I published this on violinist.com a while ago but forgot to put it here. Whoops!
After I made the decision to delve deeper into the viola, I scheduled a second lesson with my Professional Violist Friend. (Some of you may remember PVF from his appearance in Part 2 of Emily Visits Violaland.)
We talk a lot on this board about good teachers, without often defining what a “good teacher” is. Whatever a “good teacher” is, I have one in PVF. It’s always a little disorienting when you befriend someone, and you think you’re getting a handle on who they are, and then suddenly they surprise you with a random blinding talent. PVF’s teaching ability has been one such pleasant shock.
I didn’t have a phone or a watch on me, so I’m not positive how long we spent working, but it was over an hour. PVF made good use of the time, chatting, demonstrating, exaggerating, tweaking, thinking, notating, singing, dancing, and even sharing some inconsequential viola-y gossip in between the brain-twisting. That night I wrote a list of the things we discussed, and I came up with around forty. Talk about intense.
The issues we discussed fell under a few main headers:
I went into the lesson stoked to show off my new relaxed bow arm. That had been the main focus of my last lesson with PVF in January. I’d really taken his suggestions to heart, and I’d spent a lot of time in front of the mirror, and I was finally feeling confident I was playing (drumroll, please) Tension Free! As soon as I finished the Prelude from the first Bach suite, PVF gently pointed out that the tension brought out by the difficulties of the string-changes had not actually disappeared; instead, it had just…moved to my left hand.
And so the endless game of Tension Whack A Mole continues!
I was instructed to play the notes above the fingerboard without touching the string, and then to stop them as lightly as possible. Think of the third and fourth fingers as the base for contact instead of the first finger. Let the elbow be flexible and move around to support them. My fourth finger wasn’t coming down smoothly; it was either in an up position or a down position, and when it did come down, it whacked the string with unnecessary force. To help, PVF prescribed a nerdy tabletop finger exercise that will cause people to look at me strangely in public.
Within a few minutes, everything began feeling much more relaxed. It felt easy and effortless and exhilarating. It really is surprising how little weight is needed to stop strings, even on a viola.
One passage (measure 19 of the Bach G-major prelude if you’re following along at home) was coming out consistently problematic. It was a descending line of sixteenth notes with a simple down-up-down-up bowing pattern. But I was pulling on the downs so much that it was all very choppy. PVF instructed to accentuate the up-bows. I tried that. Then he told me to accentuate even more. And even more. I finally ended up feeling like I was making all the downs staccato and all of the ups a sweeping legato. “That,” he said, “was the smoothest you’ve played it yet.” Well, okay, then. Once again, a reminder that what we feel under our fingers is not always what the audience hears.
I was so busy with the notes themselves that I wasn’t paying much attention to the dynamics. “Exaggerate those,” PVF encouraged. “Play completely tastelessly.” I tried. “No, not tasteless enough.” I tried again. “Nope, still way too tasteful. Break up the bows, do something. Make it just totally over the top. Feel what that feels like, and then apply that feeling to the correct bowing.” Alas, I never did lose all my taste entirely, but I’ll work on it. This was rather a liberating idea. I’m going to have to apply it to other instances when I’m being too straight-laced. Sometimes we need to allow ourselves to go wild…if only for an experiment to see how far we can push our intensity of expression.
Structure of the Prelude!
PVF suggested that it might be interesting to think of the notes after the fermata at measure 22 as a classical era cadenza. Measures 20 to the fermata at 22 are the orchestra with their closing thoughts; the fermata at 22 to the C at 29 is the cadenza; the C at 29 is the orchestra gently coming back in. Thinking that way lent a real sense of cohesiveness and momentum to the second page of the movement.
My Skepticism About the Allemande!
For some reason I have always found this movement problematic. I don’t know why. It just seemed kind of…there? Kind of long-winded? I don’t know. We’d spent a while with the Prelude and were pondering going to something else entirely when I turned the page to the Allemande and made the fateful, offhand comment that I thought it was boring.
I was interrupted. “Um, no. Actually this is probably the strongest movement in the suite.”
“Yeah. It’s so strong that sometimes at auditions they will ask for just this specific movement.”
“Okay,” he said, stepping forward and smoothing down the page. “We really need to work on this.”
So I played through the first half of the Allemande. And even as I played it, after just having gotten done working on phrasing and such in the Prelude, I knew I’d been approaching it all wrong. There was so much subtlety there that I hadn’t been seeing or feeling before. Phrases echoing one another, long passages stretching for line after line, breaths in and breaths out. I hadn’t been hearing long-windedness; I’d been hearing long lines, and getting the two mixed up. As PVF admonished, “If you can’t find the phrase in Bach, it’s your fault.”
At measure 13, when the music switched to treble, I made a mistake I’d memorized. “This is interesting,” PVF said. “You’re reading this wrong. And you know what? This part is in your clef! You’re reading all this alto clef without a problem, and then you made the biggest mistake you’ve made yet while reading your own clef.”
Heh. Maybe I am a violist, after all.
PVF pointed out the dramatic leap of a seventh at measure 13. “Look at that seventh! How can you say that seventh is boring? How can you possibly say such a thing?”
Yeah. He does have a point.
We worked quite a bit on phrasing. The first four measures are a prime example of what can be done with a seemingly simple set of notes. The pattern starts out with a G that comes back over and over. Don’t emphasize that as much, because it doesn’t change for quite a few measures, and it can start to feel monotonous. Pay the most attention to the changing notes on top. Notice what chords they make. What narrative can that chord pattern be transferred into? Confidence, followed by a slightly less confident thought, followed by true doubt, followed by encouraging reassurance? Try playing the chords unbroken. Don’t they sound familiar? They should; they’re in the Sarabande. No note is an island. Everything is part of something else. The prelude may be an unrelenting series of sixteenth notes, and for the most part it is, but it also has a narrative arc. Don’t be so caught up in what finger goes where and what angle the elbows have to be at that you lose sight of what you’re saying. This is an easy trap to fall in. Communication sometimes takes a back seat to learning how to actually do the darn thing. But that is like spending hours and hours learning how to clean a stove, and then not actually baking anything. What’s the point (unless you get some weird twisted thrill from stove-cleaning?).
And so on and so forth.
“It’s all there,” he said, to sum the afternoon up. “The technique is there. Trust it’s there. Now it needs humanity.”
Humanity: easier said than done.
As we were packing up, we somehow got onto the topic of what size instrument I was playing. “What size is that one again?” he said.
“A fourteen.” I took off the shoulder rest and slowly turned it around, looking at the front, the side, the back. “It’s nice for the size and for the price, but…” I thought back to all the work I’ve done with relaxation, all the hours I’ve spent in front of the mirror. All the dismayed expressions I’ve made when the rich gutsy viola sound I wanted just wasn’t there.
I looked up. “But I’m ready for the fifteen.”
PVF smiled. Muahaha, I’m sure he was thinking. Mua-ha-ha-ha-ha.