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.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
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.
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 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.
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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