Category Archives: viola playing

2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 11,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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New Facebook page!

I have a new facebook page! If you’d like to stay up to date with all my musical activities, then please press ‘like’/’follow’ and updates should automatically be shown on your newsfeed (I’m still fairly new to how this all works, so please forgive my technical ignorance!) You can also send me messages about professional enquiries (no spam please).

I will be using the page to post news, concerts I’m doing, teaching hints and tips, and to share any other local events that I’d like my students to know about and/or attend if possible!

For the moment, though, here’s something I’m very proud of, as I had the original idea a few years ago and never quite had the time to follow up on it until a student mentioned to me that it was really easy to do! (If you want to create a poster/mug/anything you want, just visit this site – I can highly recommend their service! It’s also excellent procrastination if you like creating hilarious memes/posters/lolcats, not that I would of course, ahem)

keep-calm-and-use-less-bow-1

What I’m most likely to say when I’m teaching…

Now that I’ve got some years of teaching under my belt, here are a few of the things I find myself saying most often in lessons to students, whether they are very young or old, or are very experienced or have only had a few lessons:

  • Watch your rhythm! A surprising number of people will unconsciously play minims as crochets, or more commonly crotchets as quavers, and I know that even I do things like this occasionally! My jobs is to point out where students are playing the wrong rhythm and encourage them to count and not guess where the beats are! A good sense of rhythm is so key to playing any instrument – I often tell my pupils that I’d rather they played the correct rhythm and missed a few notes than paused and played the right notes! It is often a good idea to take some time out to work on rhythms – clapping rhythms at sight or saying rhythm names like ‘ta’ and ‘te-te’ or ‘tea’ and ‘coffee’ really helps.
  • Use more bow on long notes: a lot of beginner students, and some more advanced ones, tend to use tiny bows for everything, especially long notes, producing a sound I like to called ‘mousy’. In order to encourage them to use more bow and produce a bigger sound, I tell them to try and use the whole bow, from the grip to almost the point, and I often put stickers on the bow (marking just above the grip, the middle and just below the tip) so that there is a visual aid for them, as some find it hard to tell. For more advanced students, practising scales and exercises with whole bows is key – just getting them to learn what the movement of their hand and arm feels like when they use the whole bow is sometimes new to them (see below).
  • Make sure your bow is parallel with the bridge right to the tip – this is an extremely common fault, especially in viola players where the instrument is large and the bow is long. Bowing at an angle, either with the bow angled towards or away from the bridge, will cause the sound to become uneven and break, and the player will experience difficulty at the tip and frog. Sometimes guiding the student’s hand all the way through the bow, or placing your bow to form a ‘guide’ across the strings while they bow will help, though a lot of the time the student will go back to old habits when they play their pieces. Practising open strings and easy scales in a mirror to check the bow is straight will help, but if bowing crooked becomes a habit then it is more difficult to correct, so teachers should be vigilant when beginners first start to use the bow.
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  • Use less bow on short, fast notes – it is so common for students to come to me with difficult fast passages complaining of not being able to play them, when they are using far too much bow. One of my favourite mantras at the moment is ‘Keep Calm and Use Less Bow’ – one student said I should get a mug with this on it! Generally, the faster the passage and the shorter the notes in it, the less bow you need – for really fast semiquavers, I only use about a centimetre or less. This is a revelation for most people and can easily transform a messy passage (think Vivaldi Concerto in A minor for example) into something much more neat and controlled.

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  • Bent thumb in bow hold – this is a common fault with the bow hold experienced by most beginners and sometime more advanced players. The right thumb needs to be nicely curved outwards, not inwards or straight, otherwise the fingers and wrist will stiffen and the bowhold becomes locked in position, making it much more difficult to bow and impossible to create any subtlety in the sound. Bow hold exercises such as bending and flexing the thumb ought to help with this, but constant reminders are often necessary! See this video for how to hold a violin or viola bow
  • Stand properly – no standing on one leg/slouching/standing in ballet positions! Correct posture is vital for a good sound, so get into the habit of standing with feet shoulder width apart, left foot slightly in front of right foot and shoulders and arms relaxed when the instrument is in position. A common fault is to let the scroll droop, especially with the heavy viola – I often say to children ‘imagine a balloon tied to your scroll!’

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  • Observe ALL the markings in the music – bowings, slurs, articulation, tempo but ESPECIALLY key signatures! I can’t stress how important this is for anyone learning a musical instrument. I often have students who will ‘bulldoze’ their way through a piece ignoring accidentals, bowings, slurrings and sometimes not even playing all the notes! Cue me pointing out all the things they have missed and the student listening with glazed eyes… Attention to detail is really important in music, as the difference between F sharp and F natural in a key signature of D major is fundamental to the music, but may be easily missed if the key signature is ignored. Understanding key signatures is difficult but an essential piece of theory that no musician can be without, so starting early with the concept of keys and sharps/flats is sensible.

 

 

Do you like Strawberry Jam?

A brilliant post by my old head of music, George Bevan, on why it isn’t enough as a music teacher to praise your students for good performances: in order to teach real musicianship, we as teachers have to understand what makes up a good performance and break that down for our pupils, so that they can learn *why* they are doing what they do when they play their instruments.
I really recommend George’s blog, music@monkton, and also Paul Harris’s books on teaching (I need to get hold of the newest one, Simultaneous Learning, which George actually wrote the foreword for!)

music@monkton

Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink is “all about those moments when we ‘know’ something without knowing quite why we know it,” when we rely on instinct rather than our ability to reason. Gladwell is a persuasive writer and I find him compelling. He draws on a huge variety of examples in this book, but nevertheless I was quite surprised when I suddenly found the topic turning to strawberry jam!

In short, jam experts were asked to rank forty-four different jams, and then a group of college students were asked to do the same. How close would their results be? To cut a short story even shorter, quite close it seems: “Even those of us who aren’t jam experts know good jam when we taste it.” But then they asked the students to give reasons for prefering one jam to another. Disaster. “It’s simply that we don’t have any way of explaining our feelings about…

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Lunchtime concert on Weds 26th Feb – 1.10pm, Younger Hall, St Andrews

It’s been a long while since I posted on here, but I thought I’d let you know that I’m giving a performance of Schubert’s lovely Arpegionne Sonata, plus Enesco’s fearsome Concertstuck, this Wednesday at 1.10pm in the Younger Hall, St Andrews with my friend and pianist Audrey Innes. This is a great programme – and, oddly, Audrey told me she had heard exactly the same programme broadcast on Radio 3 a while ago, with the recording of the Arpeggione taken from a concert in none other than the Younger Hall by Ukrainian violist Maxim Rysanov! (This was part of the St Andrews music club series and I was present – it was spectacular!)

Just in case you are interested, I’ve included below some short programme notes that will be used on Wednesday.

Other things that have been happening in the long period since I’ve posted a blog include: doing a series of lectures/talks on ‘Listening to Music’ for a local adult education service (quite scary but good for my public speaking), starting to play for a great quartet called the Roxburgh Quartet (we have a concert on 2nd March – more details soon) and an audition for the Halle orchestra in Manchester (I didn’t get in, but was pleased to be asked to audition).

Programme Notes for Wednesday 26th’s lunchtime recital with Audrey Innes, piano

Arpeggione Sonata, D 821    

Schubert (1797-1828)

I. Allegro moderato

II. Adagio

III. Allegretto

Franz Schubert is widely known as a prolific composer of Lieder, but also produced chamber music, stage works and symphonies. Like Beethoven, he spanned both the Classical and Romantic periods and was therefore influenced by composers of both eras. His style incorporates expressive lyricism and chromaticism while conforming to classical traditions – all features heard in this sonata. This sonata belongs to the same period as Schubert composed his ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet – near the end of his life when he was suffering from the advanced stages of syphilis.

This sonata was written in 1824 for a new six-stringed, fretted instrument, the Arpeggione, which was similar to a bowed guitar but held between the knees like a viola da gamba. The instrument had been invented the previous year, and Schubert was obviously taken with it, as the sonata was dedicated to the arpeggionist Vincenz Schuster. Unfortunately this instrument was no longer in use by the time of the sonata’s posthumous publication in 1871, due to its awkwardness to play and its unsuitability as a solo instrument with piano (it had a quiet sound which was easily obscured). Since then it has been arranged for the viola, cello and double bass, and even some woodwind instruments and guitar. Transcription has had to address the smaller ranges of these instruments and the use of 4 versus 6 strings, which renders some of the passages very difficult for the viola in terms of string crossing and octaves – these passages were surely much easier on the Arpeggione!

The first movement, Allegro moderato, is characterised by contrasts in mood – the haunting A minor melody at the start demonstrates Schubert’s exceptional melodic gift, while the more animated, almost cheeky second subject suggests a bubbling brook in the repeated semiquavers and yodelling in the octave leaps (from the Viennese Alps). It is in Sonata form (a favourite of Schubert’s), dividing it into four sections: the exposition where the first and second subject are stated, the development where these themes are explored and transposed, the recapitulation where the original ideas are consolidated, and a final coda which returns to the minor – a nice piece of symmetry.

The lovely second movement uses a rising and falling melody, creating long, arch-like phrases which answer each other. There is a curious period towards the end where both piano and viola have long, held notes – static chords which are strange, unless Schubert meant for the players to improvise, but this is not marked. Slow quavers lead us into the last movement – a vivacious Allegretto which uses octave leaps (which are very uncomfortable to play for the viola!), fast passagework and pizzicato, before returning to the opening dotted melody.

Georges Enesco (1881 – 1955)

Concertstück for Viola and Piano

Georges Enesco (also known as Enescu) was a Romanian composer, violinist, pianist, conductor and teacher who taught a young Yehudi Menhuin. A child prodigy, he entered Vienna Conservatoire aged seven, graduated aged 13, 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!)

As well as the gorgeous, expressive melodies in this piece, it utilises various virtuosic techniques to show off the viola (which is not normally a particularly virtuosic instrument!) Ones to look and listen out for whilst listening to the piece include:

–        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 chords

–        False harmonics

–        Alternating triplets, semiquavers, semiquaver quintuplets and semiquaver sextuplets

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

Concerts in Oct and Nov

October and November are relatively busy months for me, as I have 3 chamber music concerts in short succession:

7.30pm Friday 25th October, Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh – St Patrick’s Ensemble play Johann Strauss and new commission “St Ambrose and the Bees” by Helene Grosvenor as part of a charity event : “Concert for Bees”

This concert will feature Paul Livingston, Daniel Miller, myself and James Tradgett playing a quartet of instruments called the “Sherlock Quartet”. These four instruments, 2 violins, a viola and a cello, were made by Steve Burnett from a 200-year old sycamore that stood in Arthur Conan Doyle’s childhood home in Liberton, Edinburgh, which he is said to have climbed as a child. The “Sherlock” violin was made by Burnett to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Conan Doyle’s birth and you can hear Paul playing it on Radio Scotland if you’re up early and tune in between  6.30am and 7am!

sherlock violin

1.10pm, Tues 12th Nov, Reid Hall, EdinburghLunchtime concert with Audrey Innes and Jean Murray as part of Edinburgh University Lunchtime Concert Series

I am playing the dramatic and beautiful Hindemith Viola Sonata Op 11 No 4 with Audrey, and Jean Murray with play the Hindemith flute sonata, again with Audrey on piano – a celebration of Paul Hindemith’s works!

1.10pm, Weds 20th Nov, Younger Hall, St Andrews – Lunchtime Concert with St Andrews String Trio

We’re playing Beethoven’s entertaining and boisterous Serenade No 8 and Schubert’s Trio in B flat, D471, so come along in your lunch hour if you work in St Andrews for some string chamber music (free to music centre members and £2 to non members)

1.10pm, Weds 27th Nov, Younger Hall, St Andrews – Lunchtime concert with Paul Livingston, violin

Mozart’s elegant Duo in B flat for violin and viola plus the showy Halvorsen arrangement of Handel’s G minor Chaconne and other pieces tbc.

Hope to see you at one or more of these concerts. Thanks for your support.

My Portfolio Life: new academic year!

Keep Calm and Have a Cupcake!!Advice for stressed students from Bibi’s Bakery, South Street

It’s the second week of the new academic semester here in North East Fife, and the leaves are beginning to turn – it must be autumn already!  Apologies for the lack of news on here – it has been a somewhat eventful summer, and I haven’t had much time to write this blog due to illness getting in the way…  But I’m hoping  I can now get back to posting here fairly regularly, as this autumn seems to be gearing itself up to be a busy  semester with concerts and events, as you’ll see below!

I’ve also ordered myself some lovely new compliment slips, postcards and business cards which I’m quite excited about using! I’m trying to get myself organised and do stuff like that – part of being self employed, I guess.

Anyway, here’s a summary of the projects I’m involved with, and the concerts I have planned for the next few months!

New projects

St Andrews Smiles Better – my facebook page and a work in progress. Eventually I hope to be able to turn this into an official organisation/charity to help provide music and the arts in social care settings such as hospitals, care homes, schools and day centres. I’m still learning how to use a facebook ‘page’ so anybody with any experience, I’d love to speak to you!

Leuchars Military Wives Choir – I am now the “assistant musical director”jn of RAF Leuchars Military Wives Choir, a fancy way of saying I go to their rehearsals, play the piano for them and assist with music/warm ups/general musical stuff. This is very exciting for me, as I have written before about the impression that Gareth Malone’s Military Wives TV series had on me and the importance of community music. I feel very proud to be able to contribute something towards the running of such a group and very lucky to work with the amazing wives of RAF employees.

Projects I’m continuing with:

St Andrews and Fife Community Orchestra – I’m continuing my role as in previous years, taking sectionals, answering questions

Teaching – I’m now teaching in the St Andrews area only (not in South Fife or the East Neuk) and I’m continuing to enjoy sharing my experience of playing  and talking about all things string related  🙂 Cello subway

Image: Don’t forget your instrument when you travel!

Concerts

Sunday 28th Sept, 7pm in Holy Trinity Church, St Andrews – Heisenberg Ensemble with Dame Emma Kirkby – Mozart, Bach, Palestrina, Gibbons (Tickets are £10, available through the church,  or by calling 01334 478317 or emailing holytrinity(at)gmail.com replacing (at) with @)
Friday 25th October, Greyfriar’s Kirk, Edinburgh – St Patrick’s Ensemble play new music and Strauss, playing the “Sherlock Quartet” of instruments (more info to follow soon)
Tuesday 12th November, 1.10pm, Reid Hall, Edinburgh – lunchtime recital with Audrey Innes and Jean Murray – Hindemith Viola Sonata Op 11 no 4 and Hindemith Flute Sonata
Weds 20th Nov, 1.10pm, Younger Hall, St Andrews – Lunchtime recital with St Andrews String Trio – Schubert and Beethoven serenade
Weds 27th Nov, 1.10pm, Younger Hall, St Andrews – Lunchtime recital with Paul Livingston (Violin and Viola duo) – Programme TBC but probably including Mozart/Halvorsen

Further in the future, Audrey and I are planning another lunchtime concert in early 2014 – more details to follow as they are decided…!