'Too much viola!' was the diagnosis Mike gave me during my violin lesson this week. I had started playing a piece consistently sharp and then said I was worried I was unable to hear the pitches properly. I was lost on the fingerboard.
Starting again slowly, I found A on D and when my first finger homed in on D on A, relief flooded through me as my fears subsided.
At the end of the lesson, the 'no viola' message was repeated. 'But it's a really good warm-up if I play viola before violin,' I protested. No matter, I handed back Mike's viola so there was no possibility of picking it up and playing it before my first recital in two weeks.
I am banned from viola until then!
So, has the purpose of playing viola to improve my violin playing been fulfilled in some respects? I think so.
1. Strength-building: The viola is physically larger and heavier than violin, and requires the bow to sink into the strings to a greater extent to produce a good tone. In effect, having to hold a 16.5" viola for long periods and have more weight sink into the bow seems to improve the strength and endurance of both hands. The result is that the violin feels lighter and effortless to play.
2. Hand stretching and relaxation: Finger spacings are further apart on viola, requiring the hand to stretch further to play notes in first position. First position on violin, in contrast, is a breeze. The fourth finger does not have to strain to reach the note. A side bonus of this effect is that the left hand feels more relaxed and flexible.
3. Shifting: The violin feels much smaller after playing the viola, and so it produces an awareness of the smaller distance between notes on the violin. This helped to make sure I didn't overshoot the shift by a semitone or worse.
4. Fun: Because the violin is a difficult instrument to master, I think I had a tendency as a beginner to fall into treating violin practise and playing as work. Viola, on the other hand, has such a rich and resonant sound that even the simplest pieces are a thrill to play. So, after playing viola for half an hour, it wasn't hard to carry over this enthusiam to violin. Also, it caused me to stop and consider my attitude to violin; what was the point of working hard if one did not pause to enjoy the fruits of one's labours from time to time? I reminded myself that I started violin to be able to play for my own enjoyment and that involves tons of doses of fun.
And the alto clef?
I didn't have too much trouble with the clef, mostly because the material I went through strongly incorporated into my mind the position of the open string notes on the staff. There were occasional times when my hand would move as if I were reading treble clef, but I attribute this more to a lack of concentration!
Despite just a short time playing the viola, I would say it was absolutely worth giving it a go in the first place. The effects on my violin playing were noticeable within a very short period and the viola was extremely fun to play. I know I have a violin recital to prepare, but secretly, I'll be pleased to be able to pick up the viola again after it is finished!
These past few days learning the viola have really emphasised to me the importance of either having the right tools to learning a string instrument, or a teacher to teach you these tools. The difference between my experiences of starting violin and viola are worlds apart.
When I decided to learn the violin last year, I went along to a local music school in the next suburb and signed up for a month's lessons with a girl one year older than I was. After trying out the violin, holding it and bowing the open strings, it was decided I could bow and and I was to start work on the piece I had shown her: a simple arrangement in C Major of Beethoven's Ode to Joy.
To find E on the D string, she stuck a star sticker under the string for me to place my finger. Of course, the problem was the violin went out of tune. Not realising and not having anyone to supervise me to hear this meant that I carried on for a week playing the wrong note. While I can imagine the visual reference is useful to younger kids who can have an adult to tune their violins, I was an 18 year old banished to his room because his parents didn't want to hear him bowing a hacksaw across steel cables!
It wasn't until I took lessons with Mike that I learnt about tuning to A440, finding perfect fifths and tuning the E on D to the G or A string depending on the key I was playing in. My bow hold had to be fixed and tension released from my hands.
In contrast, I have come to viola with these tuning tools. I can check if the third finger is in tune by seeing if an octave is produced when I play the third finger against the string below. I don't need a sticker to find A or E, because I know the resonance of the note, or the consonance of the double stop, telling me the note is in tune. I remind myself of the need to relax, so when I stretch with the fourth finger during scales and my fingers dig in to the fingerboard, I experiment to find a more balanced and relaxed hand shape.
The result, with careful practise, should be that I play viola relaxed and in tune.
Perhaps I am being to harsh on my newbie self from a year ago? It's easy to stand here a year later and criticise when I couldn't even read treble clef back then. The hard work gained and skills learnt on violin have largely been transferrable to viola too.
But I can't help wondering. I wonder if a lot of the problems I experienced with violin in the early weeks could have been avoided if I was told to watch out for tension at all times and just taught how to properly tune my notes from the very beginning so I learned good intonation.
It's just a shame that it has taken until learning the viola to strongly incorporate a correct E on D into my head.
We were having dinner at Grandma and Grandpa's this evening for Dad's birthday. Amid the clattering of cutlery on plates, complaints about the heat of chorizo and discussion of the latest Rudd blunder, I turned to Grandma and quietly told her I was learning a new instrument.
'Oh yes, and what are you learning?' she asked.
'The viola?' There were murmers of approval around the table. 'Well,' said Grandma, 'I've always liked the viola.'
Dad chimed in, 'I think it's a mellower sound than the violin. In fact, I prefer it more when Corey is playing viola. The violin is just...' and here he made a painful face. Huh, thanks Dad.
More comments on the richer, deeper tone followed and I'll concede that yes, I too happen to like the sound. Each practise session so far, I've been becoming familiar with Ging George, Ann, Dan and Egbert (and Corey of course, that's me on the Cing) and playing through some 20 simple pieces to learn the alto clef.
Of my favourites, I prefer 'Late for School', which uses my two favourite first finger notes, A and E, and sounds deliciously dark and murderous for something so simple. I can appreciate the force and power behind what the viola is saying when I play this piece.
Yet, when I break out the violin, and play 'Late for School' with the exact same notes, the result is less than impressive. Where is Egbert? Why does Ann sound like a bright but shallow ditz? My god, the violin's sound practically behaves , like it's dressed in a tight corset and steel brackets line its back to ensure it sits straight and isn't naughty. 'Late for School' is simply reduced to a nice-sounding tune on violin.
And this, I feel, is the difference between the sounds of violin and viola. While the violin brings forth a beautiful, clear tone reminiscent of any great soprano singer, the sound of the viola is of a wild child at an Australian Idol audition. The voice is raw, perhaps off in some places, but nonetheless deep, rich and above all, enthralling.
Despite the attraction to this more primordial sound, the violin is ever present.
'I've come to reassess my tone on viola, and I think if you play further away from the bridge, you can play it like violin,' Mike told me on Thursday.
'What's the point of playing viola if you play it like violin then?' I said.
'Well, I love the sound of viola, but I think I'm a violinist at heart.'
Exactly. I find as soon as I get back to my violin pieces, it's like meeting an old friend again. The love for the violin is there all the time, no matter how enjoyable the fling with viola is.
Tonight was a shock for me. Well, so was last night too, but that was discovering the viola for the first time. No, tonight I found the powerful earthiness of the instrument, and it amazed me.
The viola shares three of the same string tunings as the violin, but their respective sounds are like the difference between Mercury and Jupiter. I thought that by placing my first finger on the G or D string, I should hear the A and E I've been hearing for a year on violin.
Instead, what I got was a feeling of full vibration going right through my chest and buzzing underneath my feet. The A on G was alive and throbbing through my bedroom floor. I felt I was not just playing viola, but that the viola was playing me, spreading its resonance through me.
I tried middle C as well. The resonance in this note is so thick inside the sound box, that I could feel a wave-like effect of the resonance moving with my bow. It was intoxicating!
After working on C major scale and a Wohlfahrt etude for alto clef sight-reading, it was time to break out the violin for 'normal' practise.
My god, I couldn't stop laughing hysterically. The violin felt like an absolute toy on my shoulder. I was looking at it through new eyes. To me, it now seemed small, light-weight, not as big as I had previously thought and I didn't have to work so hard to produce a good tone. Going through my scales and the Vivaldi sonata, I was laughing and laughing all the way, especially when my fourth finger would reach into the stratosphere and sharpen the note by almost a quarter of a semitone. It didn't feel like such a stretch anymore, and my left hand was much more relaxed than it has been in weeks.
Certainly, as mentioned in my first blog, the entire purpose of learning viola is to improve my violin playing. So how has it improved already?
Well, for a start, viola has stretched my hand, so playing first position with a relaxed hand on violin is easy peasy. Secondly, I've become aware of the smaller spaces between intervals on violin. This is because compared to viola, the violin ceased to be a large instrument in my eyes. The result is that my shifting has improved already, and I'm more conscious of not overshooting a note by as much as a tone. And lastly, intonation on the G string is improving. I have a reference point to learn and remember middle C (a note I've always struggled with on violin), and the A is so earthy and resonant, it's hard not to miss its distinctive vowel sound.
If the viola was any more earthy than it is, I might sink down roots and grow leaves each day during my practise session.
'You know, we live in dangerous times,' I began during a lesson a few weeks back. 'Just in my criminal law lecture today, we were discussing the latest crime wave to hit Brisbane. It's terrible. Nowhere is safe, not when anybody could come along and hit you with a drive-by viola recital.' Mike laughed then. How ironic it is now: today I took home a viola to learn for the month when uni isn't making my brain implode.
It seems I can't sit still for the mid-year break. I have to take on more projects, read more books and stay up later, preferably past 2am. And so, after learning violin for nearly one year, the idea came up to try viola and I've seized the opportunity with both hands. The purpose is to improve my violin playing and become 'bilingual' in string instruments.
My first impressions are reasonable to be sure. The viola is physically larger, less responsive, less piercing, mellower, heavier and hard work. You can not be an expressive violinist on viola; the result is a pithy tone or harsh distortion. Having to slow down the bow speed is annoying.
With the viola comes alto clef too. So far, Mike's started me off with some basic pieces, mostly variants of open string notes. There's 20 pieces in alto clef for me to work on for the week from Sheila M. Nelson's 'Right from the Start'. This is fine, except that all open string notes are (un)helpfully given cute names by Ms. Nelson. There's Ann and Dan (A and D string respectively) and Ging George, who wants to fly.
Despite the 1950s cheesiness to the pieces, it's a heck of fun. One piece is called 'Late for School'. Egbert (he's the cute name for E) has lost all his stuff for school. I play along and get a kick out of telling the sod what's what with the help of just 5 notes. New notes and intervals are introduced gradually, so in just twenty pieces, I should be able to comfortably read first position in alto clef.
However, that's not to say keeping alto and treble separate is easy. Sight-reading one piece, I became stuck on a note with a natural sign. 'It's open G,' Mike told me. 'I know that, but my mind is telling me F natural,' I said. There's a particularly colourful term to describe this phenomenon (which can't be mentioned here), and it's always unpleasant when the mind plays tricks on itself.
I've got a month to go in learning this instrument and I hope to keep blogging the experience, possibly for the benefit of other beginner violinists who might want to give viola a go. For now, I can finally understand the bad reputation violists have. How could you possibly take a person seriously when they play open strings while thinking of Ging George?
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