It is just over 100 years since this famous cartoon (for violists anyway…) appeared in the programme for a Wigmore Hall recital given by Lionel Tertis. The cartoon, and his autobiography “My Viola and I”, in which it appears on the inside cover, had a formative effect on me as a young viola player. Since his 1911 recital, the development of modern music technology has been gradual but transformative. This even applies to the viola, well, more particularly the electric viola! Over the last few years there has been further significant development in the quality of pick-ups, the standard of the electronics and even the change from the user being attached via an ungainly lead to an amplifier to the freedom of a Wi-Fi transmitter attached to their belt.
Up until a few months ago, I could never have imagined myself playing an electric viola in public. I can recall when teaching at Dartington Summer School, watching students on an electric violin improvisation course perform complete with smoke effect and thinking how far that world was from my own. So what was the initial spark? Leaving my position as Head of Strings at Repton School in order to develop other areas of my playing and teaching, led to an outdoor drinks reception at the school, where tradition has it that departing staff give a speech. Public speaking is definitely not one of my strong points. Then I remembered some music given to me by a pianist friend and former duo partner to Nigel Kennedy and Sandor Vegh amongst others, just before a recital we were to give at the Purcell Room. This excellent encore piece entitled “Bach Jazz on the G String. Perpetrated by Peter Pettinger” seemed perfect for the occasion. But how to give it a successful outdoor performance in a very open garden?
It was my wife who suggested investigating an electric viola, although it is probably best not to note down my initial response here. I began to research which viola to use, and to my surprise I found myself looking on the web at Amazon and E-bay before spotting the distinctive Yamaha outline. However, other electric violas are available, including models from Reiter, NS Design and Vector. I found myself dealing in phrases like WMS 40 Pro Mini, dual mode pre-amp, and other terms that were somewhat alien and new to me. Well, it was a kind of ‘love at first sight’ seeing a Yamaha Silent Viola SVV 200 and its sleek minimalist body, or rather lack of body. This was my model of choice, purchased over the internet from online giant Normans Musical Instruments.
Now being the proud owner of something that made the heads of my children and their friends turn, I adapted an old electric guitar stand left over from one of my offspring’s brief experiments. And there it was, sitting in pride of place in my study, sparking interest and “wow” from visitors. Suddenly, instead of feeling the need to buy a motorbike, sports car or even get a new wife, here was the answer to my midlife crisis. The opportunity for viola jazz not viola joke.
But what about the actual playing? During the sound check for that first performance the Headmaster’s secretary had to ask us to stop, as there had been a complaint from an exam venue in the school which was almost a quarter of a mile away! My feeling of being involved in something really different had started. The performance I took in my stride, but in my mind I was already well beyond this. I could almost feel new elements to my playing at this stage of my career. The concept of an electric viola as a solo instrument became clearer – more Brian May on the roof of Buckingham Palace, than backing quartet on Strictly Come Dancing. I am not quite sure what Lionel Tertis would have made of it however.
I discovered I had to control the sound in a new and different way, being prepared to float much more, or to use an exaggerated son file. Furthermore, even the slightest of touches on the strings can produce a massive sound, so great care is needed. Another entirely novel element is the sound coming from the amplifier behind you, somewhere near the knees, rather than the immediate results from the bridge and f holes I am so used to turning my ear towards as I play.
From a technical stand point, my playing was challenged in a new way. As one American website put it “now the violist can shed the constraints of the acoustic”. However, as I quickly discovered, technique is laid bare as a single blemish within the playing can be heard clearly with the amplification. This realisation was emphasised when listening to some of the takes from a shortly to be released jazz track, and the learning process continued. Ultimately I discovered that this all feeds back into my classical technique and musicality, and the whole experience has, and continues to, enhance my playing and teaching.
I realised that other people might feel the same way, and that my students could find all of this very interesting. I proudly took along my chic new possession to my classes at Chetham’s School of Music. My students had already tried a baroque bow, learning about the different types of bow weight and speed. Now they would be able to go in the other direction with something really modern. I could really understand where my students were coming from when they started describing their responses to playing it. “It makes me shift differently” was one response. “I am trying to find totally different sounds and colours” was another. They were trying to go for different bow weights as the instrument responded, and the simple fact that it was different from what they were used to with an acoustic instrument meant they wanted to try all sorts of different ways of playing. They felt no boundaries and were much more prepared to experiment, mentally relaxing and varying their expectations.
During the summer this year teaching at international summer schools in Astona, Switzerland and Taggia, Italy I found myself thinking that the freedom of playing an electric viola would enable even the most advanced students steeped in tradition and technique to refresh and enhance their continued development.
My experience with the electric viola to date then, has begun to open new doors in my teaching, sparked my musical imagination afresh, and even shaped new perspectives on the scope of our instrument. Could even Tertis have been persuaded to try one eventually?