I have played the violin for many years, and recently I was seduced by a viola.

At first I thought of using the viola for backup and improvisation.  I love jamming, and I felt that the viola would enhance any group with its rich, dark, sound.  It would also be very good for connecting the sounds in a group of mixed instruments.  It wasn't long until I discovered what a wonderful, severely underrated melody instrument the viola is. 

I started to learn about my viola by playing it in different ways.  I played songs I know, practiced improvising with recorded music, and played some of my written violin music.  For the latter I cheated.  I just pretended that the four strings of the viola were the same as those of the violin.  I experimented by playing music in major, minor, and modal keys.  I tried playing the same tune on the two upper and then the two lower strings of the viola.  I also tried playing in the first position and higher positions.  In these ways, I have been befriending my viola.

As part of my education, I turned to that most useful website, Youtube, and listened to violas played solo or in small groups.  I discovered a classical violist I adore, Yuri Bashmet, who has done a lot to bring the viola out of its role as the poor relation of the string world.

I got some good advice from friends.  The most important thing they told me was to use more bow pressure than I would on the violin.

On my luthier's recommendation, I bought the book "From Violin to Viola:  A Transitional Approach" by Harvey S. Whistler, and it has been a great help.  The very first page of text presents several fundamental concepts which have boosted my understanding and the quality of my playing immensely.  Now I've started on his exercises, and I'm trying to learn to read the alto clef, as well. 

Nov. 15, 2010

I read through some tunes in Jerry Holland's "Collection of Fiddle Tunes," which is a gem of a collection of Scottish and Cape Breton fiddle tunes, some written by Jerry Holland himself.  I found that I can get the open C string to ring when I play it between two notes on the G string.  Playing detache or staccato helps.

I worked on bow placement, trying to find sounding point and place my bow there.  It was especially hard on the C string, but using more bow pressure helped.  I tried to keep my right  elbow back so that bow looked like it was on a crazy angle, since a friend who had observed me told me that this way I moved the bow straight.  Whenever I concentrated on something else, I forgot this.  I tried to engrain it in me by playing scales, watching, and listening to myself.

I reread the intro to Whistler's book "From Violin to Viola" and started working on some of the techniques he discussed.

  • C string resonance:  I tried playing scales with sustained tones, cresc., decresc., cresc. to decresc and vice versa using all four strings.  Next, do exs. on p3.
  • I tried 4th finger and open string exs. on p5 (4th finger, then open string, then both together).  Keep repeating this to stregthen 4th finger.  Ouch!
  • Worked on octave exs. on p. 5.  Keep repeating this to strengthen 4th finger.  Ouch!
Also tried playing Blackberry Blossom (Fiddler's Fake Book version) because it had helped me strengthen my fourth finger on violin.

After doing these exs., my fourth finger hurt.  I
definitely need to strengthen it more.

I can't read alto clef, and Whistler's method did not work for me.  I will start writing in note names under notes, as I have my beginning violin students do.

Nov. 21, 2010

I stopped playing for a few days because I had a migraine, and I paid a price for it.  My shoulder muscle got tired much more quickly than it used to.  I must remember to use a rolled up towel under my left arm.  I started with a large towel and then I went to a smaller one.  I think I also lost the little bit of strength I had gained in my fourth finger.

I have a new routine for starting my practice session.  I start with scales and arpeggios, and I say the name of each note out loud as I play it.  My goal is to remember the names of the notes as I play them. 

The next thing I do is look at Whistler's book, the ultimate source of knowledge for me.  I reread the parts of the front page which I have underlined.  An important one is "A constant effort should be made to produce as large a tone as possible, but the tone at all times should be drawn from the instrument and not forced from it."  The very first time I teach a beginning student how to use the bow, I say, "One of the most important things to do, if you are a beginning  student or a famous professional, is to make a pretty sound."  I'm teaching myself to play the viola the same way.  Sometimes it helps to think of scooping the bow into the string.

I always do some of Whistler's exercises for building fourth finger strength, and they are always difficult.

Another important commandment from Whistler is "The regular practice of sustained tones, crescendos, and crescendo-diminuendos on the "C" string will do considerable toward developing resonance on the lower string of the viola."  I have been following this commandment with very good results.  It teaches me to play with a steady bowstroke, and it gives me the feel of playing forte, piano, crescendo, and decrescendo.  I find it especially useful for getting the feel of playing piano while trying to produce as large a tone as possible.  These two actions seem mutually contradictory, but when I try to do both at the same time, it worked!  It really helps me get the feel of playing with different dynamics, especially piano, and keeping my bowstrokes steady on the "C" string.  This work gave me the feeling of greatest progress in tonight's practice session.

As usual, I played a few tunes on various strings to hear how they sound.  This was fun, too.

Nov. 23, 2010

I find that being a violin teacher really helps me learn to play the viola.  As I explained on Nov. 21, I tell my students that one of the most important things to do is to make a pretty sound.  I'm working hard, trying different things to get the best possible tone from my viola.

My beginning students work hard to learn to read sheet music, and now I really sympathize with them.  I'm having a devil of a time learning to read alto clef.  I have my students write the note names below the notes in the pieces they are playing.  I tried to write in the note names of a simple exercise in auto clef yesterday, and it was infuriating and confusing.

I know the importance of placing the bow halfway between the bridge and the fingerboard and moving it parallel to the bridge.  I also know from teaching that you can not see and judge these positions correctly because of parallax.  You have to learn them by feel.  One day a friend came by to visit when I was practicing my viola.  I told him about bow placement and movement and asked him to watch me and give me some feedback.  He told me that my bow was placed over the edge of the fingerboard and angled badly.  I said, "Oh, good.  Thanks for telling me that.  I know just what to do because I teach my students how to do it."  I went across the room and stood with my back against the wall, imagining that my right shoulder or shoulder blade was pinned to the wall.  That stance forced me to put my bow in the right place and move it correctly.  I played for a while, focusing on how my bow arm felt and then walked away from the wall and continued bowing -- correctly.  The next time my friend came by, I had him watch my bowing, and he confirmed that I was bowing correctly.

Nov. 25, 2010

I've been listening to Sting's album "If on a Winter's Night," and I sensed that some of the music had a dark quality which would probably be well suited to the viola.  I picked up my viola and started playing along with him.  Fortunately, he played in viola-friendly keys.  My viola especially liked "The Snow It Melts the Soonest."  I played the song with Sting over and over and decided to learn it by heart.  I will look up the lyrics.  My viola and I really like that song.

Nov. 28, 2010

I started with the cresc. / decresc. exercises.  I am getting increasingly irritated by the shortcomings of my bow, which is novice level.  I know from playing the violin how important the bow is for adding character to the notes.  I did some research on the Web and found that what my luthier told me is definitely true:  "Everything costs more for the viola than for the violin."  I can forget about buying a carbon fiber bow for now.  I'll buy a wood bow that's better than my current bow.  The luthier's shop is closed tomorrow, but I'm going the next day to buy a bow.

I also know, from my experience playing the violin, what a strong effect the strings have on the sound of the violin.  My viola currently has Pirastro Tonicas, which are considered bright.  Since the viola has a dark tone, I thought it would be better with darker strings.  I've used both Tonicas (bright) and Dominants (dark) on my violin to good effect.  I looked up the prices of a set of four violin Dominants and four viola Dominants at shar.music.com, a respected string instrument store.  A set of four violin strings cost $49.99, the viola strings, $82.00.

I worked on memorizing "The Snow It Melts the Soonest."  I read and learned the lyrics because the phrasing is more clear to me that way.  I found a video of it as played live in concert with Sting and two other musicians.  The tune was introduced by some sort of small (Northumbrian?) bagpipes.  There was a break of sorts during the set, when Sting hummed something other than the melody of the song, Sting and another guitarist played a prominent role, and a violist played some harmony.  Ahhhh, that viola sounded good.  The filming of the musicians, their hands, and their instruments is extremely good in this clip.

Nov. 29, 2010

I picked up my viola to play for a few minutes, and when I looked at my watch, two hours had gone by.

I went back to Youtube and listened to a few different musicians play "The Snow It Melts the Soonest."  The most unusual rendition was by Realtime (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQiftbTTE_o).  They played and sang it like a jolly, fun song.  Their rhythm was decidedly Scottish.  In fact, it was about as close to a strathspey as possible for a singer to handle.  Then I found another version by Tony Wilson and Mick Roberts, who also played it with a strong Scottish flavor, but I really liked their version. It was decidedly  dark.  Besides the vocals, there was a cello which emphasized the dark tone.  In the verbal description, the musicians explained the symbolism in the song that told a tale of "love, deceit, and loss."  The visuals were photos of Northumberland, which looked beautiful in a harsh, inhospitable way.

I picked up my viola to play along, and it was really easy.  I had no trouble at all, even the very first time.  I've had this experience a number of times with other songs.  The explanation is surprisingly simple:  It was played in a different key (D minor instead of C minor).  Although it was very easy to learn, I preferred the other version (C minor) because it sounded darker on my viola.  Such seemingly small things can make such a big difference in music.

Go to p 2 for entries from Dec., 2010