Tag Archives: violin/viola teaching

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.

 

 

Teaching students how to practise

As an instrumental teacher, I’m often asked by parents how much they think their children should practise their instruments, or told proudly that they practise every day or even twice a day. In turn, I often ask my pupils how much they practise, which is most often met with a sheepish grin and a muttered ‘…um…’

We all know the old adage ‘practice makes perfect’, and as a professional musician myself, I know from experience that this is all too true. Behind every polished performance are hours and hours of dedicated rehearsal, practice, memorisation and close analysis of problems and their solutions. What not everyone knows, however, is how to practise so that the time spent practising is spent in the best possible way; in other words, how to achieve the most in the limited amount of time that is allotted to practising.

Many children, and adult learners for that matter, have not been told the fundamentals of how to practise a piece in order to correct the mistakes that their teacher points out to them. How to practise is part of the fundamental toolkit of every musician, which includes basics such as how to tune your instrument, how to hold it correctly and make the best sound from it, and how to improve your own playing.

As a teacher, I don’t like to spoon-feed my pupils – I like to try and challenge them with questions about what they are playing, why, what this means and so on. But I had sort of assumed – and this was a dangerous assumption – that most children know how to practise in such a way that they can improve and see their own improvement. I now know that I should be telling all my pupils the basics of how to practise a piece, and not just assume that this is obvious – as to an adult, practising the difficult bits of a piece more than the easier bits is common sense.

In my experience as a teacher, children tend to play their pieces through from beginning to end, often as fast as possible, and it doesn’t really occur to them that this might not be the most effective way of practising them. What often happens is that the same mistakes get repeated every time they play the piece through, and as such become ‘part’ of the piece and the way they play it, making it even more difficult for the teacher to correct when the mistake is pointed out. These habitual mistakes can be addressed, but what is much more effective is pointing out that playing the more difficult bars or sections of a piece on their own repeatedly until they became easier, then fitting them back into the piece, is a much better way of approaching the difficulties of a piece. Of course the piece must be played through from time to time to prepare it for performance, but variety is important – many teachers have emphasised to me the importance of not always starting at the beginning of a piece.

So, here’s my guide to mindful practising:

How to practise a piece mindfully – and really improve

  • Play the piece through to get an overview of the technical and musical challenges presented by it
  • Identify and isolate the difficult bars of the piece
  • Play these bars on their own, slowly if necessary,  become aware of the problems and work out solutions to these problems (e.g. bowings, shifts, fingerings)
  • Once you have worked out the solutions to the problems, play the difficult bars until you are satisfied that they are improving (this may take a long time in the case of very difficult music!)
  • Play the bars in context again, making sure that the join between the difficult bars and the others is practised thoroughly
  • Play the piece through again, this time being aware of the difficult bars and (hopefully) their improvement
  • Repeat the process regularly!

Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to learning a musical instrument, but if this kind of mindful practice can be learnt and applied, then it will make the process of learning to play music more rewarding and less frustrating for the pupil. In other words, it is the quality, not the quantity, of practice that really matters!

For more information on how to practise and for discussions of many other issues that musicians face, see the blog of The Bulletproof Musician

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“The right kind of practice is not a matter of hours. Practice should
represent the utmost concentration of brain. It is better to play with
concentration for two hours than to practice eight without. I should say
that four hours would be a good maximum practice time—I never ask
more of my pupils—and that during each minute of the time the brain be
as active as the fingers.”
 
 -Leopold Auer

Everything you’ve always wanted to know about the viola (but were too afraid to ask)

Inspired by all the questions I usually get asked about playing the viola, I’ve decided to write answers to the more frequently asked questions. This post has turned into a longer one than I expected, so I’ll be impressed if you make it through it all. Hopefully you’ll learn something new about the viola though!

What is a viola? What is the difference between a violin and a viola?

A viola is often described as a ‘big violin’, which is a pretty accurate, if rough, description. A viola is larger than a violin in all dimensions – it is longer, deeper and a little chunkier, but the most significant difference between a violin and a viola is that the viola’s sound is lower in pitch (a fifth lower, to be precise) than the violin, and its tone is richer, rounder and mellower compared to the violin’s brilliant, flashy sound. The viola shares its 3 highest strings with the violin, but has one string a fifth lower, so instead of the violin’s E-A-D-G strings, its strings are A-D-G-C. The viola is the second highest instrument in the violin family, coming in pitch between the violin and cello, and the viola is the middle section in an orchestra.

How do you read the alto clef?

Lots of people ask me how I can read ‘that weird alto clef’ and my answer is usually the same every time – it is no different from reading any other clef, except that fewer people know how to read it, as fewer people play instruments that use it (it is also used for the viola da gamba and the alto trombone – rarer instruments than the viola!)

It is a little known fact that violists have to read not only their own clef, but also the treble clef, as when we play high passages it is much easier to read in treble clef than read millions of ledger lines. This is fine, but it does lead to difficulties when sight-reading when the clef changes half way through a line (or even worse, at the end of a line), and also embarrassing moments when you play loudly in the wrong clef…

Why is the viola sometimes called the ‘Cinderella’ of the orchestra?

The viola has been under-represented as a solo instrument and unfairly maligned as an orchestral instrument (see below), leading to some calling it the ‘cinderella’ of the orchestra. In recent times, beginning with pioneers such as William Primrose and Lionel Tertis (who wrote books called ‘My Viola’ and I and ‘Cinderella No More’), the viola has risen to prominence as a solo instrument in its own right, with more and more works being composed for it.

The viola repertoire is relatively small compared with many instruments, but given that the instrument took a long time to be recognised as a solo instrument, many major works have been written for it such as the famous Walton and Bartok Viola Concertos, and works by Britten, Vaughan Williams, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Clarke, York Bowen, Penderecki and Schnittke.

Aren’t viola players just failed violinists?

Absolutely not! Contrary to popular belief, playing the viola is actually harder than playing the violin. It is a larger and heavier instrument to hold, requires a more robust bow arm as the strings are slightly thicker and require more effort to make vibrate (especially the C string), and the notes are further apart than on the violin, making it harder to stretch some notes. Overall, it is harder to make a good sound on the viola than it is on the violin because of its larger size, but the sound when it comes out is gorgeously rich and full.

The commonly held belief that viola players are ‘failed violinist’ may have come about because violinists sometimes switch to viola, especially if there are not enough viola players in a group, so if a mediocre violinist was asked to play viola then of course they would play the viola badly too. Or violinists are simply jealous of the richer sound that we as viola players make! 🙂

I find that when I switch to violin (mainly only for teaching purposes, as I am definitely a true violist at heart!) everything seems very easy and so small, like playing a toy version of my viola!

I’ve never heard of any famous viola players.

Most people if you asked them probably would not be able to name any famous viola players, but if you do your homework you’ll find that many of the most famous composers including Mozart, Bach, Haydn and Beethoven played the viola and composed music for it, if only in combination with other instruments – Mozart is said to have directed the first performance of his Sinfonia Concertante from the viola. Other composers who were viola players include Britten, Frank Bridge, Schubert, Dvorak, Rebecca Clarke and Paul Hindemith, suggesting that as a composer, the viola was a popular choice, perhaps because of its role as a harmony instrument.

Many famous violinists also play (or played) the viola, such as Nigel Kennedy, Maxim Vengerov, David Oistrakh, Yehudi Menuhin and even Paganini, so it was not nearly as neglected an instrument as most people think! The pioneers of the viola as a solo instrument included the British violists Lionel Tertis and William Primrose, and notable viola virtuosos of today include Lawrence Power, Yuri Bashmet, Nobuko Imai and Jane Atkins.

A good article about viola players is here

Why would you choose to play the viola and not the violin? Isn’t it boring not playing the tune?

There are lots of reasons to choose the viola over the violin (no offence to any violinist colleagues!):

  • The viola produces a richer, darker tone and can be more expressive than the violin
  • As mentioned before, the viola is harder to play than the violin, making it more of a technical challenge. People will often tell you that playing the viola part is ‘easy’, or easier than the first violin part, which is true to an extent as first violin parts are often stratospherically high, but there are different challenges in viola parts such as playing fast on thicker strings.
  • I personally find it very satisfying to be in the middle of the texture, both in orchestras and in chamber music, underpinning the harmony – I don’t mind not playing the tune all the time!
  • Having said that, many composers give the viola section really great bits of tune, which conductors often refer to as ‘viola moments’!

Why are there so many viola jokes?

Viola players have a hard time of it. Take the following exchange on facebook:

Q: Why would a viola player constantly go to his locker five times a day?

A: To read the instructions: instrument on the left, bow on the right

To which a viola player commented:  ‘What are you talking about? Isn’t it viola on the right?’

And 2 other comments:

‘Nonsense. Everybody knows viola players can’t read.’

‘Wrong: a viola player who would practice 5 times a day would soon become a musician and start playing the violin.’

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of viola jokes. They all draw ammunition from the assertion that violists are failed violinists (see above), so we are credited with various characteristics in the jokes: not knowing how to hold our instruments (above), playing timidly (eg How do you get a viola-player to play pp tremolo?’ – ‘Write solo in big letters over the part’), so old that we are dead (eg What’s the difference between a viola and a coffin? The coffin has the dead person on the inside) and just plain incompetent (eg How can you tell when a violist is playing out of tune? The bow is moving). All I have to say is for all of these jokes, try replacing the word ‘viola’ with another instrument – the joke will work just as well with practically any other instrument.

Viola players (for the most part) tend to be friendly, approachable and long suffering – perhaps because we have been maligned for so long!

See this article  for a good description of the viola, viola players and a mention of viola jokes.

Why do violas come in many sizes?

Unlike with violins, cellos and double basses, there is no such thing as a ‘full size viola’. Violas can range in size from just larger than a violin (which has a body length of 14 inches) to massive violas with body lengths of 17 to 18 inches. Most viola players will choose an instrument in the range of 15-16.5 inches, as these are the instruments that are comfortable to play in size and produce a good resonant tone; the smaller the instrument, the smaller the sound, especially on the C string. The size of your viola is a personal choice based on what size is comfortable for you relative to the sound of the viola. I have played violas ranging from 15 to 16 and a quarter inches, and my current one is 15 and 3/8 inches – relatively small, but it produces a nice resonant sound as it is quite generously proportioned widthways.

Does anyone start playing on the viola? Why does it seem like most viola players start on the violin?

People can and do start playing on the viola itself, but due to its larger size, most small children who start playing will start on the violin and then move to the viola when their hands and arms are big enough. Having said this, you can use a small violin strung as a viola (but this really does not sound good, especially on the C string), and there are now violin-viola conversions available, which help small violins sound more resonant like violas. These are a bit drastic, as a small hole is drilled through the front of the violin and the bridge is placed in direct contact with the soundpost, but they do sound better than a simple violin strung as a viola. I cannot emphasise enough that this should never be attempted at home or with a violin other than a cheap factory made one.

Can you play fiddle tunes on the viola?

Yes, definitely! Fiddle tunes transposed down a string work well on the viola, especially slow airs, as they suit the mellow tone of the instrument. The viola can also be used very effectively to accompany fiddlers using drones and chords.

2013 projects

I still can’t believe we’re in 2013! It all sounds so space age…

I’ve started my new job and it’s going well – I am learning a lot about obesity and literature searching, and I have discovered the joys of Endnote and never having to write out a reference again! Academics and essay writers take note: Endnote or a similar referencing manager (there are free ones) will save you literally hours  of tedious referencing and bibliography writing. (I sound like they are paying me to advertise them, which they are not!) Anyway, I think I will really enjoy my work at the medical school, even though it is quite weird being a ‘staff’ member where I used to be a student (I’m now in a different dept though, so not as weird).

One of the brilliant things about my job is that it it so flexible, which allows me to continue teaching and playing in stuff while still doing the work I need to do. This year, I have resolved to do more playing, especially chamber music, so with that in mind I have arranged a trio with some friends which I hope will work out really nicely. Other things I am doing this year are:

  • I will start going to the baroque orchestra at the St Andrews Music Centre, run by my good friend and amazing cellist Claire Garabedian; I think I will get to borrow a baroque bow which will be fun!
  • I’ll continue helping out at StAFCO (St Andrews and Fife Community Orchestra), taking occasional sectionals
  • I have two lunchtime concerts coming up in February and March, both with experienced pianist Audrey Innes who I have played many a concert with! For both concerts, we are playing a programme consisting of Hindemith viola sonata Op 11 No 4 which is very romantic and fantastical as well as being incredibly dramatic and a huge piece to play, combined with a short piece by Frank Bridge (also a viola player) and Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro (originally a horn piece), a real gem of a piece. The concert in St Andrews is Weds Feb 27th at 1.10pm in the Younger Hall (note 5 mins earlier start time), and the concert in Dundee is on Friday 8th March at 1.20pm in the University Chaplaincy.
  • Along with a friend, we are trying to organise concerts in St Andrews and at a stately home near Broughty Ferry of Haydn’s Seven Last Words for string quartet, to coincide with Lent. Hopefully we can confirm these soon.
  • Of course, I’ll continue with my teaching. I’ve got a new pupil (an adult learner interested in fiddle) starting on friday!

Monty is still being incredibly sweet – he’s dozing on my lap, purring contentedly. His latest trick is to attack packets of loo roll, creating a large amount of mess and very holey loo roll, but he seems to think he is saving us from a terrible tissue monster…

Business cards

So I finally took the plunge and ordered business cards. Here they are:

The image is the f hole from my viola, lightened slightly so that the text stands out. I think they look quite good (and so they should, they amount they cost!) I used the website goodprint as they let you upload your own background, after investigating other websites such as moo and vistaprint and finding that I couldn’t do it on those sites (maybe that was just me though…) I feel a bit silly for not putting this blog address on too though, meh. Oh well, now all I’ve got to do is find people to give them to!