In praise of a newborn hybrid
In this article you will find observations, views and opinions concerning the future of the viol. My aim is to contribute to a discourse that began some decades ago, and which is slowly turning into a real discussion. For my part this discussion should lead to a more professional approach to the viol and its place in the music world, and perhaps could result in the presentation of the viol into the mainstream world.
Firstly I would like to tell you about my personal experience with the viol. Then I will present you with what I perceive as ‘issues’ in the way ‘the viol’1 is used, and finally I will make some suggestions about directions for future developments.
Coming of age
In 1976, while studying the recorder in The Netherlands, I first discovered the viol through a record “Musik in Versailles”. I was completely overwhelmed by the power, the beauty, the expression and the versatility of the viol and decided this would be my instrument. At the conservatory a Zölch 6-string bass happened to be available, and I started. With recorder as my main instrument, I had already been confronted with the issue of repertoire; I wanted to play improvised music, newly composed music AND early music. When Margriet Tindemans was invited to teach at the conservatory I studied with her for 2 years until she went to America. Initially I was under the impression that the repertoire for the viol was really extensive, and would suffice for a lifetime…. In 1980 I started to use the viol as an amplified instrument in performances, improvised music and on stage. After having composed several works I decided I should have an electric viol, and in 1988 the first ‘SPINE’-gamba was born, made by Klaas Visser. I used the instrument in a chamber opera (1989-1990).
I had constructed the instrument in the hope that it would arouse some interest in the viol world, and to contribute to the development of the viol in contemporary culture: even the first SPINE gamba sounded like a viol (amplified), had a range of 6 octaves, and played very lightly. Receiving no positive feedback after showing the instrument to several colleagues, I abandoned the project and used the first SPINE solely as a practice instrument, on stage in modern theatre and sometimes as a bass in big band gigs.
In 1985 by great good fortune I was made aware of Heiner Spicker, who was teaching at the Kölner Musikhochschule. He accepted me as a student, and much to my awe showed me with surgical precision where my technique – in his opinion – was flawed, why, and how I could improve. Until then my practising hadn’t been systematic at all, based as it was on the music I was currently studying, together with some isolated bow exercises.
Spicker was a student of August Wenzinger. The Wenzinger school had a contemporary approach to viol playing, based on 19th and 20th century tradition. Keeping in mind the musical training I had received in The Netherlands, I could take up the technical training and play the way I wanted.
My ears were washed out as Spicker asked me to produce sound levels that would scare me. I had to use Feuillard, Sevcik and Popper, and was taught several very basic approaches to body awareness in playing the viol: the functions of limbs and joints, the development of movement in relation to transitions, bow crossing, large jumps, sound projection, the position and movements of the left hand, function of wrist, elbow and shoulder, preparation of shifts, awareness of position playing. This was very different from my experience of how the viol or other early music instruments were usually taught. It proved very advantageous when taking up the electric viol, since this instrument demanded a different approach from the baroque viol: I had to treat it as a hybrid, a mix between double bass/electric bass, modern guitar and viol/cello.
indication of what needs to be done.
After my studies with Heiner Spicker I have felt myself to be essentially a ‘modern’ viol player. In 2002, I met Floris van der Voort and developed an electric viol, the Ruby Gamba, for the professional market. In 2011 the University of Delft produced a Ruby Gamba made out of flax fibre and epoxy (bio-composite). This looked very promising but turned out to be too expensive to produce in any quantity under 100 instruments. Then we investigated on a new and softer wood for even better tone and less weight and we found alder. The present instrument weighs 2,5kg and has superb sound.
The viol nowadays, as I see it, is in a difficult position. A list of concerns may give some indication. Note that these indications are based upon personal observation; they do not pretend to be scientific at all.
The problem of making a living: Most professional players have to bend over backwards to make a living, which involves lots of travelling, private teaching, low fees for concerts, hardly any ‘escapes’ into other musical styles (where the money is2), low level of peer support or communities of mutual (professional) interest3.
A decreasing market for instruments, players and publishers.
A small and fluctuating (amateur) user base: the baby-boomers who were quite receptive to early music are getting older; young people are hesitant to take up the viol because it functions in a very small niche and you can’t play in a band…
The lack of a sound technical teaching tradition: viol playing is still quite new, and the dominant approach has become the use of early sources as ways of acquiring skills on the viol, combined with a severe ‘super-ego4’ that tells us what to do and what NOT to do on a viol… Somehow the developments in modern teaching methods, learning theory, and the cross fertilization of style/techniques from modern and non-Western music have almost completely been neglected. (Interesting exceptions are the compositions of Paolo Pandolfo, the jazz of Jay Elfenbein, the pop-music renderings of Victor Penniman and the researches of a player like Karin Preslmayr.) The result of this is that many players haven’t learnt to think consistently and broadly about the ways of their instrument, and how technique is built up. I think a cello player, or guitar player of moderate level is usually better trained than viol players, and will know better how to tackle new technical problems.
A small repertoire: If one omits the large number of consort pieces that form the broad basis of viol repertoire, the professional repertoire is indeed very limited. The number of really great pieces, that will haunt a player until the day she/he dies, comparable to the repertoire of ‘modern’ instruments is close to nil.
Instrumental issues: in a concert for modern audiences in modern concert halls three basics are vital (in addition to a musically inspiring performance): stable tuning, proficiency, audibility. On many occasions (including in my own concerts) I notice tuning problems, playing that is too soft, and weak technical skills compared to those seen in violinists, flautists, harpsichordists, cellists and singers. In larger halls I have often enjoyed the lovely movements of the viol player, and have admired the audience for their patience.
A niche in contemporary music life, music education and popular appreciation. Viols are almost never part of the string section of a conservatory. They are judged by different (and lower) standards, and will be cut from the curriculum without hesitation if lack of financial means dictate so. After 50 years of viol playing in modern society, one still has to explain to audiences what this strange cello is…. it isn’t the audience that is ignorant, it is our marketing that is flawed.
A closed sub-culture: The attempts to play early music in as historically informed a manner as possible have alienated the viol world from mainstream culture. I see many raised eye-brows when using new techniques in early music (treason), when playing loudly (the viol is a soft instrument), or when playing electrical (any argument will do). Using the viol in cross-over repertoire is considered ‘experimental’. I have the feeling the violists are quite happy that they aren’t part of the string section(s) because cellists, violinists and bass players demand thorough technical skill, and fitness for (compatibility with) the contemporary music markets.
I apologize for seeming too critical. However, I really feel we are in deep trouble with our instrument.
Therefore I would like to suggest some directions for future development.
Directions for the future
Before we can move forwards, or in any direction, we have to know where we are5. A good analysis of the present situation (that will be different for every individual) is the first step to take.
Some questions giving rise to learning-based self-reflection could be:
• On a scale of 1-6, how do I estimate my ability compared with others (in professional situations)?
• On a scale of 1-6, how do I estimate my ability to understand the intention of others?
• Do I know why students come to me, or perhaps stop having lessons with me?
• Do I feel the need to express my opinions as common knowledge, universal laws, DOs and DON’Ts, and how do students/colleagues react? Do I sometimes have the feeling that views or opinions are being hidden from me?
• What do I know of methodologies in teaching other string instruments, and how do I use that knowledge. If I do not know about the methods of acquiring skills on contemporary string instruments, when did I decide I did not need that knowledge?
• Do I still practise on my instrument, and how do I practise? Why? What are my learning goals for the next few weeks?
• Have I ever considered the social consequences of being a viol player, or given thought to the development of career or teaching practice? How did I think about this, and why? How did I proceed after these thoughts, and why? Has anything changed after having these thoughts, and how did it change?
• Do I like what I do, and why? What is it I don’t like, and could I think of ways to change that?
• What skills do I have, how do I check that I really have these skills, and how do I maintain them? What skills do I lack (that I know off), and what skills that I am still unaware off do I lack (and how do I find out)?
• How do I interact with colleagues and peers, how do I share knowledge and skill, how do I support them, and how do I allow them to support me?
• Am I willing to invest (in time, effort and money) in my own level of skills?
• Do I know the complexities of the professional field as well as the first seven semitone steps of my viol?
• etc. ad infinitum.
You might wonder what good it will do to ask those questions. I have learnt to see this6 as the basis of all skillful professionalism.
In this sense one could define professionalism as an attitude, not as a collection of skills: if a ‘skilled7’ player should be able to function professionally he/she should take into account the possibility of changing circumstances, and thus the capability to adapt. Adaptation usually is a process of learning through interaction – if you hit the fan often enough, you will eventually learn to avoid its blades – but can also be the result of active learning. I would suggest that active (reflective) learning should become a vital part of music education in general, but very much so for viol education. The complexities of both the instrument and the present professional environments demand an active approach to adaptability. Seeing the viol as a high-potential hybrid, that requires a wide array of skills to deal with, and a broad approach of repertoire to prepare for the professional world will allow our students to function in the Real World, and play in a Schmelzer Mass, a Ferrabosco fantazie, a Bach Cantata, and a Sting concert, or a Death Metal studio session, possibly a modern opera or a man-computer interaction. Versatility is the answer to the staggering complexity of our world, and choice of course. It is wise, I think, to choose for the specialism of versatility, and acquire the skill to adapt. One would perhaps not know a trill from a mordent, or inegalité from jazz timing, but one would be able to be interested in how it is done, and learn it from peers. I would like to invite viol players to go out and look for possibilities to extend the application of our wonderful instrument, acoustic, electric or semi-acoustic…. all viols are marvelously fit for modern evolution. I strongly believe we have the potential to move the viol into the limelight of modern learning, and flourish.
Some steps we could take to improve the position of the viol and its players (makers, composers, teachers) in our world in general could be:
1. Defining the techniques:
- bowing – downhand French Style, Italian Style, Modern Style 1 and 28 ;
- Plucking – Double Bass style, electric bass style, guitar style, lute style;
- Picking – guitar style, bass guitar style, ‘finger picking style’, medieval lute style with a long floppy pick held between thumb and index finger and leading between 3rd and 4th finger;
- left hand cello technique (including vibrato techniques)
- left hand (vertical) viol technique (with held fingers)
- left hand lute technique
- left hand guitar technique
- left hand electric bass technique (including tapping and ‘wiggle-vibrato’)
- bow techniques: batutta, spiccato, ricochet, frog-playing, martellato, col legno, etc.
2. Defining repertoire
- Early music
- New Classical compositions, including ensemble pieces, pieces with tape, and arrangements of more or less generic modern pieces (eg aleatoric pieces from the 1960s)
- popular music
- Improvised music
- Music for theatre, performances, multi media art
- Cross over music, and integral music (being the result of a process of merging historical Western music with non-Western musical tradition, without being a mere mix, but a really new approach.)
3. Defining markets
- Classical market (mostly 40-80 years, involved in classical and early music)
- Jazz market (viol is an ideal jazz instrument)
- Pop market (enormous and capital intensive market)
- Modern art
- Film music
- Church music
- Cross over music; etc.
4. Defining social skills
- Ability to always redefine goals, methods, skills, principles, views, convictions, assumptions,
- Ability to treat others as peers, with equal values of input into the interaction (look for instance here.)
- Ability to reflect upon personal and professional actions
- Ability to value others for their intentions
5. Defining the educational environment
- Open minded, safe, stimulating expression of personality, stimulating compositional expression, business awareness leading to skills, knowledge of learning styles, knowledge of perception styles (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic), knowledge of learning theories,
- Students can interact with each other, can perform together and alone, can move freely in choosing repertoire and instruments to play with
- The teacher recognizes that professionalism involves constant active learning, through keeping up playing skills, renewing repertoire, personal coaching (on the actual professional practice, not just the musical skills), reading relevant educational literature, actively asking for peer-to-peer evaluation.
- Concert tours (organized by the institutions)
- Personal coaching (how do you learn, what do you achieve and why not something else etc.)
- A set of professional standards that are well described and can be used to evaluate educational processes and educators.
6. Defining marketing strategies
- Getting to know the needs, taste, demography, accessibility, and ability to change of potential audiences and concert organizers, ability to organize and maintain a social network,
- Organize campaigns with groups of mutual interest, with effective means, ask for advice from professionals
- Redefine the viol, in words, but also as a mental image…. How does your listener perceive the viol, how would she/he like to perceive it, and what would be the first impression of those who are unfamiliar with the viol (is it a historical instrument… of the past…. or a viable instrument for the music of our days?)
7. Defining ourselves
- Good personal skills are essential for a learning environment; these skills can only be acquired with the active aid of others.
- Psychology revealed that WE are a set of working hypotheses and assumptions, activated in relation to many different environments (a bunch of different identities). It is helpful to learn to move around in this maze and learn to take a bird’s eye view. A student will relate strongly to a teacher who knows his/her own ropes and is able to deploy differentiated relations within the learning environment.
- Personal learning activates a sense of self that is active, alive, awake. Within this sense, one can develop a ‘neutral space’ that prevents both teacher and student of suffering from personal projections and negative interaction. The neutral space is, so to speak, the trademark of the professional.
This article has perhaps boiled down the content of a book into several pages, and is therefore a very
condensed representation of what I feel is at stake in the viol-world of today. I would like to take the liberty of thanking Annette Otterstedt for her beautiful contribution to the knowledge-acquiring process concerning the viol in a broader sense. She has showed us the “Humanistic” background of the viol, the level of skill of its players, the development of attitude and perception throughout its existance. The humanistic state of mind has now moved into what Habermas calls the “Project of Modernity”, that is the ongoing flow of subtle changes toward a society in which ‘skilled communication’ (Senge) is essential for progress. The solvability of many contemporary issues may depend on just that, and in many occasions merging views, styles, ways of knowing, perception habits and global pre-conceptions will be the only way to create new habitats for modern mankind.
I perceive the viol as an instrument par excellence for the learning and practising of this Skilled Communication… Perhaps that’s why the Humanists were so fond of it. The professionalism of modern players and teachers, I think, would be strongly enhanced by the study of Modernity, understanding its principles and practices, and by developing methods and ‘learning-habitats’ that will prepare students for a choice-based society. Otterstedt promoted the views of Mr. de Sainte Colombe (Saint Dove).
1 In this article ‘the viol’ is used as a container for all that involves the use, making, playing, the repertoire, social circles, etc. of the viol nowadays.
2 One viol player who took up the Ruby Gamba (electric viol) plays an average of 2-3 paid gigs per week in bands, as opposed to an odd 5-10 classical concerts a year on the baroque viol.
3 This low level can be explained by looking at the stiff competition; there isn’t enough work for all players that are swimming in the same pond…
Non-responsiveness acts as a defence mechanism to preserve a personal niche. This may be looked upon as counter productive. In most cases, working together, creating synergy and ‘system-learning’ enhances the possibilties of a peer group.
4 Super Ego, or the voice of tradition, of social environments and family systems. We always obey the Do’s and Don’ts of the Super Ego, until we become aware that what we are ‘supposed’ to do and think isn’t what WE really desire to do, think and feel.
5 This seems an open door, but it really isn’t. Many convictions about situations we’re in are based on assumption, not on analysis and reflection. These assumptions tend to create lives of their own, and have very strong procreational capabilities…. They are like snacks that are easily swallowed, but painfully sweated off.
6 This, meaning learning through reflection, can be studied from sources as varied as ‘reflective learning’ by Chris Argyris (look), Donald Schon (look) and the works of Peter Senge (look). Models involving reflective learning are developed by people like David Kolb (look). Models of social interaction can be found in the work of Timothy Leary (1957). In general, reflective learning, system learning, peer-to-peer learning atc. is the basis of modern professionalism.
7 Skill is the result of a process of acquiring. It doesn’t necessariliy mean a high level, but a practical level for the specific practice environment.
8 1 being the Wenzinger based style, for legato playing and strong tone production, 2 being a ‘reversed cello technique’: holding the bow down hand, but all fingers on the wood.
• non Western music (eg Indian Classical music, Arabic music, South American music, European folk)