A devoted and sought- after teacher and clinician, Ms. Browne has given masterclasses around the world, including at Seoul National, Luebeck Musik Hochschule, Leopold Mozart Academy, New England Conservatory, Eastman School of Music, Oberlin Conservatory, Rice University, Lynn Conservatory, University of Michigan, Boston University, among many others. As the first viola professor ever to teach in Iraqi Kurdistan at the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq’s inaugural year, she is featured in a recent book about the group, UPBEAT. She is Director of the January Karen Tuttle workshops, and is also on faculty at the annual NYU Tuttle Workshops in New York City and in Prague, and at several other summer festivals.
Sheila's students have gone on to many of the major viola programs in the U.S., either with substantial or full scholarship. This list includes: The Juilliard School, New England Conservatory, Colburn, Manhattan School of Music, Cleveland Institute of Music, Indiana University, Eastman School of Music, Peabody Conservatory, University of Michigan, Boston University. An avid chamber coach, she has had quartets advance in competitions such as Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition, and her students have won competitions such as Kauder.
Internationally-acclaimed violist Sheila Browne, former Artist-Associate Professor of Viola and Director of the UNCSA Karen Tuttle Viola Workshop, which took place January 9-11, 2016. She visited the UNT Viola Studio recently to conduct a masterclass, give an interview, and play a recital. Read on for her keen insights on Brahms, Bartók, and more!
To begin the class, the first performer, Jorge Luis Zapata Marin, performed Henri Vieuxtemps’ Elegie. Ms. Browne encouraged him to explore the different characters of the piece, especially evident in the register changes and distinct voicing. She noted that his pacing could undergo another look: when looking at the music, the tempo can be pushed and pulled, like a rubber band. She encouraged him to set the scene for the drama by keeping the musical line rising, so the audience could ride the “wave of tension” he created, and to darken the flats– play them flatter, to make the most expressive inflections sadder–bringing out “your blues note”– that special moment that makes the phrase.
In the second half of their session Jorge and Sheila worked on releasing tension in his lower body. Much to the enjoyment of those present in the hall, they did squats (while still holding the viola in place), and folded in half, looking upside-down at the back wall. Ms. Browne explained that this exercise was to keep his hips loose, so that his left hand could release easier. With that in mind, she moved to his vibrato, mentioning exercises with the wrist in, practicing oscillations between two notes with a falling back motion. She reminded Jorge that above all, the hand must not be rigid. She told him to “contain the vibrato energy at the beginning, then let it bloom” as the phrase developed. For the vibrato to achieve that full bloom, they noticed Jorge needed to release his neck more, and that he needed to play on the fullest part of each fingertip in the left hand, for the lushest possible contact with the string.
Next was Josip Kvetek, who played Paganini’s Sonata per la Grand’ Viola. Ms. Browne urged him to “ham it up” even more, like sprinkling cayenne pepper onto his interpretation. Instead of a passage being dolce, think of a stronger word like “flirtatious” to make a powerful statement. Another way to think about the different voices in this piece would be to mimic an instrument such as an oboe or clarinet for one phrase, or even a little bird. Paganini uses the viola’s entire range in this piece, especially very high on the A string (Sheila referred to it as the “dog pitch register”!) She noted that it is easy to forget to sing through these passages, as violists are usually uncomfortable playing so high up on the fingerboard. One of the strongest take-aways of the master class was what she said to Josip at this point: “Your top priority is to keep things musical, no matter what hoops you’re being asked to jump through. That’s just a classy way to operate.”
Josip’s natural, shimmering vibrato gave his playing a lovely sound, but Sheila Browne cautioned that his articulation was overcome by his vibrato. While the composer writes in many characters, some do not need such an operatic quality. The big picture must be taken into account, so it is important not to “give it all away” to the audience too soon. Above all else, Ms. Browne asked Josip to remember that the bow shows more than the left hand and vibrato, so focusing on the right hand will yield more favorable results.
Ethan Rouse then took the stage to perform the first movement of Brahms’ f-minor Sonata, Op. 120, no.1. To begin, Ms. Browne shared a concept by Leon Fleisher – that every composer has a certain “viscosity”. To her ears, Ethan’s interpretation was too “watery” and bouncy. Brahms’ textures call for a thicker, caramel-like feeling. Sheila encouraged Ethan to think more about the darker overtones that set the mood for this section of the movement, because it wasn’t coming across as “held and mysterious” enough. Then, in what proved to be a theme for the day’s masterclass, she again referred to the contrasting characters of the movement. The rich harmonies give clues to where the character changes, as well as the octave shifts. And just like working with Jorge on his physicality, she encouraged Ethan to loudly exclaim, “Hey!” during the rests that preceded subsequent entrances. This expulsion of air aided in feeling the music in a distinct way, so that there was a clearly defined articulation at the beginning of first notes, and a clearer rhythmic impetus to the gestures.
The last performer of the day was Edwardo Rios, playing the first movement of the Bartók concerto. Sheila commented first that the hardest thing to manage while performing is to “put on the brakes to help yourself nail something” as instead he was doing the opposite. When echoing a phrase, the performer must remember that “cooling down” a passage is just as important as singing out in a full forte. Conversely, she admonished Edwardo to re-consider the dynamics in this concerto: a piano is soloistic, more like a speaking voice level; pianissimo, however, is akin to a whisper.
She asked Edwardo for an adjective to describe the opening, and he responded with, “mysterious.” By magnifying that word, she replied, we can achieve a clearer understanding of the beginning and therefore, communicate the phrase more successfully. “Despondent” and “desolate” reveal another level of emotion, perhaps closer to the feelings Bartók experienced while writing the piece. The concerto can be interpreted as having moments of loneliness and hopelessness to mirror the emotions the composer endured while dying of cancer. The prominent tri-tone, especially evident in the opening solo phrase, needs to be emphasized to clue the audience in to these feelings.
Great masterclasses not only encourage performers, but also inspire those in the audience on their own musical journeys. Sheila Browne’s masterclass accomplished just that. Her thoughtful comments showed true mastery in the analysis of soloistic viola playing, from delving deeper into the possibilities of phrasing and becoming acquainted with a piece’s historical context, to identifying tension in one’s physicality and exploring the full range of emotions available to bring a piece to life. Ms. Browne utilized these techniques to great effect in her own recital with harpist Jacqueline Bartlett later that night. Her refreshing interpretations of both classic and new repertoire, along with shrewd thoughts on performing, made for a successful and sweet stay in Denton that the studio won’t soon forget!
You Tube video excerpts from the recent Oberlin Viola Fest Karen Tuttle panel discussion lead by Sheila Browne with her former teacher Kim Kashkashian and Susan DuBois, Jeffrey Irvine" Click here to see the discussion.
Balanced shoulders, open heart
University of Denver