Ulster Youth Orchestra Viola Day | October 2021

Ulster Youth Orchestra (UYO) hosted a Viola Day on 28 October 2021 which was designed to bring viola and violin players and teachers together in order to support existing violists and introduce interested violinists to the instrument. The aim was to hold relaxed and informative online sessions with hosts professional violists David Aspin (Ulster Youth Orchestra Course Tutor) and Chrissie Slater (UYO Alumna), supported by current UYO Principal Viola, Jamie Howe.

The need to support and encourage viola players was identified by Ulster Youth Orchestra by applicant monitoring. The viola section had dipped in numbers (particularly from Northern Ireland) and UYO felt this was negatively impacting on players’ confidence and enjoyment.

Having identified this challenge, UYO successfully applied to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI) for funds to purchase two Pellegrinas (small violas, pictured below). These instruments are part of a larger collection of instruments purchased with funds from ACNI that UYO are able to offer on loan, free of charge, as part of the Minority Instrument Scheme, generously supported by Ulster Garden Villages.

Ulster Youth Orchestras' Pellegrina Violas
Ulster Youth Orchestras’ Pellegrina Violas

In total there were 17 participants who signed up for Viola Day, ranging in age from 8 to adult, in standard from Grade 3 to professional and from primary, secondary and tertiary education.

Viola Day began with introductions and a physical warm up, led by David Aspin. Here, David demonstrated a variety of exercises designed for violin and viola players to help them loosen their arm and shoulder muscles and prevent repetitive strain injury in the longer term.

The next segment introduced UYO Principal Viola Jamie Howe to the panel and was a Question-and-Answer session which allowed the team an opportunity to talk about their musical journeys and this led to discussion about the physicality of the instrument, the ‘personality’ of the viola player, the opportunities, the repertoire, the history of the viola and much more.

Workshops concluded the morning session and the participants were divided into two smaller groups, each of which had time with both of the professional tutors. This session encouraged people to share any aspects of their playing that they struggled with and topics such as vibrato, bow hold and finger and thumb positions were covered.

After lunch three players of different ages and standards participated in the masterclass with David and Chrissie giving sensitive and constructive criticism and encouragement.

The final hour was dedicated to ‘moving from violin to viola’ and the group heard from UYO’s Principal Viola, Jamie Howe, who has recently moved from violin and is now at the Royal College of Music with viola as his first instrument. They talked about learning a new clef, getting used to the different hold and weight of a viola and adjusting to a new position within an ensemble.

Leading on from this they discussed the Pellegrinas, which are violas with a string length similar to a violin. A standard viola is larger than a violin and for a young player can be cumbersome and awkward. A Pellegrina has the air volume of a much larger viola and the powerful sound is achieved by a wider as opposed to a longer body with enlarged upper and lower bouts. Smaller violists love Pellegrinas as they produce a sound comparable to a very large viola and as there is no difference in how the instrument is played to standard violas, players can move seamlessly from standard viola to Pellegrina and back again. They heard from Bláthnaid Drumgoole who applied to the Pellegrina Scheme in 2020 as a violinist.

Bláthnaid has now, as a result of the scheme, moved across to the viola permanently and has a renewed love of playing!

You can learn more about Ulster Youth Orchestra at uyo.org.uk.