In this session, Professor Wing Ho will share his idea about the left hand movements in viola playing.
Content of Wing Ho’s lecture is as follows (edited in first person):
As I mentioned in the second session, we can train our fingers by bending them like scratching an itch. It is not difficult. Also, when we are pressing the strings, we can lift our fingers up and down like hammering. It is also an effective way to train our fingers.
We should keep in mind that the movements of lifting fingers up and down should be very fast.
What’s more, we can see that there are marks on our fingertips after pressing the strings.
The positions of the marks should not be shifted while playing the viola. After pressing the strings, there should be only one mark on each fingertip.
There are four hand positions which are most frequently used:
First Position: The middle finger and ring finger are next to each other. There is a semitone between the two fingers. Also, there are two semitones between the index finger and middle finger, and another two semitones between the ring finger and little finger.
When we use this hand position, we can play more comfortably.
Second Position: The ring finger and little finger are next to each other. There is one semitone between the two fingers. Also, there are two semitones between the index finger and middle finger, and another two between the middle finger and ring finger.
Third Position: The index finger and middle finger are next to each other. There is one semitone between the two fingers. Also, there are two semitones between the middle finger and ring finger, and another two between the ring finger and little finger.
If we use this hand position while playing, we are not likely to play comfortably.
Fourth Position: There are two semitones between every two adjacent fingers.
There are many viola etudes for young learners to train their hands and get used to the four hand positions I mentioned above.
Here I would like to share a picture included in one of my viola books.
The sheet music above is for young learners who start to learn scales. We can see the pitch names marked on the noteheads, which can help beginners read music. The hand positions being used are referred to as “first one” and “third one” in the picture.
When we see an “x” on the notehead, the finger we use to play the note should be kept on the string. For example, if we use the index finger to play D note on the C string, the index finger should also be placed on the C string when we use the middle finger to play E note on the same string.
Knowing which finger to keep on the string is very important for viola players. All viola learners should learn the skill after training. This skill can help us avoid unnecessary movements of fingers.
The scale above can be helpful to young learners that they can correct their hand positions while playing the viola.
Knowing the intervals and fingerings is also significant to viola learners. It can make us play more easily when we need to play in higher positions. We can check the intervals and fingerings in the picture below.
The picture above is useful to viola beginners. They can keep it for future reference. Here I would like to share the video of playing the bars contained in the picture:
When we move the fingers while playing the viola, we should keep in mind that our fingers should get prepared before the bow does. Then the musicality can be expressed. Also, the fingers should be flexible. We need to pay attention to the movements of lifting fingers up and down, and the sound produced should be clear.
When we change the positions, our fingers should get prepared, but not move in advance. Or some unpleasant sounds may be produced.
There are several different ways of changing the positions. Sometimes we change the positions without switching to another finger. For example, we may move the index finger from lower positions to higher positions.
Besides, sometimes we also need to stretch a finger a little bit to reach for a higher position.
What’s more, we may need to switch to another finger when changing from higher positions to lower positions, and vice versa.
Changing the positions in a Classical style requires us to use “medium note”, which is a short note played during the process of changing the positions. For example, we need to change from higher positions to lower positions, and we are supposed to switch to the index finger from the middle finger. In this case, the “medium note” is likely to be played by the middle finger.
Also see Schumann’s Fair-Tale Pictures
Kreutzer’s etudes are typical pieces for viola players to practice changing the positions. Changing the positions in a Romantic style requires us to use the middle finger and the glissando is usually produced.
Composers in the Romantic period preferred this way of changing the positions. But we should notice that when we are playing classical music, glissandi are supposed to be avoided. Also, most players prefer the way of changing the positions in a Classical style.
Let’s have a look at the sheet music below. I made some marks on the sheet music. We should pay attention to the fingerings and changing of positions. Both changing the positions in a Classical style and changing the positions in a Romantic style are used.
In Schumann’s Fair-Tale Pictures, the way of changing the positions without switching to another finger is frequently used. Our fingers and the bow should get prepared in advance. Besides, we should notice that when we are playing classical music, glissandi are supposed to be avoided. In the meanwhile, the musicality should be expressed.
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Like clarinet pieces, many viola pieces require players to use changeable fingerings. We are supposed to keep the movements of shifting in mind. Let’s have a look at the sheet music below.
Glissandi should be avoided while playing the concerto above. The fingers should always get prepared before the bow does.
When we are shifting the strings, our fingers and the viola bow need to get prepared in advance so that we can produce resonant sound. This idea was proposed by some composers in Baroque period. Let’s take a look at the sheet music of Bach’s Suite №4 in E flat major, which is a typical piece for us to practice the skills of shifting the strings.
Also, we should pay attention to the movements of our upper arm. Besides, since viola strings are thicker than violin strings, we need to apply more strength to the fingerboard while playing and find the best positions to play on the viola. Or the quality of the sound produced may be affected.
When we are playing the viola, we usually pluck the strings with our right hand. When I was training the young learners in orchestra, I found that many students could not play pizzicato correctly. Also, they seldom practiced pizzicato. The best position to pluck the strings is close to the end of the fingerboard.
When we are playing a single note marked pizz., our fingertip should be parallel to the string which needs to be plucked. But we should not press the string hard while plucking it.
There are two ways of plucking:
First, our thumb should be placed at the end of the fingerboard. Then we use the index finger to pluck the string.
This way can make the sound produced more steady.
Second, our thumb should be placed on the first knuckle of our index finger, and then we pluck the string with our index finger.
This way brings more musicality and the position of playing pizzicato can be adjusted.
When we are playing double stops marked pizz., we should pay attention to the “balance” of the two notes. The sound produced should be steady and clear. We can use either one finger or two fingers to pluck the strings while playing double stops marked pizz..
When we are playing chords marked pizz., we should pay attention to the flexibility and explosiveness. Let’s take a look at the sheet music below:
We should find the best position to play chords marked pizz.. Sometimes the height of the bridge or the fingerboard may affect the quality of the sound produced while plucking the strings. Therefore, the instrument needs to be adjusted if it is necessary. Besides, we are supposed to pluck the strings fast and pay attention to the “balance” of the notes.
When we are playing trills on the viola, we should play attention to the intonation and the movements of our fingers. Also, the sound produced should be clear. A professor once came to Central Conservatory of Music to give a lecture. He provided us with a good method of moving our fingers while practicing playing trills. The movements of fingers are demonstrated in the video below:
Our intonation and the quality of the sound produced can get improved if we practice playing trills in the way shown in the video above. Also, if the required speed of playing trills is too fast, we can play vibrato instead of trills：
Technically, there are four types of vibrato.
Arm vibrato is frequently used. The sound produced tends to be intense and the movements of our arm tend to be big.
Wrist vibrato requires us to use the wrist only. We can compare the wrist movements with the arm movements and find the differences. When we do wrist vibrato, we should pay attention to the movements of our first knuckles.
As I mentioned in the second session, when we are holding the viola, there are two contact points. One is below the index finger, the other one is above the first knuckle of the thumb. When we are playing vibrato, we should also pay attention to the contact points.
When we play in higher positions on the viola, we tend to do finger vibrato.
Invisible vibrato means that our left hand should keep in the state of doing vibrato, but actually, we do not move the left hand.
When we do invisible vibrato, our bow should coordinate with our left hand. Invisible vibrato is frequently used when we are playing Baroque music.
When we are playing vibrato, we can use various movements and the speed of playing can be different. We can select different types of vibrato according to our own feelings while playing the viola.
There are several ways of practicing vibrato. We can start from playing the scale without doing vibrato. Then we can try to do vibrato while playing the scale. The movements can be bigger and the speed of playing can be slower.
When we are practicing vibrato, our movements tend to be bigger. In this way, our fingers can get trained well. Also, our fingers can stretch a little bit when doing vibrato slowly.
In addition, when we are practicing changing the positions, we can combine glissandi and trills:
In this way, our movements of changing the positions can get improved.
Audience: My little fingers are short. What should I do to keep the correct hand position while playing in higher positions?
Wing Ho: When we play the viola, we are supposed to find the contact position of our ring finger on the fingerboard first. Then we can find the contact position of our little finger. Later we can place the index finger and middle finger on the right positions. When we place the four fingers on the fingerboard, we get to know the correct hand position.
Audience: Every time when I reach the bow tip, my shoulders become stiff. What should I do to avoid the problem?
Wing Ho: When I was young, my shoulders were also stiff while playing the viola. Then my neck became stiff as well. After being massaged and getting to know how to relax the neck, I started to play in a relaxed state. It is very important for us to be relaxed while playing, and we should find the relaxed state by ourselves.
Audience: How can I switch to up bow naturally after playing down bow?
Wing Ho: When we switch to up bow after playing down bow, we should not move our right wrist. Also, the speed of playing should not change when we change the bow. Or we may produce unsteady sound.
Audience: My right hand shakes when I reach the bow tip. What should I do to solve the problem?
Wing Ho: Maybe your right arm stretches too much. Or your viola bow may be too long for you. We should keep in mind that when we are playing the viola, our arm should not be stretched too much. It is not necessary to use the whole bow while playing. Otherwise, we cannot change the bow naturally.
Audience: When I play in higher positions, the sound produced is not clear. What should I do?
Wing Ho: When we play in higher positions, our bow should be close to the bridge. Or the sound produced can never be clear. Also, there may be another reason that the height of the fingerboard of your instrument is too low, so you may find it difficult to press the strings. Then the sound produced is unclear.
Audience: I am always busy with work and have little time to practice. What should I do to get improved?
Wing Ho: Viola playing can be a form of entertainment for you. When you are not busy, you can pick up the viola and practice some scales or other pieces. It takes much time to get improved. If you did not start to learn the instrument from a young age, you could not get improved without practicing for a long time.
Audience: How to pluck the strings while holding the bow?
Wing Ho: I have already introduced the ways of plucking the strings. When we need to pluck the strings while holding the bow, our fingertip should always be parallel to the strings.
Audience: When I play on the D string, I tend to touch the G string. What should I do to avoid the problem?
Wing Ho: Maybe you need to place the bow closer to the bridge. Also, you should pay attention to the movements of your upper arm.
Audience: How to practice vibrato slowly?
Wing Ho: We should move our fingers back and forth and the movements should be big at first.
For viola beginners, they should learn wrist vibrato first. Once they know how to do wrist vibrato, they can play vibrato well on viola.
Audience: How to pluck the strings with the left hand?
Wing Ho: We hardly pluck the strings with our left hand when playing the viola. But when it is needed, we should pay attention to the strength of our fingers.
Audience: How to play a perfect fifth well on viola?
Wing Ho: It is difficult to play a perfect fifth on viola because the distance between every two adjacent strings on most instruments is too long. We can turn to luthiers and ask them to adjust the distance. Then we will be able to play the perfect fifth well.
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