Writing a Violist/Violinist
For my ongoing novel, I'm writing about a high-school violist who dabbles in the violin from time to time, albeit very rarely. I have five years of clarinet experience, playing from sixth grade to sophomore year, but no experience on string instruments. I’ve graduated now, and haven’t read music in two years. I’m a little rusty. Please excuse my ignorance!
I'd like to know any pointers on the techniques or scales one who regularly plays the viola/violin indulges himself in. Any other bits of knowledge that I may be susceptible to overlook are highly welcomed! What are some popular pieces within this community (experienced to advanced)? What mistakes do people of this playing level find themselves falling into? (I want his teacher to point out things he could improve on.)
For context, I'd also like to know what level and how many years of experience one might accumulate in order to master and perform this piece:
My character (19) performs this piece some time after he graduates from high school. I'd like to know, with extensive practice, around what age he would have to have started playing the instrument (in this case, the viola) to reach this level of playing by the first year of college.
Lastly, when I mention the name of this piece in the narrative, how should I word it without it looking like gibberish on paper? Something that's easier to read than "He was going to play Viola Sonata No. 1 in D Major, Op. 15: I. Moderato for his recital." (Bonus: Is this piece even “fit” or popular enough for a recital? How does one go about choosing a piece to play for a recital?)
Thank you for bearing with me! Hope to hear your words of enlightenment soon.
When a violist occasionally dabbles in violin, s/he will find that the violin feels small, delicate, plays out of tune, reads the wrong clef (maybe), plays on the wrong string (maybe), bows wrong (too far from the bridge and too aggressively). If you want to mention the title of a piece, for sonatas and suites, maybe write something like "second movement of Rebecca Clarke's Viola Sonata".
I'm a violist who plays violin only once or twice a year. When playing violin, treble clef is not a problem (violists use it too), though when sight-reading I sometimes forget that I have an E string at all. I tend to bow too aggressively on violin, but bowing too far from the bridge is not something that happens at all. I tend to play sharp for the first 10-15 minutes after switching to violin.
I'm just curious why you don't make your character a clarinetist instead? Much easier to write about something you know firsthand.
Yes but "clarinetist" doesn't have that sexy ring to it, Mary. Don't you know that violinists are the new vampires?
Thank you all who contributed so far.
I'm sure as a writer you've read Haruki Murakami and have seen how classical music works are put on the page. The way it's laid out never bothered me (in the non-Japanese translations I've read anyway).
Dorian, unfortunately, no, I haven't read Haruki Murakami, but I look forward to doing so. Like you with Paul Juon, I've never heard of the name until now.
The character you're trying to write sounds like a younger version of me. Will have a lot more to discuss when I get home tonight.
I'd pick an age anywhere from 3 to 12 years. This does not have to be the age he started viola if he switched from violin, since any violinist can learn viola and play it at approx the same level as violin in a short period of time.
You might have read Vikram Seth's An Equal Music since you're embarking on this genre of classical music fiction...I think my beef with that book and other classical music fiction I've read so far is that there are weird moments of romanticization about odd things that's just not what musicians really think about.
What a refreshing thread!
I'll donate my viola introduction anecdote to you if you want it.
OK, now that I'm able to respond more fully...
The amount of responses and information within them this has is incredible. I very much appreciate it.
It could be tough to constantly be practicing a stringed instrument in an apartment with shared walls. Neighbors will hear you practicing and they will talk about it, or complain to the apartment manager.
In my experience what really distinguishes the special young string players is their right arm and the sound quality they are able to create with their bows (and of course they later develop great vibrato to go along with it). I heard it in Anne Akaiko Meyers when she was only 6 years old. I heard it again with a college viola player who soloed with our community orchestra and I was not at all surprised to learn that she had been the concertmaster of the Utah All-State Orchestra when she was in high school (as a violinist, of course) - but she switched to viola - I presume because there were far fewer violists with that evel of ability. This is a characteristic this young (fictional) violist must have if he is to be that remarkable.
I beg to differ. I consider the Arpeggione Sonata to be the most difficult of the pieces I listed, very much a virtuoso piece if you want to play it well. I considered it a bit of a stretch to include in my list of level-appropriate repertoire at all. It requires some uncomfortable 4th finger stretches and jumps across strings in fast tempo. For me it was the last step before taking on the Walton concerto.
That said, the other thing about viola is that the viola's size and inherent awkwardness causes technique to vary much more than violin technique. Unless they have long arms and fingers, every violist has to make adjustments to violin technique to make viola playing possible.
I am a violinist, not a violist, so I can't offer any specific advice for that. However, they are very similar, and from my understanding, violinists and violists can usually adapt extremely quickly to the other instrument, because they are so similar.
Andrew H. (other Andrew) maybe it is a matter of hand and arm size. I do have long arms and wear XL glove size. I play a 16-inch viola and have found that the proportions in relation to my arm length are exactly the same as playing a standard (14-inch) violin. That is, my arm angle and finger spacing in viola 3rd position are exactly like my arm angle and finger position in violin first position. These relative proportions continue on up both instruments - but it is much harder to get up there on the wider body of a viola. But if I played a larger viola or had a smaller appendage I would probably reach the same conclusion you have.
Andrew V, maybe that's the reason. I'm 5'7" and have about average arm length for that height, but my fingers are short -- everyone I know whose hands are smaller than mine is 4'11" or under.
Andrew H. that'll do it. Although I'm now only 5'8" all my limb proportions are even a bit long for my former 6' height - age and back trouble can do that.
Also, as for rosining strings... I've played in orchestras for 17 years and never saw or heard of anyone rosining their strings until someone asked a question about it on an internet forum earlier this year. I can't imagine why it would be helpful to add more rosin to my strings when I find I have to wipe excess rosin off them on a regular basis!
Andrew Victor and Andrew Hsieh, I haven't been playing for too long, only five years, but I had two teachers, and neither of them mentioned it. It sounds odd, as the bow rosins the strings itself. But apparently rosin applied directly to the strings adds more traction for the bow, especially if you use bass rosin, because I guess that's more sticky.
Jeanette, what I wrote was not intended as criticism. I think all posters have good points that could be helpful to a wind player trying to write about a bowed string player.
When I posted last night, it only came up that there were a few replies, but wouldn't load them! It did now, so I read them all.
Thank you, Freida, for your thoughtful advice. :)
Lessons from a highly qualified teacher are very expensive, far beyond most young people's ability to pay unless the teacher is willing to teach the student for a substantial discount.
I agree that lessons aren't cheap, but if you have a decent income, you can pay for them. I'm not rich, and I take lessons on two instruments from great teachers. I also have a sibling, who also takes lessons on two instruments from great teachers. Furthermore, lesson costs-teacher quality ratios vary from region to region.
Thanks, Mary and Ella. How do your teachers (and you, if you're teachers yourselves) guage their prices? And, assuming the teacher in my novel is highly qualified and well known around the area, what would be an appropriate amount for him to charge per 1-hour lesson without a discount?
Depends on the city, of course.
Stephen, the novel takes place in Savannah, GA, which has a population of approximately 145,000.
Highly qualified private violin/viola teachers in my city are typically in the $75 - $100/hour range.
For a small town, maybe $60-70/hour.
Thanks, Mary. I'll consider it within that price range. :)
Follow-up question for an integral part of the story:
Your idea seems plausible, though I've never heard of it. Chamber music needs some rehearsing, by the way.
I see. Thanks, Ella.
Can there be an instance where the teacher plays with a student in a gig? The teacher sees high potential for my character and invites him along a cruise ship to play for the teacher's well-respected friend's retirement reception, who also happens to be /his/ teacher.
"Savannah is just a couple thousand people under Atlanta."
Violin and fiddle lessons in my area range from $15- $40 per hour, but I've never seen the prices go above that. I don't know how good the guy that has lessons for somewhere between $15- $25 is, but my teacher is an exceptional violinist (fiddler), and her lessons cost $40. This is in Canadian Dollar.
Thanks, guys. This has been a great help. :)