Keeping it Together in Real Time

Edited: September 26, 2017, 10:52 AM · I was asked by several friends (by virtue of me owning a viola) to play with them in a quartet. The three other members are experienced musicians who have been playing since childhood and have significantly more ensemble experience than I do.

They know that I have only been seriously playing the viola for about a month (violin - 5 yrs) so I periodically have "violin moments" while trying to read alto clef. However, my sight reading in general is not as strong as theirs, even if I didn't have to switch back and forth between treble and alto clefs, often in the same piece.

We have read together four times now and I find that I am having difficulty keeping time when I inevitably run into clef confusion. Counting isn't exactly my strong suit, having primarily worked on solo lesson material so far. Since many of the pieces we have read to date are presented with single parts, rather than scores, I frequently get lost and can't find my way back in.

Does anyone have any tricks for finding your way back into a piece when there are no guide-posts to follow?

I realize much of this will come with more time in grade, but I would like to improve sooner rather than later so I don't hold the group back or necessitate them finding a replacement. They have been patient and kind, but if I can get up to speed more quickly, that would be ideal.

Replies (11)

Edited: September 26, 2017, 10:57 AM · This is a tough issue with no simple solution. You are going to have to prepare more, even for a "sightreading" session. Listen to the pieces you will be playing with your part in front of you--listen more than once--practice counting as you listen. A score is also helpful but may be more information than you can take in all at once. However, knowing how your part fits in is a big help.

Writing in cues in your music will also help. For example, if you have a five bar rest and the first violin comes in during the fourth bar of that rest, under the rest write 3/2 (straight line instead of a slash between 3 and 2) and write "1st" under the 2. Or if another instrument has a distinctive rhythmic line at a certain point, write that in your part.

My best guess, though, is that you simply don't have the experience yet to make reading easy, and the only way to gain experience is to do a lot of playing.

September 26, 2017, 11:01 AM · Also consider playing from the score, rather than from the viola part. It can really help to see where everyone else is, and how your part fits into theirs.
September 26, 2017, 11:27 AM · I think there was an article on the mainpage of a quartet playing with laptops from the score and a buttom for the food to turn pages. I still think this is a nice solution, although time will maybe put it more towards an eink tablet or something.
Otherwise it helps to have listened to a recording before to recognize a situation and be able to jump.
Edited: September 26, 2017, 12:18 PM · Most of the work we have done so far has been cold reads, but now that I have at least copies of the parts, I can prepare a little better.

Mary Ellen, the trick to indicating when other instruments come in will be very useful. Thanks! I know I need to do more to get better. This is a rather useful trial by fire, if embarrassing and inconvenient. I just don't want to do it at the expense of the rest of the group for longer than necessary. Now that I at least know what we are playing, I can do some woodshedding.

Lydia, I do finally have the score for some of the pieces so that is a help. Others may be a bit more of a challenge, but I may be able to find it on imslp.

Marc, now that we are mostly done with cold reading for the moment I can go look for recordings to listen to. While importing the music to a laptop sounds interesting, it's more work than I'm prepared to do at this point. Maybe sometime in the future. Meanwhile, the battery won't run down on paper copies.

Edited: September 26, 2017, 10:51 PM · Hi Krista,

Over the last three years I've repeatedly had the lovely experience of experiencing this weekly. As part of my university program we had a chamber music course where, with mixed ensemble, we would compose and then rehearse fresh works twice a week - fresh as in fresh from the press.

This lead to some interesting circumstances - for example unfinished lines, new phrases being added between sessions, and occasionally entire rewrites. Needless to say every session was a fun little sight reading adventure.

Now onto the relevant advice. Much like you have independence between your hands when playing, you need to try and develop a sort of independence of the mind when it comes to counting. This way, when the notes screw up, you're still in the same measure as everyone else. I find that after working in these circumstances for a few years, that by the end of the third year (this spring, actually) I was just keeping up with the music no matter what actually happened with my instrument. I would be able to say 'yes, we are right here', even if my playing is in shambles or I had zoned out. The beat just keeps going in the back on my head.

Of course this becomes even more natural the more familiar you are with the music. Now that you know what you're doing, get it on your music player and use it as your listening of choice! Even better than being able to make an educated guess of where you are, is to be able to actually know because you know what 'this' bit is supposed to sound like. :)

I think something else that might help with forming this undercurrent of tempo is conductor training.

Additionally, you could discuss your problems with the other three members. If they notice you've dropped out of the music, they can stress the down beat for you to help you get back in during sight reading. Assuming you haven't fallen too far behind, you should be able to 'guess' which measure they're starting. If you're just stumbling over a note or clef change you likely won't be very far behind - maybe just a few beats - and that can get you back on track.

Edited: September 27, 2017, 5:20 AM · "Finding your way back in" is a lot easier if you have a good sense of the harmony. Easier with some composers, obviously, than others. And that just comes with more experience and more time spent listening for that aspect of the music.

Over the summer I was invited to "read" the first violin parts of Beethoven and Mozart quartets with a group that was over my head -- two pros and a highly-skilled amateur who has been playing that stuff for 50 years. The amateur (a violist) had the music so she loaned me my parts the night before and I practiced for two hours. Still, I was burnt toast in a few spots.

Something else you always do is number your measures in your parts. That way they can shout "Coming upon 73!!" at you when you're lost. Check out the page on measure numbering at the Bennington site. They have a list of "accepted" total measure numbers for a huge collection of pieces so that if you come out with the wrong total at the end you can look for your mistake.

I know what you mean about clef-failure. I still get it once in a while and I've had my viola two years. I recommend just reading parts along with recordings. When I bought my viola I bought the Kayser studies just to have something to play, and reading through those helped a lot with the clef. Of course they're kind of predictable, but it was pretty useful nevertheless.

September 27, 2017, 5:59 AM · Krista, I sure know what you mean. All you can do is keep on doing it and you will continue to improve as long as your mind and body allow you to.

I took up viola as a serious endeavor 2-1/2 years ago. I was used to clef changes because I had been playing cello (4 different clef-to-finger contortions to worry about) for 65 years (violin for 75) but they will always require mental effort when they show up (I especially hate it when the clef change is first indicated at the end of a line (who reads beyond the last note???). If i get a chance to see the music ahead of time I circle or otherwise indicate both clef changes and key signature changes in pencil to fix them in my mind.

I know I will always have trouble slipping into violin mode when playing viola (never had that problem with cello). I have become fairly adept at recovering from loosing my place in chamber music by matching the harmony. I find there are a lot of things that are awkward to play on viola because of its size and because as violinists we don't really have to think in terms of "half positions." (Cellists play in half positions all the time.) In addition with inner parts such as the viola plays there are frequently more awkward fingering patterns than violinists usually encounter - learn to "fake."

All we can do is practice.

September 28, 2017, 7:40 PM · Danhauser, especially volume 3.
September 29, 2017, 5:45 AM · It depends to an extent on the music you're playing. You're less likely to get lost in Haydn or Mozart than trying to find your way through a quartet arrangement of a movement from Bach's "Art of Fugue", where there are fewer helpful way-points in the structure (I know, I've been there in the past as a cellist!).
September 30, 2017, 2:39 AM · We have to train our eyes to follow the score in the collective tempo, and "when in doubt, leave it out" until the next time round.
September 30, 2017, 7:02 AM · I concur. In quartet, keeping rhythm is usually more important than getting all the notes right (entrances, of course).

When you practice, do you switch between vln/vla a lot? I learned alto by immersion, after playing vln for about 6 yrs... Just like learning any other language. Total immersion in alto for a few weeks will do you proud.

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