Nicholas Cords

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The violist of the US quartet Brooklyn Rider describes a week’s practice

Music is not about the destination, it’s about savouring the journey

After an intensive month on the road with Brooklyn Rider, I look forward to a week of fairly unstructured practice. To start, I stretch for half an hour, focusing on my shoulders. I play slow scales in 3rds and 6ths, allowing the viola to resonate freely while finding a natural balance in the left hand. I then spend an hour analysing the anatomy of the shift with Ševčík op.1, attempting to repair the damage that life on the road can inflict.

Today, I prepare for my practice session by listening to some of my favourite Deerhoof tunes. My quartet is about to write a group piece, and I look to this iconic San Francisco-based rock band as a model for the ‘creative collective’. Inspired, I spend the morning coming up with ideas, recording snippets on my iPhone for evaluation at some later date.

Shifting to another end of the spectrum today, I open a transcription of Biber’s Passacaglia. While observing the improvisatory spirit at the core of this piece, I try to find corners of it that are ripe for ornamentation. For fun I also try to create original variations on top of the descending cell. I work on some of the harder sections at a slower tempo then I record my play-through and listen back to it for whatever jumps out, good or bad.

I am a huge fan of historic recordings, and while I stretch today I listen to Bronislaw Huberman’s 1929–35 Columbia sessions. I remember that he attached huge importance to developing physical endurance, and I decide to play the viola part of Philip Glass’s fifth quartet in its entirety. By focusing on the piece as a whole, I discover many places where I can save energy with better bowing economy. After a 30-minute rest, I jump in for a second round of distance training.

Continuing to meditate on the wisdom of string greats, I spend the morning skimming through Lucien Capet’s Technique supérieure de l’archet. I admire the way he meticulously maps the bow through subdivisions and I attempt to apply his teachings firstly to a round of scales and secondly to the viola part from Beethoven op.131, practising with the original bowings intact (particularly the opening movement).

Time to dust off some Silk Road Ensemble repertoire for an upcoming tour. I pay special attention to the issue of endurance and energy conservation. I know that once we jump into performance mode, playing the frenetic music of Giovanni Sollima, Osvaldo Golijov and others, I will not stand a chance if I don’t look at this aspect of the performances first.

My teacher, the late Karen Tuttle, believed in an occasional day of rest. I take this advice to heart and spend today transcribing the recordings I made on Tuesday. Initially underwhelmed by my meagre improvisations, a healthy dose of perspective puts a smile on my face: music is not about the destination, it’s about savouring the journey.

Originally published in The Strad, April 2011. Subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Limited time only offer - 42% off


  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • YouTube
  • Google+

Reading The Strad puts you at the top of your game - Save 42% off a subscription today.