Master Class with Peter Slowik: the Viola in Chamber Music

July 8, 2016, 10:13 AM · For viola, the juicy stuff is in the chamber music repertoire.

That was one takeaway from a master class by Oberlin Conservatory viola professor Peter Slowik, at the American Viola Society Festival in June. Slowik is a professor of viola and head of the string department at Oberlin Conservatory, and before that he taught at the Cleveland Institute of Music and Northwestern University. Chamber music has long been a passion for Slowik, who also is a founder and artistic director of Credo Chamber Music, a faith-based summer chamber music program.

Peter Slowik
Peter Slowik. Photo by

Certainly orchestral excerpts are an art -- one of Slowik's students called them a "series of secret handshakes" to get into an orchestra. But chamber music requires a distinct set of musical, personal and technical skills. While orchestral music awards those with skills such as precision, blending, repeatability and control, chamber music rewards more active skills such as creativity, power, projection, strong technique, tone color, articulation and flexibility.

In chamber music, the viola can play a number of roles: the foundation, the middle voice, the overtone that floats above, the melody or the rhythmic center. It's important, in chamber music, for the violist to know his or her particular role in a given piece -- and how to play it.

Sometimes that role is surprisingly bold. Slowik remembers a chamber music passage that was marked pianissimo - he had been playing it softly, as marked. He was performing with the cellist Leonard Rose, who suggested he play it much louder, much rougher. "I sounded really gross to myself," Slowik said, "but the recording sounded great!"

In some pieces, viola gets to take center stage. That is the case in an excerpt played by a student named Sofia: Beethoven's Serenade in D major for flute, violin and viola, Op. 25. This is one of Beethoven's early works, "it's fresh Beethoven, like Haydn on steriods," Slowik said. And for the viola, "we're an equal melodic partner."

Articulations play a major role in shaping the melody, he told her. Wind players tend to talk about articulations with a lot more specificity than string players -- they draw distinctions between a phrase that starts with a "t" or "p" or "k" sound. We need both vowel and consonant sounds in our playing, just as we need those sounds in our speaking. When we speak, we use air, and our diaphragm, for vowel sounds. We use lips, teeth and tongue for consonants. He said a sentence, "I'm enjoying your playing," with vowels only: "I e-oy-i ou ay-i," then with consonants only: "m njng yr plng" -- one doesn't work without the other!

Musical phrases are like the sentences that we speak. Slowik had Sofia trying taking a step between each element of a phrase, just to separate them and be conscious of where they begin and end. In the second movement, he talked about the melody "stretching like a rubber band." He added that melody starts with scale practice -- practicing scales without musicality is a waste of time. One note should lead into another note, and vibrato should expand from the end of one note into the next.

Another element that is crucial in our playing is stance and the placement of our arms. Slowik worked on this with Mackie, who played excerpts from Mozart's "Kegelstatt" Trio, K. 498.

The placement of the feet is often the first thing taught in Suzuki lessons, and "that is not trivial," Slowik said. A good foundation can promote healthy ergonomics in playing. "We always want to think of the viola as a platform on which to work," Slowik said.

Arm placement also makes a difference in our efforts. A low arm works for legato, but for a spiccato stroke (bouncing the bow), "I'd rather drop things than lift things," Slowik said. If the arm is low, one has to lift the bow to bounce it, but if the arm is already high, it's just a matter of dropping the bow. And that's easier.

Slowik also shared his special (and silly) made-up word for just how high the bow needs to bounce in any given situation: the "gesund." One can measure what he calls the "gesund-height." (Ah-CHOOO!)

"Here you need a gesund of about a half-inch," he told Mackie. Here he described very succinctly, several different bouncing-bow strokes:

Slowik also talked about where to bounce in the bow, demonstrating with another student, Samuel, who was working on an excerpt from the Mendelssohn Octet. "If you say that spiccato happens at the balance point of the bow, stop saying that," Peter said. A better way to think of it is: "the slower, the lower." In other words, a slow bounce will happen lower in the bow (toward the frog) than a fast bounce. One way to find the right bounce point for the speed is to try it at the same speed in different parts of the bow "until it's Goldilocks," he said. Too high in the bow, too low, just right. This applies to ricochet as well.

He also demonstrated a way to find a fast bouncing stroke (sautillé) that will project: start with what he called a "scratch stroke" and shape it from there. He demonstrated:

A little grit can sometimes help the viola cut through, when it is the featured instrument. In a place where the viola had the melody, Slowik said that "this has to be hero mode!" Punchy, not beautiful legato.

Working with another student, Conor, on Dohnanyi's "Serenade in C major," Slowik asked him to "cool down the vibrato and heat up the bow." In other words, find more expressive possibilities with the bow instead of always turning to vibrato. He had him try the passage with no vibrato at all, aiming to create dynamics with the bow, without any help from vibrato.

Slowik finds the chamber music repertoire such a compelling source of technique and good viola music that he is currently putting together a book of chamber music excerpts for viola.

"I thought, wouldn't it be neat to develop a pedagogy, based on this," Slowik said. His book of chamber music excepts for viola is still in the works, scheduled for release in early 2017. He also plans to have an online version, sortable by technical difficulty, which presents the excerpts in their urtext form, with traditional suggestions and commentary.

Among other things, chamber music requires a different approach to fingerings than orchestra music does. In the orchestra, the player is part of the unit, and the goal is not to be noticed. For example, you might shift in order to play something on one string and keep the tone color from changing. In chamber music the violist is more likely to change strings, make it bright, make it noticeable. "We want to play the brightest fingerings possible," he said. "The viola in a quartet is the bridge between the cello and the violin sound."

Bowings are also a little less tidy and rule-bound in a chamber situation. "In chamber music we sometimes do bowings purposely in a backward manner, for the effect," Slowik said.

Another issue in chamber music is pitch -- a violist has to be able to fit into whatever intonation system is going on within the group. "You have to match everybody -- because you're the violist," Slowik said. "It's not our job usually to set the pitch; we have to be flexible." What if the violinist is out of tune, and you are playing unison octaves with the violin? You have to have knowledge of various tuning systems and make it work.

In other words, "It's the violist's role to fix things for other people!"

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July 8, 2016 at 09:39 PM · Thanks for posting this! Lots of great info here for viola players. Definitely planning to watch the videos when I get some time.

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