Sunday, June 29, 2008

Summer Assignments

Hello Victims,

Here are your summer assignments. Rest assured that the people that are traveling with me at the various festivals have to complete these as well. I will tell each of you individually in a separate email what your levels are ("I" or "A").

Feel free to comment with any questions, remark on your progress, commisurate with each other, etc.

Level I-

Scales: (pick 2 a week) Mogill Scale system. All 2 octave major scales in all keys, 3 octave major scales in C and D major

Etudes: (pick 1 different Sevcik a week, and 1 different etude a month of the other two composers) Sevcik Shifting Studies, Wolfhardt, Kreutzer no. 1

Bach: (pick 3 movements; memorize at least 2 movements by the end of summer) Suite 1, Suite 3 for Unaccompanied Cello

Pick a movement from the following:

Eccles Sonata for viola
Handel-Casadesus Concerto in B minor for viola
Glazunov Elegie

Theory homework:

Each week, transcribe 16 bars of any solo that is in COMPOUND RHYTHM (i.e. 6/8 or 12/8) to SIMPLE rhythm (2/4 or 4/4, respectively) (The Glazunov Elegie would be a good example)

Each week, do another exercise in the Robert Starer Rhythmic Notation book. Conduct and say “ta”

Level A-

Warm-up: Daily torture exercises (see another post on this blog)

Scales: (pick one major and one minor a week) Flesch Scale System, 3 octaves, all keys.

Arpeggios: (one a week) Flesch Scale System 3 octave arpeggios in all keys, all bowings

Etudes: 1-3/week from Sevcik Shifting Studies. Pick one from the following: Campagnoli, Rode, Hermann, Fuchs, Kreutzer (except #1)

Bach: (pick one suite) Solo Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, 1-5 Memorize three movements by the end of summer

Repertoire: Choose one from each list. Work on at least one movement per piece.

List 1: Schubert Arpeggione, Brahms Sonatas Op 120, Bruch Romanze, Mendelssohn Sonata, Bloch Suite Hebraique, Glinka Sonata

List 2: Stamitz Concerto, JC Bach Concerto, Zelter Concerto, Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, Bloch Suite for Viola and Orchestra. (Please work on memorization of these as well)

Theory Homework:

1.One exercise from every chapter of Robert Starer Book. Conduct and “ta”

2. Transcribe a favorite work for another instrument into the viola. Limit it to 5 minutes of music


Re-write a movement of Solo Bach for two violas, taking care to separate the lines in a logical and pleasing manner

Pirates, arr!

the following is reprinted from a feature article of the Journal of the American Viola Society "MEET THE SECTION:"

The Violists? Of the Houston Symphony

Author’s note: The journal of the American Viola Society was to feature the violists of the Houston Symphony as part of its regular feature “Meet the Section…” However, upon arrival at Jones Hall on the appointed interview day of September 19th,* the AVS representative suddenly and inexplicably found herself set upon by a mob of unruly and bloodthirsty pirates. After much waving of what looked suspiciously like viola bows but were being referred to by the strange bunch as “cutlasses,” our interviewer was promptly bundled up and hauled onto the deck of a very odd ship. The following is a transcription of the only audible portion of the tape that was found, along with pieces of dried kelp, broken rosin, half-eaten chocolate doubloons, and a bit of a dirty red sash, washed up on the distant shores of Myanmar (Burma).

*JAVS has since found out that September 19th is International Talk Like A Pirate Day

AVS: The interview aboard the Ship o’ the Festerin’ Callus. I am with the crew:

Cap’n Morgan Flint (sotto voce: “bears a strange and disturbing resemblance to Wayne Brooks”)
Iron Roger Hacke (“Nice hat-Is that George Pascal?)
Dread Pirate Vane ( “A dead ringer for Joan DerHovesepian, except for the mustache and the artificial leg”)
Iron Anne Frankenberry (“Linda Goldstein?I thought she was allergic to parrots”)
Calico Tom Bonney (“That has GOT to be Thomas Molloy”)
Bloody Bess Kidd ( “Is that a woman? Looks like Johnny Depp in ‘Pirates of the Carribean’”)
Dirty Mary Cutler ( “hard to tell through all the dirt- but I think it’s Fay Shapiro!”)
Candy Casey Bloodletter (“for sure, Dan Strba, I’d recognize that steely-eyed glint anywhere..”)
Pegleg Jack Cotton (“Wei Jiang-I always thought he had piratical tendencies”)
Rabid Betsy Rackham (“that disfiguring scar is very sinister- Phyllis Herdliska?)

AVS: My research shows that most of you became viol…I mean pirates, at the age of 11 or 12. Why were you drawn to this life?

Pegleg Jack: lootin’ and pillagin’

Rabid Betsey: Pillagin’

(cries of assent in the background: “Lootin!!” “Pillagin!” “! Th’ grog!” “Aye! Arrr!” “Lootin!!!” Yarrgh!!)

AVS: Okay…but aside from looting and pillaging……


AVS: Did any of you play any other...INSTRUMENTS… before you became pirates?

Bloody Bess: (whispers) Lass, me dirty little secret is that I used to be a violinist afore I was led into the piratey light.

Iron Roger: Harrr! I was a lousy violinist! From th’ time I picked up me first cutlass, thar’s been no lookin’ back.

Dirty Mary: Violinist, pah! (spits) They tried ta get me ta play that lily-livered bilge-box, but ‘twas the call o’ the grog that was stronger!

Rabid Betsy: ‘Tis nobler to have the piratey sound, yarr!

Dread Pirate Vane: Aye!! Wha’ wi’ the call of the piratey sound, an’ this useless artificial leg, th’ choice was obvious.. no chorus line fer Dread Pirate Vane!

Candy Casey: Ye’re a bonny lass…ye remind me of me own mother, who bless her cursed soul thought she was doin’ a fine thing when she made me lay down me beloved guitar to sail th’ high seas…”no son ‘o mine will become a rock star..” said she, as she chained me viola bow, I mean, cutlass, into me 12 year old hand.

Cap’n Morgan: I, also, played th’ violin, ‘til one day me wee mate became a buccaneer. So to annoy ’im I stuck me bow, I mean hook, in ’is face, plucked out ’is eye, an’ took over ’is place on th’ ship. ’Tis a fine feeling, doin’ things fer spite.

Iron Anne: I was 19 when I laid down me fiddle an’ thought to meself, “Self, a parrot would make this outfit e’en finer; ‘tis a pirate’s life for me!”

Calico Tom: When I was a lad in school, they were long on cursed fiddlers but short on buccaneers. So becomin’ one was the natural choice. Did ye know, the word "Pirate" first appeared in French literature in 1254 and was plundered (“yarr!” “ Plundered!!” “avast!” )from the Latin word, Pirata meaning "sailor or sea robber." The Latin, of course was looted (“lootin’ arr!” “yarrgh!!”) from the Greek word, “peirates,” literally meaning "one who attacks" from the root word “peira” meaning, "trial, attempt, attack." The word "peril" has the same root heritage.

Pegleg Jack: Would it be "peril" I’d be in if I lashed Calico to the riggin' and left a cod in ‘is belly so the gulls could peck out ’is talkative insides?…I also came ta be a pirate via th’ scurvy violin route… then I realized how much I liked lootin’ and pillagin’.

AVS: Why and when did you join the Ship o’ the Festerin’ Callus?

Pegleg Jack: I came in th’ summer of ’99 fer lootin’ and pillagin.’ Yarr!! (he picks his teeth with what looks like a gold bow tip)

Bloody Bess: ’Twas th’ bitter winter o’ ’94 when I took a hard look at me own festerin’ calluses. It seemed ta fit.

Candy Casey: One day in ’92 I had just finished plunderin’ wi’ the dread crooner “Ol’ Blue Eyes.” I stopped fer some grog, then, th’ next thing I know, I’m aboard th’ SOTFC…I think ‘twas gypsies…..

Cap’n Morgan: I love intense, scorchin’ heat and humidity. So as soon as I got out o’ th’ brig-L.A.- I packed up and left fer th’ SOTFC. Avast! But ‘twas years of plunderin’ an’ mutiny I had to do afore I became Cap’n.

Iron Anne: Aye, the humidity, ’tis good for th’ complexion.

Calico Tom: Lass, I been sailing wi’ th’ SOFTC since 1964. When I joined, half these swabbies tweren’t even knee deep in their own bilgewater! They will have to pry me cutlass out of me cold dead fingers afore I e’er leave this ship.

Rabid Betsy: That can be arranged, matey! Blimey! Always goin’ on about history…. Me, I got th’ post straight out o’ buccaneer school…th’ Juilliard School fer Piratical Studies.

Dirty Mary: The grog had a reputation fer bein’ better here than in Okla Homa. Yarrrgh! Pass th’ grog!
Iron Roger: I was Cap’n aboard th’ Denver Sea Foamy when I sensed a mutiny afloat. I knew ‘twas time to leave, but first I sunk my cutlass into each and evr’y one of those TREACHEROUS DOGS! I FIX’D TH’ LOT OF THOSE BISCUIT-MAGGOTS TWIXT TH’ KEEL AND SHOALING WATER, WITH CRABS FOR MATES! I---
Dread Pirate Vane: Easy, lad, ha’ some grog….I’d been sailing on a ship off th’ coast o’ Charleston when I heard about th’ opening on th’ SOTFC-known far and wide fer its good singin,’ lootin’ an’ grog.

AVS: The average length of service on the SOTFC is 18 years! Why have you been together so long?

Pegleg Jack: (nonchalantly polishing an intricately carved ivory tailpiece) Th’ lootin’ and pillagin’! Did ye not notice that we’re one o’ th’ finest looking and most friendly crews around?

Cap’n Morgan: Aye, like family we are….(grabs for the tailpiece)

Iron Anne: We ha’ eerie respect fer ea’ other (deftly plucks the tailpiece from Morgan and stashes it in her pocket).

Dirty Mary: (gulping sounds) slurs: I love me mates! We cook a bit fer ea’ other too! Who wants chum-brownies?

Rabid Betsy: Hurl one o’er here, lass!

Calico Tom: (full mouth) Ngwe mmnph camaraderie

(random sounds of munching and agreement: “Arr!” “Close-knit crew!” “mmm! Good brownies!” “avast! Th’ family I never had!”)

Candy Casey: I know where Bloody Bess keeps ‘er candy stash.

Bloody Bess: (affectionately) Scurvy cur! If I din’t like yer nancy-Broadway singin’ ways, I’d plant me cutlass in the top of yer pointy head.

AVS: “nancy-Broadway singing ways”?

Dread Pirate Vane: Aye, on slow plunderin’ nights our lad Casey moonlights wi’ th’ Best Little Klezmer Band in Texas, an’ Bloody Bess may keep a banjo or two in the brig.

Candy Casey: Yarrrgh, an’ now we’ll have to make ye walk the plank fer knowin’-

Iron Roger: (giggles) THA’S WHAT HE SAID!!!!YE POX FACED--- (sounds of glugging)

AVS: Uh, speaking of hobbies, what are some of your hobbies?

Rabid Betsy: Lootin’

Candy Casey: Pillagin’

AVS: Aside from looting and pillaging-

(long silence)

Pegleg Jack: Photography… of th’ lootin’ and pillagin.’

Calico Tom: Ha’ ye heard me weekly radio show, “Home Prairie Pillagin’ wi’ Calico Tom?”

Dread Pirate Vane: (spears a chum-brownie with the tip of a bow) I do lawnmower art...

Dirty Mary: I do enjoy a wee bit o’ beadwork now and again…wi’ me grog.

Iron Roger: Plunderin’ an’ baseball.

Cap’n Morgan: I’m working on a rough draft o’my book “Th’ Passion of Otakar Sevcik.”

Iron Anne: Craftin’- see? Me parrot is made from beads and macaroni.

Rabid Betsy: I raise bulldogs, arr!! Because they go “arr!!”

Bloody Bess: Bulldogs? Th’ best pet fer a buccaneer is a can o’ stewed turnips in chum sauce!

AVS: I have to say, all this talk of candy and chum sauce is making me hungry….is there anything……

Candy Casey: ‘Ere you go me pretty, ‘ave some candy.

Bloody Bess: Sink me! Get yer barnacle-crusted hooks off me candy! Try these stewed turnips in chum sauce….damn! I ate me pet!

Dirty Mary: A tot o’ grog’ll do ye quite nicely, lass.

Cap’n Morgan: Tote me a wee tot too, Mary…

Iron Roger: Break out the barrel! I’ve a fierce burning in me belly to buckle me swash!

Calico Tom: Yarrrgh!! Me swash is already buckled! Pass th’ grog!!

Dread Pirate Vane: Harrr! Harr! Avast!! Pass me those fried parrot-legs, laddie!

Pegleg Jack: Yarrr, arrrr, harrrgh! (sings, to the tune of a Brahms Viola Sonata) “STICK yer CUTlass in my BILGE-bucket…”

Iron Anne: (glug glug glug)

--The tape ends here, degenerating into various noises of glugging, swash-buckling, and snatches of sea shanties – strangely all in the keys of E-flat major and F minor. The AVS representative, along with the entire crew of the Ship o’ the Festerin’ Callus, was never seen again. Recently, on clear nights off the coast of Burma (Myanmar), reports have been made of strange flickering lights, smells of chum-brownies, and snatches of sniggering laughter, punctuated by the mysterious phrase “Tha’ s what SHE said!”.

Rita Porfiris (Bloody Bess Kidd), a member of the Houston Symphony viola section (Ship o’ the Festerin’ Callus) since 1995, was born in New York City to a bunch of lily-livered landlubbers. Since she was not abducted by pirates at the tender age of 5, she later attended the Juilliard School for piratical studies, where she received both her BM(blimey mate) and MM(mizzenmast) in swash-buckling, and continued on to be a buckler of swashes in Germany as well. In addition to her plundering duties on the SOTFC, she also teaches young impressionable buccaneers the fine art of buckling swash at the University of Houston. Arrrgh!

The Berio article

reprinted from the Journal of American Viola Society

“A Technique for Learning Modern Music FAST, or How 137 Pushups in 2 Minutes Helped Me Prepare for the Berio ‘Sequenza.’ ”

As violists and responsible musicians in today’s modern world, we must learn and perform the music of modern and living composers. I always encourage my students to play and attend as many new music concerts as possible. These events are essential for the evolution and survival of our genre. Often, we are asked to perform these challenging and wonderful pieces with a little less preparation time than may be comfortable. As a member of the Houston Symphony and Artist Affiliate of viola at the Moores School of Music of the University of Houston, my time is usually overbooked, so organizing my practice is of utmost importance.

The call came late one afternoon. A local modern music group was interested in programming Luciano Berio’s Sequenza VI for Viola Solo on an upcoming series entitled “Barmusic.” Always interested in reaching out to and cultivating a new audience, intrigued by visions of alcoholically appreciative bar patrons and lured by the chance to wear a flashy, symphony-unapproved cocktail dress, I agreed to perform. My decision wasn’t entirely impulsive: I had studied a few of Berio’s works for diverse solo instruments entitled “Sequenza” in theory class at Juilliard 15 years ago. Vague memories of interesting compositional techniques and “cool” sound effects came to mind. Since then I’d played and recorded a few of Berio’s orchestral works, had even been conducted by Berio himself. So I naively assumed that the viola Sequenza couldn’t be that difficult.

Four weeks before the concert, the music arrived. Ripping open the oversized envelope, I stared in shock at the incomprehensible jumble of ink. After listening to the accompanying CD, I realized that the Sequenza VI for Viola was not only the hardest Sequenza in the series; it was one of the most physically demanding pieces in the solo viola repertoire. How to approach this feat of heroic proportion?

Step One: Articulation
The extent of the “instructions” that accompanied the work involved the main figure of the piece, the vehicle that ran throughout, the “broken tremolo.”

After attempting the first 21 seconds of the piece (the first chord, in broken tremolo), I realized that if my bow arm was to survive to the 22nd second, I would not be able to use a standard “orchestral-style” tremolo. Instead, I tried a fiddle-like technique, a la “Orange Blossom Special,” alternating mini tremolos between the bottom 2 and top 2 strings, “avoiding prolonged patterns of regular articulation.” The effect enables the arm to release as it changes string angles, and I could take some of the stress off my bicep alternating articulations between my arm and my fingers.

Step Two: Notes and fingerings

The linear figures when grouped together generally form the chords that directly follow them. The majority of fingerings can be learned in chord blocks, with a “base finger” around an easily reachable note and the other fingers arrayed on surrounding strings in ½ steps.

In this piece, as in many other modern works with large leaps, I decided that it would be best leave as many fingers down as possible, avoiding acrobatics. This way I would always have a solid foundation on which to base intonation, though it would mean more string crossings.

Step Three: Rhythm, interpretation and “the line”

At first glance my tendency was to treat the piece quasi-aleatorically. There are no bar lines, and it would be one less thing to worry about if the rhythm could be fudged. Besides, which Joe Schmo, drinking in a bar, would be able to tell whether I played a 16th rest instead of a 32nd? However, in the beginning Berio notates ♪=62 and accelerates up to ♪=144, so I dragged out the metronome. When forced to keep to a beat, the piece began to take on an intense driving pulse that would actually relieve some of the strain of relying solely on the tremolo to provide the intensity.

Based on my newfound rhythm, I began to divide the piece into sections. Each section was announced by a profound change in rhythm and often but not always by a tempo change as well. One of my favorite sections, beginning midway down the third page, only became clear once I started really following the dynamics. When done properly, it sounded like an entire brass section. Mini-fragments are built around not only tonal areas, but often just a single note. With three to five different articulations and dynamics on each repetition, it sounds like it is being passed around on 4 different instruments. The most painful section, but also the most popular with audiences, is the pizzicato section. It is announced by five bowed Bartok-like cluster chords in a driving pulse before descending into a wild melee of left hand and up-and-down pizzicato (audiences loved this for the blood factor. Ignore the pain, and hope you get a callus below your fingernail). The section encompassing the last page and the coda is one of the wildest, scrubbingest sections in the repertoire. The best thing to do is memorize the tune, plop your fingers down in the appropriate chord block, and slide, baby, slide!

A quick note about “the line:” certain notes in the music are slightly bigger and darker than others.

If one follows the notes in bold as a melodic line, it makes the figures physically easier (not everything gets equal emphasis, and therefore weight) as well as aurally and musically easier- the listener and performer feels pulled along in a certain direction.

Step Four: Physical preparation and requirements:

It wasn’t just the learning of the piece that would build up my endurance. I belong to an exercise group run by ex-Navy SEALS. Since joining the group over 3 years ago, I noticed an improvement in my overall endurance on the viola. I have begun to implement specific calisthenics to target key viola areas. For orchestral musicians, strengthening the abs is quite important to counteract lower back pain. Sit-ups and crunches are great ways to strengthen the core. For the Berio, however, I knew that although my biceps would be getting a workout from the “broken tremolo,” it would really be my back- (lats)- shoulders (delts), and neck (trapezius) that would take a beating. I decided to up my doses of push-ups, pull-ups, and dips. Especially helpful would be “dive bomber push-ups” and row-type incline pull-ups. I informed my workout group of my plan and they were more than willing to help me push towards these goals.

Run-throughs would also be an important part of the preparation. Luckily for me (and unluckily for my colleagues at the Houston Symphony) I was not playing two of the pieces on that weeks’ program. I went trolling for audience victims among the brass and wind players who were also off. Strangely, throughout the week the “Berio buzz” grew. I overheard conversations like “Hey you have to go down to dressing room 4 at the break; Rita is doing an impression of a missile attack” from poor unsuspecting people caught in the cross fire. Never underestimate the power of Berio, however; many of my victims became champions, even becoming compelled to attend the “real” performance.

The work schedule: With the limited timeframe, I decided on a basic race-training-like approach. I had four weeks and wished to spend the last two weeks doing run-throughs. Here is the schedule I decided on:

Day 1: page 1
Day 2: page 2
Day 3: page 3
Day 4: page 4
Day 5 :page 5
Day 6: page 6
Day 7: pages 1-2
Day 8: pages 3-4
Day 9: pages 5-6
Day 10: slow non-tremolo run through to get chords and fingering patterns for connections and to root out difficult transitions
Day 11: pacing and metronome work
Day 12: interpretive problems and dynamics
Day 13: run through pages 1-3, some problems solved, some found
Day 14: run through pages 4-6, ditto
Day 15: first run through with audience, note problematic passages and fix
Day 16: rework problem passages from day before, another run through with unsuspecting audience
Days 17-26: warm up on difficult intonation spots, try for 2 run-throughs a day.
Day 27: one run-through
Day 28: Dress rehearsal (with more victims)

Concert day: one run-through early in the day (then go for a run, 2 sets push-ups/pull-ups), take a break, slow warm up on various traps, enjoy!

Performance Issues: blood, sweat and heavy breathing

The first week of run-throughs revealed an astonishing fact: I could sweat behind my knees! Subsequent performances were done with the air conditioner jacked up. Slipping off the viola was not an option in this piece.

One of the most frequent comments I received was about maintaining the musical tension in the few rests. At first I was using those rests to relax my arms, take a deep breath, shake out my fingers, release tension. Unfortunately, it had the unwanted effect of releasing tension in the flow of the piece as well. The last week of run-throughs was spent learning to release tension internally while outwardly freezing in place. It put the final polish on the piece- visual as well as aural. The rests; due to their shocking silence amongst the fray, are of the utmost importance and must not be marred with the sounds of sucking wind.

In the end, I came to really enjoy Sequenza VI. The audience at the concert was not the drunken bunch of rowdies for which I had originally hoped, despite my threat to require everyone in the bar to have a drink on me before I started the program. But the space was packed to fire code-violating capacity, and the red stage lights cast an effective glow as I made my way through the piece. As one of my Navy SEAL workout buddies (they were all there to witness the results of all those push-ups!) said happily afterwards, “It was great. The red light made your bow on fire-you were a fiddlin’ fool!”