My Viola and I

This semester I am teaching a Viola Pedagogy class to two of my students. While not exactly a pedagogically-centered book, we are starting this semester by reading Lionel Tertis’ autobiography, My Viola and I. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read the book, so am now rectifying that oversight in my viola knowledge and taking my students along for the ride.


I’m very much enjoying Tertis’ style of writing. “I consider that I learnt to play principally through listening to virtuosi; I lost no opportunity of attending concerts to hear great artists perform. I especially remember hearing Sarasate at the old St James’s Hall playing the Mendelssohn concerto most marvelously — every note a pearl.” (page 16) When I read this statement it made me smile widely. You see, when I was living in Indiana, I occasionally had the great fortune to play in the viola section of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. A few times I was blessed to sit with Amy Kniffin, who, in addition to being a fantastic violist, is one of the kindest and most genuine people I’ve ever met. After a particularly speedy run-through of some piece or another with lots and lots of notes (I do believe the first occurrence was during Strauss’ Alpine Symphony), Amy would lean over to me and whisper, “every note [dramatic pause] a pearl,” which I thought was quite funny and charming, as there was definitely a run or two that could have used a bit more practice. Did she know Tertis used that phrase? I’ll have to ask.

Every note a pearl: It’s definitely something towards which I aspire. In fact, earlier today I was working on the first movement of the Reger g minor solo suite, and got hung up on this one note that was sounding shrill every time I got to it (it’s the first high B-flat on the downbeat of measure 5, if you’re curious). Shrill does NOT a pearl make. I experimented with my bow speed, placement, and angle of the hair, and found a sweeter sound. I still have to work on finding the right sound within the context of the phrase (it sure is easier to figure things out when you take them completely out of the surrounding material), but I’m feeling better about it than I did before I experimented.

You can come to Viola Day on September 7th to find out whether or not I achieve a pearly high B-flat. The opening concert is at 11 AM, and I’ll perform that first movement. More on Viola Day in the next post. Until then,

Happy practicing!