This week marks my fourth as a wayfaring stranger in Violaland. I thought that now might be a good time to take stock and figure out where to go from here.
I’ve been playing an hour of viola a day, as well as an hour of violin. When I first asked for advice for a violinist taking on viola, someone mentioned not to slack on the violin. I remember thinking, “Thanks, Captain Obvious,” but here’s the weird thing: once you start, it’s not obvious. It’s so easy to focus on one or the other, and to start gravitating toward either the sonic thrill of a new instrument or the familiar comfort of an old one. But you must not allow yourself to backslide on the fiddle, and that in turn means committing to the viola wholeheartedly. The viola is not a side-project. So far I’ve combatted favoritism by telling myself that for every half hour spent at the viola, I have to guarantee a half hour will be spent at the violin, and vice versa. I also mix up my practice sessions; every day I alternate which instrument I start with. So far it seems to be working.
Technically, all sorts of things have been changing…for the better, I think. (I hope.)
Most of the changes have been in the right arm. Right now, I’m focusing on relaxing the shoulder and elevating the elbow. I had a brief discussion with Professional Violist Friend (PVF) about this at the lesson. With the relatively low elbow I’d been employing before, he wondered if I’d ever had any pain or discomfort in my right arm. I was so tempted to cackle bitterly before launching into a detailed description of my battle with right arm nerve pain, in the kind of overwrought explanation that an old lady would give at a family reunion when an unsuspecting relative asks about her bum hip. (Thankfully, I resisted the temptation to go into all the awful details.) But the truth is I’ve struggled with bouts of unbearable nerve pain for a decade now. It comes from the pinky and the ring finger and goes all the way past the elbow, into the neck, and down to the toes. (For those who don’t know, I have health problems that exacerbate nerve pain. I’m aware that’s an extreme physical response.) Anyway, after some experimentation, I’m wondering if the low right elbow made those two fingers stiff. Over time, stiffness led to pain. Add in tension from a lowered chin and high shoulder and gritted teeth, and voilà. (Or should I say viola? … Maybe not.) I’m wondering if, with the higher elbow, maybe the code to nerve-pain-free playing has been cracked. I say “maybe” because it seems too wonderful to actually be true, and I don’t want to jinx it. And also because it’s humiliating to think I’ve sobbed in pain because of two stiff fingers. Anyway, this month my bow arm has felt much more relaxed and efficient, both on the violin and the viola. I’ve also taken on the no-doubt creepy-looking habit of closing my eyes halfway to three-quarters of the way. It might make me look high, but as long as nobody’s watching… It’s an expression that helps release facial tension.
The left arm has not been without its adjustments, either. I’ve decided that if I can’t see my elbow through the c-bout, it’s not tucked under enough. I need all the help I can get to stop those strings. Obviously this might be too extreme of a position for other players with different body types, and at times it’s almost too extreme for me (especially when I’m playing on the A-string). But I’ve still found it’s a good goal to shoot for, since I usually fall a little short of it, anyway. This change in position also necessitates some changes with the left wrist, since it’s tempting to arc it away from the neck. I’m having to bring the wrist in more so that it’s more in line with the arm.
Clef-reading has been coming along surprisingly well. I keep waiting for a massive roadblock, but it hasn’t come. The progress is slow but steady. To give a general idea of where I’m at, I can sight-read maybe three-quarters of the first Bach cello suite (not up to tempo, but the notes are largely there). Schradieck has been my savior; it’s just worked so well, especially since I know the exercises from violin. The exercises on one string (the D string in the transcription I’ve been using) really really really hammer the notes home. In fact, it works so well that I’m planning on transcribing it for the other strings. Ševčík , surprisingly, has not been nearly as helpful, although it too has been worth doing, if only to practice the elusive art of shifting on the viola. (Perhaps it will become more relevant once I get alto-clef in first position mastered.) One area I’m still very weak in is naming the notes. I know where to put my fingers, but I can’t tell you what note that is without taking a second or two to think about it. I suppose this will come in time. I guess when I think about it, twenty-five or so hours of playing is not a lot of time to totally learn a new clef. And I’m not a prodigy by any stretch of the imagination. So I’ll cut myself some slack on that one.
The thing that has helped the most by far in note-reading is the idea of intervals. Consequently, certain passages with notes a third or fourth or fifth apart come relatively easily. Things with wider jumps are still a little slower, especially when string-crossings are involved. And don’t ask me to read anything in a key with more than a couple sharps or flats…
I make a point to sight-read something every day. Right now I’m working on the viola part to the Mozart G-major violin-viola duo. It’s slow, but… I’m hoping that once I get my orchestra music for the semester I will start picking up sight-reading skills faster. Maybe eventually – gasp – I will be able to play in positions without my brain splattering all over the music stand. That would be a cool and welcome development.
Another awesome unexpected benefit has been mastery of second position…on violin. Yeah, I’m not sure how that happened, either. But something about learning first position in alto clef made second position in treble totally click. (???) This is something I’ve been struggling on and off with for five years; I would do all the exercises, but it just never stuck. So as you can imagine, I’ve been pretty chuffed, and using my newfound second position chops whenever I get a chance.
At the risk of publicly humiliating myself, here I am playing the Courante and Sarabande from the first cello suite. I’ve been working on the Courante a little bit every day for the last month. On the other hand, I’m sight-reading the Sarabande. (I wanted to prove to people that even if you are not particularly talented, it is possible to become comfortable enough with alto clef in a few weeks to sight-read a slow movement of a Bach suite without getting into a total trainwreck!)
- My voice recorder does not pick up the range of the viola nearly as well as it picks up the range of the violin. The sound seems much thinner and less complicated than in real life. Or maybe I’m not projecting well? Hmm. What I need is a set of portable human ears that I can move across the room and then connect to my brain. Does Shar sell those?
- Especially in the Courante, I’m sounding weirdly like a 90-pound violinist playing a violin with a C-string while using a crappy student violin bow. Which makes no sense, since I’m a 90-pound violinist playing a 14-inch viola while using a crappy student violin bow. At this stage in the game, should I be focusing on just hitting the notes? Or should I be adding “strive for a viola-like tone” on top of changing my right and left arms and reading the clef? How does one get a viola-like tone on a 14-inch instrument anyway? Especially when you’re forced to use a crap violin bow? (Sadly, upgrading won’t be an option for a very long time, and the viola bow that came with the rental is so awful I’m tempted to see if carbon-fiber bows are really as indestructible as their makers claim. I’m thinking a ritual massacre by steak knife…) Anyway, one possible solution I came up with was to slow the tempo down, because the viola clearly needs more time to speak and resonate than I’m used to giving the violin. What do you think? Would this help at all?
- It would be nice to have a full-time teacher. Never going to happen, but it would be So. Frigging. Nice. For any violinists wanting to add on viola, keep in mind that you can teach yourself a lot, but you’re going to get a lot farther a lot quicker with the help of a good teacher.
So, the inevitable question… Will I keep going with the viola?
Then the next inevitable question… Where do I want to go from here?
I’ve been thinking about it. It would be nice to feel familiar enough with alto clef to be able to read faster pieces at-tempo, so I guess more sight-reading and Schradieck is in order. I’ll need to work on rhythm, especially in ensembles (my rhythm’s atrocious without a metronome). Repertoire… I’ll continue my traversal of the Bach first cello suite, but I also have a viola transcription of Fauré’s Élégie for cello. Fauré is my favorite composer, and IMHO the Élégie doesn’t sound very good in the violin transcription, so… Even if the Élégie proves to be too challenging, I’ve got to try Après un Rêve at least. A Fauré fix is in order. Maybe from there I can take on the Bruch Romance, or something by Rebecca Clarke. Any repertoire suggestions?
To close… In my last entry, I pondered briefly as to what makes a violinist feel like a violist. Since writing that entry, I came up with one of the definitive signs: when you play the violin immediately after the viola, the violin sounds completely unsatisfying in comparison. It feels like a toy – a scratchy, unresponsive, uptight, whiny toy. You finally understand the gospel truth that it is always going to be easier to switch from violin to viola. You’ve heard many other people say this over the years, and you’ve always wondered how it could possibly be true, but then suddenly you experience it yourself and you think to yourself, oh. They’re right.
I still don’t love the viola more than the violin, though. They’re like my two kids. It would feel criminal to choose between them.
In future installments of Emily Visits Violaland…
- Emily curses fate that she has to learn all this crap without a teacher. Why God, why?? It’s so much to keep straight! Whine moan whine moan complain moan. She will then melodramatically wave a fist with calloused fingertips toward the sky.
- She tries to learn to sustain the viola sound. This will involve… Um… I don’t know. Experimenting with bow changes? Something like that. I’m not sure.
- She plays viola in an orchestra for the very first time. Will she be an asset to the section, or will her poor sight-reading skills make rehearsal grind to a halt like a New York Philharmonic concert interrupted by a marimba ringtone? Stay tuned.