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Laurie Niles

Sphinx Competition 2011: Masterclass with Violist Michael Tree

February 10, 2011 at 8:00 PM

As part of the Sphinx Competition last week in Detroit, participants had the opportunity to take masterclasses with members of the jury. On Saturday, two violists and a violinists played for violist Michael Tree, who is a professor at The Juilliard School and Curtis Institute and founding member of the Guarneri Quartet.

Pamela Frank and Robert Tree

Sphinx jury members Pamela Frank and Michael Tree

He spoke of the importance of being able to control one's vibrato.

"The test of a successful vibrato is that there are not gaps in the middle of notes," Tree said. "It should be even, from note to note, unless we decide otherwise." Discomfort, inconvenience or the presence of shift are not excuses to stop vibrating. "Senza," or no vibrato, can be a nice effect for a moody, distant quality, but it should be intentional. "If one fourth finger has no vibrato, suddenly, for no reason, that's hard to rationalize."

While vibrato should not be overdone in something like Bach, "I'd ask for a single drop of oil on each note."

Also, some words of wisdom on glissandi:

"Nothing is more beautiful than a glissando in the right place, at the right time, but if we surround that glissando with a lot of shifts -- which we will call transportation -- it gets predictable, and even boring," Tree said. In other words, if every shift has a slide, then none of the slides will be effective or special as used for musical expression.

He also advocated fingerings that use extensions, contractions and crawling up and down the fingerboard, to avoid overly-frequent and disruptive shifting. He demonstrated a four-octave arpeggio, on the viola, with not one shift.

"When you multiply a situation like this 100 or more times, it's a cleaner way of playing," he said. "These fingerings almost never appear in print -- they look odd on paper."

But he said "be very skeptical of what you see printed." Many times, printed fingerings are a reflection of 19th-century ways of playing -- they are old-fashioned.

In working on the Walton viola concerto with Michael, 19, of Philadelphia, he emphasized that "our responsibility as players is to present our listeners with a clear idea of the music -- where the bar line is," Tree said. Our own familiarity with the music can get in the way. "The poor listener is often left with no particular grasp of the structure or the bar lines. The listener deserves to know where the strong beats are. You can't be too cavalier about rhythm."

He showed Michael a substitution fingering for an octave passage, crawling down the fingerboard and using substitutions and extensions.

"Wow," said Michael.

"I'm getting away with murder, getting from here to her without a shift," Tree said. "I think there's something almost immoral about what I'm doing! But there is no point in working harder than we have to. I listen to maybe 50 Walton concertos a year -- I can say I seldom find fingerings I would consider modern." 

From Mendy Smith
Posted on February 11, 2011 at 3:41 AM

I learned the "crawling up and down the fingerboard" non-shifts from my current and previous teacher.  I'm guessing it is more of a viola thing since there is more fingerboard to navigate.  It does make life easier!

From Ray Randall
Posted on February 11, 2011 at 5:38 AM

Can't quite picture the crawling. Can you gave an example for a G Major scale, for instance?

From Richard Watson
Posted on February 11, 2011 at 2:11 PM

 What a wonderful picture of two longtime friends and colleagues.  Michael Tree once told me that he only shifts for expressive reasons, preferring to scuttle up and down the strings like a crab.

From Mendy Smith
Posted on February 12, 2011 at 1:46 AM


What I was taught (and don't know if it the same or not) is to basically extend the leading finger on the way up the fingerboard, and on the way down do the opposite.  It is like a half step or full step extension on the way up and then contracting the fingers the opposite way going down.

From David Allen
Posted on February 14, 2011 at 2:39 PM

Hmmm.  I've used the extension technique on guitar but never even considered using it on the violin. How enlightening; and how compartmentalized I've become!

From Peter Charles
Posted on February 14, 2011 at 11:30 PM

This is a fascinating subject. I've been reading some of Rugerio Ricci's book called "Glissando" and many of these ideas are in there.

But to start with we need to define "shift." To say that a whole passage or a four octave scale can be played without a shift might be misleading. If you traditionally call a shift a move with one finger from a note to another note, say F# to A on the E string - or even F# to C - then you are shifting either a minor third or an augmented fourth to the C. So if you move the first finger from F# to G on the E string, is that not a shift too, even though only a semitone? A move from say B to C# on the A string is also only a whole tone, but its still a shift.

I do think though that there is a lot of good mileage in creeping around and using extensions back and upwards. It is often safer, and as Ricci says, we should always play safe. Using this sort of technique though requires a re-think and maybe re-training. It often means starting higher up on a string and moving accross strings more. And then when a bigger "shift" is useful it can often serve as an emotional/artistic moment, depending on how you land.

Take the Rode 5th Caprice in D major. You can start it of in first position on the E string and the passage requires several position changes to get to the high A - or you can start it in 5th position on the F# on the A string - this means much safer fingering but some string crossing. Rode might have thought this a cop-out, and I'm sure 19C fiddlers probably lived more dangerously. But there were no recordings then of course.

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