What the viola taught me

may robertson's viola scroll against marble fireplace with music in backgroundAs I’ve done a few times before on here, I thought I’d share a few thoughts that occurred to me whilst practising – but this time, whilst practising the viola! (You never thought to Google ‘May Robertson, viola’, did you?).

Having thought about it for a long time, I finally got around to getting a viola last year. It’s funny; I clearly remember my very first violin teacher saying, when I was five: ‘I’m sure she’ll be a viola player.’ (I’m not quite sure why). I swiftly found myself swimming at the deep end. Here’s some of what I’ve realised…

  1. The viola gives you a sense of historical flexibility. In The Hague, we all knew the treatises that originated in a time when people were used to swapping between clefs (look and marvel at Renaissance vocal manuscripts for the roots of this ability) and that referred in a blasé way to the viola as a big sort of violin that was really just a stepping-stone to higher-status leadership positions. (Indeed, when we get into French music, with those two viola parts, and early Italian music, and probe the treatises further, we start to get beyond the familiar modern classifications of different kinds of on-the-shoulder members of the violin family). We violinists were told that we ought to do at least one orchestral project on the viola, although the means to do it were left vague; the idea seems to have been that we should ask to borrow the instruments of viola-playing friends, a difficult thing to do for shy, over-polite people-pleasers like me. (I never did a viola project). The principle was historically sound though. It seems to have been taken for granted in historical times that you’d have been able to switch around… just as other forms of flexibility were the norm before that wretched conservatoire tradition took over and the nineteenth century happened and we were all doomed. (I paraphrase the books slightly. But not all that much).
  2. The viola reminds you: you get out what you put in. Now that I safely own one, the viola, for me, exists somewhere in a space between being a different instrument and something that I can flexibly pick up. It is bigger. Intonation is different and requires thought. It is good for me to take the technical side seriously; I’ve been reminded of the importance of scales, getting the Carl Flesch Scale System and remembering the years of training and honing that I put in so that I can play the violin now. It’s all worth it. You get out what you put in. Respect the viola.
  3. The viola magnifies violin issues and is therefore a useful extra tool for violinists. That’s because of its size. You become very aware of string crossing, and what is the correct amount of effort, because the distances are bigger; and the work becomes exhilarating once you let the point where the bow contacts the string be the guide. Playing the viola is clarifying a point of left-hand technique too. Margaret Faultless once told me in a masterclass that the third finger of the left hand is a good pivot, centre, or cornerstone for the hand, that it’s not just about the ‘frame’ of the first and fourth fingers. I really see what she means now; the temptation for a violinist beginning the viola is to keep the hand bunched up near the end, only stretching when it has to. But if you organise the whole hand pivoting around the upper fingers, you get the flesh of the fingertips really centred on the strings, the hand begins to take ownership of the fingerboard, and you feel a not-unpleasant stretch right in the middle of your palm. It works best if the middle fingers help with this, not only the outer ones. As they all say, the violin feels like a child’s toy after this!
  4. The viola gives you a further perspective on what you’re doing as an historically-informed artist and on what you want to do to make your work better. We historically-informed players feel a constant tension between our efforts to reclaim and understand an earlier time, and our awareness that we live in the present and can’t undo the intervening centuries and the efforts of the musicians and pedagogues who have come between. Without believing in a misguided idea of ‘progress’, that the work of eighteenth-century musicians must have been defective in comparison to what’s available to us now, I know I want to do all sorts of technical work specific to the viola that has been worked on since that time.
  5. The viola teaches you about learning. I’m learning about learning, about how the brain works and moulds itself. I’m capable of reading the alto clef and doing a good job on a gig (colleagues, don’t panic) but it is still not as second-nature intuitive as the familiar treble and bass clefs. (I’d say I’m even slightly better at French violin clef, but that’s probably because I read it as bass clef an octave higher). So I found myself switching between scores, saying to myself ‘That’s a D, and so is that’, making connections, creating and reinforcing pathways in the brain. This must be how anybody learns and classifies information, from babies to adults. (I’m reminded of a conversation between me and my father that he tells me about: ‘That’s a woodpecker.’ – ‘I thought it was a bird.’). One of the main jobs of the brain is to classify, organise, and remember. That’s learning. And picking up a new skill that’s intimately connected with a long-held skill is a great way to get it working.


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