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.

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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?

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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.

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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!

The mind's role.

Learning about viola technique from everyday experiences is not uncommon, if you have a creative mind and are open to exploring. See, a few weeks ago, I visited my dental hygienist for my regular teeth cleaning. She mentioned that while my teeth and gums, in general, were in good health, she could tell I was right-handed and using too much pressure when brushing, because my gums were starting to recede a bit on my right side only (apparently left-handed people tend to brush more vigorously on their left sides!). I asked her if it was dangerous, and she said no, but that if I changed my brushing technique, I could keep the gums from receding further.

She suggested a new brushing technique. Instead of gripping the brush and going back and forth vigorously (as I’ve done since I started brushing my teeth), she wants me to lightly hold the brush (with as little effort as an ideal bow hold!!), angle the bristles up slightly, and brush in small circles.

Next time you go to brush your teeth, try doing it differently than you normally do. It requires a boatload of concentration to change your technique, because it’s just so effortless to do it as you've always done, which in my case is scrub-a-dub-dubbing back and forth.

Here’s the key point— because I am invested in my long term oral health, I have actively been thinking about this new technique every time I brush my teeth. It’s not always easy, and sometimes out of sheer frustration I revert to old habits, but I know that with vigilance I will slowly change my tooth-brushing technique to something that will serve me better in the long run.

It’s just like any technique your teacher asks you to address. The only way it’s going to change is if you think about the correct method while practicing (or brushing your teeth, as the case may be).

The one constant, whether in viola technique or tooth brushing, is a desire to achieve a long-term end goal. With that, we can chip away at an ingrained habit and eventually change it to something that will serve us better.

Happy practicing!

Active Listening

This afternoon I taught one of my most advanced students, a graduate student who is preparing her recital. She performed the final movement of the Rebecca Clarke Sonata, but throughout the performance, I was unhappy with her sound. We went through a few steps to make it better: First technically, we talked about altering her bow speeds and placements, the angle of the hair depending on the passage, bow distribution, and as always, altering her arm weight (I'm a big fan of arm weight!). Her sound got better. Then we talked about characters and moods and the feelings of the piece, and her sound got even better, but I still wasn't totally satisfied. And finally, she stopped playing and said something to the effect of, "I think I rely too much on what I'm hearing in my head, instead of what is actually coming out of my viola."

This is not the first time I've heard this. Far from it, in fact, and I am always surprised when a student tells me they don't actively listen to the sounds they are producing. For me, SOUND is the most important thing! It's what music is all about! A few wrong notes here and there are no big deal, as long as the sound you produce is rich and sonorous (if that's what the music calls for), and speaks to your soul. If you're listening to yourself, you can quickly address intonational or volume or sound quality concerns, etc. etc., which immediately makes your performance stronger.

Now, I'm not saying that you shouldn't shape the phrase and sing along in your mind as you play. Those are also incredibly important and beneficial processes. But unless you are aware of and satisfied with what is actually coming out of your instrument, you're not fulfilling your musical potential.

After we discussed the importance of active listening (meaning, "if you don't like what you hear, change it immediately!"), she played again, and I got goose bumps. Literally. The change in her playing with simply phenomenal, and the introspective and wandering opening of the third movement of the Clarke Sonata sounded out loud exactly how I hear it in my mind. The change was astounding.

And the amazing thing is, it wasn't the discussion about technique or emotional landscape that procured this result (though of course knowing what to do technically and having emotional clarity about the music are necessary)-- it was simply the student taking charge of the sounds she was producing.

Active listening, people. It's what it's all about.

Happy practicing!

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!

Two-Inch Stop Exercise

Have you ever been in a lesson during which your teacher keeps saying, "keep your bow straight!"? If so, it's because playing with a straight bow is incredibly important for even tone, sound production, and overall control. So if you THINK you're playing with a straight bow, but then come in to your lesson only to hear "keep your bow straight!" it must mean something is amiss.

When I keep reminding a student to keep his or her bow straight, it means that the student has memorized incorrect muscle movements. Think about it-- when you are playing, you generally aren't thinking very carefully about the mechanics of what you're doing. You're probably more concerned with getting the notes, rhythms, dynamics, and expressive elements correct. So if your mind is occupied by all of those things and your bow is not straight, it means your default right arm motion has either been learned incorrectly or has disintegrated from what was once correct.

So how to fix it?

This exercise comes from Carol Rodland, who taught it to me more than a decade ago. Since then, I've assigned it to every student who has had crooked bow issues and have had 100% success.

The Two-Inch Stop Exercise:

1. Stand in front of a mirror so that the end of your fingerboard and your bridge make two thin, straight, parallel lines (you will not be facing the mirror-- the strings will be. If this is difficult to comprehend, face yourself in the mirror with your viola in position, then turn your body to the left until you can see the parallel lines of the bridge and the end of the fingerboard-- then make sure to move your feet so as to untwist your body and put it back into a neutral position).

2. Place your bow on the string at the absolute frog (as in, not an inch above the ferrule, but at the actual point where the hair begins!). I generally have students start on the D string.

  • Looking into the mirror, adjust your bow so that it is exactly parallel between the line of the bridge and the line of the end of the fingerboard. You'll now have three parallel lines.
  • Make sure your hair is flat (you'll know it's flat because in the mirror you'll be able to see hair on either side of the stick).
  • Pick a sounding point (a good place to start is in the center-- exactly between the end of the fingerboard and the bridge).
  • Sink your arm weight into the string (keep your shoulders relaxed!).

3. Once everything is parallel and properly set up, close your eyes. Move the bow two inches, with your eyes closed. Listen for rich, zingy tone (the viola should ring even though you've only moved two inches).

4. Freeze. As in, don't move at all.

5. THEN, open your eyes and assess the motion you just made. It’s super important to check in the mirror, and not with your eyes over the bridge— it’s easy to see in the mirror if your bow is parallel, but not so much when you look over the bridge. The angles get all confused there, and it can look as though your bow is straight when it really isn’t.

Now that you're looking into the mirror, did your bow go crooked? If so, in which direction (i.e. did the tip move towards the scroll or towards your head)? Did your bow move out of the sounding point in which you started? If so, did it move closer to the scroll or closer to the bridge? Did your hair stay flat? If not, did you turn the stick towards the scroll or towards the bridge?

  • It's very important to stop and think. Don't simply correct whatever mistakes were made, but try to assess your tendencies.

6. Once you've assessed your tendencies, correct everything so that your bow is again parallel to the bridge, in the correct sounding point, with flat hair and arm weight in the string. Freeze here for a moment and try to memorize how it feels. This is the most important part. It should feel a little weird, and not exactly like what you're used to. But try to memorize the feeling so that it becomes the new natural, because THAT is how you'll be able to play with a straight bow pretty soon-- you'll have to rely on the muscle memory you are now instilling.

7. Repeat steps three to six.

The average viola bow is 29 inches. That's 14-15 stops per one down bow. It's okay, of course, to take the two inches with a grain of salt. Try to have 10 stops in each down bow and each up bow. It'll take a few minutes to pull an entire bow in this method.

NOTE: For short-armed violists who cannot reach the tip with a perfectly straight bow, stop the two-inch stop exercise as close to the tip as you can without having to compromise physical comfort or straight bow. If you fall in this category, be sure to ask your teacher for modifications.

Once you're successfully able to navigate the length of the bow with only minor adjustments (both down and up!), go ahead and increase the length of each closed-eye pull or push. 

Warning: This is tedious. It's not especially fun to play two inches, stop, freeze, assess, move around, etc. but it is INCREDIBLY useful for reteaching your right arm what a straight bow FEELS like. The whole point of this is to retrain your body. You are using your eyes to confirm to your body that what you are feeling is correct. The more you do it, the more normal the new, straight bow motion will feel.

If every time you open your eyes your bow has gone crooked, it means you're probably opening your upper arm more than necessary (if your tip is going towards the scroll), or that you're closing your upper arm too much across your body (if your tip is going towards your head). Try to remember the 3 shapes made by your arm when playing: When at the frog, you are making a small triangle (upper arm, lower arm, viola). When you are in the center of the bow, you are making a square (bow and upper arm are parallel; viola and lower arm are parallel). When you are at the tip of the bow, you are making a large triangle (bow, arm, viola). In the next week I'll ask someone to take a few photos so I can post them here, but in the meantime I found this nifty photo of the square. It's from the website http://www.violinistinbalance.nl/.

Also try to notice if your bow goes crooked at a certain point. Maybe everything is just fine in the lower half, and then goes crooked as you travel towards the tip? What does this mean for your existing muscle memory?

If you're able to concentrate on this exercise very diligently for a week or two (maybe spend 4-6 minutes at the beginning of your practice session every day), you'll notice very quickly that your teacher will stop commenting on your crooked bow!

Happy practicing!