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Mendy Smith

A Well Tempered Practice Diet - Stylistic Shifting

March 4, 2011 at 4:00 AM

A month ago, the cellist in my quartet broke her left hand.  This left us looking for trio pieces while she recovered.  The music for 2 violins and viola is limited, but I knew of a piece for three violas that is quite interesting and beautiful - Michael Kimber's "Reflection".  As it happens, our second violinist is primarily a violist, and our 1st violinist plays viola for time to time, so this piece made the cut.

"Reflection" was composed by a violist and premiered in 2001 at Interlochen by several well known violists in memory of Francis Bundra, who taught viola for many years at Interlochen and at the University of Michigan.  It is reminiscent in many ways of Barber's Adagio in form and counterpoint.  A truly beautiful and moving piece.

Though this piece has "viola" written all over it, the fingerings as written were dull and lifeless under my hand.  Maybe this is due to me being a rather short gal playing a large viola for my size, an inflexible 1st finger, a weak 4th finger, or a combination of other factors.  No matter the reason, something had to change, so I began to experiment.

For years, fingerings have been dictated by my teachers in consideration of my skills and ability while trying to maintain a balance with what is called for musically.  As I have gained experience and "fingerboard comfort", fingering choices are now mine to make.  This new responsibility has opened several doors of exploration. 

To shift,  not to shift, and how to shift is the question. Staying in a position is often the safest rout when it comes to intonation but has its drawbacks such as un-musical string crossings and reliance on the weak fingers for important notes.  Shifting can introduce interesting tonal "colors" to a phrase but can be challenging to stay in-tune and not sounding "sloppy".  When choosing fingerings, I opt for those that are musically appropriate and practice them using Yost shifting exercises. 

The Yost shifting exercises are essentially about starting in one position and end in another position using every possible fingering combination.  While doing these exercises, I focus on intonation and control of the shift into the note ranging from a clean shift up to a full glissando.  After practicing the shift in all its possible variations, I put the practice into context and start making decisions: what finger to start on, what finger to end on and how much of the shift I want to be heard. 

The end result sometimes turns into unconventional shifting techniques which are more comfortable under my hand and while keeping to the demands of the musical phrase. 

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