Playing Viola with Ease: Karen Tuttle's Concept of 'Coordination'

June 23, 2016, 2:38 PM · "Oh that poor child!"

That is what the late violist Karen Tuttle wrote in her journal about her then-student, violist Kim Kashkashian, the very first time she saw her play. Why?

"I was so twisted up," Kashkashian explained, at a lecture about the pedagogy of Tuttle, who trained many of today's top violists. Tuttle (1920-2010), a violist who taught at Curtis Institute, The Juilliard School, Peabody Conservatory, Aspen and Banff, was known not only to push her students to a high level of playing, but also to completely rework their physical approach to playing the instrument. Tuttle came up with a concept called "Coordination," a set of physical solutions for viola, to keep the body relaxed and mobile despite the potential for strain when playing what many consider to be a large and unwieldy instrument. Her ideas certainly also resonate with violinists, who must fight physical tension, strain and injury as well.

"It was a complete revelation for me, the way she talked about music and playing the viola," Kashkashian said at a lecture at the American Viola Society Festival at Oberlin Conservatory earlier this month. Kashkashian, a Grammy-winning violist who teaches at the New England Conservatory, was joined by other former Tuttle students Jeffrey Irvine, Sheila Browne and Susan Dubois. Many of those present hold regular workshops on Tuttle's ideas and will serve as faculty next month at a Karen Tuttle Viola Coordination workshop in Prague.

Tuttle students
L-R: Jeffrey Irvine, Sheila Browne, Kim Kashkashian and Susan Dubois. Photo by

Though the idea of playing without tension sounds fantastic, it did not come easily for many Tuttle students.

"The first few years were an unwinding process," Kashkashian said, and she felt completely unmoored. Others described the same feeling of being "at sea." For Irvine, it felt like "letting go of an old friend: Tension. The tension felt so right!" Tuttle wanted him to unlock the hand frame, and to use concepts of weight and balance to find the sound rather than force the sound.

Dubois recalled her first master class at Juilliard, when Tuttle asked each student in the class to point out something she could loosen up. "There were 17 people in the class, and each came up with a different thing!" Dubois said.

"All of us had to start over," Kashkashian said. "You have to be in a relaxed and elastic state, emotionally and physically, in order to feel what you are doing."

Tuttle's husband, Morton Herskowitz, who was a Reichian psychiatrist, certainly influenced her ideas, Irvine said. Tuttle would talk about the concept of armoring", a kind of emotional repression that also inhibits the movement of the body. She wanted her students to let go of those kinds of limitations as part of reworking their viola technique.

More concretely, Tuttle promoted specific practices in viola-playing that helped her students tap into a more relaxed and less restrained way of playing. Here is a partial list:

Her former students described a number of these in the video below:

Tuttle's teaching of bow movement involved at least two specific concepts that can sound rather mysterious: "repull" and "over the bow." As described in the video below: "repull" is about using more than just the index finger for weight throughout the bow, especially on the down bow. One uses the image of actually pulling the bow with the hand for most of the down bow. "Over the bow" is a letting-go with the neck at upper third of the bow. It might look a little funny when you try it at first, but then it can become very natural, Browne said. This helps round out the motion of finishing a down-bow and starting an up-bow.

When it came to using the fingers, Tuttle taught that the opening and closing of the fist is at the heart of this motion, which comes from the base knuckles, not from the finger tips. Here is some more information and demonstration about that:

And lastly, keep a "loose" belly when you play. This concept is a little more complicated than it seems; it is about being connected with the ground and with the breath. It involves having loose muscles, while still keeping a stable and erect posture. Kim Kashkashian starts the video below with a big "HAH!" exhalation, something Tuttle had students do to get in touch with their breath and their bellies.

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June 23, 2016 at 09:48 PM · The viola is a mysterious and beautiful beast.

June 24, 2016 at 07:22 AM · Wonderful post! Thanks a lot. I will definitely be sharing this with students. Although they hear a lot of this from me too, it really helps for students to hear it from other sources.

June 25, 2016 at 03:05 PM · I believe Karen Tuttle studied with D.C. Dounis. Her ideas are directly from his playbook. She has certainly identified the real problem in playing. For students who have trouble following her (excellent) ideas, they might try Alexander Technique.

June 28, 2016 at 05:25 AM · I printed out her summary of advice and put it on my music stand. Thanks.

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