Viola Setup

Yesterday I got a phone call from a local orchestra teacher who had a quick setup question. I've been meaning to blog about this particular issue for quite a while now, so am inspired to finally do so!

What's viola setup, and does it really matter?

When a violist has her viola set up correctly, it means she can effortlessly balance the instrument between her collarbone and the corner of her jawbone. It means the viola fits the body, rather than the body contorting itself to fit the viola. It means the shoulders are relaxed, the arms are free (including that pesky left thumb, which tends to gang up with the index finger and grip the neck), and the hand is freely able to maneuver from first position to tenth and back, because the hand is not holding the viola in place-- the viola is balanced on the body.

So, the answer is a resounding YES. Setup REALLY matters.

Over the weekend, I was in Tennessee, participating again in Dr. Hillary Herndon's truly inspiring Viola Celebration weekend. If any of you live anywhere within driving distance of Knoxville, I HIGHLY suggest you go next year. It's a fantastic event. My students and I always leave inspired and excited about what's next in our collective and individual viola journeys. Anyway, I was teaching a shifting workshop on Sunday morning, and one of the participants was a tall (almost as tall as I!) young lady, who was having a hard time shifting because her viola wasn't properly balanced on her body. She wasn't able to shift, because she needed the support of her hand to keep the viola from crashing to the floor. Just imagine how hard it is to shift if you don't have freedom to move your hand!

Once I saw what her issue was, I asked if I could adjust her viola. I elongated the feet of her shoulder rest to give her as much height under the viola as possible. That helped a little. Then I asked her to get the blanket from her viola case. I folded it up and put it under the thin end (i.e. chest side) of her shoulder rest, once it was on her viola and she was in playing position. Immediately the viola was supported in a MUCH healthier way-- instead of having her viola rest on her chest (so the strings were more or less perpendicular to the floor and parallel to her body), it rested on her shoulder (so the strings were more are less parallel to the floor). She smiled hugely and said it was SO MUCH MORE COMFORTABLE. And low and behold-- because her viola was in a more healthy position, she no longer had to HOLD the viola with her left hand, and she was able to shift with much greater ease and accuracy!

Will this solution work for everybody? Of course not-- some people are built like this young lady and I. We're fairly narrow, with long necks. Other people have short necks. Some people are built like football players and have a lot of bulk in their pectorals-- these folks generally don't need any padding on the chest side of their shoulder rest. It's all very individualized. But here's how you can test it out; have a friend help you. Stand completely relaxed, with your feet under your knees under your hips under your shoulders. Let your arms hang from the shoulders as though they are the sleeves of a coat hanging on a coat hanger. Now have your friend bring the viola to your body. Resist the urge to TAKE and HOLD the instrument. Just relax and let the instrument come to you. If there is space between the shoulder rest and your shoulder, or there is space between the corner of your jaw bone and the chin rest, or if there is space between the front side of the shoulder rest and your chest, you likely need to tweak your setup.

Here's a picture of my viola lying on the floor. Look at how high the chest side of my shoulder rest is. Look at how tall my Kréddle chin rest is, and its angle. With these tweaks, by viola is able to easily balance between the corner of my jaw bone and my collarbone, leaving my arms free to play.


Almost all of my students now use Kréddles. I'm a huge fan! They're a bit pricey, but completely customizable. If you are long-necked, I especially recommend a Kréddle or a SAS, but I (personally) prefer the Kréddle (and no, I'm in no way affiliated with the product nor do I get a kickback for saying so).

But what's on my shoulder rest?


Believe it or not, it's a terrycloth applicator pad used to wax cars! I buy them at AutoZone. I've folded one in half and covered it in black felt, then tied it to the end of the shoulder rest with some black yarn so that it isn't ugly when I'm on stage.

What’s great about these sponges is they don’t deflate like other sponges. I fold them in half and attach with a rubber band to the thin side (i.e. chest side) of the shoulder rest for students. The one that’s been on my shoulder rest has been there for years and years and years, and it’s still soft and perfect. :-) The padding added to the front side of the shoulder rest means the viola stays in a better position, and then the head and neck don’t have to fall or collapse to keep the instrument in place.

Final result is that my body is neutral and free to move around the instrument. Check out this photo from Viola Day 2015. Michael Hall and I are playing a duet-- notice that his viola is set up exactly right for him, and mine is set up exactly right for me. Both of us are comfortable, our violas are more-or-less parallel to the floor, our shoulders are relaxed, and our hands are free.


Let me know if you have any questions. And join us for Viola Day 2017 next Saturday, September 30th from 10 AM to 6 PM with guest Dr. Hillary Herndon. You can learn more register here.

Happy practicing!

Violet's Debut Recital

Greetings from the 2017/2018 school year! It's hard to believe the summer is behind me, and I'm back to work already. I had a wonderful summer, most recently visiting the Oregon coast with James and Tula. It was the perfect way to store up some peaceful energy to counter some of the madness I'm sure to encounter this year. It's the end of the first week of classes, and I'm excited about the new and returning students (though missing those who have moved on), and am getting ready for a recital on Tuesday, followed by a trip across the world the following day.

See, a few years ago, Elizabeth Crawford (clarinet) and I began playing together. Our first collaboration was Rebecca Clarke's Prelude, Allegro, and Pastorale (which you can watch here). We enjoyed playing together, came up with a snazzy name for our duo (Violet), and thought it would be fun to program some more duets. But when we starting looking for more pieces to play, we found only a handful for clarinet and viola alone. In fact, after much research, we only found about twenty duets, and often the music was difficult to acquire. So, we started thinking... why not commission some more music?


Our first commission was by Shawn Head, a Houston-based composer with whom I've worked on several occasions. His Duet was a hit with audiences, so we took it on the road. In October 2016, we performed both Clarke and Head at the College Music Society National Conference. A few days before our session, I met John Mlynczak, VP of Sales and Marketing at Noteflight, who later came to our presentation. I'd told John of the lack of music for clarinet and viola, and after our session, he proposed a collaboration-- his company would host a composition competition for Violet, give the winner a nice prize, and Libby and I would have some awesome new music to play! You can read all about that project here.

In addition to the more than 100 pieces we got from the Noteflight competition, we've also been asking composers that we know to write for us. The response has been overwhelming, and our shelves are bursting with brand new music for Violet. We're still working on our website (you can check it out here-- I welcome any constructive criticism you have!), and our full debut recital is on Tuesday night! 7:30 PM in Sursa Hall, free and open to the public. The concert will be streamed live, so if you'll be too far away to come, you can still join us virtually. We'll be playing works by Daniel Sitler, Eleanor Trawick, Stu Scott, Thomas Johansson (winner of the Noteflight competition-- he's flying all the way from Sweden to be at the premier of his piece!), Daniel Swilley, and Zack Browning. It's going to be a great concert, and we hope you'll join us. We're taking the majority of the program to New Zealand, where we'll be presenting at the International Viola Congress. More on that to come from Wellington.

Happy practicing!


A Tip for Countering Performance Anxiety

One of my favorite activities on a quiet morning when I don't have to DO anything is to sit in my Lay-Z-Boy, drink freshly-brewed coffee, and read. This morning was no exception, but instead of reading my book (which I usually do), I was tooling around on my phone. I subscribe to the Bulletproof Musician Newsletter, which always arrives at some point in the middle of the night Saturday, so it's new in my inbox every Sunday morning. This morning's post had an intriguing title, "Dogs... A Musician's Best Friend?" You can read the article here (and poke around the rest of the site too-- it's full of interesting ideas and research). Dr. Kageyama (the author) recounted research about children struggling to read:  the test group that improved most was the one in which the children, assisted by a therapist, read out loud to dogs.

He then told a story from his own childhood, which I think is really beautiful. He writes, "I grew up a few miles outside of town, in a heavily wooded area, surrounded by birds, squirrels, frogs, and other critters. I also had some chickens and ducks that roamed the yard. Like most kids, there were days when I didn’t feel like practicing. So often, my mom would “trick” me into doing a run-through or mock performance by setting up a stand on the porch, and suggesting that I give the animals a performance. ... The challenge being, to see if I could get the animals to respond to my playing. ... The goal was to see if I could play beautifully enough to get them to approach me – like that scene in Cinderella where all the animals help her make a dress."

He goes on to say that through this exercise, his mom encouraged him to practice a particular performance mindset from a young age. The goal is to make beautiful and emotional sounds, not to play perfectly. This is something I encourage my students to focus on as well, but sometimes it's difficult for them to get away from the "Oh my gosh what if I make a mistake!!" mindset that is so debilitating.

Reading Dr. Kageyama's post reminded me of something that happened over winter break. I was out of town, but had a recital in early January so had my viola with me and was preparing the program. My host had friends that were also out of town, and they let me use their apartment as a practice space while they were gone. I set up the music stand and was practicing away, when suddenly I noticed that I had an audience.

My colleague Amelia Kaplan wrote a piece for me and Ketty Nez to premiere at this recital. For various reasons, I was unable to start learning it until only a few weeks before the concert. Now, in general, this does not make for anxiety-free performance. At some point I read (and unfortunately, I don't recall the source) that having enough time to learn a work, and the work being of an appropriate level based on your abilities, are key for approaching anxiety-free performance. This makes a lot of sense. If you're expected to perform something that's well beyond your skill level (i.e. if you've just gotten comfortable with Suzuki book 3 and suddenly your teacher gives you the Bartok concerto), of course that's going to be super stressful. The other point, which was the one with which I was struggling, is that I only had about two weeks to learn a brand new piece of music. There were no recordings to which I could refer, and even a computer-generated recording wouldn't help, due to the many extended techniques in the piece.

So, I was stressed out about the piece to begin with, and practicing hard, trying to learn it in a lot less time than I wished I'd had. And then suddenly I notice the cute and cuddley audience, smiling up at me (that green toy with the big eyes is especially accepting), and I decided to perform for them. I knew I needed to practice performing, even though the piece was still new. Actually seeing those faces and all of those eyes looking at me triggered "performance mode" in my brain. It was incredibly useful. I "performed" Amelia's piece several times for this oh-most-encouraging and judgement-free audience, and it helped me work out my own anxieties about the piece. Here is the video of our premiere performance.

My experience isn't exactly what Dr. Kageyama talks about in his post, but I hope it might be useful for some of you out there who do struggle with performance anxiety. Performing should be about the sound and the emotion, not about getting everything right. If you have some toys lying around, create for yourself an audience, and perform for them (complete with bows before and after you perform). Let me know if it helps!

Happy practicing!

Semester Done!

I can hardly believe it's the end of Finals Week here at Ball State. Juries were on Tuesday, and I'm happy to report all of my students passed. This morning after a meeting and some makeup lessons, I cleaned my school office, and left the building! We had a studio lunch/baby shower to which seven students came...

Read More

Dr. McLeod, an exploration of Sound, and the Hibiki Trio's Final Concert

Last week I had the pleasure of welcoming our last guest artist to the Meidell studio for this academic year. Dr. Alex McLeod, whom I met at the American Viola Society conference last summer, came to Muncie and gave a fascinating presentation on how our instruments make sound (as in, the science of it all!). Then he proceeded to guide the studio in an exploration of the extremes,  playing with bow speed, contact point, arm weight, and how much hair was on the string. These are the four contributing factors to sound production (which a friend of mine cleverly calls SWAP: Speed, Weight, Angle (as in, is your hair flat or angled towards the scroll?), and Placement). I've been teaching SWAP forever, but hearing about the string theory and watching my students' faces as we explored sound was really fun. It's always nice to get a different take on really important information. Unfortunately we neglected to take any pictures (d'oh!), but I hope it won't be my last collaboration with Dr. McLeod! Here's a video Alex uses that I find absolutely fascinating. It's a bowed string that's been slowed down a lot, so you can really see the way the string moves. Fascinating stuff.

Then on Friday the Hibiki Trio had a performance, which went quite well. We had a very large audience, and they all seemed to really love our program. We performed a Telemann Trio Sonata, Takemitsu's And Then I Knew 'Twas Wind, a beautiful Irish Lullaby by Ian Krouse, and a really excellent transcription of Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun. Surprisingly, the orchestral work sounds quite good with only three instruments. The Krouse was a real hit amongst my students (maybe because it starts with a melancholy viola solo??), so I'm very glad we played it.

Sadly, it turns out this was the last Hibiki Trio concert. Circumstances beyond my control have come to pass, and we will no longer be performing together. I'm really broken up about it, but there's nothing, apparently, I can do. Thanks to everyone who has supported our trio these last years. I've had a blast exploring the surprisingly sizable repertoire for flute, viola, and harp (who knew?!), and making music with this gorgeous instrument combination.

Till next time, happy practicing.