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!

Salt Lake City

I had a very good time at ASTA this year! I must admit, it was a little bit more lonely than last year, as not as many of my friends and colleagues attended, but I learned a lot and really enjoyed spending time with my BSU colleagues Drs. Karin Hendricks and Tawnya Smith. Karin grew up in Utah, so knows a lot about the culture and history, and it was great getting an insider tour of Temple Square, where the Church of Latter-day Saints is headquartered. Here are some photos from our walk yesterday.

In addition to that, I met an incredibly talented young man from Hong Kong! He and his father flew all the way here to experience the ASTA conference. They came to my session Thursday morning, and the next day Gordon asked me about some discomfort he was having related to viola-playing. We found some space and had a mini lesson. I was able to offer some suggestions to which he adapted immediately, and after about ten minutes, he looked (and said he was) a lot more comfortable. Then yesterday, as Karin, Tawyna, and I were heading back to the hotel, I saw Gordon again, and he asked if I could teach him a full lesson. Well of course. :) So we found an unused conference room in the hotel and worked together for a good hour and a half. Gordon is a musically gifted young man. It was so rewarding to work with him-- he's one of those rare "sponges," who needs only to hear something once to be able to understand and implement it. I think he has a bright and promising future ahead of him, and hope to hear from him as he grows and matures. Here we are, post lesson.

And now I'm in the airport, waiting for my plane to board and start the journey home to Muncie.

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!

2014, The Year of the Viola

... According to Berlin! Well, actually it's "Instrument of the Year 2014," but close enough. :) So how have I begun this wonderful year dedicated to violas? On vacation! James, Tula, and I went to Colorado for the holidays, where we stayed with family and enjoyed a lot of down time. I ate too much, slept a lot, and didn't practice as much as I wanted to. It's hard for me to make time to work when there are all kinds of cousins and other family to hang out with, not to mention amazing hikes to take! But we're back in Indiana now, and the semester is off to an interesting start. We had a massive snow storm on Sunday that dumped 10 inches of snow. I hurt my back shoveling (sheesh), though now it feels fine again. The first two days of classes at Ball State were cancelled due to snow and frigid temperatures (the high of -11 F on Monday and Tuesday was... very very cold) and yesterday started out with some news from a student that left me very sad.

On the upside, I have two new freshman this semester who transferred from other institutions, and the Ball State Viola Choir (BSUVC) is up and running! We had our inaugural rehearsal yesterday, to which Dr. Eleanor Trawick came. Eleanor is on the theory/composition faculty, and is also a violist. I commissioned her to compose an anthem for the BSUVC, and it is beyond wonderful. Reading through the lyrics she wrote (they are AMAZING) and the fantastic score left me completely giddy. I'm smiling like a banshee just thinking about it now! I'm really looking forward to sharing this gem with the BSU community. It's really fantastic. Not only do we have an anthem (!!!), but I'll be holding a logo contest soon, and then will be able to make some BSUVC paraphernalia. Fun fun fun! The best part is-- the SOUND! Now, it might sound cheesy, but I truly love the sound of the viola (small wonder I'm a violist, eh?), and multiple violas in harmony, unfettered by the sounds of other instruments, is a warm and really gorgeous sound. I'm so excited about cultivating and coaching this group of viola players.

So while the year is off to a start of wintry weather and mixed emotions, I am, nevertheless, excited about the possibilities this viola-centric year will bring. 

Happy practicing!


Things to Remember

As a musician, your learning is never truly done. That is probably true for most vocations, but especially true for musicians. We must continually work on our craft, or we may backtrack and lose skills. 

When I was a student, first learning all of the amazing Coordination methods, I made a list of the things I needed to remember: squooshy knees, loose jaw, breathing from the diaphragm, heavy left elbow, loose thumbs, right arm weight, etc. I would put this list on my music stand as I practiced, and scan the page every few measures to make sure I was remembering everything.  As I progressed in my playing, the list changed.

These days, all of the methods I wanted to ingrain are now ingrained, but there are still certain tough-to-break bad habits that creep back into my playing when I'm tired or stressed, or if I'm working on an especially difficult passage.  Over the years, I came up with symbols to remind me to avoid the most egregious of my bad habits, and still write these in my music at trouble spots.

I've been asking my students to make similar lists, and keep them close as they work. The most difficult part of being a musician, I think, is the immense self-discipline it takes to break bad habits and form new, healthy ones. Only if you continually expose yourself to an idea you want to become part of your playing, will it happen.

Happy practicing! 

P.S. My solo in the Vaughn-Williams went rather well last weekend. :-)