Address the Fundamentals
The practice of scales, arpeggios, and double-stops is integral to building a solid foundation
Strings Magazine April 2015 Issue
By Jessica Bodner
Jessica Bodner is the violist with the Grammy-winning Parker Quartet, which received both its undergraduate and graduate training at the New England Conservatory culminating in its selection in 2006 to NEC’s prestigious Professional String Quartet Training Program directed by Paul Katz. The quartet has been the recipient of numerous honors, winning the Concert Artists Guild and Bordeaux International String Quartet Competitions in 2005. In 2008, they were named the winner of the Cleveland Quartet Award from Chamber Music America (an award named after the ensemble in which mentor Katz was a founding member). They were also the first ensemble chosen to be quartet-in-residence with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and artists-in-residence with Classical Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media. In 2011, the Parkers won the Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance for its recording of the Ligeti string quartets. Currently, the Parkers are Blodgett artists-in-residence at Harvard University.
What do you feel you need to do on a daily basis to maintain your skill level?
Everybody is, of course, different, but for me, I do not consciously think about this on a daily basis. I am usually practicing on my own and rehearsing with the quartet in a careful, magnified way in which I am always trying to further every aspect of my playing. However, there are things that I do when I’ve been away from the viola that help me when I come back to it. Some of these things include playing very long and slow bows, even just on open strings, to find the feel of the instrument and the production of sound. Then, in improvised scale-like patterns, I start to slowly add my left hand, finding sound and feel for each string, each finger, and the feeling of going from one finger to the next in different patterns. I will then either proceed with scale practice or just go into carefully practicing a particular passage.
Do you have your own daily routine of scales or technical exercises?
From the time I was about 13 until well into my mid-20s, I did have a scale routine that I practiced before I did anything else on my instrument. However, I now find that I can take the principles and purpose of scales and exercises and apply them directly to the repertoire I need to be practicing. For this reason, at this point I do not always feel that it is necessary to incorporate this type of routine on a daily basis. However, the practice of scales, arpeggios, and double stops is integral to building a solid foundation. The principles that I find scales so important for, and that I apply to my practice even if I do not always practice scales now, include building mental discipline, physical technique, dexterity, and flexibility, and turning the act of playing an instrument into something that is absorbed in the body and becomes as close to second nature as possible.
How has your daily practice regimen changed over the years?
My way of practicing scales, arpeggios, and double stops has changed over the course of time. When I was in high school and studying with Lawrence Wheeler in my hometown of Houston, thanks to him, I had a very methodical way of practicing these things every day. These scales were based on the Flesch system. I would always use the metronome, quarter note to 60, then start a legato practice of scales, always four beats to a bow—first four beats per note, then two, then one, then two notes to a beat, then three, four, and so on, challenging at the end how fast I could go. Then I would repeat this using a staccato bow stroke. Then I would do all of this in the relative minor key. The practice of arpeggios and scales in thirds, sixths, and octaves followed in this similar fashion.
During this time, the focus of this practice was strongly on intonation, cleanliness, and developing dexterity. However, when I went to college and was studying with Kim Kashkashian at the New England Conservatory (NEC), a few aspects were added. Intonation, cleanliness, and dexterity were still important, but I started also focusing on trying scales using specific sounds and thinking about flexibility or continuity of a particular sound, and also using scales as vibrato exercises to practice developing a truly continuous vibrato. I also started practicing scales in different patterns including groups of five and seven and mixtures of different groupings, “sharing” scales and arpeggios in Kim’s studio classes—for example, alternating in groups of five with another student as a mental and physical exercises—practicing arpeggios in octaves, and working on the separation of sides (an example is making a diminuendo with the bow while speeding up the vibrato or the opposite—kind of like the equivalent of patting the head with one hand while rubbing the stomach with the other!). During graduate school, when I was studying with Martha Strongin Katz, also at NEC, I started to shift my focus from practicing scales to working on all of these aspects through the music I was studying, particularly with Bach’s Cello Suites and also transcriptions of the violin partitas and sonatas.
Do you still use études and/or study guides? If so, which ones?
In the past, I have used Sevcik, Wohlfahrt, Kreutzer, Dont, Gavinies, and Rode. I do not typically practice these now, although I sometimes take elements of them in my improvised warm-up, such as an element of a shifting exercise that I remember from Sevcik. Because so much of my life is spent practicing and performing as a quartet violist, I find it helpful to periodically practice and find performance opportunities for playing viola repertoire outside of the quartet literature. In the past few years, I have enjoyed practicing works like the Bartok concerto; Brahms sonatas and songs; Schumann Phantasiestücke, Op. 73; Bach suites; Hindemith sonatas; Ligeti sonata; and Berio “Naturale.” I find that I can challenge myself and improve outside of the quartet in ways that will hopefully help my role in the quartet by revisiting these pieces and continuing to grow with them.
How do you know when you need to brush up on fundamentals?
I find that when I feel stiff and inflexible, and also if my intonation and control are less accurate, that it is then a good time to slow down and be careful about the way I am listening and focusing. Sometimes this includes scale work, but often it just is a shift of how I am listening and what I am asking myself for.
Is there a particular technique that has given you trouble?
The quartet recently recorded a work that had a lot of drawn out ricochet bowings that varied in speed. For example, from slow-fast-slow over the span of five to eight seconds.
To really find the proper balance of control vs. the natural bounce of the bow over a few seconds (eight seconds is long!) did not come easily to me. Then to turn that into a convincing musical thought was even more challenging!
We all have our weaknesses, and it’s good to be aware of them. As with everything else, it will usually get better if I spend the time to work slowly, finding the organization of the motion in my body, being very picky with myself about whether the root of the motion is as pure and efficient as possible, and then gradually speeding it up.
What advice can you offer about developing a daily practice regimen?
There are two sides to what I would offer. The first is to always start the practice listening as intensely and constructively as possible, always asking yourself if what you are doing is the best it can be and challenging it to be better, and then to try and maintain this mindset for the duration of the practice session.
This can be in terms of anything—intonation, rhythm, and general control—but also in terms of creatively pushing the boundaries, making sure each part of the note and in between the notes is as descriptive as possible, and always trying to understand the work in terms of structure, harmony, and phrasing on a deeper level, and internalizing those things.
Keeping all of that in mind, the second side to what I would offer is that I’ve always found it helpful to make a time map of what I am planning to practice.
An example from my intense scale days would be one hour for scales and arpeggios, 45 minutes for études, one hour for Bach, and one hour for whichever piece I would be working on.
This can be broken down even further if you’d like—I find that if I set a goal but also a limit for how much time I will spend on a given piece or task, that the time is spent with more focus, and I usually find more within whatever I am working on.