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!”