Monday, April 29, 2013

What the right hand is all about...

Many pedagogues would say that the right hand is the most problematic aspect of string playing.  Flesch once made a hypothesis that the bow arm causes many technical problems for string players simply because the right hand makes indirect contact with the string through the bow, rather than direct contact (as the left hand does).

One thing that any transitioning violinist must realize when playing the viola is that nearly all bow arm techniques require a greater amount of physical mass to produce the same articulation or tone.  Primrose once said that young beginners who start on the viola (who have had no previous musical training) develop a less clear sense of rhythm because the instrument literally requires more time and preparation to make a prompt sound.  While some violinists may view this as a defense mechanism (if this includes YOU, I permit you to leave this blog while you are at it...), there is an undeniable truth that viola playing requires more weight and tug in the string for tone production than violin playing does.  Think about how often conductors tell low brass players to breathe in advance so that their entrances are in time with the rest of the orchestra...same deal with violas.  UH OH - did I just compare my own blessed instrument to the tuba???

The bow hold is an essential aspect of the bow arm, and below I will describe the basic differences between the three major versions.

The Franco-Belgian (or French) bow hold keeps balance in the middle of the hand (second and third finger) with a bent thumb, and curved pinky, providing flexibility in the hand yet set up in a way that the hand doesn't exert dominance in actually moving the bow.  In other words, the arm takes control of the stroke more than the hand does.  The shoulder must be released, and the elbow must be low so that the arm works with the natural force of gravity.  Some players of the Franco-Belgian grip include Sarah Chang (beside), Karen Tuttle, and Kim Kashkashian.

The German bow hold is a widespread bow grip with pretty equal spacing between each finger.  The fingers make contact with the stick at the joint closest to the fingernail (sometimes even the pinky touches the bow there rather than curving over the top of the stick), and the thumb is relatively flat.

Above is Scott Slapin (the first violist to record the Bach violin partitas and sonatas!), whose grip is reminiscent of the German grip (disregard the raised shoulder in this photo - that is BAD NEWS for violists!).  In some ways, this grip rarely exists today in its true form, but modern interpretations of the Baroque grip are quite similar to the German bow hold.  Check out this link of Tafelmusik to sooth your ears and see a Baroque bow hold in action!

Lastly, there is the Russian bow hold, championed by players such as Heifetz (pictured above), Primrose, Auer, and Flesch.  This grip features hyperextended fingers that naturally implement pressure to the string.  Although the fingers are already at extension, they still maintain their flexibility.  Often times, the arm and elbow are quite raised to prevent a bend in the wrist that pulls weight from the string.  The Russian school of violin playing veers quite considerably from European traditions, which can explain some of the "genealogical" trends found in my earlier post: What these pedagogues mean to us now....

In violin playing, any of these grips could be effective because the amount of natural weight from gravity needed in the string for a clear sound is easily achieved given the dead weight of the bow and hand.  However, in viola playing, the Franco-Belgian grip is quite dominant because as it forces the arm to take control of the stroke rather than the hand (as described above), natural arm weight enters the string to produce that same clear sound.  Interestingly, Primrose, who played viola with a Russian grip (which generally presses extra weight into the string with the hand) said a good sound could never come from the viola if it came from added (hand) pressure, but he was an sort of exception to his own rule.  Notice in the video below of him playing some Bach (and here of Milstein playing Bach on the violin in a similar technique) that he must play close to the tip in order to create a counterbalance for all the added pressure put into the string from his hand.

Bow hold exceptions aside, the primary right hand consideration (or arm consideration in these next paragraphs!) between violin and viola playing is the positioning of the elbow.  Viola playing greatly favors the use of the Galamian arm plane, which includes a plane from shoulder to elbow (an un-raised shoulder, to be exact!) and from elbow to wrist.  In fact, Galamian's technique all around leans away from the Russian school, thus it is more Franco-Belgian.  Watch Perlman and Zukerman play the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia to get a perfect view of this setup (below).  Both were violin students of Galamian, but in this video you can see Zukerman making a convincing switch to the viola that is facilitated by the lineage of his technique.  What is even cooler is that you can see Galamian's teaching on both instruments simultaneously!

In the long and the short, right hand technique is incredibly divergent by school of discipline, but physically speaking, the Franco-Belgian/Galamian offshoot seems to be the most effective, and in today's playing, is more common at least in the viola world.



Friday, April 26, 2013

What the left hand is all about...

Primrose once said that the left hand technique between violin and viola playing are virtually the same...and then he took it back years later!!  This post discusses the major differences in this specific technique: thumb placement, vibrato control/finger placement, and use of extensions vs. shifting.

Regardless of thumb placement, Flesch says that the thumb counterbalance must occur in an upward direction, not sideways direction, or else tension will occur.  In violin playing, the left thumb generally lives closer to the fingers than on the viola, where the thumb touchpoint is generally more widespread to distribute the hand's center of gravity over a larger space, producing an effective counterbalance.  While the hand in violin playing isn't as widespread as it is in viola playing, the thumb shouldn't appear to be bent forward or protrude over the neck.

Approaching this bent/protruded position (what I will call localizing the thumb as the thumb moves closer to the fingers) may only increase dexterity for smaller hands (such as it is in Perlman's playing) because this localization permits the fingers to be curved.

Notice here that Kim Kashkashian's thumb (to the left) on the viola is further back than Arabella Steinbacher's thumb (right) on the violin, just for a point of comparison.

Although the violist's left hand frame is generally larger than the violinist's, for small hands, the thumb may move higher on the fingerboard much in the same way it does on the violin.  Effectively, the same hand that is normal-sized on the violin may be small on the viola.  There are of course weird exceptions all over, such as Bruno Giuranna, whose thumb protrudes like Perlman's, but for the opposite problem: his thumb is just REALLY long!  Check out this masterclass to see for yourself (The start-point that this link leads to is quite short, but is a nice closeup!  Scroll to 3:31 and put the video in widescreen for a lengthier example.).

Given that the viola hand frame is already in an extended state compared to the violin, for vibrato purposes, it is not paramount that every finger lie perpendicularly to the fingerboard as it is on the violin.  Below, you can see to the right a picture of Primrose's hand with a fourth finger that has much less curve than Galamian's, which is to the left.  Also, given that the space between any interval on the viola is larger than on the violin, vibrato generally must be wider and faster for the string to spin.  As Tuttle says, the violist needs full contact of the finger's fleshy pad with the string, which a square setup (like Galamian's) can't always offer.

The first-finger-fourth-finger ("1-4") hand-frame that these pictures above show should always be in tact while playing the violin according to Galamian, and with the sanctity of this frame, violinists can easily produce extensions beyond it with the first and fourth finger.  However, as you see in the picture above, the violists 1-4 frame is already at an extension, and so extensions from inside the frame (meaning with the second and third fingers) proves to be more effective.  Below is an excerpt first from a violin piece, and then from a viola piece, in which I've created two fingerings for each example: one  that airs on the side of violin extension use, and the other viola extension use.

As you can see, while the two versions in each piece have a fair amount of crossover, the viola fingerings favor extensions inside the hand (fingers 2 and 3), while the violin fingerings favor extensions on the outside of the hand (fingers 1 and 4).  In places where an outside extension occurs, violists may often opt to simply shift instead.

In short:
  • Thumb placment
  • Vibrato
  • Extensions
Remember these things, and your left hand should be in good shape (as if playing an instrument was as easy as checking a grocery list...)!!!


Monday, April 22, 2013

What to consider in terms of instrument setup...

The never-ending question: what kind of shoulder rest (if any at all) should be used for violin/viola playing?

As Karen Tuttle always believed, playing with good coordination is paramount.  Galamian had another way of saying the same thing:  “'Right’ is only what is natural for the particular student, for only what is natural is comfortable and efficient.”

With these insights, the answer to this ne'er-ending question changes person by person. However, there are useful trends to consider when making your own choices about instrument setup.

The truth is that many of history's non-rest using players learned in a time when the shoulder rest was still emerging (because it was newly invented), thus comfort was found without one while learning.  Many older pedagogues, such as Baillot and Auer, barely acknowledged the use of a shoulder support because they thought it took from the resonance of the instrument, and people in general were less aware of the body.  As a result, many students who follow in their genealogy don't either.  Given that many professional violinists even today use little to no pad (Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman, Anne-Sophie Mutter [above] amongst many others), it makes sense to believe that as little pad as possible is best (although many players of course do use shoulder rests, such as Joshua Bell, below).

However, upward tension of the shoulder, downward pressure from the jaw (which should make contact with the chinrest), or craning of the neck should never support the weight of the instrument in compensation.  Thus, many violists, given that they play a heavier instrument, use a shoulder rest to more evenly distribute the weight.  Yuri Bashmet below is one fine example (Michelle LaCourse, and Lawrence Dutton also do, just to give some others).

Often, the player exhibits similar setup to the teacher, so exceptions do occur all over.  For example, Primrose, who played in the Russian style, also didn't use a shoulder rest as that was not practice.  Zukerman, who is originally a violinist (a student of Galamian), plays with no rest as he was trained, even on the viola, perhaps supporting the instrument in his hand more than one with a shoulder rest would.  The issue of supporting the instrument with the hand is really more of a left hand technique consideration, and even today is a rather rare find.

All in all, as my teacher says, "bring the instrument to you, not you to the instrument".  If that means you have a short neck, perhaps no pad is needed, but if your neck is quite long, consider your support options (sounds like I'm talking about counseling!).

What brought the viola to the present...

Albeit the violin and viola are quite different instruments, it is certainly logical to associate one with the other.  There is no doubt that transitioning from violin to viola is more natural and relatable than, say, the oboe (my clandestine timbre of choice...please don't tell anybody!).  The scope of this project is to highlight the ways these instruments compare in the aim of easing such a transition, but their shared history is also important to consider.

Barrett explains that the roots of our modern instruments, or the "Golden Age" of violin making (led by Stradivari and Amati, etc.), are fairly obscure.  Many predecessors are known to have existed, but the progression from instrument to instrument is hard to exact.  It appears that the violin and viola are hybrids of several different ancient instruments, including the rebec, vielle, viol, fiedel, and the lira da braccio, all shown below in clockwise motion from the top left (the vielle and viol serve also as etymological roots to the violin/viola).

Through the "Golden Age", the violin emerged as an acoustically perfect instrument.  It was of perfect shape and size for under-the-chin comfort in playing and clarity of sound, unlike the larger viola.  Due to the viola's larger size needed to support its lower range, music often did not require leaving first position, and a history of subordinate and incredibly simple viola parts were composed.  The odd proportions also contributed to a sound people didn't care for.  As Lionel Tertis explained, untalented violinist were put on the viola because the instrument's parts simply were much easier.

It is because of composers who played and believed in the viola from an early start that the instrument ever gained recognition.  Telemann, Hoffmeister, Stamitz, Mozart, and Beethoven are just a few names that wrote concertos and chamber works with well-integrated viola parts that allowed the instrument to live through music's "survival of the fittest" if you will.  If you're looking for an example from one of these composers, look no further!!  Mozart's Divertimento for String Trio, K. 563 is proof that the viola has a capable and convincing voice of its own.  

Thanks to the work of viola enthusiasts, the 19th century onward brought a host of commissions to outstanding musicians who dedicated their lives to the viola.  Tertis, Fuchs, and Primrose are responsible for the composition, adaptation, and performance of many widely performed works today.  Fuchs once said in her laborious process of editing the J.S. Bach Cello Suites "Since Bach himself was an indefatigable transcriber and arranger of his own and other people’s music, we need not worry about the propriety of annexing the ‘cello suites to the viola repertory”.  Tertis also advocated for repurposing the repertoire of other instruments for the viola, while also premiering original works such as those by Bax, Bliss, and Walton.  Primrose more than anything established himself as a virtuoso and coach, premiering the Hindemith concerto and commissioning the Bartok concerto, but also birthed leading pedagogues like himself, namely Karen Tuttle (pictured below).

In the attitude of Tertis, who exclaimed "anything however slightly derogatory to the viola immediately makes me see the red light and puts me on the war-path,” the viola has a special place and respect in classical repertory like never before.  The thought that violin and viola technique are one in the same is seldom recognized today.  Even Primrose took back a claim he once made stating that the left hand technique in both instruments is nearly identical.

But even if you believe the instruments can be played in the same way after reading this blog, one difference violinists will always have to overcome in the ability to read in alto clef (Primrose says this is one of the leading issues for transiting players).  Since you spoiled violinists out there might not know what it is to read a second clef, I've attached an alto here from you reference...

SORRY!  I told you I might be a martyr here and there :)

ll3 (Now you may understand that my "ll3" signature is an alto celf!)

Sunday, April 21, 2013

What these pedagogues mean to us now...

I took it upon myself to create a violin/viola "family tree" of pedagogues to give a better sense of where these people come from (I'm struggling to create a portmanteau for these two instruments since they both come from the same word!  Make up a new word maybe?).  Researched violinists in the tree below are in orange, and violists are in green.  At this link here, you can also find the work of some dear soul who compiled an incredibly intricate genealogy that you should be sure to view in addition to my tree!

Please note that the tree implies each pedagogue worked with only one teacher, which is incredibly false.  A great deal of crossover exists within this tree, and many other pedagogues through the years are not shown.  The image at least provides a roadmap of violin/viola teaching through the years though (can I just say braccio instead of violin/viola to save typing???).  

While finding the information for this compilation was not too difficult, making the tree actually was!  Grun and Joachim for example both studied with Bohm, and both taught Auer, but sadly, family tree generators (or at least the ones I tried to use) suggest that biologically speaking, two brothers can't have a child together...  

In a different way, I represent this information through a timeline to provide a context for these many names (below).  Sadly, my Excel skills are not the finest, so colors here don't match the family tree.

What I notice before anything else through these data collections is that all of these violinists come from a lineage stemming from Arcangelo Corelli's teaching.  Of course Corelli wasn't the first person to play the violin, but he is largely responsible for perpetuating many fundamental aspects of playing still seen today.  Another highly important consideration gleaned from this data is the fact that viola playing comes directly from a tradition in violin playing.  I'll be sure to emphasize the rise of the viola in future posts, but for now, I'll leave this topic right where it is! 

Technical playing trends can been seen to weave through this tree, which I will also divulge in future posts.  Here is a more detailed list of my eight teachers of choice and some of their famous students.  
  • Auer: Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, Efrem Zimbalist
  • Baillot: Charles de Beriot, Carl Flesch
  • Flesch: Alma Moodie, Eric Rosenblith, Max Rostal, Henri Temianka, Roman Totenberg
  • Galamian: Charles Castleman, Dorothy DeLay, Glenn Dicterow, Pamela Gearhart, Itzhak Perlman, Sally Thomas, Pinchas Zuckerman
  • Lillian Fuchs: Lawrence Dutton, Martha Katz, Yizhak Schotten, Geraldine Walther, Isaac Stern (chamber music)
  • Primrose: Joseph dePesquale, Jerry Epstein, Karen Tuttle, Yizhak Schotten 
  • Tertis: Phillip Burton, Rebecca Clarke, Sidney Griller, Colin Hampton, Jack O'Brien (last three were students of chamber music)
  • Tuttle: Susan Dubois, Kim Kashkashian, Michelle LaCourse, Katherine Murdock, Lawrence Power

SO!  Take a minute (or 4,832,904,829) and try to absorb some of this plethora of names and dates.  Maybe by the time you know what's going on, I will too (fingers crossed!). 

Until next post,

What I actually read...

So you may be asking yourself what I actually read for this project...

I won't boast by telling you what I read because the Lord knows the violist never earns the right to boast...*coughing* 1,970 pages.  Yes I did calculate this, and yes I did inflate the number of pages with indexes and musical examples.


But really, without teaching experience beyond the high school level, I knew this project would be futile without a bulk of research on my side.  So, again, you may be asking yourself what I actually read for this project...

With the guidance of my project advisor (who is also my dear viola teacher here at IC, Debra Moree) I decided to read texts by/about four major violin pedagogues, and four major viola pedagogues.  Pedagogue names are in bold below...and that is Ms. M right there (what we call Moree affectionately)!

They include the following...

Readings by violin pedagogues:

  • Violin Playing As I Teach It - Leopold Auer
  • The Art of the Violin - Pierre Baillot
  • Art of Violin Playing, Book One - Carl Flesch
  • Principles of Violin Playing & Teaching - Ivan Galamian

Readings by/about Pedagogues of the Dark Side:

  • Playing the Viola - Conversations with William Primrose - David Dalton
  • My Viola and I - Lionel Tertis
  • Lillian Fuchs, First Lady of the Viola - Amedee Daryl Williams
  • Coordinated Effort: A Study of Karen Tuttle's Influence On Modern Viola Teaching - Matthew Dane

Lastly, I read Henry Barrett's viola resource guide The Viola.  Not so much a famous pedagogue, Barrett still provides violists with a good book containing useful and important considerations for the player and teacher in training.

Through this blog, I'll hopefully lead you to some of the same conclusions I've been led to through this reading.  But for now, just trust me (mwahaha)...


What this is all about...

Hello!  My name is Max Aleman, and welcome to my first blog entry (...and first blog ever!)!

A viola student at Ithaca College, I am creating this blog as an exposition of my independent study project research in the field of viola playing as it relates to the technique of the violin.  In essence, I hope that through this blog, you - the violinist crowd - find some useful considerations in your transition to viola playing (AKA the "dark side"), and for any other musician, I provide a clearer progression of where the violin/viola playing of today comes from.  Ultimately, this blog should be a teaching tool!!!

ENJOY!  You are forever now on the dark side!  Oh, and don't be offended by my violist martyrdom ;)