Forty years ago, I switched from violin to viola. Jeff Irvine – fresh from a master’s degree at Eastman – was my first viola teacher, and the best string teacher I ever had. Several years later he became my sister-in-law’s viola professor at Oberlin Conservatory. And this last weekend we were all together at the Viola Festival at UNLV, where Kate is the viola professor.
Jeff was the featured guest, escaping from the snowy weather in Cleveland for a few days in the Nevada sunshine. He gave a master class, played in the viola choir, and hung out with Kate and me. Just as I remember him, Jeff is kind, generous, and engaging. He obviously cares about the people he is working with. He always starts with positive feedback before identifying the weaknesses. He asks questions, uses insightful analogies, demonstrates and coaches through new techniques and approaches to problem solving. Jeff was the first teacher who walked all around me while I played, observing my form from all angles and correcting a bow hold here or a neck tilt there. It was unnerving at first, but he caught things my previous string teachers hadn’t noticed for years. I soon came to appreciate his unconventional style, and rapidly improved.
Cuban American violist Yunior Lopez gave the master class for high school students from the community. In addition to performing and teaching viola students, he is the founder and conductor of the Young Artists Orchestra in Las Vegas. I didn't get a photo of his master class, but you can check out these excellent performances by Yunior and a few of his high school musicians: Bach Chaconne for Four Violas and Brandenburg #6.
If you’re not sure you like the sound of the viola, listen to a viola choir – you will develop a new appreciation for this beautiful, rich sounding instrument. Twenty-five of us gathered on the stage to play a few pieces, where finally, with no violins in sight, we got to play the melody. And that melody wasn’t just for the Viola 1 part: violists are nice people, and we like sharing. Each of the four parts took turns playing melody, harmony, and accompaniment.
It was a great group of violists – visiting professionals, teachers and musicians from the community, college students and high school students. And Joey, the extremely well-behaved black Pomeranian mix, who wandered among us on stage during the viola choir rehearsal wagging his tail and enjoying the beautiful music.
Hopefully, this will become an annual event!
Fingering: One of the first things for more advanced students to do – when the basics I’ve already described become second nature – is look through the music to see what notes go higher than first position. Once you are used to shifting you will be able to figure out a good place to shift up and when to shift down. And if you can figure this out before you get there, you won’t need to stop and figure it out.
Articulations, Dynamics, and Other Nuances: For more advanced music and musicians, you’ll want to look at the markings the composer has written into the music – e.g. slurs, staccato or spiccato, up-bows and down-bows; mezzo-pianos and fortes and crescendos; fermatas and caesuras and ritards; and so on. Just take a quick look over the page to be aware of what’s coming up so it won’t take you by surprise.
Intervals: Musicians who have had ear training have a huge advantage over those who haven’t. If you’re one of the lucky ones, you can hear intervals in your head when you look at the notes. This helps you anticipate what the next note is going to sound like. When your eyes, ears, and fingers are all helping, you will be much more fluent in your note reading.
Scale degrees: For more advanced students, I ask them to look at what note the piece starts on. Where in the scale is that note? Musicians who know their scale degrees and intervals can hear it in their heads, and can hum the music out loud.
Eventually, your goal is to read music the way you read a book. You don’t know how the story goes before you turn to Chapter 1, right? But as you read the words, the story unfolds. You can hear the words and get pictures in your mind as you read. Sight reading music is the same: by looking at the music, you will hear it and feel it without playing a single note.
Quodlibet: A piece employing several well-known tunes from various sources, performed either simultaneously or in succession. (Schirmer Pocket Manual of Musical Terms)