Viola Master Class with LA Phil's Minor 'Mick' Wetzel

January 17, 2022, 2:11 PM · Violinists can learn much from the expert advice of violists -- and this felt especially true after an insightful and enjoyable master class for pre-college students given by the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Minor ("Mick") Wetzel, who also teaches viola performance at The Colburn School. It was part of the American Viola Society's Mini Viola-Fest at the Primrose International Viola Competition at Colburn in late December.

Mick Wetzel with students
Viola Master Class: LR - Logan, Ariane, Mick Wetzel and Samuel.

The students were top-notch, and Wetzel offered both graceful praise for their strengths and articulate advice for improvement - advice that could help any of us improve. He talked about sound production, unique ways to think about articulation, how intonation relates to resonance, and ways to practice intense passages without getting overly physically tense. He also drew on his background, playing for the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra and in opera orchestras, to make points about how our work as instrumental musicians relates to other artists such as dancers and singers.

Here are some of the highlights from his master class.

The first violist was an eighth-grader named Samuel, who graciously introduced himself as well as his pianist before performing Carl Maria von Weber's Andante e Rondo Ungarese.

Samuel and Wetzel

When Samuel finished playing, Wetzel first praised Samuel for having good fundamentals of tone. Wetzel also described how to produce sound with the bow, in terms of the acronym, "BACH" - or:

It's a nice way to remember the four main factors that go into producing tone with the bow. With these main elements already well in hand, Wetzel worked on articulation with Samuel, asking him, "How do you spell this note?"

By this, he simply meant, what letter would you use to describe the beginning of a note? Did it sound like an "H"? A "Ph"? An "L"?

For that particular note, Wetzel was looking for more of a consonant sound and less of a soft beginning. "That's an 'L,' and it needs to be a 'K,'" Wetzel said. And of course, different notes in the course of a piece will be "spelled" differently - some may start with a "K," and others with an "L."

"It's a gearshift from L to K and then back to L again," Wetzel said. As they were discussing this, I wondered, are there more "letters" to work with, when playing the viola, than playing the violin? And with longer, wider and lower strings, does it take more effort on the viola, to truly kick out a "K" kind of articulation at the beginning of a note? (Violists, you can tell me in the comments!)

After Samuel began a phrase with a true "K," Wetzel said, "That gives it so much more clarity and definition." Wetzel recalled having played many times in the San Francisco Opera and observing the way the singers articulated their words. "Their diction is almost grotesque, up close," he said, but it sounds fantastically clear at a distance, in the audience.

When a violist plays as a soloist, it is necessary to have that kind of in-your-face "diction" or articulation. As an orchestral player, it's easy to get into the "Finding Nemo" mind frame: "I'm in a school of fish, and it's called the viola section." It works all right, when you are fitting in with a section. But playing solo, "stay as far away from that mindset as possible," he said. Animate every note with more dynamic range and articulation.

Up next was Ariane, who played the "Prelude" from Bach's Cello Suite No. 3 in C major.

Ariane and Wetzel

Ariane said that this was a piece he'd learned some time ago during quarantine, then recently returned to it.

"When you learn a piece and put it away, it cooks," Wetzel said. "You bring it out again, and it's better."

Wetzel observed that playing in C major on the viola, with C being its lowest string, allows for much resonance on the instrument. "You can be in a janitor's closet and it still sounds boomy," he said.

That said, the intonation has to be spot-on, in order to trigger that satisfying resonance. So they worked meticulously on pitch, taking just two lines at a time, "as soft as you can play, because we hear the pitch better when it's softer," Wetzel said.

For practice, Wetzel recommended doing just that: taking two lines a day and playing with obsessive attention to intonation.

For the sections that have a lot of string crossings and bariolage, he recommended practicing them as double stops, then in performance allowing for the notes to slightly blend as double stops when doing the string crossings.

Wetzel pointed out that violists, like ballerinas, as "artist athletes." Much of what a violist does involves choreographing physical motions, and it's important that the resulting phrase follows the desired style.

While Ariane was playing with a good deal of rubato, Wetzel recommended a less Romantic approach for Bach. When it comes to Baroque music, much has changed in the last half-century, in terms of what people expect to hear, style-wise.

Once upon a time in the 20th century, Bach was played with much rubato, in a Romantic style. But the period performance movement changed that. And while listeners don't expect "period performance" from a non-period player, the style has evolved to "informed practice" for those playing on modern instruments. In other words, it is a style that is informed by period performance practices. That means less vibrato, with a meter that is more "in time," with only minimal rubato in certain places, such as the end of phrases.

With so many chords to play in Bach, Wetzel also made a point about how to think about the strings on the viola.

"How many strings are on the viola?" he asked.

"Four!" everyone responded, of course.

"No! There are 10!" he said. And by this, he was talking about the angles that a bow has to take, in order to play on the strings. Here are Wetzel's "10 strings":

The moral: Don't press the bow, find the angle. People crunch their chords because they press, instead of finding the accurate bow angle.

After J.S. Bach came the rollicking third movement of the "Concerto in C minor" by Johann Christian Bach - which generally is considered to be written by the French turn-of-the-20th century violist Henri Casadesus, in the style of J.C. Bach. This was performed by Logan, who played with much energy and accuracy.

Logan and Wetzel

Wetzel pointed out that this is the kind of piece, with its many string-crossings and double-stops, that "begs us to be tense," and that physical tension can be problematic. Wetzel said that at times in his career he has played up to 50 hours a week, and as a result he has had to learn strategies for preventing the kind of tension that can cause injury.

"I wanted you to get more results with less effort," Wetzel said.

To that end, Wetzel had Logan play the beginning of the piece on open strings, with no fingers, to a slow metronome, just to cultivate relaxed feeling in the string-crossings.

Wetzel also showed Logan some exercises that a violist (or violinist) can do every 30 minutes or so, to stretch and release tension in the muscles. They involved moving the shoulder and arm muscles in small circles, as well as some stretches:

Then Wetzel had Logan play string crossings from the piece - but while standing on one foot. He also told him to think of the string crossings being on the string, not off.

Practicing while adding a secondary task, such as lifting the foot, he said, can help with relaxing the muscles doing the primary task.

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January 17, 2022 at 09:31 PM · This is a really interesting masterclass. It was particularly interesting how Wetzel described articulations using syllables like K and L, I've never seen someone describe it like that lol. I will agree that producing a so called "K" articulation requires a bit more effort on viola, especially the C string, but to me the viola's upper strings have a response similar to that of a violin.

January 18, 2022 at 12:41 AM · Laurie, I really enjoyed this article! At the risk of leaving a comment that's far too long, I'll extract something I wrote for a few years ago, which also mentions the consonant issue:

In Haruki Murakami’s book Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa, Maestro Ozawa states that one fault he finds in certain orchestras is the inability to use consonants the way a singer would. (Wait. Consonants? I, too, thought this reference was strange on first reading. But sing the iconic opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and I guarantee that you will use consonants, and not just vowels, to indicate the musical notes. You might sing "Da, Da, Da, Daaaaaaa." Or you might use "Ta" or "Pa," but I will say with certainty you won’t sing "Ah, Ah, Ah, Ahhhhhh.")

Upon listening to a certain orchestra performing on a recording, Ozawa notes, "When the instruments of this orchestra talk to each other, the consonants don’t come out." Ozawa contends that when the sound registers as all vowels, it is difficult to have a "conversation" between musicians. Just as consonants are mandatory in actual verbal conversations, they are needed in musical ones as well. Orchestral musicians, obviously, cannot actually use consonants in their playing. But, according to Ozawa, they can create the sound in a way that indicates a consonant, or as I might interpret, a definition or even slight stoppage before the tone sounds. Great players can give the illusion of consonants, and even a specific consonant, which further drives the musical conversation.

January 20, 2022 at 02:28 AM · Re ~ Wetzel Master Class for Violists. {#3} As from ~ Apostle of Jascha Heifetz & Nathan Milstein

An interesting 'Take' on string crossing and crossings, both of which have to do with a very adept knowledge of the Bow and of its Natural Trajectory, which my later Violin Mentor, Iconic Violinist, Nathan Milstein, was fabled for and amongst his most renowned colleagues with some even going 'round to Mr. Milstein at his London Chester Square Townhouse, starting in mid 1970s & through 80s-'90, to play Unaccompanied Bach to him!! Having been Mr Milstein's first private 'Guinea pig pupil of Jascha Heifetz', he felt comfortable experimenting w/my ^RM/ JH approach to Bowing, doing so with an instinct only Two Violinists possessed - the Other, Jascha Heifetz - yet slightly varied in Bow 'attack' as evidenced in Mr. Heifetz's Opening D on the G string in the "Allegro ma non tanto" Third Mvt of Epic Sibelius Violin Concerto!! Just Listen for what Mr. Wetzel might term a "K" with a Heifetz deliberate attack and it is so indicated in the Score, folks, which I was invited to look at by the Curator of the "Sibelius National Memorial Museum" in Hameenlinna, FI, and which yours truly was invited via one's "Special Award for Best Unaccompanied Bach" in the Sibelius First International Violin Competition in Helsinki, FI, for the Centenery of Jean Sibelius, in 1965, taking part in the Official Finnish Gov't Inaugural Concert/Ceremony being proclaimed by Finnish Minister of Culture, from the birth-house of Jean Sibelius to then named 'Sibelius National Memorial Museum', playing the Master's 'Adagio di molto' from the Violin Concerto in his birth-house boyhood living room before All Five Sibelius Daughters in front 2 Rows, other Sibelius Family and including the elderly Brother of Sibelius, televised on Eurovision across Finland-Continental Europe, and UK, on December 8, of that year! Off a touch, yet relevant, vocal & violinistic + Viola, 'Celli & Bass playing of the various Solo passages or orchestral all the sudden Soli for a specific string bowed instrument in mid- score {which are numerous in French Music Debussy!, + rare Ravel's Bolero Saxophone glorious Solo throughout w/others, & the Solo Cello in Dvorak's Violoncello Concerto w/the lone Concertmaster, etc.}, is in line for greatest detailed definitive articulation. An experienced player knows how to gage varied amounts of "Bite" or 'attack' {as mentioned re the Heifetz Sibelius Third Mvt} yet less experienced string players need careful & exact guidance regarding How Much of to how little & least ...

Mr. Wetzel's ideas are known but in different 'musical - speak' from earlier-earliest 20th Century Teaching/Coaching by likes of Ferdinand David; Carl Flesch, & fabled Leopold Auer, & who was btw, to refresh memories, {teacher of Heifetz, Milstein, Mischa Elman, Toscha Seidel, Efrem Zimbalist, Sr., London's Sascha Lasserson, Kubelik, Eddy Brown, Kathleen Parlow, Cecilia Hansen & the like}, all of whom possessed Bow Arm's which followed in the natural trajectory of the Body vs going totally against its body curvature & contrarily in an angular fashion injuring multitudes of Flesch Pupil's with their angled 'gestalt' bowing, plus many other un-natural mythical ideas of Bowing perpetuated around the music globe to the detriment of many extremely great talents gone short fused = unable to bow for long periods of time due to a tennis elbow {tendinitis} rotator cuff, bow forearm; Wrist issues, and inability to brush chords of more than double stops {just 2 stringed} & including almost All Six Bach Unaccompanied Sonatas & Partitas for Violin Until ~

One fine day, Nathan Milstein, came along to Leopold Auer's St. Petersburg Class of all Artists mentioned above with a sort of Fish-in-water like swimming looking Bowing which was All Nathan Milstein through & through aul Naturale!! Tbc, yet Mr. Wetzel is not describing bowing re strings all together & bowed at once, clearly, but trying his best to convey vocal & lest we not forget the Organ, with its lush swelled sounds blending into a virtual choir and/or orchestra minus starts & stops=a sick car which Brakes when touched jerk one painfully forward w/force or backward, the other way and in need of great amounts of Brake Fluid or Oil, & fine mechanic trouble shooting to address the underlying Root Problem! Bowing of chords and/or double stops have a basic Formulae & shocking to myself & now, after over 3 & 1/2 yrs of 4 even 5 hour a day twice weekly Milstein Bowing Tutorial 'Sessions' privately with Master of The Bow & Solo Bach, The Nathan Milstein, I can not at this point fathom, except to say very few violinists were yelled at yet immensely helped by Nathan Milstein, and in a home relaxed environment when Mr. Milstein began reducing his Int'l Concert Touring & Lasserson told him to listen to me in Bach's Chaconne in April, 1969!!! All Changed and in 'Liberating' my Bow Arm concepts {altho' eager to embrace} NM began his finest chapters in a To Date, unparalleled lengthy long distance runner violin concert recording, tv career of any Violinist prior or since!!! I hope Mr. Wetzel is familiar with Nathan Milstein's Three & at different Chapters over his 70 Plus Year Concert Career, recordings of Unaccompanied Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Violin, the last of which was Grammy Awarded & long overdue, but to quote the Great Nelson Mandela, "Done is better than Perfect", with the Grammy Committee realising, at perhaps the Right Time, Nathan Milstein's beyond praise fidelity & spiritual commitment to The Bible of Violin Playing of Master Artist, Milstein Musical Genius Gloried, minus any fuss ~

A Word: Not Once in all 3 & 1/2 years studying privately with Mr. Milstein, & friendship until his passing 22 years after the intense NM private Bowing Tutorials, did he once mention any consonants or verbiage remotely resembling the wording of Mr. Wetzel or many other Violists, including my USC Chamber Music Coach, William Primrose, {whilst studying with Jascha Heifetz, at USC's Institute for Special Music Studies, thrice weekly & w/Chamber Music Friday afternoons & with All Three Artists = Heifetz, Piatigorsky and William Primrose!!! None had need to verbalise too often because they Were Themselves, & whom All After Them still aspire climbing up the JH/GP/WP Mountain Top to make Music as closely to their Olympian Levels of Artistry as possible & I Salute All who 'Keep on Keeping On' including refined teacher, Violist, 'Mick' Wetzel !! Bravo Colburn School for inviting him to present a Master Class just prior or following the William Primrose International Viola Competition, 2021!!!! {Both William Primrose and I were honoured having firstly, a Viola Concerto dedicated to him by American Composer, BYU Dr. Merrill Bradshaw, and secondly, myself, being daughter of the 'In Memoriam - Ralph Matesky', recipient of Merrill Bradshaw's Violin Concerto, w/March 1981 PBS premiere }, 3 years following my beloved father-principle violin teacher's passing so young ... More tbd at another time re both Bradshaw Works ~

Language is critical in communicating distinctive ideas of the "How To's" to pupil's and friends of Music no matter in What Field of Teaching one is striving to do and to Share . . .

^RM = Ralph Matesky, principle teacher-father

~ Grateful to Submit ~

.. Elisabeth Matesky ..

^Bio here on


January 19, 2022 / Chicago

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