I teach a high school student folk group once a week. Each academic year the instrumentation and level of players changes slightly due to students moving through the school system. This year the ensembles consists of the following:
Violins x 9
Cellos x 2
Double Bass x 1
Guitar x 1
Clarinet x 1
and 1 viola.
The viola student receives instrumental lessons from myself on a Wednesday in school and then attends the folk ensemble on a Tuesday after school for one hour. I’m going to call her Millie for the purposes of this blog. Millie started learning in primary school at the age of 8 and is now in first year of high school (aged 12). She is quite a shy girl but not unmusical. I teach her both classical and trad focusing on technique/note reading and rhythm/aural skills respectively. I’ve found that her strongest skill is her listening. She quite easily hears a phrase and works it out. Once she feels more confident in her technique I think Millie will be quite a competent player.
Tune Focus – Glory at the Meeting House
Currently at the folk group we are working on a set of tunes; Lucy Farr’s/Glory at the Meeting House (GMH). GMH is an old time tune that I learnt from the playing of Laura-Beth Salter. Below is the melody in treble clef:
For an intermediate viola player this would be achievable at pitch but only if the player is confident at shifting. Furthermore, the swung style requires a secure relationship with pulse and rhythm. The melody down the octave removes the necessity to shift but brings about some other hurdles:
In the second bar the F# is played as a slide from F-F#. When this is up the octave it’s an easy low second finger to a high to an open D. To achieve this on the 3rd finger, on the C string of a viola to a 1st finger D is a little trickier. For Millie to play this I suggested she just played an F# and left the slide out. The opening phrase here is harder down the octave. Instead of an open D to 3rd finger A string octave the viola has to go from a 1st finger on the C string to a 4th finger on the G or open D. Octaves are notoriously hard to get in tune so for the relatively beginner player this is not an easy feat. Bar 6-7 are realised well down the octave. The B part is an excellent high 3rd finger exercise for viola players, especially because it has to then be in a lower position 3 notes later for the C on the G string. One of the cellists, Joe, is a competent player therefore he is able to play this tune both up and down the octave without it causing an issue. Millie is working at getting most of the tune. Due to her shyness she is quite content to fiddle away behind Joe’s confident playing and get the parts of the melody that she is able. I think as her skills and confidence progresses she will be able to play the melody part.
Teaching this tune to both viola and cello students has encouraged me to explore the melody both at pitch and down the octave. Beforehand I would’ve shifted to play it at pitch and played something chordal and rhythmic in the lower registers of my viola. Now I can do those things and also add a different texture by playing the melody in a lower register. It’s a great tune to teach as it introduces students to a completely different style with relative ease. The detail of going between C-F-F#-C is a good work out for both 2nd and 3rd fingers whilst encouraging students to listen carefully to the difference. For a more advanced viola player this tune offers a lot of diversity that is less achievable on the violin.