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Viola duets

By Helen Bell

My collection of viola duets is called 'Tendrils' and comes with pdf scores and recordings.

  • Ten pieces for two violas – each around 3 minutes long
  • Mostly in first position with a small amount of third and fourth
  • Suitable for grades 5 and up
  • Technically not difficult to play, but aiming to develop skills in ensemble, rhythm, counting, and expression
  • Folk music influence
  • Potential for use as “fun” end of lesson pieces for teachers and students to play together
  • Digital sheet music in pdf form: full score plus parts for violas 1 and 2
  • Recordings included

More info

This collection of viola duets was written around the idea of what I might have liked to play when I was learning the viola, as a teenager, from around grade 5 onwards. Instrumental students are – obviously – challenged with increasingly difficult music, in order to improve. But the thing about playing difficult music on a bowed stringed instrument is that stumbling over the notes is one thing, but on top of this, the instruments are inherently inclined towards making cat/donkey noises if you haven’t quite perfected your general technique yet. As a self-conscious teenager, I was aware that e.g. clarinettists, flautists and pianists - who were alleged to be the same standard as I was on paper - could play in public, sound like they knew what they were doing and nobody would wince, but that playing my viola in front of anyone was a risk I’d rather avoid in case of potential squeaks and scrunches and “dying cat” comments. Even the odd squeak from a clarinet or the odd wrong note on the piano don’t seem to have the same emotional effect on most listeners as an awkwardly executed violin performance – the bowed string family just seems to share some genetic material with nails-down-a-blackboard.

What was frustrating for me around this time was that my understanding of music theory, and ability to play with others in a group and listen to the other musicians far outstripped my instrumental technique. I even had a grasp of how to play expressively, but expression had to take a back seat when sixth position with double stopping in C# minor was supposed to be happening. It was not very encouraging, which was part of why I started playing folk music. Although there are obvious challenges to playing traditional fiddle music, they are an entirely different set to those on the classical grade 8 syllabus: rhythm, ensemble and feel take priority, there’s a fair bit of string-crossing, but the notes themselves are largely in first position and not as difficult to play as what I was studying in my classical lessons. I could play this music and feel like a musician – for the first time I felt I could play in front of people without cringing.

However, this is not intended to just be a set of folk tunes with harmony parts – although there’s certainly a folk influence, I don’t necessarily regard these pieces as “folk music”. They’re pieces that combine the elements that attracted me to playing folk (technical easiness, importance of tight ensemble playing and good rhythm) with a few extensions – plenty of counterpoint and interplay between the two players, use of one viola as a chordal/rhythmic accompaniment, and a variety of different time signatures. There are even some pieces that frequently change between time signatures from bar to bar.

I imagine them being played by teachers and their students as a way of letting off steam at the end of a difficult lesson filled with double-stopped scales and Kreutzer studies. They’re mostly in first position with a small amount of third position in two or three pieces, and I hope will be found enjoyable and interesting - while not technically difficult - by players of grade 5 and above. I also hope they will be useful for developing skills in listening, counting and expression, all in the comfortable absence of having to work quite so hard in other more technical areas.

You can download this collection here. As well as pdf scores (full score and parts for violas 1 and 2) there are also demonstration recordings included in the download. You can listen to all the recordings online prior to purchase.

Here is a video of one of the pieces, "Dandelion Street":