To master the viola or violin, one must conquer a series of seemingly impossible feats on the instrument.
Why ever stop?
If you think your technique has reached a high level, Eun Hwan Bai is ready to pull you out of your comfort zone with an unending stream of what he simply calls High Tech Exercises. Bai, who studied violin and viola with Dorothy DeLay, William Lincer, Eudice Shapiro and Gorge Kast, has been inventing such exercises for his own practice on a daily basis for some 20 years, and at one point 15 years ago, he simply decided to write them down for a period of time. At the Primrose Festival he presented a handwritten packet of exercises, 35 pages. "This took 35 days to write; I just popped it out," he said. "By now I have thousands of exercises." As the violinist Nathan Milstein said, "It's not enough to practice. Obviously you have to practice, but you have to invent ways of doing better."
If you want to play at a high level, Bai said, you must always be pursuing it. Don't wait until the music reveals your weakness. "If you're always defending yourself, your technique goes down," Bai said, "but if you are always attacking, always challenging yourself, then your technique gets better."
Here are a few examples of Bai's exercises, which he does on viola and violin:
Ex. 1: Hold your first finger down on the G and D strings, then play a scale with your remaining fingers, going way up the G string. (Free fingering)
Ex. 17: Play a one-octave arpeggio, all on one string, with the fingering 1-2-3-4-3-2-1. Then climb up and down the fingerboard, doing one-octave arpeggios at each stop. He jokingly described the fingers as a family: the thumb is the father, just providing support. The 1 is mommy, always following around children, 2, 3, 4. Do you feel you can't reach the notes? Just try -- though stop if it really starts to hurt.
"This is not dangerous," Bai said, "your life is not on the line. Just stretch up."
Playing viola (or violin) is like using three musical instruments simultaneously: the voice of a singer, with the vibrating string like a vocal chord; a piano's keyboard, with technique that requires the dropping of fingers; and the plucking of a guitar, with bow strokes like the spiccato bariolage of Paganini Caprice 1 just like plucking the strings, only faster.
All technical exercises are harder on the viola: "Viola is much more difficult to play than violin," he said, "you need to practice more on the viola."
He recommended practicing unconventional double stops, not just the consonant ones you find in things like Flesch exercises. Practicing 5ths and dissonant double-stops like sevenths can improve intonation and finger dexterity. Fifths are very difficult -- cellists can plant their fingers sideways and guitarists can simply strap on a capo. But it's hard to play fifths on the viola, particularly if you have a skinny first finger. He said that practicing fifths often can actually make one's fingertip thicker. Or, you can do them with two fingers.
Another way to practice fifths is to simply play Suzuki Book 1 folk songs in fifths.
Here are a few more of his High Tech exercises:
Ex. 11: Slide up the fingerboard an octave on one string and back down. Then go up the scale executing a series of such glissandi.
Ex. 12: Do a chromatic stop-slide up an octave in fifth double-stops.
Ex. 14: A finger replacement exercise. Play the same note, same string, but using four different fingers, pulsing to a new finger every eighth note.
Ex. 15: Play the same note, but hopping to that note on different strings at eight-note intervals.
It's a little hard to obtain Eun Hwan's exercises in writing. He has them on his webpage, ViolinStory.com, though for me the page did not display the music. He also has a ton of videos, but many are in Korean and some can be a bit difficult to decipher for the English speaker. If you want his 35-page packet of exercises, I'd recommend either writing him a nice e-mail, or copying them one-by-one from The American Viola Society webpage.
One last word to violists from Bai: "Don't lose your violin at home; practice both. They help each other."
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For all the sheet music and further explanation of Eun Hwan Bai's High-Tech Exercises, please see:
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Here is a 1995 recording of some of Eun Hwan Bai's high-tech exercises. I'd say it's not exactly for your listening pleasure; these start with a basic G major scale and quickly get into rough, screechy territory -- but what great ideas for practice. Some of them are simply near-impossible to execute, but the core idea is to "stretch," literally and figuratively.
Certainly Bai practices what he preaches; here he is playing all the Paganini Caprices live in 1998:
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