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Your Viola News! Issue #001 -- The New Approach and the viola
July 09, 2009
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VIOLA NEWS! * * * * * * Issue 01 * * * * 9 July 2009

Thank you for subscribing! Here is the first issue of Viola News! and I'm going to tell you a bit about me and


and something that enormously helped me with my playing and how it can help you!

I'm talking about the New Approach (to violin and viola playing) by Kato Havas, author of books on the subject (you can read about them in

This is an article I was asked to write for her own association (KHANA) magazine, then I thought it would make the perfect first article for viola lovers and players. I hope you find it useful.


Maybe some people think that because Kato’s books refer to the violin, the New Approach is only for violin, I even read this on an Internet forum time ago. A lot of people have a very narrow thinking, I am a viola player and apply the New Approach all the time and since I started it made all the difference in my playing and not only, and here I’m going to give you an account of my experience, telling what has been more helpful to me.

I am a typical example of the player described in the first book, the little one, “A New Approach to violin playing”. I studied at the Conservatoire in Milan, I started as a brilliant student, learning quickly, having fun with music. Then things happen that undermine one’s confidence in handling and controlling situations in life and this affects our ability to handle and control our playing, because this is so much part of us. To make a long story short, I completed my studies, had a lot of great musical experiences, playing a lot, chamber music, working in symphonic orchestras and opera houses, some solo playing, always finding very hard and tiring to play all those ‘difficult’ things, such as fast passages, chords, double stops, ‘big shifts’ and intonation, of course, while doing all those, especially because the viola is quite bigger than the violin and I was not a gigantic girl at all.

Most importantly, I had been growing more and more nervous about solo playing and this affected my playing and my life, you know Kato’s description of this: “one hand goes one way, the other one in a different way and I’m in the middle…”, no control at all. Most players suffer from nerves, many of them resort to legal and illegal tranquillizers but I never wanted to do it.

Eventually I decided to move from Italy to Oxford to study with Kato for a few months and then go back to Italy to work with orchestras etc. I already knew her personally because I had translated ‘Stage fright’ and had been her interpreter at some workshops in Italy, so I took the big step.

Now I can really witness the effectiveness of this new approach and the importance of addressing the physical, the mental and the social aspects of playing and stage fright, in that order.

As to the New Approach, I think it’s of the utmost importance particularly for the viola, because of its size and its well known (to violists, at least) recalcitrance to produce sounds. For a truly gorgeous viola sound, play with the outer upper right arm and the bent right thumb, no pressure at all.

The "giving hand" is really a great help for the fourth finger as well as the mobile left thumb. Mine is most times opposite the second finger, even further forward when I use the little finger and play double stops and chord involving it. Also, fourth finger playing is indeed playing with the thumb going toward it and the lifted first finger going backwards, with the weight there (remember, I play viola), no stretching. By the way, I read that Paganini used to keep his left thumb “in third position” and tilt the hand toward the scroll: to me, that’s a description of the "giving hand"!

Sectionizing, singing with note names and miming is the way to learn pieces by heart without effort. Now I play everything by heart, I just love being able to play without depending on a piece of paper, I love looking and smiling at my listeners.

After correcting the physical and mental aspects of playing, THE thing which made me overcome nerves was singing while playing, because this way my mind was really focused on one thing only and had no possibility at all to wander, to worry and think anything else, such as frightening thoughts which cause mistakes. You simply can’t think two things at the same time! Finally I was able to control my playing.

Besides lessons, in Oxford I started doing any and every sort of musical activities that could possibly improve my playing and my attitude about playing. I joined a folk group, a bunch of fiddlers who meet to play just for fun. I liked the music, wanted to learn to play by ear and recover that very feeling of playing just for fun. I had seen too many players playing with fear or just because it was their job, with no happiness. I played in pubs, processions, fairs, made friends and enjoyed myself a lot, no worries about being judged.

Then I was to perform Stamitz's viola concerto with two orchestras there. Still, playing on my own I wasn’t 100% happy. I realized I needed more of this type of practice: we practice in our room but never practice the actual performance, in front of an audience. I tried to organize a little performance at some friends’ home, it wasn’t possible. So I thought: “I need an audience, there it is, ready-made” and started busking (in case someone doesn’t know, it means playing in the streets). I thought I could try out my pieces, I’d be ‘allowed to make mistakes’ with no life-threatening consequences, get used to play in a quite challenging setting with all sorts of distractions around me, after which playing in a concert for a quiet audience would be much easier. And indeed, this was what made me feel careless about playing for an audience, enjoy myself during the performance and focus on the listener, giving the music to entertain him or her. It’s invaluable for building more confidence (and you get some money for practicing too, not bad). People come for a chat and compliment, they recognize pieces, ask “Can you play this?”, join in and sing along, start dancing, there is a real contact, which is missing in many classical music performances when the player is only worried about all the notes. So I’ve realized that all sorts of people like classical music, they don’t like the seriousness that surrounds it. My ideal is that at classical music concerts people jump out of their chairs with enthusiasm, transmitted to them by the performers.

The balance

The balance of my studying with Kato is that now I am able to really enjoy performing solo, challenging pieces, and I know how to tackle difficulties, how to practice and I don’t forget everything if I don’t practice for a week. Thanks to her help I enjoyed playing Stamitz’s viola concerto, some virtuoso sonatas by Rolla and Paganini, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante with Caroline Duffner, whom I met at one of Kato’s workshops, Bruch’s concerto for clarinet and viola and many more works.

The reason I’m writing here is to encourage other players who may have doubts. It did take me some time (after all, how long did it take you to learn to play the other way?), but it can be done and anybody can do it.

Sometime I think “How could I possibly play before the New Approach?” and indeed it was impossible, now it’s really easier and easier and more and more enjoyable.

Read more about the New Approach and watch videos with Kato Havas Comments? Ideas? Feedback? I'd love to hear from you. Just reply to this e-zine and tell me what you think!

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