Sometimes when a violinist switches to viola, he or she simply has to dive straight into the deep end, without any guidance.
That was the case with Dr. LeeAnn Morgan, who now teaches both viola and violin as part of Brigham Young University's string faculty and is Director of Chamber Music at The Gifted Music School in Salt Lake City. She started playing viola during her senior year in college.
"At first, I wasn’t given any instruction - I was just out there on my own," she said. "But, within a few weeks, I was able to take private lessons from Dr. David Dalton which helped immensely." She thought she would never be able to learn to read alto clef quickly enough, but after three months of intense immersion, it became her second language.
Now she plays both instruments equally well, although "I would not play both violin and viola in the same recital, out of respect for both instruments," she said.
The truth of the matter is that the two instruments are not interchangeable, with their different clefs, different sizes and different approaches to tone production. Transitioning from the violin to the viola is serious business, and it's something that LeeAnn takes seriously for her students.
I watched her teach a "Violin to Viola" lesson last year at the Gifted Music School in Salt Lake City, and I was inspired by her passion for both instruments and her attention to the special details that allow for a smooth and effective transition from violin to viola.
On the day I was observing, LeeAnn was teaching a student named Tessa, who started playing viola in the summer of 2021, using one of five violas donated to the Gifted School by a student's family. I was watching her lesson just six months after she had started, and to me it seemed she had progressed quite far in a short amount of time.
Tessa summed up a number of the challenges: "I think playing the viola is harder than violin," she said. "It's a bigger instrument, and you have to use more muscle. You also have to reach farther, the spaces are different."
LeeAnn shared some of the books and repertoire that she was using - which would work for a transitioning violinist who is already in Suzuki Book 4 or beyond. First she recommended "Viola for Violinists - the Conversion Kit," a method book by violist Dwight Pounds. The book is hard to find, but I actually got in touch with Dwight, who said that you can purchase the book by e-mailing him. (Click here to e-mail Dwight Pounds.)
LeeAnn also suggested learning Mazas etudes on the viola (just transpose them), and she recommended From Violin to Viola: A Transitional Method by Harvey Whistler.
For the lesson, LeeAnn started by having Tessa play a C major acceleration scale - a "clean copy" with no vibrato. After that, she played a scale, adding the vibrato.
Then they worked on the J.C. Bach Viola Concerto (by Henri Casadesus). They talked about sound production and musical ideas.
"Try to grab out the sound," LeeAnn said. "Don't be afraid to pull more through."
After playing a certain passage, LeeAnn asked, "Did you reach the top dynamic you wanted?" The answer was "no," so she suggested using sequences to build dynamics. Fairly often she was asking her to dig in a little more, and to warm up the sound with more vibrato.
Next they worked on the Prelude from Bach Suite No. 1. LeeAnn recommended the Peters Edition of the Suites, transcribed for viola, as being the most comprehensive edition. She said she has four editions.
LeeAnn asked an interesting question, one that had never occurred to me: How many open strings are in the very first measure?
There are quite a few: I count 10!
For that very first three-string slur, she suggested making it one continuous movement, with no bumps. One way to practice that first measure is with double stops.
For practicing string crossings that are smooth arcs, LeeAnn also suggested an exercise that derives from Ysaÿe: with one continuous bow, play an open C, then 1-2-4, double-stopping with the open G, then continue 1-2-(4-openD)-1-2-(4-openA) - and then back down, doing those double-stops with all the 4's.
"We've been told for so many years to have different arm levels for different strings," LeeAnn said. It can feel very different to find all the angles in-between, but that also opens new possibilities.
When it comes to the left hand in the Prelude, "These are just broken chords that Bach has written, so tune it as a chord."
As I watched LeeAnn working with Tessa, I saw first-hand the subtle but significant difference in the skills that are involved in playing viola vs. violin: the larger size of the viola equates not only to different hand and finger spacing for the left hand but also different bow angles on the right hand. It requires a different bow technique to get into the string and produce the best sound. It's heavier and requires more energy to hold. And then there's the whole business of learning the alto clef...
But clearly, Tessa was up to the challenge and happy to be playing the viola.
"I realized that I really liked the C string," Tessa said. "I went in to buy a viola bow, and the people there warned me - once you start viola, you realize you can't go back! The richness of the viola is pretty awesome."
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