Culmination of Viola for Violinists course

In February 2018, a new viola course was launched, Viola for Violinists, in the Royal Irish Academy of Music in association with the Irish Association of Youth Orchestras under the tutelage of violist, Lisa Dowdall. The course was specifically designed for violin teachers who lead busy lives and was created in such a way that would allow them to study and learn from Lisa in a number of different ways.

The course culminated in April and we have asked Lisa and a number of the participants to speak about the course and their experiences.

Firstly, we will hear from Lisa as she gives us a description of the course, her teaching methods and a number of the outcomes she saw through the progression of the course.

Lisa Dowdall: “We had our first Viola for Violinists course earlier this year which I immensely enjoyed setting up and teaching. In my planning, I thought about what I would like to get out of a course if I were doing it and worked to develop a programme that balances technique and musicality in an enjoyable and flexible course for violinists who want to learn viola but may have limited time for lessons and personal practice.

The course took place over 10 weeks, book-ended with workshops dealing with general information, and one on one lessons in the middle weeks focusing on the personal challenges of each student. Online materials included videos of me demonstrating the exercises learned in the workshops, sheet music, studies, and links to viola performances and recordings. If the participants had any doubts about what they were doing or wanted to learn about new repertoire, they had quick access to answers. I was also in available by phone or email between lessons for any questions they had.

In teaching teachers, I was very aware of their time constraints and their motives for doing the course so I weighted the course in favour of the technical side of switching to the viola. I wanted to focus on setting up the left hand using exercises for shifting, double stops, vibrato, speed, and accuracy. The biggest challenge for most is sound production. We worked on individual bow holds/right arms using Sevcik and Kreutzer studies, always focusing on the relationship of bow speed, weight, and contact point to achieve the optimal sound, colour and/or dynamic.

Other course materials include Polo’s double stop studies, Schradiek, and lyrical/musical studies like Hoffmeister’s Etudes and Campagnoli Caprices. We picked pieces from the core viola repertoire matching personalities and personal aims to beautiful works. Everyone received the Bach Cello Suites transcribed for the viola and it is my hope they will all continue to work through the repertoire for their own enjoyment as well as for the purpose of teaching them.

Scales form a major part of my teaching with a method that starts very slow (2 notes to a bow) and gradually increases in activity (3,4,5….18,21 notes to a bow) working on bow distribution and pulse as well as intonation and sound production. I have a very simple fingering system that takes a lot of the guesswork out of the equation so that we can use scales to improve our playing and not just as something we have to play in exams. When we get comfortable with them they can be an incredible meditation to start your practice off in a focused and relaxed mindset.

My preferred method for teaching adults is in masterclass/group settings for the reason that most of what we teachers do in a lesson, we’ll repeat for each student. This way the students can learn all the information in a few intensive days of lessons rather than, perhaps, over the course of a year. No one is expected to be able to do everything we work on in these classes straight away, but if they understand everything then they can work away at it in their own time. Students take notes during the lessons but as none of the exercises I teach are written, the online material can be an incredibly useful tool to revise afterward.

When you’re watching someone else having a lesson you are relaxed and have time to think and see the results rather than concentrating on your own uncomfortable feeling of doing something new or trying a different way of playing. You also observe how to teach these new exercises and how to deal with students in a supportive and positive way when they may be feeling vulnerable (as we all do when we’re doing something for the first time). You can gain a lot of empathy for your students by learning a new instrument as we often forget how daunting and at times frustrating it can be.

I’ve noticed that my students have found value in doing something for themselves. Teachers give so much of themselves to their students and it’s really great when they can take a bit of time for themselves to put their own learning and growth at the forefront. It’s also an opportunity to learn new repertoire and meet similarly enthusiastic musicians, sharing experiences, love for music and a lot of fun. In the future, apart from this introductory course to the viola, we will have a longer 6-month course with monthly lessons and 2 workshops to continue the progress made in the first course.”

Four of Lisa’s students on the course were awarded scholarships from IAYO to study the viola. We spoke to two of these, Niall Mannion, musical director and violin tutor with the Midlands Youth Orchestra, and Delphine Picovici (nee O’Brien), violin teacher with Carlow College of Music and director of the CMM Youth Orchestra, to get their thoughts and feedback on Viola for Violinists.

Delphine Picovici: “I began to play the viola “from scratch” in February 2018 as a result of the creation of the Viola for Violinists course. I had never considered taking up this instrument but once I saw the course advertised I was excited and very enthusiastic to be part of it. I am thankful for this opportunity as I now have a new skill which I enjoy very much and look forward to having the opportunity to use.

Lisa sent out video tutorials on Google Drive in the days running up to the start of the course. These were referred to repeatedly over the duration of the course and continue to be available to us.

I had three group lessons and two individual lessons over about 10 weeks. If I had any questions in the interim, Lisa was available by email, text messaging and WhatsApp. I found that the individual lessons were most beneficial, followed closely by the group lessons. Of course, most beneficial of all was having the regular lessons which prompted plenty regular practice. I would have liked the course to continue for longer than the two months. As I would like to promote and teach the viola, I’m determined to continue improving my skills on the instrument.”

Niall Mannion: “I attended the two group workshops and had individual lessons online as well as benefitting from online teaching resources. The workshops were great as you got to experience a range of technical and musical challenges that other people have experienced and how they overcame them. Individual lessons were also great as you got to explore your own challenges in more detail. As they were online, it was also very convenient as we got to work around our own schedules without having to travel.

I found many aspects of the course beneficial for my own teaching practice – the option of providing Skype lessons and online resources is something I would like to incorporate in future as well as possibly holding group workshops for my own students. It is always good to observe teaching too as you can take from it what you may – you might be telling your students essentially the same thing but it’s good to explore alternative approaches. I especially liked the finger diagrams and the arm weight concepts and my violin students have certainly enjoyed the benefits of these!

In the future, my plan is to take on viola students as I now feel I can teach them confidently. Recently I was put on the spot to fill in for a missing viola player and was able to sight-read the part easily. I was very proud! For now, I’ll keep playing for pleasure with a view to exploring more chamber music repertoire in future and maybe do a diploma.”