Much has been shared on switching from violin to viola, but what about the other way around? Martin Goldman shares the processes and challenges of ‘downsizing’ his instrument

martin goldman

Martin Goldman

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During the summer of 1965, at a music camp on Lake Placid, I decided to officially be a violist and study with Lillian Fuchs at Manhattan School. That decision took me through a bachelor’s and graduate degree from the Yale School of Music. I’ve played professionally ever since. 

Fast forward to 2008. I’d been teaching Suzuki Violin in Puerto Rico for 20 years, every afternoon going from violin classes to the orchestra where I played viola. That’s when I moved to Florida and focused on teaching; no daily orchestra rehearsals. I was 60.  

I think it’s universal; we spend our lives improving the craft. But with no orchestra concerts to prepare for, I wasn’t motivated. When I did pick it up, the viola felt bigger and bigger. If downsizing was the answer, why not the violin? Making the change brought new life to practising. These are some of the adjustments and observations I went through. It didn’t happen over night. Eventually I sold my Peternella viola, purchased from Harold Coletta. 

Wanting to place the violin high enough to easily drop my head, I purchased a Wittner adjustable chinrest and made it as high as possible, to keep my arm from lifting higher. Then I placed the inside legs of my Pedi shoulder rest closer to the chinrest clamp. The violin was flatter, more comfortable; almost on the collar bone.  

Then I had to change the distance my arm traveled to put the bow on the violin. Feeling like I was bringing the sound inside, I worked on Karen Tuttle’s ideas of release, freeing up the spinal column and the ubiquitous neck release. On the viola I was often front loaded, not so on the violin.

Of course I went through a few sticks before becoming comfortable. As the violin’s thinner strings responded differently, for me faster, I worked on how the bow sat inside my hand, thumb against a smaller frog, hand and forearm and upper arm working like a pulley. With high expectations, it took longer than I’d imagined. 

I like to teach with Suzuki’s notion that Kreisler played on the bridge side of half way to the fingerboard; ’Kreisler’s highway.’ (Lillian Fuchs joked that he played more from middle to tip, retiring when he ran out of bow) So I practised, especially with scales, on different points of contact, using Karen Tuttle’s ’re-pull and over the bow,’ which to me correlates with the bow’s two mid points; by length and weight. My body was adjusting. 

To feel more comfortable with the bridge height and distance between strings, I spent a lot of slow practice doing bariolage. Feeling the bow’s slight turn at the end of a down bow, Primrose called it turning the corner, I’d first do it staccato, then legato with Ysaÿe’s string overlaps. On a good day I managed 64 notes on a bow.

What happened almost by itself, was playing with my left thumb higher. It felt more natural on the violin and followed the ideas of Havas, as well as my observation of great players. Zino Francescatti played with the violin at the base of his thumb. 

Scales were amusing. The strings being different in terms of 1-4, I was stumbling as I tried to say the name of each note. ’Isn’t the third string G?’ viola brain would ask. It took some time to comfortably map it out. 

I use a hand/wrist vibrato. On the viola I always found it hardest to vibrate in first position, with the arm extension, but easier on the violin. I was re-thinking width and speed, while adjusting to thinner strings and neck. ’String pinching’ worked well, getting used to the height of the string’s push back. In fact when starting slowly, gradually increasing speed, the vibrato virtually took off by itself. 

On the viola I tended to shift more using the arm, but the violin not  so much, the hand alone able to make seamless shifts; what Ruggiero Ricci talked about. I also found extensions more helpful on the violin, and easier. I think Ysaÿe viewed the violin as one position. 

An obvious point, in the higher positions there was trouble with half steps. Thick finger tips? I started using less padding, my fingertips slightly upright. Havas suggested to land on the inside of the strings, which also helped. 

 ‘Isn’t the third string G?’ viola brain would ask. It took some time to comfortably map it out

On an emotional level I admit to feeling relieved, no longer forced to play from transcriptions. Here we learn the Bach Cello Suites, as they’re in the same key, if you don’t do Bruno Giuranna’s transposition in the sixth. In Europe, I worked in Belgium and Italy in the 1980s, violists played the Sonatas and Partitas. For auditions, I had to learn them as well. I was never convinced. 

So my first repertoire choice was the first Sonata and third Partita. When I had the time, I worked on the Chaconne, one of the wonders of the world. Though I prefer the Schott edition edited by Szeryng, I defer to Galamian in the Chaconne, where he writes out the arpeggios. And from Bach I began a near obsession with technique. As I’ve always been a Dounis aficionado, I focussed on his Trill Exercises to adjust interval distances, finding my higher left thumb reduced unwanted tension. To that I added his ’Neglected Thirds,’ Opus 23, and Roland Vamos double stops. 

Other works I use are; Castleman/Koob scales, Ysaÿe scale book, Kreutzer, Dont Opus 35 and Paganini Caprices. That plus an enormous number of ignored and forgotten works I found, by Kotek, Szatowski, Dancla, Alard, Schlomberg, Kotler, Sauret, and too many others to enumerate. 

I also managed to incorporate somatic ideas, often versions of Karen Tuttle’s work and Tai Chi. I’ve worked with Alexander and Feldenkrais practitioners, and practiced yoga. Recently I read excerpts from a Donald Weilerstein lesson in The Strad; ‘Before you start, feel the spine move.’ ‘And the eyes.’ ‘The whole thing up, to the top of the head.’ To prove my mettle, I’ve given recitals and demonstrations, anticipating expression unique to the violin. 

Recently I read, in his Memoirs, William Primrose’s reaction to hearing Casals play Bach in Prades in the 1950s: ’He sounds like a 75 year old.’ Now I’m 75.

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