ASTA 2015

Yesterday evening I drove to the Indianapolis airport and flew off to Salt Lake City, Utah. It is GORGEOUS here! The mountains are fantastic, and the weather is simply lovely. I'm here for the annual American String Teachers Association national conference, and gave a presentation this morning: It's Not Just a Big Violin! A Karen Tuttle-inspired approach to violin-to-viola basics. I think the presentation went well, and I've received several really positive comments since then. All of my handouts were taken (I printed 50), and I've already received a few emails requesting the PDF! Now my mind is spinning with how I can expand on this for another session, hopefully for next year's conference.

It's later than I though it was (and, with the time change, is super late in Indiana!), so this is a quick post. More soon. Until then, here is a photo from my hotel room, and a selfie of me right before my presentation. :)

Happy practicing!

Dr. Sander

Today Dr. Amber Sander graced the Ball State violists with her presence! Amber is a friend of mine from Texas (we were working towards our doctorates at North Texas at the same time), who is an incredible pedagogue and musician. She's one of those people whose brain you want to pick all the time, because she really think about everything in-depth (not only music-related things), and if you ask her something she doesn't know, she'll RESEARCH it and come back with lucid, well-educated answers. She's phenomenal.

She's not a bad violist, either. ;)

Her visit began with a lecture-presentation on Karen Tuttle's Coordination method. She explained the background and some basic concepts of the method, and had all of us try out a few things with our instruments. Coordination is a very interesting method, in that it is different for everyone. I studied with three Coordination teachers, all of whom studied with Karen, so my Coordination is a melding of these three main influences, among the other teachers I encountered and my own discoveries over the years. Dr. Sander's Coordination is similar to mine, but with different words, explanations, gestures, and written symbols. 

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Many of my students have been exposed to some of these ideas already (as a result of working with me), but it's always good to hear the same thing said in a different way, and to get confirmation from an outside source that your goofy viola teacher isn't so goofy she doesn't know what she's talking about! (In case any of you out there don't know, I am rather goofy. In a serious-about-viola kind of way.)  :)

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After the lecture, we moved across the street to Choral Hall for the masterclass portion of Dr. Sander's visit. Two of my students played, and I am so proud of them. It's not easy playing in front of your peers, your teacher, AND a guest artist on repertoire you're still learning, but they both were wonderful, and Dr. Sander helped them with techniques and musical ideas. What a treat!

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Overall, I think my students got a lot out of Dr. Sander's visit-- I know I did. It was a wonderful reminder and overview of the method that changed and spurred my musical career, and I'll be revisiting the basics next time I practice... happily.

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Viola Stance

Does it really matter how a person stands when he or she plays viola?

Yes. The instrument is to be a vessel for music and emotion. How can they be freely expressed if the body is contorted in some way? So, here are the basic rules:

Feet under knees under hips under shoulders. Stack yourself so that your shoulders are as balanced as they can be on top of your body. Make sure your knees are not locked ("squooshy knees!" I say to my students) and that you feel an even distribution of body weight on both feet-- which should be inner hip-width apart-- and as flat and wide as they can feel. Tilt your pelvis slightly upwards, so the small of your back is flat and stable.

From this position, balance the viola between your jaw and collarbone, with head facing forward and lightly leaning on your chinrest. If your instrument cannot balance, you will need to add height to your shoulder rest or adjust your setup in some other way. Keep your chest open, and bring your arms to the viola. A great analogy is to imagine a coat hanging on a hanger:  Imagine moving the sleeves into viola playing position-- the elbows of the sleeves hang down naturally, where gravity tells them to. They do not hold themselves pushed forward, nor do the shoulders shrug up. Your arms should hang just like the lifeless arms of a coat on a hanger. Let your back do the work of holding your arms in place, instead of locking your biceps or trapezius.

See? Feet under knees under hips under shoulders, with relaxed shoulders and arms, heavy elbows, and face forward.


Unfortunately not my best photo, but it does highlight good viola-playing posture. This is from my first Doctoral recital at the University of North Texas.

Happy practicing!

Bow Balance, not Hold

Every single one of my students that had a lesson today, had an excellent lesson. It is wonderful to see them progressing, each in their own way. There is one particular student who, after months of misgivings, finally had a breakthrough concerning correct bow technique.

See, the bow is not meant to be held, per se-- it should balance between the fingers. An analogy I often use is to imagine a tree without leaves-- if a plastic bag gets blown into the tree, the branches do not hold on to the bag, but rather the bag gets stuck. The tree does not exert effort to keep the bag in place, yet the bag stays within the branches of the tree. "Holding" a bow is actually a delicate transfer of weight between the pinky and index finger, while balanced on the thumb. This balance is necessary for an excellent bow hold that will allow the violist to perform staccato and legato alike, and is necessary for producing the richest tone possible. 


See? Relaxed and balanced, with little effort but amazing results.

Happy practicing!


I finally added a blurb about Karen Tuttle and her teaching method (called coordination) to my website. You can visit the LEARN page, or see it here. It's something I've been wanting to do ever since my website went live, but I thought it would be extremely difficult to summarize a philosophy that has had such momentous impact on my life into just a few sentences. But in truth, the huge overarching idea behind coordination is comfort, so it wasn't as difficult to sum up as I'd thought.

The idea of comfort is such a simple thing, yet a comfortable state can be so very difficult to achieve. If you grow up learning to play the right notes and use the right bow strokes without regard for how it FEELS, it it possible that you will learn pain and tension into your playing. Once such tension is memorized and practiced for years and years, it is VERY difficult to break it away.

One major aspect of coordination is freedom in the head and neck. Many violinists and violists have a very stiff, solid, head-to-instrument fit. This is especially visible in players who have learned to keep the instrument in place by squeezing down with their head, rather than finding a balance between the collar bone and jaw. Balancing the instrument in such a way lets the head and neck be free, which means the shoulders, arms, and hands can also be free. It is difficult to have fast, articulate, and accurate fingers if there is tension in the hand... but how can the hand be free of tension if there is tension in the neck?

If you view this video of Kim Kashkashian performing Britten's Lachrymae Op. 48a, you can see the amount of freedom she has not only in her head and neck, but her entire body. She practically dances while playing. There's a beautiful moment at 2:03, where her head "bounces" a little on her chin rest. This is a perfect example of a released and tension-free violist. So let's all aspire to this kind of freedom-- after all, who doesn't want to sound like Kim?!

Happy (relaxed) practicing!