The Enesco Concertpiece, composed in 1906, is a rite of passage for young viola players. Technically demanding and virtuosic, is It is often performed as a competition piece to show off the technical abilities of the performer, or to add a final flourish to a recital (as it is used here!)

Virtuosic techniques to look out for whilst listening to the piece include: (see below for illustrations as in the programme)

–        Fast chromatic triplet scales and scalic passages

–        Martèlé bowing (heavy, on the string at the tip of the bow)

–        Syncopated slurred bowings  (only found in Enesco’s music and extremely difficult to do)

–        Double-note semiquaver scales

–        Double stops in thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths and octaves, and chord

–        False harmonics

–        Alternating triplets, semiquavers, semiquaver quintuplets and semiquaver sextuplets

–        Very high notes (too high for the viola, really!)

–        ‘upside down’ triplet bowings (usually  ‘down-down up’, this is ‘up-up down’)

Photos of the actual programme are below:

Reflections on’Reflections’: a year at RSAMD

Whilst going through all the material I have written this year for my ‘Reflective Practice Journal’, I found the following comments which were written just after I started the course in October:


This week (15.10.10)

-Trying out new ways of working, inspired by Lydia: recording lessons/sessions to remember what is said in the lesson as I often forget afterwards and find it hard to make adequate notes. Recording sessions also enables you to hear yourself as you sound to others and to hear when things go right or wrong and why – giving you a much better insight into how to solve the problem.

-My lessons with Jane so far have been very helpful but at the same time quite revealing about my playing, as I have not had regular lessons every week since leaving school 6 years ago, and the lessons I did have were usually very focussed on specific works so that I could perform them. This has meant that quite a few bad habits have crept into my playing without me noticing, so I unconsciously do things that detract from the music. Jane has been amazing in this respect: she noticed straight away the things that I’m doing out of habit and has been constantly reminding me (annoying but necessary) so that I’m starting to become conscious of them and can change them. Hopefully I can do this gradually so that I can eliminate most of the habitual stuff that has crept up on me over the years…

Learning points:

  • Learning how to join notes smoothly at the tip- listen carefully when you change bow at the tip (I couldn’t always hear when I got it right)
  • Lengthen the last note before the one you want to join it to
  • Eliminating bad habits that have crept in: bulging notes with the bow and with unnecessary vibrato, and uneven vibrato, on alternate notes
  • Think about bow distribution
  • Try and play up bows and down bows as if they were the same- it should theoretically sound the same either way round! Ie easy and free


These comments, although written less than a month after I started the course, encompass most of the main technical issues that I have been trying to work on in my playing throughout the year.

Nearly 7 months on, I find myself making a very similar list of areas that Jane and I have discussed in my lessons:

  • bow distribution – using the whole bow and less bow where necessary
  • focussing on an even vibrato on all notes in a phrase
  • changing notes smoothly
  • getting rid of old bad habits especially bulging unimportant notes
  • playing with more drive, energy, commitment and volume (where appropriate)

The other issues that have been discussed in this blog such as performance skills, controlling nerves, and improving posture with physio and Alexander Technique are all still relevant as well; I will continue to work on these after I finish my course.

In summary, keeping this reflective blog has helped my keep track of what I need to work on in my playing, helped me explore links with other arts ventures and organisations, and generally enriched my life as a musician, as well as allowing me to explore online world of blogging and its joys! Thanks for reading 🙂

Jess xxx

NB. I will keep blogging after I graduate, though I will probably change the name of the blog!



New music at PLUG…

This evening I went to hear some of my fellow masters students’ work at PLUG VII: Electroacoustic Event. PLUG is a 5 day music festival at RSAMD which showcases the work of composers at the Academy, with the pieces being performed by Academy students and professional musicians. My friend Matthew Whiteside’s piece Dichroic Light for solo cello and live electronics was premiered by a friend of mine, Lydia Whittingham, as well as pieces by Daniel de Gruchy Lambert (trumpet), James Hodges (bassoon), Nikola Kyosev (flute/piccolo), Tim Cooper (with Helen Douthwaite, sackbut) and Jonathan Wettermark (trombone).

Some quick notes on what I heard and issues raised by the performances:

  • The contemporary definitions of “music”, “performance art”, “organised sound” and the grey area between them. What makes a given piece “music” and another simply sampled sounds in rhythms? (with respect to Tim Cooper’s work The Sound of Letters, the Voice of the Page)
  • The relative success of composers writing for instruments that they don’t play themselves, versus the success of compositions by composers who are writing for their own instruments and performing their own compositions* – instrumentalists know their own capabilities and strengths and the limits of their instruments better than those who don’t play them, and can therefore write very idomatically (wrt Nikola Kysosev’s virtuosic piece ‘Mind Cell’)

Some of the techniques that I identified were:

Distortion/reverb/delay/multiphonics/sound and vocal sampling/voices/ambient sound/pedal switches/feedback loops/multitracking

I really enjoyed what I am going to call the ‘alternative listening experience’ of the concert – the stage was covered in microphones, laptops, wires, gadgets and a myriad of speakers on tall wooden stands, giving it a very different feel to normal concert platforms.  I sat behind the mixing desk so had a priviledged view of the composers controlling the audio output in real time!

* NB Composers, please don’t take any of this personally!

My end of course recital – more details

You are warmly invited to my end-of-course recital at 5.10pm on 20th May 2011, which counts towards the final grade for my Postgraduate Diploma in Viola Performance.

The programme will be:

Sonata in E flat Op 120 No. 2 (Johannes Brahms)

I. Allegro Amabile
II. Appassionato, ma non troppo Allegro
III. Andante con moto

Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (William Walton)

I. Andante Comodo

Concertstück for Viola and Piano (Georges Enesco)

With Hester Dickson, piano

Programme notes to follow (when I’ve actually written them…)

See the facebook event here

Forays into photoblogging

These are some pictures of Glasgow, mostly taken with my mobile phone (a Nokia 6700 slide).

This is taken walking past the newly opened ‘Speirs Locks Studios’ which (I think) is the RSAMD’s studio for Dance and it also contains the TPA department (= “Technical Production Arts” = set design/lighting/stage production to you and me). I’m ashamed to say I’ve never been inside Speirs Locks, mostly because I have no reason to (none of my classes/rehearsals are there) and I haven’t had the time to poke my nose inside…

It is sunny in glasgow sometimes, honest...

It is sunny in glasgow sometimes, honest...

I also pass Cowcaddens subway station- here’s a photo from today just to prove it was sunny this morning! (in glasgow, I know!!)





Here are some photos of the central Renfrew Street RSAMD campus so you can get an idea of what it is like:
















And finally, here’s a photo I took of a double bass during our chamber orchestra rehearsals (well, I thought it was cute, anyway! 🙂 )

See you all at the concert tomorrow (1pm, Academy Concert Hall)


A guide to orchestral playing (part I)

At the moment I’m involved in the Academy’s Chamber Orchestra, which has involved a fair bit of rehearsing in the past few days. The concert is on 25th March at 1pm, in the Academy Concert Hall, if you’re interested and want to come along. The programme is:

Mahler – Adagietto for strings
Elgar – Introduction and Allegro for strings and string quartet
Schumann – Cello Concerto in A minor (soloist: Duncan Strachan)
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor (soloist: Hanna Choi)
Conductor: David Watkin
(The facebook event is here)

During rehearsals and whilst reflecting on the process of learning to be a better orchestral player, I came up with the idea of creating a (slightly tongue-in-cheek) ‘guide’ for musicians on how to play in an orchestra – for my first attempt, see below.

DISCLAIMER: I don’t want people (particularly musicians) to think I’m being obsessive or diva-esque – these are just comments from my own experience of playing in many different orchestras and ensembles and as such are not personal or directed at any individuals in particular)

Issues while rehearsing: (aka ways to annoy your fellow players!)

Turning pages: it’s really annoying when your desk partner turns a page either far too late or too early, ie turning the page before you’ve had time to read to the end of said page, including any rests that come right before the turn (this is an issue particularly when you are leading a section and you need to *actually count* them!) I know I have been guilty of this in the past – sorry….

Writing on music: sometimes, when you receive a part (eg from a hire library) it is so covered in pencil marks that you can’t actually read the music! Often hire libraries will try and remove as much as they can before they hire out the parts to another orchestra, but sometimes they don’t and it is a real pain to have to rub out everything the previous player has marked in. Also irritating is when players scrawl music with completely unnecessary marks (eg writing out the letter names above the stave!!) so that the music itself and printed tempo markings and bowings are completely obscured*

*This can also be quite funny, for example when players write their desk partners little messages on the music during a boring rehearsal, or encourage each other to play confidently (I’ve seen things like ‘you can do it!’ or ‘DON’T PANIC!!’ 😀 )

Sellenger's Round (cartoon is at the bottom left hand side)

“Sellenger’s Round” cartoon closeup – stingy!!

These pictures show a cartoon drawn by a player on the music – the piece is called ‘Sellenger’s Round’ and I suppose the thought of the pub after the rehearsal was uppermost in the doodler’s mind when imagining what Sellenger’s round would look like 😀

Counting rests out loud (very loudly and *at* your desk partner): no further comment needed… Just don’t…

Tuning (or playing) your instrument while the conductor is trying to say something important/people are rehearsing – there are times when this is necessary eg when your instrument goes out of tune in a hot room, but there are times when it isn’t!

There are also some guaranteed ways to make your colleagues in the orchestra laugh at you (again, I’m guilty of some of these):

Playing really loudly when it is marked pp or ppp and everybody else in the orchestra is quiet – I do this quite often, especially whilst sight reading, and it makes me cringe every time I do it!

Playing loudly during a G.P. (= General Pause) when the whole orchestra is silent. This is often called a “mars bar moment” by conductors – so-called as the person who spoils the silence gets an ironic ‘prize’ eg a mars bar; another version is that the person who is responsible should buy the other players a round in the pub afterwards…

Playing the wrong notes repeatedly when the conductor asks you to play the right notes (this often makes me giggle- sorry wind/brass players, I know transposing at sight can be hard! :P)

That’s all I can think of now… Goodnight!

Music Learning Live

Today I’m off to a big conference at the academy called ‘Music Learning Live’- see the programme here

The keynote is being given by Andrew Dixon, Chief Executive of Creative Scotland. I’m hoping to attend a session about Sistema Scotland, a project which has been started in Raploch, Stirling, which emulates El Sistema, a social programme in Venezuela which provides orchestral training for young people from poor backgrounds.

Walton by numbers

Today has been a fairly productive day – and by that, I mean a day devoted to practising and learning the Walton concerto. It’s strange that conceptions of ‘work’ can vary so widely: in academia, work means writing/research/reading (what I did for my undergrad degree, in social anthropology at the University of St Andrews), but in the music profession, ‘work’ means practising a piece, either on your own or in a group, or listening to it with a score, or working out fingerings or bowings, or teaching, or any other activity that musicians carry out on a daily basis. Writing and research comes into it, of course (I have to write programme notes for my recital in may, so I have been doing some online research on the Walton), but this is not the bread and butter of what musicians do. I am still getting used to this new conception of work, after 4 years of studying for a very theoretical degree – now I can say things like, ‘I’m off to do some work’, by which I mean viola practice, whereas when I was studying anthropology, my tutors would have frowned at me in vague confusion if I had told them I had to ‘work’ on a piece of music.

Anyway, here is a photo of my viola part of the walton, heavily scribbled on with fingerings/bowings/annotations. Today’s task was to firm up fingerings and bowings so that I can really drum home all the notes into my brain, and to help this, I have used a new way of writing my fingerings in – writing them in red for a shift. This means that my music is now covered in red pen (deliberately) as there are shifts all over the place and it helps focus my brain if I know where they are. I’m hoping this will help me when I practice – a kind of walton by numbers! Let’s hope it works…

Recording of Brahms 1st mvt

I have attempted to upload my recording of the performance class I did with hester (described in a post below) to a free upload site (as with free wordpress blogs they don’t allow you to upload mp3s unless you pay more, humph!), but I’m not altogether sure how it works so here goes!

Please comment below and tell me whether you can get it working! Thanks 🙂