In the thrilling first installment of Emily Visits Violaland, Emily decided to take up a second stringed instrument, gorged on viola jokes for the final time, and picked up a fourteen-inch rental that sounded surprisingly good for the size and price-point. Now comes…Part 2! Read on for the earthshattering musical secrets she discovered while taking her first lesson from a professional violist friend (known in this and other Violaland installments as PVF).
PVF began the lesson by giving an A on the piano. I drew my bow across the string and suddenly had the terrifying realization – (in dramatic cinematic slow motion) – that the string had unwound by an entire fifth while I was hauling the case through various bus and train stations, hotel lobbies, and pedestrian malls in subzero wind chills. I flushed, ashamed of this ominous start to my viola career, and started to raise my arm to turn the peg, when -
“Oh!” I said. “That’s not my A, is it?”
PVF smiled approvingly.
I took more time tuning than I usually do, worried that the cold weather had done a number on the instrument. Thankfully once I remembered, you know, where the strings were, I found that everything was mostly still in tune, but I winced nonetheless as I played the G and C together.
“What’s wrong?” PVF said.
“The C-string,” I said. I tried to explain that it didn’t feel right, but I couldn’t come up with the words. I guess my ears still aren’t used to the presence of this new pitch, and the C sounded, for lack of a better word, weird.
“Actually, most of us consider C-strings to be an advantage,” PVF said. Mmm. Touché.
Once the tuning was completed, I stood and awaited a deluge of violistic wisdom.
“So,” he said. “How long have you had the viola?”
“Um….two or three days.”
“How are you with the clef?”
“Um….I don’t know it.”
“Any of it?”
I suddenly had the fleeting thought that maybe it hadn’t been the greatest idea in the world to schedule a lesson with an extremely busy professional musician without even knowing the clef of the instrument he makes a living playing. I wondered if I was being A) really brave or B) really stupid.
But if my lack of knowledge worried him, he didn’t show it, because he proceeded to bring out an alarmingly thick clump of sheet music. “Okay. So,” he said. “Here are two things you are going to come to hate. Ševčík,” and he dropped a bundle on the stand, “and Schradieck,” and he dropped another one. They came down like bombs. Then at the back was a single sheet of paper. “Oh, and then some Bach, so you don’t want to kill yourself by the end of the hour.”
Yes, this was going to be fun.
I’m one of the few violinists in the world who has spent more time reading about Ševčík’s life and students than I have actually playing his exercises. (Fun factoid: Ševčík had his eye whacked out by an E-string that snapped in his face. When I told PVF this, he said, “Did he really? He sure took it out on the rest of us.” Truer words have never been spoken.) So the Ševčík was…I’m ashamed to admit it…new to me. I know. I’m a very bad violinist. But none of my teachers ever introduced me to him, and I never knew where to even start. Anyway, we started out with some measures from the Opus 8. I was getting lost intonation-wise, and not sure if what I was playing was the same thing that was on the music, and being my melodramatic and perfectionistic self, I began to despair and wonder if I maybe wasn’t cut out for the viola after all.
Then he said one sentence that cleared it all up. “You’re not used to the half and the whole steps.” Over the last twelve years I’ve unconsciously absorbed what marks on the clef consist of half and whole steps. On the violin, you see a note on the bottom line of the clef and then a note on the bottom space of the clef, and if you’re in C-major, you know it will be a half-step. You don’t need to consciously think “E to F, that’s a half-step, so fingers close together”; you just know. With alto clef, when you see the same thing, it’s a whole-step. So you actually have to stop and think “F to G, that’s a whole step, so fingers wider apart.” This relationship between notes is going to take just as much getting used to as the actual note names, and for some reason the thought had never occurred to me. To prove the intonation issues were mainly clef-related, we fast-forwarded to a portion where the music was written in treble, and of course things immediately became much easier. I let out a breath of relief.
I also learned that it’s important to be able to recognize larger intervals. It’s obviously much easier to identify intervals at sight than to think “okay, so if this note is on the second line from the top, I need to go down to think what string I’m on, and that’s D, so now I’m on the D-string, okay, so now I need to add my fingers in, so that would be E, so first finger down, okay, well, I think this is the right pitch…” I’m more familiar with interval-recognizing as it applies to piano-playing, but that will be changing. If I can glance at two notes and see they are a fifth apart, and I know where to put my finger on one of them, all I have to do is use that same finger a string up or down. Done, and done.
Another thing that helped immeasurably was PVF playing through each measure once before I began. That way I could have it in my head and focus more on the actual physical portion of playing the instrument rather than putting all the brain-power into deciphering the clef. I’m finding I can do better work by copying something tricky I’ve just heard than by trying to read it. I used to think this was a bad thing – that it was cheating or something – but I guess it’s not, as long as you don’t rely on copying by ear all the time.
When we moved onto the Schradieck, my prospects grew brighter. I knew the Schradieck; I’ve used those exercises for years on the violin. So I played through a few of those.
“See, look. You’re reading alto clef,” PVF said.
“Um, no. Not really. I’m remembering the violin exercises and then hearing them in my head and then playing them by ear.”
“But that’s how you learn alto clef,” he said.
At one point I said, “I’m wondering if I should just give up reading in treble for a couple weeks.”
“No,” he said firmly. “No need to do that.”
I looked at him, dubious. “Are you sure?”
“Positive. It’s just a separate place in the brain. You have treble clef, bass clef, and now alto clef.” He spoke as if this was no big deal, as if picking up a new clef is as simple as picking up a third book from the library, or a third bag of groceries at the grocery store, but the idea boggled my poor brain. However, PVF clearly knows what he’s doing, so I’ll set aside my doubt (for now) and listen to him.
Especially during the Schradieck, PVF saw some tension in the left hand. Turns out I was overcompensating with pressure because I was playing a viola. It’s big, of course, but it’s not so big I need to press down on the strings like I’m white-knuckling a safety bar on a roller-coaster.
“What would your thumb do if I tried flicking it off the neck?” PVF asked. “Would it fall right off or stay glued?”
“Um.” I actually had to think about this one – to stop and focus, because I wasn’t paying attention to my left hand. “It would be sticky,” I decided. “It would come off, but it could be looser.”
“Try a scale lightly touching the strings, like you’re playing in harmonics.”
That helped a great deal. It seems that if the viola is going to teach me anything, it’s going to be efficiency. Because with the viola, it seems as if you’re either efficient, or in pain. There’s not much of a middle ground…at least for me. I can get away with certain bad habits on the violin that I can’t get away with on the viola.
Although the Ševčík and the Schradieck didn’t engender thoughts of suicide, we finished up with Bach anyway. He’d brought along the Courante from the first cello suite. This was a bit of good luck, as it’s a piece I’ve played many times before on violin (albeit years ago), and of course I’ve heard the cello suite many times. PVF isolated the first line, and off I went.
The Courante was more of a Dirge the first couple of times through, but after a few times I found I honestly was remembering where certain notes were. There were some unnecessarily dramatic pregnant pauses as I calculated what note was where, but by the end of the session…I was reading a portion of a movement of a Bach cello suite in alto clef. Not particularly well, and not particularly quickly, but I was doing it. I thought I’d have to play something like scales or Ševčík or flashcards for weeks before I could even begin to look at something like Bach. But I was wrong; Bach turned out to be just as helpful at helping to lodge the clef into my skull as either scales or Ševčík.
There was obviously much more to the lesson, but a lot of it is stuff that’s difficult to explain in words and would be much better demonstrated in-person. But here are some random tidbits to keep in mind for any violinists who are thinking about taking up viola…
- The viola has a tendency to droop more than the violin because it’s bigger and heavier. (At least it did at my lesson.) Resist the temptation to let the scroll drop; it will affect your ability draw a straight bow.
- Actually, full straight bows in general become even more important than they are on a violin, if that’s even possible.
- Despite the instrument’s larger size, keep the left elbow tucked under; the fingers always need to be right there on top of the string ready to fall on the fingerboard.
- Breathe while you play. Exhale fully. This will help keep your right shoulder low and loose and help your tone. (Who knew exhaling would help your tone on a string instrument? I for one had never made the connection…)
- I was having difficulties getting into and finding higher positions on the viola and I couldn’t understand why. It turns out it’s because I’ve always used the old violinistic trick of knowing you’re in third position by feeling the rib of the instrument lightly on the side of your hand. But not all violas’ third positions are located there. And mine isn’t; if I feel for the ribs, I end up about half a step sharp. Hence the feeling of being completely lost.
- Don’t ever, ever tell cellists you like the Bach suites on viola. They will come and kill you in your sleep. Probably brutally and with an endpin.
I ended the session fried but inspired. “This is going to help a lot of issues that I’ve just skimmed over on the violin,” I said, cheerfully nerdy.
We then got to talking briefly a little about the differences between the two instruments. I said that although I love it, the sound of the viola has a tendency to make me melancholy.
“Embrace the sadness,” PVF said, with a glint in his eye.
So what have we learned from this installment of Emily Visits Violaland?
Lesson Number 1: Alto clef is easier than it first appears.
Lesson Number 2: Transcriptions of and familiarity with the Bach cello suites are very helpful.
Lesson Number 3: To help avoid frustration and delusions of idiocy, it’s best for violinists who want to make the switch or the addition to take a lesson or two from a well-trained violist (emphasis on “well-trained”) (did I mention the violist should be well-trained?). Obviously the instruments look deceptively similar, but there are a lot of differences to keep in mind, and only someone who has done a lot of thinking and learning about the mechanics of the viola is going to do you any good. Don’t go to any old yahoo who just plays the viola on the side.
Clearly I have plenty to work on. We’ll see if I can make a dent in some of those etudes; maybe sometime in the spring I can visit PVF again. Actually I have to, because I never did remember to ask about the secret violist handshake. Maybe I can learn that after I get alto clef firmly into my fingers.
Coming up in future installments of Emily Visits Violaland…
- Emily wonders what it will take for her to think of herself as “a real violist.” Why does it feel like she’s not a real violist even though she’s obviously playing viola? Do she have to play a fifteen-inch instrument? Does she have to learn a viola sonata or concerto? Does she need to play viola in an orchestra? Where will that dividing line be?
- Ševčík and Schradieck. Lots and lots of Ševčík and Schradieck…
- Thoughts of suicide.
- (No, just kidding.)
- But she may be murdered by her neighbors…