Chamber music technique for violists

July 27, 2023, 12:12 PM · Laurie's article on the Peter Slowik master class was good and I thought invited some more discussion. I just wanted to throw out some ideas.

Slowik discusses the need for violists to play out in a muscular way, even fairly roughly, even breaking with the written dynamic, at the right time to bring out the line (the audience won't hear a lot of the roughness but they will notice the viola line, which is the poing).

I thought -- this applies as well to 2nd violin. In the very best quartets (Guarneri and Dover both good examples), a strong, steely 2nd and viola are what really defines the quartet's sound. The 1st will rarely have trouble being heard because its E string will cut through -- if anything, 1sts need to avoid overplaying and over-pressing.

But back to viola. In my experience, violists are taught viola bow technique that is all about pressure and intensity and concentrated bow. Violinist are taught more about bow speed instead of pressure, adding air to the bow to produce a round, sweet sound. Sometimes viola playing can benefit from more of a violinist's approach in that way.

What I would add to Slowik is that sometimes it's the other three players who need to break dynamic and lay back and allow the viola (and cello of course) lines to come through without the violist and cellist having to press.

Sometimes what you want from the viola isn't florid intensity or roughness but the opposite -- a gorgeous sweet floating sound, which will only project through a quartet if the other players are sensitive enough to let it do so.

Some of the most beautiful sound a viola can make is at piano, with a lot of bow speed and air and even tilting the bow (some viola teachers used to all but declare bow tilt illegal). And modern strings can make violas play a little more like violins in a good way, with more sweetness.

Finally, Slowik's comments on vibrato should apply to all chamber players. Vibrato, certainly in classical work but even extending to mid-romantic like Brahms, has to be thought of as a special effect, an ornament, and NOT the definition of someone's sound.

That realization is one of the biggest changes that has happened to chamber playing in the last 40 years. So you have a gorgeous vibrato (or, hopefully, a variety of vibrato effects) -- don't use it all the time or your partners and audience get tired of it. Use it more sparingly and it becomes more beautiful and more powerful as an emotional effect.

Replies (22)

Edited: July 27, 2023, 3:28 PM · I was very interested in your comments about violists being taught bowing from different perspectives than violinists. Different emphases on the main tools of tone production, if I understood you correctly.

I remember having a viola lesson not too long after "buying the instrument and learning the clef." I was struggling with tone production and the teacher, himself also both a violinist and violist (and mostly a chamber musician by trade), told me "You are assuming that you can force your viola to do anything you want, the way you can on your violin. But you can't. It won't take as much aggression." I found that counter-intuitive, but after I learned to back off a little I found myself in better control.

As for string quartets, I have now had a fair bit of experience playing both second violin and viola. The second violin is often a close partner or foil to the first violinist and so there is a necessary deference or obeisance. The problem for the violist is that you really CAN blow away the violins if you've got an instrument with some tonal substance, as I have (it's a cannon actually). I find -- and of course I play with other amateurs -- that it comes down to who I'm playing with and I just adjust to that.

I think what you may be saying is that when the composer has given the viola a choice morsel of music, this should be brought out, because the composer must have had an iron-clad reason for doing so. And while that's undoubtedly true, it still has to be tasteful.

Hopefully I didn't misunderstand too badly.

July 27, 2023, 8:03 PM · Greetings,
A very interesting and thoughtful post.
I think vibrato in chamber music may be a little different to vibrato in general. if a vibrato is gorgeous and one dimensional then I absolutely don7t want to hear it all the time. The default contrast is indeed no vibrato, for which we give thanks! however, if the vibrato is varied, sensitive and well controlled then I do want to hear it most of the time. It may well be that in chamber music of the highest level we do have to regulate our vibrato according to the overall sound which on occasion may have to be white. But for me personally, I agree with Flesch that if you took out the vibrato all great violinists would all sound pretty much the same.
Cutting vibrato down and or out in this way may well be the modern style but it doesn7t really explain why the violinsts and quartets of old sound just great. There is very little evidence to my ears that modern groups are significantly better or nicer to listen to or whatever.
There is also an important technical reason for more or less continuous vibrato: relaxation. The olde rI get the more I realize that technical work is simply easier and more fluid if i use vibrato for most of my practice time. I think a lot of young students build in unnecessary tension by not using vibrato consistently during practice time.
Idle thoughts,
July 27, 2023, 8:30 PM · I think the vibrato of the cello and viola is particularly important as it’s used for the bass and root tones of the music. If the vibrato is slower and wider - and generated more from the arm as opposed to the wrist/fingers - it seems to me that’s it’s incumbent for the violinists to try to use a vibrato more in line with the viola and cello, rather than something markedly different.

I don’t agree that vibrato is an ornament today, especially with widespread use of synthetic gut strings that sound rather cold without vibrato.

Edited: July 27, 2023, 8:43 PM · In amateur quartet playing, I have experienced that most players just forge ahead with whatever vibrato they've got. There will be adjustments more or less in line with dynamics, and some general increase in the depth or intensity of vibrato when something is marked dolce or espressivo (for instance). But I sense that in really good professional quartets much more attention is paid to coordinating vibrato among the players. A good place to start for violinists is the Bach Double -- assuming one is using vibrato in Bach. Then I think your vibrato needs to be pretty well synchronized -- at least, this is what I was taught. It's not so easy to do.
July 28, 2023, 5:47 AM · @Paul Deck

"You are assuming that you can force your viola to do anything you want, the way you can on your violin. But you can't. It won't take as much aggression."

Sounds almost as if the viola is a pet or animal to be treated with respect and the violin isn't! Or the violin has a much tougher trainer! ??

Edited: July 28, 2023, 9:47 AM · A few thoughts from a stubby-fingered violist who has flirted with the violin..

Bowing? Yes the viola needs a heavier bow and a deeper stroke, plus a non-crunching, quasi collé attack even in pianissimo. But the C-string strings needs a shorter, heavier stroke, graduating to a longer, lighter stroke on the A-string. The A has a more "urgent" tone the the violin A, and I personally hate accentuating this with a steel-cored string.

Vibrato? A soloist needs vibrato to "detach" the tone from the surrounding instruments. In a quartet the vibratos should be less intrusive and be subtly variable. Playing with little no vibrato demands subtly varied bow strokes.

Left hand and arm? The wider vibrations of a viola string need greater finger pressure, and a harder "hit" at the start of note, especially in slurred passages. We may use more cello-like fingerings and more mini shifts to allow a supple vibrato and avoid strain. The arm and hand may have to twist and turn as we cross the strings, especially in arpeggios and double stops.

Quartets? A team of soloists! I think of the viola as a violin with 10% cello in it. A blending, transparent sound, alternating with passages of denser strokes nearer the bridge. Lets avoid gruff, dry tones, unless the music demands it. Strong, supple playing?

July 28, 2023, 10:18 AM · This reminds me that the oft-repeated idea of softer, sweeter instruments being "suitable for chamber music" is incorrect, especially for the viola! Having a louder, responsive instrument with a deep tone is incredibly important for this instrument in particular, although at the upper levels of quartet playing, everyone has to have a soloist-level instrument IMO. Really great comments about using varied vibrato, and I agree 100% about the viola needing to dig in a bit more when bringing out the odd phrase. It applies to orchestral playing, too, IMO - the section should be aware (via the leadership of the principal) of when these lines are happening and bring them out, even if it means playing a dynamic level above written, or playing closer to the bridge for a brighter sound, etc. As pointed out - the composers had their reasons for giving a particular line to the viola - it is our job to make such lines clearly heard by the audience.
July 28, 2023, 11:15 AM · @Thomas - thanks for your interesting post. My experience playing both first violin and viola in chamber groups and orchestras is that they are very different instruments with different roles in the groups. One thing to remember is that many of the composers who wrote string quartets, e.g., Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorak, were musicians who preferred playing viola to violin when playing in small groups. Thus, their chamber music aims to give the viola a somewhat larger role than one might expect for an inner voice.

That said, the violist has to be careful and know when to emphasize its role and, obviously, when to hold back. Learning that is a matter of accumulating experience. I am still learning as a violist. Good luck to all of you who responded to the post.

July 28, 2023, 3:15 PM · One thing violists often have to be reminded of: their instrument speaks slowly. They could be listening and responding quite well, but if they don't come 1/16 second earlier as a habit, they will sound late and thicken the texture.
July 28, 2023, 5:04 PM · I've never had these problems with viola or cello. I just bow for the sound I want to hear. I think it has worked over the past half century. I learned to use a bow earlier, on my first 10 years of violin.
July 29, 2023, 2:29 AM · I'm like Andrew - I never gave a thought to technique but just try to match the sound I have in my head, tailored according to the music and the ensemble. I'll never make pro...
Edited: July 29, 2023, 3:42 AM · OK, I too did that for the first few years, but when we play in a large hall, or with piano, or with other strings, we need to adapt to the sounds in other folks heads!
July 29, 2023, 6:55 AM · The sounds other folks have in their heads is a mystery inside an enigma. I'll happily adapt to the sounds they make with their instruments, unless they're horrible sounds.
August 4, 2023, 4:18 AM · ...and adapt to what others expect of us; surely we don't only play for ourselves?
August 4, 2023, 4:23 AM · If I were a violist, I'd try to be a bridge between the second violin and the cello.
August 4, 2023, 11:58 AM · Adrian - in the kind of ensembles I play in we're all too busy taking care of our own problems to have expectations of the others! But hopefully we all play for our collective vision of the music.
August 4, 2023, 8:09 PM · Michael Tree always mentioned that the viola competed a lot with the cello in the quartet in terms of volume, so that the violist should be able to produce a big soud. I will quote him in an interview:
"Michael Tree: For one thing, we have to have much more of the hair on the bow on the string. We can’t afford to do what many violinists do, and that is sort of play with one-quarter of the hair all the time as if the bow were curved. We have to play with flat hair especially beyond the middle of the bow.
String Visions: That sounds great!
Michael Tree: Because it’s just a question of pulling the sound, of getting into the string — very, very different than violin playing. I always thought that playing the viola meant a big difference in fingerings, and of course, they have to have strings almost further apart. What I learned quickly was that the biggest departure from violin playing is in the right hand, in producing sound. So, to this day, I consciously watch over my right arm to see that I don’t just play at the very tip, even in pianissimo."
August 4, 2023, 8:16 PM · Again Michael Tree : "Michael Tree: Well, it’s just that we don’t want to sound ever like a big violin. The viola plays a unique role in quartet life, and I feel that I am more akin, more drawn toward the cello sound and that lower sound quality. We can’t afford to just play glassy smooth all the time we need putting real power into the string. Because the last thing any string quartet needs is to have a viola that sounds more like a violin, and because many quartets I’ve heard, even fine quartets, even some professional quartets, suffer from a top heaviness. There are just too much high tones. The violist, to my way of thinking, should always play louder than his colleagues want him to."
Edited: August 5, 2023, 3:00 AM · Even on my Breton violin I love getting cello sounds out of the low strings. On a viola I'd be like a pig in clover.
August 5, 2023, 8:00 AM · @Luis - thanks for posting Michael Tree's wisdom on the role of the viola in string quartetsand the technique. As I recall from the one time I saw him play, he used the biggest d*mn viola I have ever seen. I was amazed.
August 6, 2023, 2:50 PM · Yes Tom, Michael Tree loved big violas, but he had very long arms that allowed him to play them. His Busan was 43.5 cms. He played a viola made by me with his quartet and sent me a kind message many years ago.
August 7, 2023, 6:31 PM · @Luis - how exciting for you!

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