Master Class with Cleveland Orchestra Principal Violist Robert Vernon

June 20, 2016, 12:54 PM · Playing the opening to Strauss's "Don Juan" is no easy feat for any violinist or violist. Playing it for the no-nonsense, always-on-point Cleveland Orchestra principal violist Robert Vernon adds a whole new dimension.

Set to retire this summer after 40 seasons, 4,500 + concerts and 110 concert tours with the Cleveland Orchestra, Vernon's perspective and expertise -- not to mention his wit and wisdom -- lent a special air to the American Viola Society Festival in Oberlin earlier this month. Vernon also teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Music and The Juilliard School, his alma mater.

Robert Vernon
Violist Robert Vernon. Photo by

"Excerpts cannot be coached," Vernon said in a master class at the festival, in which he -- well, coached students on viola excerpts by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Strauss! In fact, Vernon has written a book called, The Essential Orchestral Excerpts for Viola: Keys to a Successful Audition.

Vernon meant, though, that the answers lie in the score, and with one's ongoing technical expertise.

Conductors will ask for all kinds of things in the music -- what if a conductor asks for it to sound "like a piece of silk" or "rough, like the bottom of the ocean"? Faced with these kinds of nebulous requests, one should look to the music for concrete answers. "There is so much in the music that tells us exactly what we should do." The music has articulations, expressive markings. One has to find the right tempo for those articulations that are inherent in the music, with an awareness of each composer's style.

For example, in the "Scherzo" from Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream, if a conductor asks for it to be faster, more spiccato, and softer, "He's not making any sense," Vernon said. It's not physically possible, though the conductor may not realize that. No need to make an issue of it; "We're going to interpret what is written in the music and go from there."

A student named Jay played the Scherzo, which is considered off-the-string, but very quiet.

"This is one of the killers, it's tough stuff," Vernon said. The Scherzo is all about articulation, and it's purely technical. As a violist, another thing to keep in mind in this music is that "someone actually has music going on, and it's not us." That means that the violists remain in the background and shape the phrase the way the woodwinds do, to help give it musical direction. "I'm not allowed to change the rhythm," he said, "but I'm allowed to shape the rhythm."

The 16th notes will start from the string, and also, "you can't change strings on a stringed instrument without being on the string," he said, otherwise the section will sound like a bad youth orchestra.

"In an audition they want to hear that clarity, in the section they want it to be softer," he said. When playing an audition, "you have to try to meet them halfway."

If you want a sautillé stroke (fast off-the-string stroke) to sound louder, then grip the stick. If you want it softer, let go more. The stroke will happen just below the middle of the bow, and from the wrist. "Never drop the bow (on the string)," he said.

Vernon demonstrated a fairly quick way to find one's sautillé (see video below). Tighten your grip, and find the sticky, scratchy sautillé point, playing in rhythm and at tempo. Then back off, staying in rhythm, and you have an articulated but soft sautillé.

When it comes to the accents in the "Scherzo," don't let them throw off the rhythm. "Play them, but remember there are 64 other players helping."

Vernon described five pillars of string-playing, under which just about any kind of problem or solution can be classified:

  1. Beautiful tone
  2. Rhythm
  3. Intonation
  4. Articulation
  5. Direction of the music (which involves dynamics and phrasing)

So when the conductor says, "Could that phrase fade away as if it's slipping into a sink that's emptying...?" it's really just a matter of rhythm and dynamics: slowing down, shaping a phrase, perhaps coloring the tone in a different way. If he had to add one thing to his five pillars, Vernon said, it would be: consistency in what you do. As musicians, we have to work not only as artists, but as craftsmen at our technique.

A student named Joyce played an excerpt from Mozart's Symphony No. 35, and afterwards Vernon asked her what she knew about Mozart's music. He rejected answers that were poetic or imprecise, pushing her to look for specific musical requirements in the music.

"What do you know about Mozart's music?" he asked.

"That's it's very happy?" she answered.

"No," he said.

"That it should be clean?" she tried again.

Without comment, he played her a short excerpt, five different ways.

"Those were all clean," he said. "You didn't give me any information."

This excerpt specifically requires the right kind of spiccato, off-the-string playing, in the right part of the bow.

"It tells you, just by looking in the music, where you have to be in the bow," he said. Based on the speed of the music and knowing the nature of the stroke, you will know. The stroke should not be played in the middle of the bow, but more toward the frog.

A saying by the late Muhammad Ali aptly describes spiccato technique, he said: "You need to 'float like a butterfly and sting like a bee!'"

In asking for a quick vibrato on one of the non-bouncing strokes, he said that it needed more energy; "I want you to feel like you put your finger in a light socket!"

As for playing chords, "First, of all, you don't throw the bow at the string, ever," he said. Chords need resistance from the bow, and the two places with most resistance are near the frog and near the tip. "Pull the chords from a point of resistance," he said.

Next was some "Ein Heldenleben" by Richard Strauss, from Julian.

"It's powerful and heroic," Vernon said. "It's also the biggest moment in the piece, and here we are, two little violas." When playing with maximum sound and volume, one must keep the tension; sort of like riding a horse and keeping the bit in its mouth -- "if you're weak, the horse will take over," Vernon said. "Make the intonation good and you'll be able to slay a few dragons."

Next was Strauss's Don Juan, with the infamous opening page played by Rachel.

Too many times, people scratch their way through this opening gesture, he said. "The way we greet people tells a lot about the way we are communicating," Vernon said. "Play with your most beautiful sound, even though (Don Juan) was a rotten guy." And start it down-bow, he said.

The whole excerpt has to be very disciplined: in the right spot on the bow, playing with a good sound, and with good articulation, staying in rhythm.

What do you do when the music calls for triple-forte?

"You can't play as loud as an orchestra, don't try," Vernon said. "Play with the best sound you have, and that's enough."

* * *

In taking questions after class, Vernon answered one from someone who asked how coped with always having to take the bowings from the concertmaster, as viola section leaders generally must do. His answer likely speaks to the reason why he was able to serve for some 40 years as Cleveland's Principal Violist:

"Bowings really aren't my job, that job is with the concertmaster. If it's something that is my job, or something I feel is wrong that is happening with the orchestra, I have a pretty good personality, and I usually can work behind the scenes better than just starting to yell at something. I think that's a better way to do it. But I think it's important, when you're in a a group of people like that, that you realize what your place is. I also believe in law and order. It doesn't hurt me to do the bowing my concertmaster wants, I like him."

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