Chamber music technique for violists
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.
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 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.
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
A few thoughts from a stubby-fingered violist who has flirted with the violin..
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.
@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.
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.
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.
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...
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!
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.
...and adapt to what others expect of us; surely we don't only play for ourselves?
If I were a violist, I'd try to be a bridge between the second violin and the cello.
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.
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:
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."
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.
@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.
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.
@Luis - how exciting for you!
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