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Ruth Kuefler

In the heart of it all

April 5, 2009 at 6:24 PM

In my last blog I mentioned how much I've been enjoying viola lately. I've been musing on this lately, trying to figure out exactly why its so attractive to me. After rehearsing with my quartet the other day (on viola) I came to a conclusion: When I play viola, I feel like I'm at the very heart of the music, at its core, its center. When you think about it, this is exactly true. Take an orchestra: you have basses and celli on the low side, and the violins on top. Who's right in the middle? The violists. With time, I've come to appreciate more and more the importance and enjoyment of playing the middle voices. While it's always fun to have the melody, to be honest, I enjoy playing the accompaniment better. It's so fascinating to me to figure out how best to support the other voices. What articulation fits here? How can I better match the melody? When do I have something special to bring out? What harmonies in this passage are most important? Playing second violin in orchestra this semester, I ask myself these questions a lot. I know some people find the part more boring than the firsts, but the way I look at it, it is as boring or exciting as you make it. Sure, playing a string of eighth notes seems pretty simple at first glance. But sometimes is the inner voices that can make or break a piece. So often, the violas and second violins are the motor of the orchestra. Who has the constant subdivision? We do. Who has that special note of the chord that gives it just the right color? Very often, we do.

But back to viola . . . like I said, I've been playing in a quartet lately. We're doing Mozart's K. 370, for oboe, violin, viola, and cello. The biggest challenges for me are articulation (matching the violin) and intonation, since the oboe and violin tend to be more sharp naturally, and the viola tends to be flat. This is compounded by the fact that I'm coming to viola from violin, so my personal tendency is also to play flat. I discussed this with my viola professor, who said that he cheats a little and tunes just slightly sharp for chamber music, especially the C string. He said that violinists tend to tune their 5ths quite 'tight,' so violists have to compensate slightly, especially with the C string, which is so far from the A. I tried this last rehearsal, in addition to being more personally aware of my intonation tendencies, and it helped a LOT. It'll take time to refine, but I'm not floundering as much as in the first couple rehearsals where it we would land on chords out of tune, and I would be like, 'What's going on here? My fingers tell me I'm in tune!' As far as articulation goes, I mainly need to work on bow distribution. Often I need to play lower in the bow on viola to get the clarity that is so easy on the violin. 


Random side observation to all you dual violin-violists: don't you hate it when your brain switches clefs unconsciously? So embarrasing! Our last quartet rehearsal was right after an orchestra rehearsal in which I had been playing violin. I was fine until the 2nd movement, when somehow my brain was like, 'Hey, treble clef!' and I played some blatant wrong notes. The funny thing was how I was completely clueless until I heard what was coming out, and then I was like, 'Oops, wrong clef!' What gets me is just how randomly my brain decided to switch. I think its even funnier when I'm playing violin and this happens. A couple times when I've been sight-reading violin duets in my teaching I've played a couple wrong notes because my brain was thinking in alto clef. Sigh, the perils of 'dual citizenship,' as I like to call it. ;)

Posted on April 6, 2009 at 4:34 AM

A very interesting posting indeed...

The inner voices, yup, you are on the right track. That's why I always loved the pianist Bill Evans...his voicings. Listen to the 1965 release of "Bill Evans and Symphony Orchestra" sometime and you'll know what I mean. Now on CD but oh sooo much better on vinyl.

The viola gets short changed in so many ways...the stupid viola jokes and often parts that are hardly more than oom-pah-pahs.

I was lucky enough to hear Paul Doktor play the viola once "live and up-close" at a string conference in Pennsylvania in the late 60's and was smitten.

The clef business always drove me nuts and still does. If I learned it as a kid, I bet it would not be a problem. Never thought about tuning sharp, that would bother me; better to just use your ear.


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on April 6, 2009 at 1:41 PM

 "don't you hate it when your brain switches clefs unconsciously?"

Yes!  But I actually felt kind of proud when I first had a "viola moment" on a violin (read treble clef as alto) rather than the reverse.  It made me feel like more of a real violist.  ;-)

And I don't think it ever goes away completely.  I was playing some violin-viola duets with a friend in church.  She's a professional violist, and teaches viola, so I played the violin part and she played the viola part.  During the hymns, though, we both played along in treble clef.  Then, for the postlude, we get ready to play one more violin-viola duet, we start off with a big chord, and it sounds pretty weird.  Oh, drat, I think, is it me?  No. "Sorry," she says, "I just started off in treble clef after the hymns."  It even happens to pros . . .

From Royce Faina
Posted on April 6, 2009 at 2:35 PM

When I was in High School Choir, we had music that the tenor would be in the K-Clef.  Thanks for the great post!

From Ann Marie Cordial
Posted on April 6, 2009 at 6:52 PM

I am also a 'doubler' and it IS surprising how fast the brain switches gears - so smoothly that you don't even realize it.  During a recent viola lesson, things were going great, and suddenly I heard these notes coming from my instrument (yes I was playing them) and they didn't go with anything in the piece.

My instructor said,"What are you doing?" 

It hit me then.  "I'm playing violin on the viola,"I said, "Sorry".  It was like drifting off to sleep - the brain switch happened so seamlessly and quick that I wasn't even aware of it.

---Ann Marie

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