‘Preparing for UK Conservatoire Auditions: A Teacher’s Perspective’ by Lucy Nolan

Auditioning for conservatoire is a milestone in many young musicians’ lives. It is often the turning point where music ceases to be a teenage hobby and becomes something in which a lifetime is going to be invested. Accordingly, preparation for these auditions is crucial, and if managed appropriately, the process can be exhilarating! Below are a few of the things I like to consider before and during the adventure.

  •  Timeline: Needless to say, preparation time depends on the individual student but, as a tutor, I tend to have a timeline of about eight months in mind. Open days take place in Spring and I aim to have made repertoire decisions by March/April. UCAS Conservatoires (formerly CUKAS) applications are due at the beginning of October and auditions take place from mid-November to mid-December.
  • Where to apply?: This requires a lot of research and consideration. In my view, faculty is a huge deciding factor. Learn as much as you can about each Conservatoire’s teaching staff and who might be the ideal next teacher for your student. Other things to encourage applicants to research include the location of the institution (is it in a culture-rich city inspiring further creativity and excellence?), the course structure and the department (will it provide enough of what interests you most? For instance, orchestral playing, chamber music, period performance, links to professional establishments, supporting academic studies etc…).
  • Practice Routine: While preparing for conservatoire auditions (or indeed any performance) I think it’s important to keep a balanced routine of practice and learning. Becoming obsessed with 15 minutes worth of repertoire is, in my view, unnecessary and unhealthy. Throughout the preparation process, it is important to remain aware of the bigger picture and to stay in a sensible practice routine with a good ratio of scales, studies, caprices and repertoire.
  • Panel wish-list: It’s interesting to question what qualities the conservatoire might be hoping to find in their applicants. In my experience, panels are warm, enabling and are looking for the strengths in each auditionee rather than the weaknesses. A young musician who demonstrates potential, imagination, curiosity and a willingness to work hard may be equally as attractive to a conservatoire as an applicant who plays wonderfully but has little self-awareness or ambition.
  • Repertoire: Repertoire should be very carefully selected – pieces should be contrasting, not beyond the individual’s ability and act as a vehicle for the student to demonstrate their best qualities. It is worth noting that the audition criteria are not the same in every institution – this should be carefully researched and guidelines strictly adhered to.
  • Entry requirements: As well as the playing portion of the audition, there may be an interview, aural tests and a written examination. Although the written and aural tests may be prepared in school or by a theory or musicianship teacher, the interview is undoubtably something that should be discussed in instrumental lessons. By the time audition day has arrived, my students should feel focussed, prepared for and excited about every aspect of the audition. Applicants will also need to achieve certain grades in school examinations and (where applicable) an appropriate IELTS score.
  • Nerves: This can be a huge issue for musicians (violists are, unfortunately, not exempt!) and many find conservatoire auditions a daunting experience. Performing under pressure requires a special kind of preparation that may not come into everyday practice. Visualising the scenario in advance is important – imagine it happening and imagine it going brilliantly. Once there, think in slow motion, set up comfortably,  tune calmly and accurately, and breathe deeply to slow the heart rate. Believe that the preparation is enough and that you will give a true representation of your ability. As teachers, it is our job to prepare students fully for the experience and give them coping mechanisms for the physical effects of adrenaline should they occur. It is imperative that programmes are played through in their entirety multiple times in advance of the event, preferably with some kind of audience. Rehearsal with piano and knowledge of the piano part is obviously a must but so often goes neglected. Be aware that rehearsal time with piano on the day is minimal.
  • After the audition: Once auditions have been survived and offers have rolled in (hopefully!) it is essential to have consultation lessons with as many different potential tutors as possible. This is a two-way process; for students to decide with whom they would love to learn and for tutors to consider whom they wish to teach. Leaving this to chance is risky as every teacher-student relationship is unique and different students thrive in different learning environments. As for the 9-month stretch between auditions and the commencement of conservatoire life, this is a favourite time of mine – an especially productive period where the looming reality of a career in music provides perfect motivation.

I have had the joy and responsibility of helping many young violists prepare for conservatoire auditions and my musings in the above paragraphs are just that – a tiny proportion of my thoughts on a very broad and lengthy process which is different for everyone. If any BVS member wishes to discuss any of the points in finer details, or indeed anything about conservatoire auditions, please feel free to direct any correspondence to me through Sue Douglas, BVS Secretary.

All that’s left to do is wish good luck to young violists preparing for auditions for 2016 conservatoire entry – the hard work will be worth it.

Lucy Nolan BMus(Hons), MMus RNCM

8 May 2015






‘A rough guide to viola strings’ by William Castle

To make sense of the multitude of strings being produced, we can divide them into categories according to the type of material used to make the central part of the string, the core.

There are three core types – gut, synthetic, and steel.

  • Gut strings give the warmest sound, and a wide range of colours. Their response under the bow is relatively slow, and they don’t stay in tune for very long, the gut being sensitive to temperature and humidity.
  • Steel cored strings are bright, they have a quick response, they stay in tune, but they can be harsh, edgy and lacking in warmth.
  • Synthetic core strings fall between gut and steel. They can have tonal characteristics nearly as warm as gut, but some are nearly as bright as steel strings. They are stable so they stay in tune, their response is quicker than gut and sometimes nearly as quick as steel.

Because of the instability of gut strings, their short life and expense, few people nowadays use them, though Pirastro do produce a string with a stabilised gut core, under the brand name Passione, which reputedly is nearly as stable as a synthetic core. Since the advent of synthetic strings, steel strings have become less popular because synthetic strings have many of the the good features of steel strings but with better tonal qualities. But on some violas which are naturally mellow, steel strings are still an option.

However, the material used to make the core is not the whole story; the way the core is constructed and the methods and materials used to make the windings also have a great influence on the tonal qualities, so each individual make of string has its own individual qualities.

 A simple and practical start- what I usually do

When I am putting strings on violas I have made, I choose strings that I think work best on that instrument, no matter what they cost. In practice I usually use Evah Pirazzi, a synthetic cored string made by the Pirastro company.  These strings are on the bright side for a synthetic string, they project well, have a quick response, but crucially they have a wide range of tone colour.

On some violas, those which are very happy in their own skin, easily producing a projecting and open sound, I sometimes use Obligato strings, also made by Pirastro. Obligato strings are the synthetic string that are nearest in tone quality to gut, and for a relaxed sound that just allows the instrument to breathe they are a good choice. However, on some instruments and for some tastes, Obligato A strings can be a bit too rounded and without enough edge. In this case I use an Evah Pirazzi or a Larson A, which usually blend with the Obligato.

On small violas, and on other violas which need a bit of a push, Evah Pirazzi are a good starting point, in  part because of their higher tension. With an instrument with a short string length, strings that are intrinsically of a higher tension often work well.

To understand how this works, imagine  that you have a bigger viola  but want to see how it feels with a shorter string length, so you use a guitar capo to shorten the string length, putting it, let’s say, where you put your first finger in first position. To play it in pitch, you then need to tune your strings down a tone, which obviously means that the strings are slacker. So just because you use strings that are intrinsically high tension, on an instrument with a short string length, that does not necessarily mean you are putting more tension on the instrument.

The other string I sometimes use is Vision Solo from Thomastik. These are a higher tension soloistic type of string, where if you put the effort in, you get more out. However with violas that have a short string length [less than 37 cm] the string is at a lower tension compared with  a viola with a long string length, so the soloistic nature is toned down.

What about your viola?

Let’s assume you want to get the best sound out of your instrument, combined with ease of playing and regardless of cost. Unless you know you want gut or steel strings, try doing what I do, starting with Evah Pirazzi and possibly moving on from there. However, you still may have problems with one or more strings.

A  common problem with violas is woolly or pathetic C strings, which often feel they are running away from the bow, so you need to use greater bow pressure to create and control the sound when  moving from the G to the C string. In this case a string of greater thickness or tension can help. So in the old days I often used to use a Dominant stark or nowadays you might choose Spirocore, both of which are  heavy and high tension. If Obligato work on the other strings, you could combine these with an Evah Pirazzi  or a Vision Solo C. Once you have a thicker or higher tension string such as Spirocore on the C, you might find that the G seems weak in comparison, and be tempted to try a similar string on the G string, and then perhaps the same on the D. This may work, but be aware that it may restrict the sound of the whole viola because of the increased tension on the instrument.

Another common problem with violas is a harsh A string, in which case you need to go for something softer.So if you have a steel A string, try progressively, Evah Pirazzi, Larsen, Obligato, and Passione, or choose the soft version of the string you are using. Go in the opposite direction if you want more power or edge to the A.

The soft, medium and hard versions of the same string represent different thicknesses and tensions of the same string. On most violas I would start by trying the medium, which are most easily available,  but on a viola with a long string length [over 37cm or 14 ½ “] a thinner lower tension string may be better, whereas a short string length may work better with a thicker or higher tension string.

Other strings worth considering are Larsen, which are nice quality though perhaps less varied in tone colour and dynamism than Evah Pirazzi, perhaps Dominants if you want low tension strings, or Jargars, particularly for A strings; and I am sure there are other good strings I haven’t tried.

A cheaper solution

If the price of strings is a factor, there are cheaper strings available, mostly steel cored. On violas with a long string length Prim works for some, and on violins I have used Helicore which have surprisingly good tonal qualities combined with the rapid response typical of steel strings. For a cheap synthetic string Zyex has good tonal qualities and projection, though again my experience with them is only on violins.


Having said all this, your viola may work best with completely different strings. You may also like a different type of sound, viola sound varying tremendously between musicians and instruments.

Also, as an instrument maker and one-time repairer, I must mention that the position and tension of the soundpost, the cut of the bridge, and its height, which is governed by the angle the fingerboard makes with the belly, also make a major difference to the sound of your viola. It may be the case that the best way to improve the sound of your viola [short of changing the person who plays it!]  would be to get it checked by a violin maker who is interested in sound, before messing around with strings. However, the right choice of strings can make all the difference, whether the instrument has an indifferent or an excellent set up.

William Castle

29 April 2015


‘Violas in the Wild’ by Andrea Erasmus

I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa.  My mother is German, and it is a tradition in her family that everyone learns an instrument.  I started on the violin at the age of 8 as there happened to be a violin teacher in the suburb I grew up in.  When I was 13, my teacher suggested I try out her daughter’s student viola during the summer holidays.  The rest, as they say, is history.  I fell in love with the sound of the C string, and felt much more comfortable on the bigger instrument.  Unlike in Europe, we don’t have many dedicated music schools here.  Even though there are many “normal” schools with fantastic music departments, I went to a high school where I was considered to be a bit weird for playing a classical instrument – and who had ever heard of the viola?!  Thank goodness for the annual South African National Youth Orchestra course, where like-minded kids between the ages of 13-24 from all over the country get together for ten inspirational days to work on challenging symphonic repertoire.  I particularly enjoyed having the best seats in the orchestra: between the violin sections to our right, cellos and basses on our left, winds and brass behind us; right in the middle of the music!  Firm friendships were formed at these courses, and we looked forward to meeting up and performing together year after year.  The experience of performing with both the National Youth Orchestra and the Cape Town-based Western Cape Youth Orchestra profoundly influenced me in my decision to persevere with my viola studies.  (It was in the viola section of the Western Cape Youth Orchestra that Louise Lansdown and I became friends in 1985!)  I think it is safe to say that all professional South African musicians performed in the National Youth Orchestra at some point during their studies.

After school I initially studied for a B.Sc. in Zoology the University of Cape Town – so I could end up with a “proper” job – but, ironically, paid for these studies by playing as a student extra for the two professional orchestras in Cape Town.  After completing the B.Sc., I finally followed my heart: I was awarded a bursary to study for the Postgraduate Diploma in Music in Performance with Prof. Jürgen Schwietering at UCT.  It was a wonderful experience to play for both the CAPAB orchestra (which was the theatre orchestra and played for operas, ballets and musicals) and for the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra (which focused on the symphonic repertoire) for almost seven years.  I had the privilege of performing with superb local and international conductors, singers and instrumentalists.

After 1994, the newly democratic South Africa was a country facing many new challenges of providing housing, electricity, running water and education to citizens excluded from these basic needs in the past, so funding for the classical arts was reduced.  Traditional South African art forms had not received any government support previously, so new arts policies and structures had to be debated and implemented.  As a result of the reduced funding available for orchestras, the two Cape Town orchestras were amalgamated in 1997.  The combined number of viola players of the two orchestras made up the section for the new Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, so there was much less demand for extra players. I moved to Port Elizabeth in 1996 to work as music organiser in the Eastern Cape offices of the Cape Performing Arts Board, which had been running the Eastern Cape Philharmonic Orchestra since the middle 1980’s.  The former Cape Province was divided up into Northern, Western and Eastern Cape prior to the 1994 elections, and the available arts funding was similarly divided amongst the new provinces.  New arts administration processes and staff were put in place by the administration of the new provinces, and the CAPAB Eastern Cape offices were closed at the end of 1997.

The thought of never having the opportunity to play orchestral music again was devastating, so together with two other musicians of the ECPO, I worked hard to re-establish the ECPO as a Not for Profit company in 1998.  The musicians of the ECPO, as well as the guest soloist and conductor played the first concert for no fee.  I gained valuable hands-on arts administration experience putting on these concerts: I was responsible for preparing budgets for the proposed concerts, booking the musicians required, drawing up their contracts, arranging transport and accommodation for the out-of-town musicians, designing and printing concert posters, writing programme notes, hiring venues and planning concert advertising.  I worked as viola player and administrator for the orchestra for two years, before my husband was transferred to Bloemfontein.

At the beginning of 2000, the Performing Arts Board of the Free State was no longer in a position to support the part-time PACOFS orchestra.  The Free State Symphony Orchestra was established as a Not for Profit company to continue the orchestral tradition in Bloemfontein.  Building on my experience of arts administration gained in Port Elizabeth, I once again got involved with building up an orchestra.  Similarly to Port Elizabeth, the Bloemfontein musicians tried to maintain a rhythm of one performance per month for 10 months of the year.  Both of these orchestras consisted of a combination of professional players who were either university lecturers or music teachers, amateurs who had other professions but still enjoyed playing their instruments at a high level, and excellent students and scholars.  Both orchestras presented a variety of programmes throughout the year:  symphony concerts, pops concerts, choral concerts and youth concerto festivals.  Local businesses, arts foundations, and occasionally municipal and provincial sources provided funding, and the University of the Free State and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University provided office and administrative support.  Musicians were paid on a per session basis.

Even though I was not specifically trained for it, getting involved with the concert administration was a means to an end for me.  The more energy and passion I put into my work, the more opportunities I had to do what I love most: playing the viola in an orchestra.  In an effort to maintain my own playing standard, I also arranged and performed in regular chamber music concerts.  Whenever possible, these programmes were repeated in smaller towns throughout the Eastern Cape and Free State provinces.  These chamber concerts provided participating musicians with playing opportunities between orchestral concerts.

In 2003 my husband was once again transferred, this time to Johannesburg.  Like Cape Town, Johannesburg has a long history of orchestral concerts.  Famous international artists such as Pierre Boulez, Malcolm Sargent and Igor Stravinsky worked with the National Symphony Orchestra, funded by the South African Broadcasting Corporation.  However, in 2000, this funding came to an end, and the orchestra closed down.  The musicians then formed the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra.  With much effort, corporate sponsors were found and occasional symphony seasons were staged.  As this new company built up its reputation over the years, symphony seasons and other performances were presented on a more regular basis, until enough government funding was secured in 2007 to form a 45-member fulltime salaried orchestra.  Between 2007 and 2012, the JPO presented 24 weeks of symphony concerts per year, played for ballets and operas in Johannesburg and Pretoria, presented regular school concerts in and around Johannesburg, performed with many local choirs and secured occasional commercial concerts.  Once again, I got involved with the administration of the orchestra.  Although difficult to balance the demands of being a player with the demands of office work, it is also extremely rewarding to interact on a personal level with the visiting conductors and soloists.

The time spent working with the JPO have been the best years of my musical life.  Visiting conductors and soloists regularly praise the excellent playing standard of the orchestra, and comment positively on the wonderful vibe amongst the players, how much the players transmit their joy of performing to the audience.  We have played many repertoire standards as well as challenging new works.  We were involved in exciting projects such as recording the world premiere of Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s violin concerto with Philippe Graffin, performed sold out concerts with international stars like Joshua Bell, Julian Lloyd-Webber and Pinchas Zukerman, recorded the music for the opening and closing ceremonies of both the Confederations Cup and the Soccer World Cup and performed at the inauguration of President Zuma at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.  We were also the orchestra of choice for accompanying choirs from all over South Africa for broadcast on the choral music programme on the SABC. Some of these experiences may be common for European orchestras, in the South African context they are notable.

Unfortunately the uncertainty caused by the lack of clarity on how orchestras should be funded in South Africa, slow government arts department payment processes and misguided decisions by the Board resulted in the JPO running up very large debts by the end of 2012.  The JPO Board members had consented to the continued presentation of concerts in the expectation that promised government funding was imminent.  These debts resulted in the company being placed into Business Rescue, and all orchestra members losing their full time employment.  Business Rescue protected the company against debtors, and allowed the Board to investigate an alternative business plan.  Funding was secured in the middle of 2013 from the government for 24 weeks of symphony concerts, a Pops concert and for the JPO Academy.  The JPO Academy had been established in 2009 to train young musicians in orchestral studies.  The long term plan was that these young instrumentalists would become cadets in the JPO, and after a period of on-the-job training including tuition from JPO members, would be good enough to win a full time position in the orchestra through an audition process.  There are a number of young black viola players in the country at the moment, whose talent and dedication gives us huge hopes for the future of orchestral music.  Once again, the administration processes required to receive the funding were very slow: the first payment tranche was received in July 2013, the second one only in October 2014.  It becomes very difficult to plan concert seasons under these circumstances, as first choice soloists and conductors plan their schedules many months in advance, and are not available at short notice.  For the orchestra, dealing with the lack of stability in players from concert to concert is difficult; as players are freelancers, they may not be available when a new concert is planned.

A number of other orchestral groups exist in the Gauteng province, such as the Johannesburg Festival Orchestra, the Johannesburg Music Initiative and the Gauteng Philharmonic Orchestra in Pretoria.  They all perform on an ad hoc basis.  The past two and a half years have been difficult for the unemployed JPO musicians.  Although some players have been in high demand for other orchestral groups, other players have had fewer work opportunities.  Most players have increased their teaching load.  Despite the apparent government funding difficulties for orchestras, which were perceived as elitist, most teachers cannot keep up with the demand for instrumental teaching in all sections of the South African community.  Many teaching projects in black townships have long waiting lists.

For me, the irregular playing opportunities have been financially difficult, but I have had much more time to devote to my daughter, who is now in grade 3 at school.  I have been able to be around in the afternoons to help with her homework when necessary.  However, from the playing perspective, it requires a lot of self-discipline to keep in shape, especially when one doesn’t know when the next playing opportunity will arise.  It is not easy for the orchestra as a whole to maintain our excellent playing standards under these conditions.

Despite the irregular performance schedule, the JPO has maintained a very faithful and enthusiastic audience.  This orchestra is the only one in the country to perform each symphony programme three times in each week of a season – in fact, we used to repeat some programmes a fourth time in Pretoria.  Our audience is growing, and is becoming younger and more racially diverse.

Since 1994, orchestras have strived to serve all communities in South Africa.  We don’t only perform in one concert hall and expect the audience to travel to us. Instead we travel to church and school halls, or public parks for open air concerts in various suburbs, to make orchestral music accessible to all communities.  We now programme works by black South African composers in the main symphony season and perform regularly with choirs from all over South Africa.  Choral conductors have been, and continue to be, trained in orchestral conducting.  Our singers are of the best in the world, as proven by the number of singers employed by many of the top international opera houses.

Compared to the other cities in South Africa, the pool of professional orchestral musicians is relatively large in Joburg, which is an advantage when programming  works like a Mahler or Bruckner symphony.  However, in the current situation where all organisations are working on a freelance basis, there is competition for the limited performing opportunities.  The current situation has lead to musicians having to be innovative in creating work opportunities for themselves.

Distances are vast in SA so we don’t see our colleagues from Cape Town or Durban, unless one is booked as an extra player for a concert in those centres.  The number of performing opportunities outside of the pure classical world, such as with a Michael Bublé or an Andrea Bocelli, or film recordings and musicals, are more limited here than in other parts of the world.  With money being tight, the producers often contract much smaller groups of instrumentalists and make up the lack of musicians by using keyboards.

South Africa is far away from the international performing world, so we are out of the loop  regarding the current top viola players.  The piano, violin and cello are the preferred solo instruments of our audience, so the opportunity of hearing new viola concertos or exciting young players live doesn’t exist at all.  Thank goodness for Youtube and CDs, but it means students of the instrument miss out on the stimulation and encouragement from hearing top international soloists perform.  The South African Viola Society gets together occasionally, but with distances in our country being so vast, we see our colleagues from other parts of the country rarely.

Access to new sheet music is also difficult.  It has to be imported, which increases the cost and the time taken to get here.  Similarly, strings and other accessories are very expensive because they have to be imported.  The opportunity to experiment with new products is small, unless a colleague brings them back to SA from their travels.  Luckily we have excellent luthiers in the major centres, so instrument repairs are not a problem, unlike for our wind and brass colleagues.

In Johannesburg we dream of having a dedicated concert hall.  The JPO performs in what is basically a university lecture theatre.  The University of the Witwatersrand is very supportive, and assists us with the rental cost of the hall, but we are very jealous of orchestras around the world who have their own concert homes.  In fact, our office is 20km away from where we usually perform.

Despite these problems and challenges, I love the interesting places the viola continues to take me!  My viola has allowed me the opportunity to travel to parts of the world I would not ordinarily see.  Some highlights stand out:

A tour with the South African National Youth Orchestra to the International Youth Festival in Aberdeen in 1994.  It was a wonderful experience meeting other young musicians from around the world and making music together.

A trip to Namibia in 2010 with five colleagues from Bloemfontein and Namibia, to play for a group of French tourists in the Namib desert.  While we were rehearsing, we had an audience of six gemsbok (oryx) standing in a semi-circle, listening to Mozart’s clarinet quintet and flute quartet – truly an Out-of-Africa experience!

In August 2014, the JPO was invited on its first international tour to perform at the 6th Gabala International Music Festival in Azerbaijan.  It was an unforgettable week of music making, with six challenging programmes presented in seven days.  The schedule was intense, with one 4-hour rehearsal per concert per day, allowing only for a play-through of the programme, with little time to rehearse.  The JPO couldn’t have coped without the players being able to draw on the extensive collective experience gained over five years of full time existence.  The setting of the open air stage in the Caucasian Mountains in Gabala was spectacular, an inspiration for excellent performances, and our hosts were warm and hospitable.  After the insecurities of the previous 2 years, this tour was a wonderful healing opportunity for the JPO musicians.  For ten days all we had to do was focus on the quality of our performances; our expertise was appreciated and we were able (temporarily) to push financial worries and other responsibilities to the back of our minds.

At every concert, whether in South Africa or abroad, it is a privilege to perform with (in my only slightly biased opinion!) the best musicians in South Africa.  The JPO members share a wonderful camaraderie: we hang out together after performances, we enjoy being able to say “see you next week” when given the opportunity to perform a symphony season.  It is thrilling to experience the teamwork on stage when we perform to an excellent standard.  We will keep the faith and stay determined in the fight for orchestral music to thrive on the African continent.  At the time of writing, the JPO is almost out of business rescue, and the potential for re-establishing a full time orchestra is good.  Each JPO musician sacrificed the large sums of money owed to them (in the order of £6000 each!) to give the institution a chance of rebirth.  The JPO orchestra members have demonstrated many times in the past that they are willing to go the extra mile to make orchestral music relevant to all communities.  Many members teach at outreach projects, often for no or little payment.  They take responsibility in many forms to help the organisation to prosper. Hopefully we have learnt from our mistakes and a better chance of continuity exists now. Despite everything: I love my job!! And here’s holding thumbs that we perform some viola concertos in the future!

Andrea Erasmus 

With sincere thanks to Duncan Gibbon (interim CEO of the JPO, leading us from the front through the hazards of Business Rescue), Martie Botha (my JPO desk partner) and Sonja Bass (cellist in the JPO) for their input to this article!

10th April 2015

Sarah-Jane Bradley: performances March 2015

Sarah-Jane plays Vaughan Williams’ “Flos Campi” at Cadogan Hall

Tuesday 3 March 2015, 7.30pm, Cadogan Hall, 5 Sloane Terrace, London SW1X 9DQ.

Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra of London


Vaughan Williams   Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus
Finzi                           Requiem da Camera
Vaughan Williams   Fantasia on Greensleeves
Elgar                          Serenade for Strings
Vaughan Williams   Flos Campi

Sarah-Jane Bradley          viola
Nicholas Merryweather  baritone
The London Chorus
Ronald Corp OBE              choral music director
Christopher Petrie            conductor
Tickets £35, £29, £22, £15 Box Office: 020 7730 4500

Sarah-Jane plays Walton’s Viola Concerto in Slough

Saturday 7 March 2015  –  19.30, The Centre, Farnham Road, Slough  SL1 4UT 

Slough Philharmonic Orchestra


Elgar            Triumphal March from Caractacus
Lambert      Aubade Héroïque
Walton        Viola Concerto, Soloist:  Sarah-Jane Bradley
Delius          Brigg Fair
Ireland         The Overlanders

Tickets £15 and  £12.50,  £10 under 16s/students. Box office: 0300 365 7445
Leave a short message for a quick and friendly call back service. (£1 booking fee).
Tickets may be purchased at the door, subject to availability.

Recitals with John Lenehan on 15 March in Hertford and 20 March at the Bishopsgate Institute

Includes late romantic English repertoire written for Lionel Tertis

Sunday 15 March 2015, 3pm, The Hertford Quaker Meeting House, 50 Railway Street, Hertford, SG14 1BA
Recital for Hertford Music Club with John Lenehan


Elgar Chanson de Matin,
Harry Waldo Warner Suite in D,
Rebecca Clarke Sonata,
Richard Walthew 10 Mosaiques
Brahms Sonata in F minor

For tickets please email: admin@hertfordmusicclub.co.uk

Friday 20th March 2015, 1.05pm, Bishopsgate Institute, 230 Bishopsgate, London EC2M 4QH
Recital for City Music Society with John Lenehan

Vaughan Williams Romance (1914)
H Waldo Warner Suite in D
Brahms Sonata in F minor Op. 120 No. 1 (1895)

Free admission

Understanding viola size

The size of a viola is usually given as the length of back measured over the arching from the side of the button to the centre line at the bottom. Violas of between 16 and 16 ½ inches [40.6 to 42 cm] are considered as medium size, with small violas sometimes being as short as 15 inches, [38.2 cm] with large violas occasionally reaching 18 inches. [45.7 cm] Although the back length probably is the most important criteria, there are other variables which have a great bearing on how big an instrument feels.

From a playing point of view, the main manifestation of viola size is how far you have to extend your left arm in order to play in first position. To get an idea of the importance of the left arm extension, without holding a viola, if you lift your hand so your fingertips touch your shoulder, and then very slowly move your hand away from your body, you will notice that once the upper arm moves past the vertical position the tension in your biceps starts to increase, most noticeably when the upper arm is around 45 degrees to the vertical. This is region where you need to hold your arm to play the viola. Although you might not be aware of it, there is also an increase in tension in your shoulder and back. If you then twist your hand round and pretend you are playing a violin [if you can bear the idea!] and then move your hand away and pretend to play a viola, as your arm extends further from your body you will also notice that it becomes more difficult to move your fingers. This combination of factors is why viola size is so important.

It’s not just the back length that’s important
However, just using the back length does not tell you how far you are going to have to extend your left arm; it is the combination of the body length and the neck length. You might think that there would be a standard length for viola necks, but that is not the case. Unlike the violin, viola necks are neither a standard length nor are they consistently proportional to the body, and the different models vary so much that you can, for instance, have a 15 ½ “ viola with a longer string length than a 16 ¼ “  viola, whereas two instruments theoretically of the same size [having the same length of back] may have necks that differ in length by 10 mm.

To see why this is the case, and the effect it has on playing comfort, let us consider two models of viola.

Andrea Guarneri











The first is an Andrea Guarneri model which has a back length of 16 1/4”, the other a Maggini model which also has a back length of 16 1/4”.  If you look at the Andrea Guarneri, the position of the bridge, the f holes and the c bouts are relatively low on the instrument, the proportions being typical of instruments produced in Cremona and Venice. The relatively low position of the bridge means that the part of the strings overlying the belly is relatively long. The decision the viola maker then has to make is to decide how long the neck should be. If this was a violin it would be simple; the neck length compared with the body stop [the distance from the bridge position to the edge of the belly next to the neck] is always in the ratio of 2 : 3. With a viola it is quite possible to do the same thing, and some instrument makers do in fact use the 2 :3 proportion, so in this case the neck would end up at 148 mm. But when I make this model I always use a neck length of 140 mm, violin makers allowing themselves to vary the neck length/body stop ratio on violas from 2 : 3  to 2 : 3.2 . The reason I use a shorter neck length is because the extension of the left arm is that much less, so the same ‘size’ viola feels smaller and more comfortable.

With the Maggini model however, the position of the bridge, f holes and C bouts is significantly higher up the instrument, typical of instruments made in Brescia. This means the body stop [the distance from the bridge to the belly edge next to the neck] is significantly shorter than on the Andrea Guarneri. If I was to make the neck the same length as the Andrea Guarneri, the overall string length would be rather short. One effect of a short string length is that the strings are at a lower tension when tuned to the correct pitch, and therefore the downwards pressure on the bridge is also lower. Although viola strings do work at a range of lengths, there is a range beyond which the strings are working outside their ideal parameters. So with the Maggini model I increase the neck length to 148mm. Nonetheless the overall string length is still shorter on this model than on the Andrea Guarneri.

Which is more comfortable?

So the question for the viola player is which instrument is more comfortable, the Andrea Guarneri model or the Maggini? For the left arm, the Andrea Guarneri requires less extension, and because the bridge is also nearer your body the bow arm is also nearer your body, which is also makes it easier to play. The Maggini model however, does have a shorter string length so your fingers are closer together. So if you have relatively short fingers and long arms this model would perhaps suit you. Otherwise for most people, the Andrea Guarneri model would be easier and more comfortable to play.

Why then, would anyone choose to make or play a Maggini model? The answer is in the sound, the Brescian models such as Maggini tending to have a different quality of sound, more reedy, somewhat broader and less sweet. Within the wide range of viola sound, some viola players prefer this sound, and if you are big enough to play it comfortably, that is fine.

Ultimately it is for each individual player to balance the sound they want to produce with an instrument that is comfortable to play. At one time it used to be said that to get a good viola sound required a big instrument, but improvements, particularly in string technology, have largely changed that perception. It is also the case that many older small violas weren’t much good. Inevitably these factors led to many violists to play instruments that were too big for them, often causing back, shoulder and arm problems.

Nonetheless, it is easier to make a viola which sounds good if it is over 16 inches long, particularly in respect of the C string, which is one reason why there is greater choice amongst instruments of this size.  However, just because it is hard to make a good sounding small viola, that doesn’t mean it is impossible, and there are a number of violin makers with a particular interest in violas who consistently produce good small instruments. So if you think you need a smaller viola but haven’t found one which suits you, you need to carry on looking.

Three things you need to know

If you are thinking about getting a new viola, as far as size is concerned, there are three things you need to know about your present instrument and any you hope to try. These are the back length, the neck length and the open string length, with the body stop measurement as an optional extra. Adding the back length and neck length together will tell you how far you will need to extend your left arm. From this measurement, if you subtract the string length you will know how much your right arm will be extended, and the open string length will of course indicate how far apart your fingers will need to be.

Although these measurements will help you compare instruments and to understand why they feel different, what they do not tell you is whether the instrument is heavy, whether it has an uncomfortable neck, how easily it responds, or of course what it sounds like. To find those things out you will have to play it.

William Castle is a professional instrument maker from Shropshire who specialises in small and medium size violas. He has also made a video on viola size which is available on U tube and on his web site – www. williamcastle.co.uk



Courses for Strings at Benslow Music: Feb 2015 to November 2015

Venue: Benslow Music, Hitchin, Hertfordshire SG4 9RB
T: 01462 459446 E: info@benslowmusic.org W: www.benslowmusic.org

Sun 8 Feb 2015
Tutors: Nic Fallowfield and Jenny Curtis
Standard : Intermediate
Benslow Music regulars Nic Fallowfield and Jenny Curtis lead this new day course devoted to string chamber music. The course is designed for individual applicants who have reached around grade 4 standard (or higher) and would like to try playing with others for, perhaps, the first time. We are looking for violins, violas and cellos who are willing to mix and match to create small chamber groups. The tutors will specify some repertoire to prepare prior to the course so you can come well prepared. This course also leads nicely to one of the many longer string chamber music courses in our programme.
Fee: £75 Code: 15/102

Fri 12 – Sun 14 Jun 2015
Tutors: Roger Moon and Miriam Kramer
Standard: Intermediate, Advanced
Pretty pieces, sentimental pieces, inspiring pieces, quirky novelties, dramatic juxtapositions. String players, woodwind soloists and (if balance allows) a few brass players and a pianist will enjoy the wide range of accessible music – light, popular and classical – which makes up a typical Palm Court programme. Our rehearsals, in chamber music style without conductor, will be concentrated and demanding but also great fun. Typical features of the style such as phrasing, rhythmic freedom and expressiveness will be emphasised. Violinists should be prepared to alternate between First and Second, and viola players may find the music technically challenging but also repetitive.
Resident: £265 Non-Resident: £190 Code: 15/251

Fri 3 – Thu 9 Jul 2015
Fri 3 – Sun 5 Jul 2015
Mon 6 – Thu 9 Jul 2015
Tutors: Nic Fallowfield, Clare Bhabra, Jenny Curtis, Richard Muncey and Georgina Payne
Standard: Intermediate, Advanced
Nic Fallowfield returns to lead our well-established summer course for preformed string quartets and other small string chamber ensembles – trios, quintets and sextets also acceptable. He’s joined by his colleagues in the Tedesca Quartet and by the experienced viola player Georgina Payne. There will be at least two workshops as well as the usual expert advice offered to individual groups. We present three options – the whole course, the weekend only, or the weekdays only – but can devise other packages if your needs are different. Individual applicants will be kept on a list in the hope we are able to match you up with a suitable group, we make no guarantees that this will be possible but we will do our best.

Full Week (Mon 6 – Thu 9 July)
Resident: £650 Non-Resident: £475 Code: 15/602

Weekend (3 – 5 July)
Resident: £265 Non-Resident: £190 Code: 15261

Short Week (6 – 9 July)
Resident: £375 Non-Resident: £285 Code: 15/334

Sun 12 – Wed 15 Jul 2015
Tutor: Sebastian Mueller
Standard : Elementary
Sebastian Müller leads a course designed to improve the confidence and technique of adult violinists of about Grade 1 or Grade 2 standards. We may also accept viola players at Sebastian’s discretion. Please note that this is not a course for absolute beginners.
Resident: £375 Non-Resident: £285 Code: 15/335

Mon 23 – Thu 26 Feb 2015
Tutor: Sebastian Mueller
Standard: Elementary, Intermediate
Due to increasing popularity in the usual July slot, we’ve made the decision to offer a second chance for violin, viola and cello players to join Sebastian’s course in late February. We’re looking for players of at least a confident grade 3 and parts will be assigned to challenge to just the right degree. Included in the fee is the concert given by Sebastian and pianist Jakob Fichert on Monday 23 February.
Resident: £385 Non-Resident: £295 Code: 15/310

Fri 10 – Sun 12 Jul 2015
Tutor: Sebastian Mueller
Standard: Elementary, Intermediate
Another chance for violin, viola and cello players to join Sebastian’s course focussing on the more manageable repertoire written for String Orchestra. We’re looking for players of at least a confident grade 3 and parts will be assigned to challenge to just the right degree. This is a popular course and early booking is advised.
Resident: £265 Non-Resident: £190 Code: 15/262

Fri 3 – Thu 9 July Summer Quartets weekend
Fri 3 – Sun 5 July * summer quartets short week
Mon 6 – Thu 9 July**
Tutors: Nic Fallowfield, Clare Bhabra, Jenny Curtis, Richard Muncey, Georgina Payne Standard: Intermediate, Advanced
Nic Fallowfield returns to lead our well-established summer course for preformed string quartets and other small string chamber ensembles – trios, quintets and sextets also acceptable. He’s joined by his colleagues in the Tedesca Quartet and by the experienced viola player Georgina Payne. There will be at least two workshops as well as the usual expert advice offered to individual groups. We present three options – the whole course, the weekend only, or the weekdays only – but can devise other packages if your needs are different. Individual applicants will be kept on a list in the hope we are able to match you up with a suitable group, we make no guarantees that this will be possible but we will do our best.
Whole week Resident: £650 Non-Resident: £475 Code: 15/602
weekend* Resident: £265 Non-Resident: £190 Code: 15/261
Short week** Resident: £375 Non-Resident: £285 Code: 15/334

Fri 10 – Sun 12 July
Tutor: Sebastian Müller
Standard: Elementary, Intermediate
Another chance for violin, viola and cello players to join Sebastian’s course focussing on the more manageable repertoire written for String Orchestra. We’re looking for players of at least a confident grade 3 and parts will be assigned to challenge to just the right degree. This is a popular course and early booking is advised.
Resident: £265 Non-Resident: £190 Code: 15/262

Sun 12 – Wed 15 July
Tutor: Sebastian Müller
Standard: elementary
Sebastian Müller leads a course designed to improve the confidence and technique of adult violinists of about Grade 1 or Grade 2 standards. We may also accept viola players at Sebastian’s discretion. Please note that this is not a course for absolute beginners.
Resident: £375 Non-Resident: £285 Code: 15/335

Mon 27 – Fri 31 July
Tutors: Martin Outram, Julian Rolton piano
This is a course for players at the most advanced level, from conservatoire entry standard upwards. Martin will guide participants in all areas of technique and interpretation in friendly, informal masterclasses and private lessons. In addition to the lessons with Martin, Julian Rolton will also be available to rehearse repertoire of your choice for viola and piano. This is an ideal opportunity to work with a pianist who is a recognised specialist in this repertoire. There might also be ensemble work and open discussion, and there will be a session led by a leading practitioner on baroque performance practice. We encourage participants to perform informally with pianist Julian Rolton on the final day and also to collaborate with other courses on campus out of timetabled hours. Don’t forget our automatic 25% reduction (excluding supplements) for under 27s.
Resident: £480 Non-Resident: £375 Code: 15/IS1

Fri 14 – Mon 17 August
Tutors: Jonathan Trout, Clare Morgan, Elizabeth Watson
Another alluring summer Benslow String Orchestra course. This time Jonathan Trout, aided by Clare Morgan and Elizabeth Watson, offers participants the chance to work on Holst’s Brook Green Suite, Tchaikovsky’s Adagio con moto from Souvenir de Florence (arranged for string orchestra), Nielsen’s Little Suite, Tchaikovsky’s Andante cantabile from String Quartet Op 11 No 1 (arranged for solo cello and string orchestra with Peter Crowther on cello), Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 3 and Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik. Jonathan and his team will help with both musical and technical matters in informal but intensive group sessions and sectionals. Ideally, you’ll have some experience of playing in an orchestra and to get the most out of the course you should be of at least Grade 5 standard – and game for some exciting challenges! This course will run alongside our International Conducting Summer School, and we are offering the chance for collaboration during the afternoon break for those who wish to work with some aspiring conductors.
Resident: £380 Non-Resident: £290 Code: 15/336

Mon 14 – Thu 17 September
Tutors: Janet Hicks, Jen Lynch
Standard: intermediate Gain more experience and confidence at playing in ensembles, and above all enjoy your music making in this course designed for those of an intermediate standard. You need to know how to shift positions, and you may be required to play music in two or three sharps or flats. Please note that on this course we’ll be playing all together for all of the time. If you want to know what music is going to be worked on, please ask us nearer the time of the course.
Resident: £270 Non-Resident: £195 Code: 15/341

2 night option Tue 22 – Thu 24 September
3 night option Tue 22 – Fri 25 September
Tutors: Members of the Maggini String Quartet
Standard: Advanced
We welcome back our good friends the Maggini Quartet for another of their popular courses in which they pass on their wisdom – and no doubt some of their deeply infectious humour – to up to ten pre-formed string quartets or other small string groups. As is now the trend, we are offering the possibility of staying for an extra day (subject to enough ensembles taking up the offer). As usual there will be a public concert on the first night for which all participants automatically receive entry. Please note that any quartets wishing to practice before supper will need to book a pre-course playing room to avoid disappointment
2 night option Resident: £280 Non-Resident: £205 Code: 15/280
3 night option Resident: £390 Non-Resident: £300 Code: 15/342

Mon 5 – Thu 8 October
Tutor: Jonathan Trout
Standard: Intermediate, Advanced
Jonathan Trout leads another of our popular Group Quartet courses, designed for those who are reluctant to tackle the string quartet repertoire one to a part or who just enjoy playing the repertoire en masse, as if a string orchestra. We’d like you to be of at least Associated Board Grade 6 standard. We’ll work with Jonathan’s usual thoroughness on two pieces, Mozart’s Quartet in D minor K173 and Schubert’s Quartet No 14 in D minor, ‘Death and the Maiden’. Please note that you need to bring your own music and we’d like you to number the bars yourself before you arrive. Start with the first complete bar and ignore “first time only” repeat bars in your calculations.
Resident: £380 Non-Resident: £290 Code: 15/345

Mon 16 – Thu 19 November
Tutors: Nic Fallowfield, Jenny Curtis Standard: advanced
Now an established part of our programme, this course is designed to serve those musicians who seek their perfect musical partners. Nearer to the time we’ll be suggesting a few works to look at if you can before you arrive – just for purposes of familiarisation – and once we know who is coming we’ll draw up a timetable of hour-long sessions, guaranteeing that you will never play with the same combination of people twice. We can also accept one or two good pianists so that we can add perhaps the odd piano trio, quartet or quintet into the mix. Participants should be of an advanced standard with strong sight-reading skills in order to cope with the variety of repertoire we will be covering.
Resident: £380 Non-Resident: £290 Code: 15/355

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Special offer for BVS members: one month discount off annual policy.

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Report from the 42nd International Viola Congress – Performing for the Future of Music

For five days in November the attention of the Viola world was drawn to Porto, Portugal where the young Portuguese Viola Society (established in 2008) hosted a programme of outstanding appeal.

In one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations, world-class violists gave virtuosic performances and illuminating lectures on all things viola.  Porto was an excellent location for such a cultural celebration: the idyllic port and seaside town provided spectacular venues such as the Mosterio de Sao Bento da Vitoria of the 1500s; the RIBA award winning concert hall at the Casa da Musica, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhas; and the Art Deco Teatro Municipal Rivoli of the 1920s: a true marriage of spectacular architecture and music.

Entitled “Performing for the Future of Music”, the emphasis on the congress was a celebration of inclusion, opportunity and new music – featuring no fewer than 10 world premiers, and several Portuguese premieres.  Each day was programmed with solo and ensemble recitals, lectures, master classes and concluded with an evening orchestral concert.


Five recital slots were given to student performances.  The sixteen strong viola ensemble from the Eschola Superior de Musica, Artes e Espectaculo (ESMAE) in Porto premiered three pieces, and we heard more from members of the conservatoire in two additional atmospheric solo recitals by Portuguese Young Performers, in balanced programmes from Portuguese composers new and old.

The competition winners’ concert featured Timothy Ridout (UK), winner of this year’s inaugural Cecil Aronowitz International Viola Prize, and Ricardo Gaspa, (Portugal) winner of Premio Jovens Musicos 2012.

The Birmingham Conservatoire Ensemble, performed a programme of six pieces, starting with Sally Beamish’s Ariel for solo viola Each piece saw an  increasing number of performers, to end with a premiere of Robin Ireland’s sextet, the Deviant Jig.

Both pre-conservatoire and conservatoire students had the opportunity to learn from ten internationally acclaimed teachers who gave masterclasses, including Bruno Giuranna, Jerzy Kosmala, Atar Arad and Ivo van der Werff, who also performed during the week.

But the congress wasn’t just for students and music professionals. All violists were invited to join the Dutch Viola Society’s ensemble in performing a premiere performance of  “Secret Society” by Jeppe Moujin, composed especially for the congress, and the final day saw a record breaking number of violists congregating at the 8th Portuguese Viola Society meet, performing en mass, directed by Luis Carvalhoso.


Lectures covered pedagogic topics, as well as areas close to the lecturers’ hearts, such as  “the Viola in my life” given by composer Leo Samama; “Costa Rican Music for Solo viola”  – a search for cultural identity given by Orquidea Guandique; and the growing movement “Musethica”, which was initiated by Avri Levitan.

Bruno Giuranna gave one of the most memorable of the talks concentrating on left hand technique. He focused on the hand position and gave exercise examples  (fig. 1) to reinforce the muscle memory of finger spacing, as well as general left hand flexibility and strength.

His mastery was exemplified by a demonstration of finger independence with a double stopped 3rd being trilled in triples and duplet semiquavers simultaneously on the two strings.

Fig. 1: Exercises by Bruno Giuranna showing the changing semitone finger spacing. This example starts in 4th position, but should also be practiced starting in higher positions. 


Several recitals were scheduled for each day, and we heard a variety of music from Romantic Brahms and Schumann, to modern compositions including an immersive sound experience using electronics.

The expertly informed approach, technical brilliance, and virtuosity of the world renowned performers was inspiring, beyond compare.

Technical brilliance was showcased by Atar Arad, who performed his virtuosic composition Twelve Caprices for Viola, written in 2013 as a challenge to himself. Now published, he has laid down the gauntlet for all violists! Each Caprice was derived from a well known motif from viola repertoire, and named after the composer: Rebecca (Clarke); William (Walton); Bela (Bartok); George (Rochberg); Kryzysof (Penderecki) and so on.

American violist Michael Fernandez gave a noteworthy recital entitled “The art of transcription”, a collection of pieces transcribed by Vadim Borisovsky and William Primrose. The next generation of aspirational Primrose Competition candidates were inspired by Fernandez’s awe-inspiring virtuosic rendition of Sarasateana by Zimbalist, and of his own arrangement of Waxman’s Carmen Fantasy, which concluded the concert.

Orchestral Concerts

The orchestral concerts which concluded each day were a fantastic scheduling undertaking and an integral part of the outstanding success of the programming of the congress. Three core repertoire viola concertos were performed: Hoffmeister, Bartok and Walton, as well as a world premiere and new works, amongst others.

In the first orchestral concert we heard memorable and emotive playing of the Hoffmeister concerto by Bruno Giuranna; rich viola sounds in Hindemith’s somber Trauermusik and Howells’ Elegy performed by Helen Callus; plus a robust and engaging interpretation of the McLean Suite for Viola and orchestra by Roger Myers and virtuosity exemplified by Atar Arad with Paganini.

In the following days we were treated to a new transcription in G major of the well known Mozart A major Clarinet concerto K622, by Avri Levitan, and the colourful 2006 composition MEME for two violas and orchestra by Willem Jeths.

Tatjana Masurenko performed Walton’s Viola Concerto, which, despite a few memory lapses, saw a fine clarity of sound and invigorating performance that called for an energetically wild encore of Hindemith’s Sonata Op. 25/1 (movements three and four).

The overall highlight of the week however, had to be the Bartok Viola Concerto performed by Nobuko Imai and the Orqestra Sinfonica do Porto Casa da Musica, whose youthful energy and deep powerful sound captivated the full auditorium in an intense silence.

An encore of Bach transcended the hall: an otherworldly experience.

Martha Evans, December 2014