July 2011

I'm Loving My Viola

July 25, 2011 19:59


I have been playing the violin for years, and recently I was seduced by a viola.  (See my blog of Nov. 2010).

I've been befriending my viola, learning to play it, and absolutely loving the instrument.  I've discovered what a wonderful, severely underrated melody instrument it is.

Here is a verbal collage of what I have been doing with my viola in the last few months.

I started to learn about my viola by playing it in different ways.  I played songs I know, practiced improvising with recorded music, and played some of my written violin music.  I experimented by playing music in major, minor, and modal keys.  I tried playing the same tune on the two upper and then the two lower strings of the viola.  I also tried playing in the first position and higher positions.  In these ways, I had fun befriending my viola.

Then I got some good advice from friends.  The most important thing they told me was to use more bow pressure than I would on the violin.

On my luthier's recommendation, I bought the book From Violin to Viola:  A Transitional Approach by Harvey S. Whistler, and it has been a great help.  The very first page of text presents several fundamental concepts which boosted my understanding and the quality of my playing immensely.  I found some of Whistler's exercises very helpful.  

  • C string resonance:  I tried playing scales with sustained tones, cresc., decresc., cresc. to decresc and vice versa using all four strings.  Mastering dynamics has been an ongoing issue for me.

  • I tried 4th finger and open string exs. on p5 (4th finger, then open string, then both together). Keep repeating this to stregthen 4th finger. Ouch!

  • I worked on octave exs. on p. 5. Keep repeating this to strengthen 4th finger. Ouch!
Although my viola is only 15 3/8 inches, it feels much bigger and heavier than my violin.  My left shoulder got tired quickly.  I worked on this by playing with a large, rolled up towel under my left arm.  When this felt comfortable, I used a smaller towel, and then I used no towel.
I found that being a violin teacher really helps me learn to play the viola.  
One day I had a friend watch my bowing, and he told me that I was moving the bow in an arc instead of a straight line.  I knew just what to do because I teach my students how to do it.  I went across the room and stood with my back against the wall, imagining that my right shoulder or shoulder blade was pinned to the wall.  That stance forced me to put my bow in the right place and move it correctly.  I played for a while, focusing on how my bow arm felt and then walked away from the wall and continued bowing -- correctly.  The next time my friend came by, I had him watch my bowing, and he confirmed that I was bowing correctly.
My beginning students work hard to learn to read sheet music, and now I really sympathize with them.  I'm having a devil of a time learning to read alto clef.  I have my students write the note names below the notes in the pieces they are playing.  The first time I tried to write in the note names of a simple exercise in auto clef, it was infuriating and confusing. 
I picked up my viola to play for a few minutes, and when I looked at my watch, two hours had gone by. 
The viola is so well suited to playing with other instruments and to accompanying the human voice.  It seems to weave together diverse sounds into a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts.
Jamming is a big high for me, and I've been playing my viola at jam sessions.  Its big sound works very well in a group of guitarists, other instrumentalists, and singers.  I remember the trouble I used to have playing my violin in some jam groups.  I felt as though it were Pauline vs guitarists.  Not so with the viola.  It has a big sound which carries well.  I've been "fiddling around,"  trying to find the best way that my viola can contribute to the sound of a good jam session.  When chordal instruments are being played, double stops are not useful and rhythm backup is rarely needed on the viola.  I love to improvise harmony, so I do a lot of that.  I also fill in with ornaments when others are playing a long, slow note.  Sometimes someone calls out "viola break," and that always thrills me.
Learning to play the viola has been rewarding and fun. I'll update my account of it from time to time.

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