For some players, only the viola sound will do. But to bring out its full power, the New York Philharmonic violist sought help from a number of teachers, writes Ariane Todes

Cynthia_Phelps

I started on violin when I was four, with Sybil Maxwell. She was very strict when it came to etudes and scales, so I got a solid background. But I wasn’t happy playing the violin because the sound was not suitable to my ears – I just didn’t like the E string. So when I was eleven I switched to viola and I was much happier.

Then, until I went to college, I studied with Sven Reher, a Norwegian teacher who was principal violist for Walt Disney Studios. He was a student of Carl Flesch, so I continued in the tradition of lots of scales and etudes. He worked with my left hand a lot but left my bow hold less developed, which is why when I went to college I worked on strengthening that.

I studied for a summer with Camilla Wicks, with whom two of my sisters were working. She was the first to give me a sense of what I needed to do to feel secure and showed me how to use the natural weight of my arm instead of forcing the sound with pressure. I lived at her house and went back to doing Kreutzer and Š ev?ík etudes, concentrating on my bow hold. We used Kreutzer for many things: strong detaché, staccato, moving the bow quickly and getting the elbow at the right angle. The exercises speak for themselves if you do them properly, although Camilla varied the speed and bow distribution.

She has a strong theory of responsible string training. It was like going backwards a few years and getting a refresher in playing skills – keeping my left-hand frame strong and expanding my prowess with the bow, as well as basic shifting exercises.

The next summer I played for William Primrose and worked with him in the last year of his life. I marvelled at the way he was able to draw out such a huge sound with seemingly little effort. That was my goal. I would watch him and think: ‘That’s what I want to do. How do I do that?’

I had a lot to change. My right-hand fingers were too vertical: I needed to have a flat table-base across my knuckles and to feel strength in my first and fourth fingers.

It was wonderful to be able to talk about the big viola concertos with Primrose, because he had such a personal connection with them, the Bartók especially. He explained what worked for him in terms of changing notes and adding octaves (in the Walton, for example), and why. He had a soloist’s point of view of how to stand in front of an orchestra and convey these musical vehicles.

Primrose led me to Donald McInnes, and I went to the University of Michigan, where he was teaching. I wanted to pull a sound that had as much natural energy and body gravity as I had. Primrose had talked about the power of colour – that is, the voice of the viola – but there’s no way to expand your range if you don’t have the control and Don fed my determination at that time.

He had his students do a lot of Italian and French art songs, such as Fauré’s Après un rêve: short pieces in which it’s really important to pack a colour punch. That helped a lot – getting one to sing is key to communicating. By using these musical examples, speaking about them in a technical way, Don was able to make a marriage of technique and art.

Don makes his students really proud of themselves: he gets them to stand with good posture, feet planted, and to perform in a way that convinces the audience. I see it in his students when they come for orchestral auditions. He encourages the psychological thing of feeling your power and strength. Some people thrived, some people hated it, but for me it was something that I was looking for.

He kept in mind what different students could handle at different times. He liked students to enter competitions, so the major concertos were expected from everybody and for each college year he had a whole repertoire of what students could be expected to have under their belts.

Getting strong control of my bow arm was helpful and by my third year with Don I was feeling much more comfortable. It was a gradual thing. You work for a certain amount of time and feel that you’ve plateaued and can’t break into the next echelon of control and confidence, and all of a sudden you’re there.

Don is a warm man, but he demands a lot. I remember him lecturing a poor student who got up and played. He stopped and looked at her and asked: ‘How much do you practise every day?’ She replied: ‘It depends on the day.‘ He did not like that at all and really let her have it. It was that kind of disciplined atmosphere, and I enjoyed it.

You have to practise every day of your life. I observed this the summer I lived in Camilla Wicks’s house. She would get up in the morning and play scales for an hour. There never comes a time when any responsible string player can stop practising.

This article was first published in The Strad's January 2006 issue. Subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial. To purchase single issues click here.