How can I overcome nervousness at auditions and concerts?

At an audition or other anxiety-producing performance, you hope to be so intensely concentrating on creating your mind's aural image of the next few notes or musical gesture that any nervous anxiety about how well things will go, how past notes were played, or the outcome of the audition finds no place in your consciousness. Easier said than done by all of us, but there are ways to work towards this end.

It would be helpful to know which aspects of your playing are most affected by nervousness - intonation, rhythmic stability, bow control, vibrato, musicianship - in order to give extra attention to supplemental work on these issues. If, despite careful preparation, you have difficulty presenting your best work in the heat of the audition/performance, then perhaps you need to look for ways to simulate the concentration required when "this is the time that really counts." Your practice day should include warm-up, slow work on the passages incorporating all musical details, gradually working passages up to tempo while evaluating how it sounds, much consistent successful repetition up to tempo, and finally a real performance for a tape recorder of all passages up to tempo, without stopping, with all musical details, and without evaluating at the moment how it's going - just aiming to make the next few notes or gesture as you wish them to sound. Knowing that you will have to listen to and evaluate this later should make you concentrate more intensely than in normal practice.

Listen to that tape; you can make one daily to hear consistency. Evaluate it as if it were someone else and compare it to your aural mental image of the most perfect performance imaginable. Next practice session focus on the things you wish to improve and tape again. Keep recreating that aural image away from the viola in your head, and let that continuous train of thought lead you through your taped "practice performances" of the material. Be aware of and make time for two kinds of practicing - one when you are able to evaluate how things are going, and the other kind in which the aural image of what you are about to play must keep going without any judgmental distraction.

If you can practice spots and perform the whole from memory, it's a great concentration builder. At a professional orchestra audition candidates are not expected to perform from memory, but based on the players I have known, those who regularly perform solo repertoire in concert from memory tend to bring a more intense concentration and more consistent performance to orchestra audition material.

How can I memorize music more easily?

The various ways in which we process the printed page and convert it to sound make for a fascinating lifetime study of talent, intelligence and acquired skill, and I believe memorization is a skill which must be practiced throughout one's life. The ease with which we all can spontaneously play Happy Birthday from memory in any key, is evidence to me that if the brain can create the continuous aural and tactile images of a mental performance of the piece from memory, the fingers will find the notes, assuming that the player does possess and maintain the technique required for a given piece, and that at the moment of performance he has enough recent history practicing this piece from memory to build self-confidence. Getting the aural and tactile images of music more complex than Happy Birthday into the brain certainly requires years of study and practice, but not necessarily always with viola in hand.

Athletes have known this for years, and many musicians have independently employed sport psychology techniques without knowing it. There is a wonderful book which describes the process in more practical terms than previous books on the subject. Author Malva Freymuth is a violinist who has done extensive research in kinesiology and sport psychology to maximize her own violin practice after a physical injury, and she has found elegant and concise words for describing abstract thought processes. This essential book for musicians is, sadly, presently out of print, but used copies can be found online and it is accessible through inter-library loan:

Mental Practice and Imagery for Musicians by Malva Freymuth, D.M.A., published 1999 by Integrated Musician's Press.

There's nothing like an unexpected deadline to show us what we're capable of accomplishing when every moment counts, and it is also true that anxiety can make memory slips happen in performance even to players who have the best practice history and mental work away from the instrument. However, both situations are examples of the power of concentration, and the goal of mental exercises such as Malva Freymuth's is to develop the depth and intensity of a player's awareness of every possible image and sensation involved in preparing to play the next few notes to the extent that unbroken intense concentration, or sheer force of will, can triumph over any possible distraction from stress - in performance, just as it does during the exhilarating intense preparation to meet an unexpected deadline. Not guaranteed to work every time, but mental work does greatly improve the odds. What is amazing is that this mental work is just as exhausting as actual practice, and even in privacy and silence the act of imagining every performance detail of a work from memory in one's mind can invoke a little of the stress of uncertainty, if there are weak spots or any latent anxiety about the upcoming deadline.

Is it dangerous to listen to recordings in order to help with memorization?

Never before has there been such a wealth of recorded viola music available, and it would be a shame for anyone who loves the instrument to miss hearing as much of it as possible. At the very least, one should be familiar enough with the recording to immediately recognize playing a wrong note or rhythm. Listening to recordings and/or your own practice tapes, both studiously with score in hand and passively as entertainment while driving or doing the dishes, etc., can significantly shorten the learning curve, reduce dependence on the score sooner, and inspire your own musical ideas for next practice session - simply because it makes this material percolate in your mind.

I've studied the Whistler Introducing the Positions books, but I still need more work on shifting - what other materials are there?

Good supplements to the Whistler books for additional shifting practice material at this level are:

Samuel Flor - The Positions (published by Elkan) - exercises, scales and musical examples through 7th position; Exercise No. 1, for finger independence, is a classic for players of all levels.
Hans Sitt - Practical Viola Method (Carl Fischer) - the portion pertaining to shifting includes half through 7th position exercises as well as melodic, short etudes

For more challenging shifting exercises, check out:

Carl Flesch - No.'s 1-4 in each key, one octave scales/arpeggios on one string, played slowly in slurs of one or two beats to a bow
Sevcik, op. 8
various shifting exercises buried in Sevcik, op. 1, Parts 1 and 2
Mazas, op. 36, Book I (Etudes Speciales), No. 20
Kreutzer No. 11
Dounis, op. 25, Specific Technical Exercises for Viola
Dounis, Daily Dozen (for violin), Sixth Exercise
Schradieck, vol. I, especially No.'s 19 & 20

And to really get acquainted with your fingerboard, tackle:

Sevcik, op. 1, Part 3 (Bosworth edition) - No.'s 6, 9-12
Sevcik, op. 1, Part 4 (Bosworth edition) - end of No. 3
Dounis, op. 12 (for violin)
Dont, op. 35, No. 15 (mere mention of this etude can make even famous violinists shudder in recollection of student days)

How do I work a fast passage up to tempo?

For clean fast passagework your practicing should include much work at very slow tempo with metronome, gradually speeding up the metronome after success during each practice session, and frequently taping yourself without metronome to hear how well everything is going. Alternating with this type of work, it is very helpful to practice the passage in

various rhythms (see staff one below)

or for triplets (see staff two below)


It is important to keep the actual bow stroke (type, amount, region and weight) as realistic for the final product as possible, i.e., if the passage is separately bowed then use separate bows in all the rhythms, if slurred then use the same slurred configuration. In the case of separate bows, this may make a gritty sounding stroke and may necessitate some silence after each long note in the rhythm, but this is all a part of gaining control over the synchrony of the two hands' motions, and when playing it without rhythms the gritty sound can be eliminated by varying the bow's weight (pressure) or amount.

After the dotted rhythms, those with larger groups of fast notes and displaced beats are really helpful. In a group of four notes, there are four possible rhythms using three fast notes, the easiest being to make either the first or the fourth note the long one. The odd rhythms (with the long notes in boldface) would be: 12 3412 3412 and 123 4123 4123

One can also do this over groups of six or eight notes. To ensure a rhythmic and cleanly bowed final product, it is very important to arrive on the long note within a steady beat -- keep a controlled tempo rather than freeform fast notes. Even the rhythm pattern has a tempo, which can be forced faster as you become more proficient. The left hand's fingers should stay close to the strings, playing with a light touch, and the hand shape should anticipate the next bunch of fast notes.

Memorization helps to put the mind in control of the fingers. Play from memory in slow practice and rhythms as well as up to tempo, even if just a fragment of a longer passage. The ultimate mental test is to hear the passage in your mind -- from memory and up to tempo without the viola and bow in your hands. And this kind of mental work can be done anytime, even while walking or doing something else.

My teacher says I'm playing out of tune, but I don't know where to begin to fix it.

Hearing yourself regularly on tape is the best way to identify and diagnose intonation problems. Questions to ask include: Is it mostly in tune with a few accidents or is it mostly out of tune? Do many of the problems fall into any particular category, such as: flat 4th finger in first position, certain stretched out finger combinations/hand shapes, shifting, whole/half step relationships within position on the same string, 4th finger/1st finger combination at string crossing, other combinations at string crossings, note following an open string, doublestops, chromatic passages, certain key signatures more than others, high positions, vibrato-related, etc. Narrowing it down to specific situations can make it easier to address the technical and mental issues - both for a quick fix in this piece and to improve your general technique for the future.

In addition to the usual major and minor scales and arpeggios, chromatic and whole tone scales are especially helpful, as well as the less common doublestop scales in parallel fourths and sevenths. Warming up in various doublestops (or scales with open string drones) in the key of the piece you playing also helps.

How can I use a drone to improve intonation? Does it matter what kind of drone you use? Is it better to use an electronic tuner or to run a passage against the next open string?

I don't recommend electronic tuners, mostly because of the fact that the tuner's tone is so different from any instrument with which you would try to play in tune (except perhaps an organ), that you are denied the opportunity to perceive timbre along with pitch. The best drone for scale & arpeggio work, or for a passage in which a pedal tone works well with the harmony (such as in Bach) is the CD Cello Drones, in which a cello ensemble sustains each pitch for 6 minutes. Materials such as volume I of Schradieck, as well as many exercises in Sevcik Op. 1, can be practiced with the Cello Drones CD.

For shorter passages you can create a drone yourself with an adjacent open string, if it works in the harmony, or with a harmonically important note you can hold on an adjacent string - as long as you hold it in tune without wavering. There are some amazingly clever materials out there to teach violinists how to do this, and we violists can easily adapt the exercises down a fifth. No less a master than Ruggiero Ricci shows in greatly detailed musical notation how to create drones for practicing scales & arpeggios in his book Left Hand Violin Technique. Perhaps easiest and most therapeutic for the fingers and ears are harmonically meaningful doublestop exercises in which one note is always an open string - such as no.'s 1-9 of Richard Hofmann's Melodic Double-Stop Studies (Viola World), and no.'s 1-8 of Josephine Trott's Book I of Double-Stops for Violin. The exercises by Hans Sitt for violin, op. 92, Book III, use both open string and fingered drones in carefully composed harmonic progressions, and then later gently introduce doublestops with both voices moving; this book is for me more user-friendly than Schradieck vol. II and more harmonically satisfying than various Sevcik drone exercises. Really well written intermediate level double-stop etudes in viola versions are Marie-Therese Chailley's Vingt Etudes Expressives en doubles cordes and Hans Sitt's op. 32.

All these materials encourage you to relate notes to each other in harmonic context and left hand shapes, and offer the bonus of improving tone at the same time for your efforts to bow on two strings. After a little experience with some of these you will find imaginative ways to make up your own drone-type exercises to tackle specific passages in music.

How can I improve intonation beyond 3rd position - especially up high on the A string?

Best way to get your bearings in that top octave is to play Carl Flesch Scalesystem's one-octave A string scales, arpeggios, chromatic scales, broken third scales - and add to that whole-tone scales. Start with keys such as D, G, A in which using your own D string as a drone can be helpful, then go on to keys with more sharps and flats. If your teacher or a friend plays along with you two octaves below (either on viola, or in octaves or tenths on well-tuned piano) it can help you develop a strong sense of the core of the pitch as you play in the highest register.

Supplement this with selected higher position exercises in Sevcik, op. 1, part 2, as well as the shifting op. 8, and Schradieck vol. I. Another interesting exercise is in Louis Kievman's Practicing the Viola Mentally/Physically, where you imagine a specific high pitch and prescribed fingering, and quickly find it right out of silence, to see how well you know your fingerboard without playing up a scale. It also helps to play the difficult high passage one octave lower with easy first position fingerings, then immediately transpose it back up.

How can I strengthen my left hand's 4th finger and stop my fingers from flying?

Keeping the 4th finger aligned over its next notes and close to the strings is an issue which nearly everyone needs to address in the daily warmup, and even a professional player returning from vacation may focus on special exercises for this purpose to get back into shape quickly. Violin and viola pedagogues over the past two centuries have designed many such exercises for all levels of player; it is extremely important to find one appropriate for your degree of left hand strength and experience, and to gradually progress through the pedagogy to more demanding ones over time in order to prevent frustration and/or injury.

My notebook of these exercises breaks down into two categories: 1) exercises which train the 4th finger to stay down by making you hold down fingers 1&4 in either an octave or a second configuration while moving the others, and 2) finger combinations which try out the skill, played very fast with light touch, or in rhythms to force them into fast tempo. Combining these two categories is not unlike the combination of strength training and aerobic exercise done by many people for general fitness of muscles and areas well beyond the fingers... Make sure that your left wrist keeps a straight line (does not bend outward) in the lower positions.

Basic strength exercises:

page 4, Whistler's book Essential Exercises & Etudes for Viola
Ex. of Independent Fingers, first exercise, Samuel Flor's book The Positions

Try these out in:

Hans Sitt - Practical Viola Method
Dancla - School of Mechanism
etudes such as Mazas #19
selected Sevcik op. 1, parts 1-2
Schradieck, vol. I, first position exercises
first four of the Carl Flesch ex. in his Art of Vln. Playing, vol. I

The more advanced exercises below depend upon successful completion of books at the level of Dancla, Kayser and Mazas:

Kreutzer - #9 (Blumenau/Schirmer edition features those square notes for the 4th finger to hold silently); then progress through the trill etudes at mid-book
silent exercises in Flesch Urstudien
Dounis Daily Dozen - silent ex. and #1C
Sevcik op. 9 doublestops
rest of Sevcik op. 1, parts 1-2
last ten or so Kreutzer etudes with doublestops
Flesch #5-7 in Art of Violin Playing
broken thirds doublestop scales at end of Flesch Scalesytem sections devoted to parallel thirds and sixths

The absolute best, most timesaving and most physically demanding exercises of this nature are:

Sevcik, op. 1, part 4, #2
Dounis Daily Dozen - #1C played in doublestops at string crossings
Korgueff Doublestops (available from

The considerable amount of attention devoted by pedagogues to this 4th finger alignment issue is justified by the fact that so many left hand technical skills besides intonation depend upon a relaxed alignment close to the strings - speed, shifting and especially vibrato are all sabotaged when the hand shape is inefficient. The dilemma is to find the most personally logical exercise in proper dosage, because they can be both the prevention and the cause of physical injury.

How can I get a big sound?

Three basic variable factors about the way you use your bow account for tone production: the bow's weight (pressure) into the string, its speed (amount), and its contact point between the bridge and fingerboard. A tremendous amount of leverage and power may be gained from the passive weight of the upper arm and elbow traveling on a plane equal to or higher than the hand. This is to say that a bow arm resembling a "goose-neck" with an elbow lower than the hand is undesirable, in my opinion, because it misses the benefits of using the passive weight of the upper arm to help the bow track into the string.

When experimenting with the three basic variable factors, consider vibrato as a fourth and last experiment to add to the mix. The speed and width of vibrato chosen to combine with the other three variables will greatly affect the type and freedom of sound.

Comfort with slow bow speed in the lower half of the bow will help ensure plenty of bow to spend for sustaining tone in the upper part. Time honored exercises to develop this control include the minute bow - really 60 seconds on a down-bow, then again on the up-bow, (followed by long bows of fewer seconds in length), as well as long bows with crescendo on the down-bow and diminuendo on the up-bow. Mazas Etude No. 1 played very slowly is also a classic, and rather pleasant material in which to put all this together. Practicing long tone false harmonics throughout a whole bow (like the Flesch harmonic scales at the end of each key) is another good way to get the feel of controlling bow weight/speed, because the tone will crack if a factor changes suddenly. Try them in each of these dynamic levels - pp, mp, ff, and in low, medium and very high registers too. Tone building is also an important fringe benefit of doublestop practice.

What are the differences between the various editions of the Hoffmeister Concerto?

While each preparer of an edition of this concerto may have consulted the manuscript, said to be in the Saxon State Library in Dresden, many differences exist between the various editions, and it is really the performer's choice which to play. If you are going to be performing this with orchestra as soloist, you can expect the orchestra to imitate your bowings and articulation of thematic material regardless of edition used, but it would be a good idea to make sure that the piano reduction you use in rehearsals correctly reflects the tutti passages in the orchestral score which will be used. For instance, in bar 44 of the viola part, your actual notes and the harmony of this cadence going into the little tutti are really different in the Doktor edition, as is the length of that tutti. If you wish to perform the Doktor edition, then perhaps the orchestra should obtain the score/parts which go with this one (International).

There is a Cursi/Milano edition with which I am unfamiliar; other editions of Hoffmeister include the Kalmus/Belwin Mills, which omits the editor credit, and a Leipzig/Dresden Peters with cadenza and editing by Clemens Richter. The Kalmus is readily available, inexpensive, and includes a lovely first movement cadenza. Choice of cadenza and whether to even do one in the 2nd and 3rd movements are decisions entirely up to you. At the end of the 2nd movement, both Doktor and Peters editions set you up for a cadenza; Kalmus cuts from your last note to final 6 bars. Doktor is unique among these three for inserting an extensive cadenza in the 3rd movement instead of returning to the rondo theme before the first minore. It strikes me as detrimental to the shape and flow of the rondo, but this choice is again up to you. Comparison and combination of Doktor and Kalmus editions offer many interesting options.

Are there classical style concerti other than Hoffmeister and Stamitz?

Hoffmeister and Stamitz may have become standard classical era repertoire for having remained most consistently in print, but there are many other worthwhile original viola concerti from this period. Study of the alternatives can facilitate execution of both technical and musical details in future performances of these two inevitable warhorses. And, those suffering from Hoffmeister-aversion might give his lovely etudes a chance.

Classical style concerti less difficult than Hoffmeister/Stamitz: Vanhal, Zelter, Anton Stamitz, Joseph Schubert

Classical style concerti of comparable difficulty to Hoffmeister/Stamitz: Dittersdorf, Handoshkin (especially when played in the tempo of the Barshai recording), Druschetzky, Hoffstetter, Rolla Eb Concerto and several other works, and Hummel Potpourri op. 94 (of which the Fantaisie is but a small excerpt). Those who feel starved for Mozart could investigate the viola version of the clarinet concerto. For a list organized by level with examples of the themes of each movement, see Articles: Let's Play Something Else!

Are there Romantic era concerti on the same level of difficulty as Hoffmeister and Stamitz?

Romantic style concerti roughly comparable to Hoffmeister/Stamitz in difficulty include those by Ghebart, Steiner, Sitt op. 46 and 68, Forsyth.

What other concerti are there which would be less difficult than Der Schwanendreher, for example, but more difficult than those mentioned above?

Many early and mid-20th century works can fill in this gap; whether each is less difficult than Schwanendreher is debatable, but they offer different types of difficulties and important preparation for Schwanendreher, Walton & Bartok in repertoire not likely to be crucial for future audition purposes. These include the concerti by Gyula David, Piston, Porter, Serly, Bloch (both Suites), Martinu, Bowen, Dale, Bax, Benjamin, Antiufeyev, to name a few.

Everything listed above has been in print at some time in the past thirty years, and many are currently available. Most works are available in the U.S. through OCLC inter-library loan (a service of many public and most university libraries), and there is a similar computerized library system in Europe.

Which edition of the Bach Cello Suites should I get?

Comparison of both scholarly and "corrupted" editions of the Bach Suites can be quite enlightening, showing us a lot about how perception of Baroque style has changed over the ages. It is important to realize that there is no definitive urtext of these works, and even the modern editions based on early manuscripts differ considerably because so do the manuscripts.

To get an idea of what Watson Forbes and Simon Rowland-Jones had to work with, and how they arrived at different decisions, you can see facsimiles of the Anna Magdalena Bach, the Kellner and two later eighteenth century anonymous manuscripts in the book published by Bärenreiter in 1991. An easier to read, printed compilation of them is the 1988 Bärenreiter Neue Ausgabe, and for comparison's sake you can also get the 1988 Dover reprint of the Bach-Gesellschaft (first published) edition of 1879. Bach's own transcription of the fifth suite for lute can also be seen in the Neue Ausgabe edition. There is also a new Bärenreiter publication in paperback offering all of the facsimiles bound separately in a boxed set. Indications of slurs, ties, and even some actual notes vary tremendously among these sources, and in many cases it is up to the editor and performer to choose from several historically valid and vaguely notated possibilities. The choice of whether to play the articulations literally (and which version), to devise linked bowings which convey the intent, or to go your own way entirely is up to each player, but at least if choosing this last possibility you know that you are doing it and why. The problem with consulting only one edition of these works, whichever it may be, is that we tend to take the printed page literally, forgetting that other historical choices exist which might be preferable, depending on the player.

While I would not recommend learning the Suites from the heavily edited "corrupted" editions for stylistic reasons, it is interesting to compare the dynamics designed by others in the quest for your own plan. An inexpensive way to compare scholarly performance editions based on the articulations in the early manuscripts would be to purchase both Forbes and Rowland-Jones versions. Forbes has included some rather inappropriate metronome markings at the head of each movement, but they may be easily ignored. Differences among the scholarly editions beyond articulations are that the Forbes edition offers Suite V in non-scordatura notation, while Rowland-Jones offers it both ways. Forbes puts Suite VI in G major; Rowland-Jones keeps it in D major but in the original high register, which is not attractive for the Allemande and Sarabande. For those of us who prefer all movements of Suite VI to be in D Major, with Allemande and Sarabande in the lower octave, the Lifschey edition offers a version with minimally intrusive octave breaks; you can use the notes from Lifschey and add bowings from a scholarly edition.

I like very much Suites I-IV in a new attempt at an urtext for the Cello Suites on viola which has been prepared by James Nicholas, and is available from him at 35 Wright Road, Rocky Hill, CT 06067, e-mail: He offers Suite V only in scordatura and Suite VI in G major instead of D. Nicholas has also published the best urtext edition for viola I've seen of the Violin Sonatas & Partitas.

Are there any helpful tips and approaches to practicing that notorious sixths passage half way into the first movement of the Walton Concerto?

The age-old practice technique for double-stops of fingering both notes but sounding only one, then switching to the other, works pretty well for this passage. When doing it this way and when putting it all together, remember to keep a light touch in the left hand, and always use the same bowing you will ultimately be doing, so that anything in the left hand which needs to happen cleanly during the bow change will also be practiced in context. Follow up non-vibrato practice for intonation purity with addition of vibrato, and keep this vibrato small enough that the interval is still clearly in tune. Try the passage in many different practice tempi, both 1) very, very slowly with total awareness of the sixteenth-note rhythmic subdivision to perfectly time shifts and finger placements, and 2) too fast a tempo on purpose, to insure that your touch is light and your movements both unhesitating and accurate. Sometimes experimentation with the bow's amount, part, weight, and contact point will help clarify this passage -- make sure you are not "over-bowing" with too fast a bow, especially during shifts. Lastly, add to your daily warm-up some sixths in A major on A-D strings -- in shifting, parallel scales and broken third patterns, so that you will already come to the Walton with much of this familiar to your hand before the daily practice of the passage begins.

What music should I play for a college or conservatory audition?

For most undergraduate programs, violists need to prepare a nicely varied program of movements from three composers plus an etude the level of Kreutzer or Campagnoli, in addition to a few 3 octave scales and arpeggios. Audition repertoire which undergraduate applicants frequently choose include movements of Bach Suites; Stamitz, Hoffmeister, JC Bach, J. Schubert concerti; Bloch Suite Hebraique or Meditation/Processional, V. Williams Suite, Britten Elegy or Reflection, Hovhaness Chahagir, Milhaud Quatre Visages or Sonatas, Joachim Hebrew Melodies, Schumann Marchenbilder, Brahms Sonatas, etc. Applicants at the graduate level typically perform movements of a major 20th century concerto, Brahms Sonata, Bach Suite, and classical era concerto.