Viola Day was designed to bring viola and violin players and teachers together to support existing violists and introduce interested violinists to the instrument. The aim was to hold relaxed and informative online sessions with hosts professional violists David Aspin (Ulster Youth Orchestra (UYO) Course Tutor) and Chrissie Slater (UYO Alumna), supported by current UYO Principal Viola, Jamie Howe.
The need to support and encourage viola players was identified by applicant monitoring. The viola section had dipped in numbers (particularly from Northern Ireland) and we felt this was negatively impacting on players’ confidence and enjoyment.
Having identified this challenge, we successfully applied to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI) for funds to purchase two Pellegrinas (small violas, pictured below). These instruments are part of a larger collection of instruments purchased with funds from ACNI that we are able to offer on loan, free of charge, as part of the Minority Instrument Scheme, generously supported by Ulster Garden Villages.
In total there were 17 participants who signed up for Viola Day, ranging in age from 8 to adult, in standard from Grade 3 to professional and from primary, secondary and tertiary education.
Viola Day began with introductions and a physical warm up, led by David Aspin. Here, David demonstrated a variety of exercises designed for violin and viola players to help them loosen their arm and shoulder muscles and prevent repetitive strain injury in the longer term.
The next segment introduced UYO Principal Viola Jamie Howe to the panel and was a Question-and-Answer session which allowed the team an opportunity to talk about their musical journeys and this led to discussion about the physicality of the instrument, the ‘personality’ of the viola player, the opportunities, the repertoire, the history of the viola and much more.
David Aspin studied at the Royal College of Music with Roger Best and Simon Rowland Jones. He is a founder member of Chroma, resident at Royal Holloway, University of London. The group has forged an enviable reputation for its commissioning of new work, collaborations and education work. With groups such as Psappha he has performed at the BBC Proms, in Buenos Aires, Lisbon and St Magnus Festival as well as recording for CD, BBC Radio 3 and webcasts.
David has performed and recorded the Telemann viola concerto with the Lancashire Sinfonietta. Other concerto appearances include works by Bartok, Berlioz, Britten, Bruch and Vaughan Williams and most recently the Walton concerto with the Orchestra of Opera North.
David is principal violist of the Orchestra of Opera North. He has also appeared as guest principal with the BBC Philharmonic, Halle, Royal Scottish National, Bournemouth Symphony, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, BBC NOW, BBC Scottish Symphony, Philharmonia and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestras.
David is a viola tutor at the RNCM and a regular sectional coach of NYO. He is often to be found walking in the Pennine hills or pursuing other activities such as yoga and swimming.
Chrissie Slater (nee Agnew) grew up in Belfast and studied viola at the City of Belfast School of Music with Ruth Bebb, a member of the Ulster Orchestra. At this time, she gained invaluable experience in orchestral playing through leading the viola sections in both the City of Belfast Youth Orchestra and Ulster Youth Orchestra. She went on to study at RNCM under Nick Logie, graduating in 1999 with a BMus(hons), and the following year took up a job in the viola section in BBC National Orchestra of Wales.
Chrissie is now based in Gateshead in the North East of England, where she enjoys a freelance career, both performing and teaching. Chrissie has had a varied playing career spanning over 20 years; she has worked with many of the country’s leading orchestras, such as the Halle, RPO, Glyndebourne and Royal Northern Sinfonia, is a member of Trio Northumbria, which aims to promote new music for string trio, she records regularly with non-classical artists and has appeared on TV soundtracks such as Worzel Gummidge.
Chrissie has been heavily involved in many orchestral based education projects, she teaches people of all ages, from very young beginners to students ready to move on to conservatoire, to retired music lovers, and regularly coaches viola sections in youth orchestras and university orchestras.
Workshops concluded the morning session and the participants were divided into two smaller groups, each of which had time with both of the professional tutors. This session encouraged people to share any aspects of their playing that they struggled with and topics such as vibrato, bow hold and finger and thumb positions were covered.
After lunch three players of different ages and standards participated in the masterclass with David and Chrissie giving sensitive and constructive criticism and encouragement.
The final hour was dedicated to ‘moving from violin to viola’ and we heard from our Principal Viola, Jamie Howe, who has recently moved from violin and is now at the Royal College of Music with viola as his first instrument. We talked about learning a new clef, getting used to the different hold and weight of a viola and adjusting to a new position within an ensemble.
Leading on from this we discussed the Pellegrinas, which are violas with a string length similar to a violin. A standard viola is larger than a violin and for a young player can be cumbersome and awkward. A Pellegrina has the air volume of a much larger viola and the powerful sound is achieved by a wider as opposed to a longer body with enlarged upper and lower bouts. Smaller violists love Pellegrinas as they produce a sound comparable to a very large viola and as there is no difference in how the instrument is played to standard violas, players can move seamlessly from standard viola to Pellegrina and back again.
We were able to hear from Bláthnaid Drumgoole (pictured below) who applied to the Pellegrina Scheme in 2020 as a violinist.
Bláthnaid has now, as a result of the scheme, moved across to the viola permanently and has a renewed love of playing as her testimonial explains: “I was delighted to have the loan of the beautiful Pellegrina last year. It was a great transition instrument. The length of the fingerboard and neck were very similar to those on a violin, so it meant it was easy to play from the beginning. The shape was unusual but I enjoyed the beautiful sound, and was really delighted to have some lessons with David Aspin. It really helped solidify my choice.
I made the official change last February and am now proud to say I am a violist – one of two in my family who both started on violin. I would recommend the change to anyone. There are so many more opportunities for players, it makes you better at sight reading as you learn a whole new clef, and the sound is really beautiful. I am so grateful to the UYO, Ulster Garden Villages and Northern Ireland Arts Council for giving me the chance to ‘try before you buy’ with such a beautiful instrument.’
Bláthnaid’s mother Orla echoes this sentiment;
“I was delighted that Bláthnaid applied to try out the Pellegrina. She has played violin since the age of 5 but in recent times had lost her love for it a little. The opportunity to try out the Pellegrina gave her a new sense of excitement again about learning a string instrument. The process of application was very simple, and she took to it immediately. It has really reignited her love for playing and she was absolutely delighted to be given a place in the UYO viola section last year. We bought her an instrument after the experience and she is really happy to have transitioned completely to the viola. She and her sister both play viola and we love the beautifully rich and resonant sound it makes. Thank you so much to the UYO for giving such a rewarding opportunity to our daughter.”
After the event, an online form was circulated to the participants and below are some of the comments received.
What I found most interesting was “…the troubleshooting session before the break where we discussed things we find difficult. It was nice to see that my problems weren’t just my own, other people struggled with them too.”
“…hearing about peoples’ experience moving from violin to viola”
I learned “…about the history of bowed string instruments and picked up technical tips”
“…that viola parts in orchestras aren’t always boring and are actually quite important. 20th century repertoire is more exciting/expressive.”
“I loved the morning workshop. It was reassuring to hear that even professional violists still struggle (from time to time) with the things I struggle with too. I liked that we swapped over tutors halfway – different opinions helped.”
“The masterclass was very interesting. I loved hearing people of all ages playing and giving advice, especially since I’m working on one of the pieces that was played! The feedback was professional and not sugar coated, and the honest and open advice was beneficial to everyone’s learning.”
“Inspired to see where my daughter could be in a few years. Lots of individual tailored advice. Sensible and sensitive feedback.”
“Thank you very much for the event, I had a good time”
“Thanks to everyone involved for a great day :)”
“Overall, I really enjoyed the day – thanks for organising!”
Viola Days and the Pellegrina Scheme aim, in the longer term, to result in a larger pool of advanced young local violists and a renewed injection of enthusiasm to play viola to a high standard. Participant numbers may have been modest however we recognise that success will not be gained by a sprint, it will take a marathon which keeps the momentum going and the suggestion and opportunity to take up the viola in the forefront of people’s minds.
At the time of writing, we have seen an increase in viola players applying to UYO which we believe is linked to the publicity and the support that the viola has been given through the purchase of the new instruments and events like Viola Day.
The Ulster Youth Orchestra is extremely grateful to Ulster Garden Villages and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for their generous support.