In the summer of 2005, four of us, viola-playing friends, met to discuss the possibility of setting up a series of viola workshops. There seemed to be plenty of opportunities for violinists and cellists, but viola players, at least in our area, had been rather neglected. Our viola workshops would aim ‘to promote the viola and to improve the standard of viola playing’, and Robin Ireland, formerly of the Lindsay String Quartet, would be our ideal tutor and musical director. Robin was very enthusiastic about the project and a viola workshops committee was formed.
With the help of an Arts Council grant, our first workshop took place in November 2005. Ten viola players attended, Robin tutored, and it was a great success. Robin and the committee decided to make it a termly event and South Yorkshire Community Foundation gave us small grants for two years to enable this. After that, fortunately, we managed to become self-financing and the termly viola workshops became well established. In 2009, Robin took over the responsibility of running the workshops and, also that year, we created our website. Now, in October 2013, we are holding our 24th viola workshop and welcome players from all regions.
The workshops are open to viola players who are of grade 7+ standard: amateurs, students including music college or university students, teachers of the viola, and others with an interest in viola playing. There are usually about 12 participants. The day includes a mix of tutored viola ensemble playing, masterclasses, a session comparing recordings of a viola work, a technical session, and untutored small-group ensembles or, sometimes, a talk. The day ends with an informal recital by Robin. Other interested people join our workshop participants in the audience. These guests have been generous in their donations towards student bursaries.
On-going workshops demand a large repertoire of music for viola ensembles. Much of this has been provided by Ross Cohen of the Absolute Zero Viola Quartet. As a composer, transcriber, and arranger of music, Ross (and his alter ego, Sancho Engano) has given us a treasure trove of viola music in a very wide range of styles to add to our library of viola ensemble music. Others also have kindly allowed us to make use of their transcriptions.
Viola players feel greatly encouraged and energised by Robin’s tuition in the workshops. Both technically and musically we learn a lot every session. It is also very enjoyable having a day in the company of other viola players and there is a happy and friendly atmosphere. Some feedback comments: ‘I had a fantastic time and got a lot out of the day’; ‘An excellent day which achieves the right balance between playing, tuition and listening. Robin is an ideal leader for such an event – inspired and inspiring teacher as well as performer.’
More details of the workshops www.viola-workshops.co.uk
A successful formula
It has been a joy leading and developing the viola workshops over the past nine years, and I think we have come up with a really successful formula now which alternates active participation with listening and observing. During the sessions of ensemble playing which form the core activity, I also aim for a balance, between offering some coaching in matters of style, technique and musical shaping, and simply playing through for the pleasure of it. I’m often amazed at what a good sound we create with mainly amateurs, all playing their hearts out! Almost always now, we have one or two conservatoire students for the masterclass spot, and it is a good sign, I think, that they invariably go home having appreciated the whole day’s activities.