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Interview with Martin Outram

In this article, originally commissioned by the Royal Academy of Music, viola professor and Maggini Quartet member Martin Outram offers vital insights into practising, performing, and the importance of the musical score

I’m in my 33rd year at the Royal Academy. I went to Cambridge University to study music, and then law, but it was clear early on that music was what I really wanted to pursue and that the world of litigation would be better off without me, so I stuck with music. John White, my viola teacher, lived close to Cambridge, so I was able to carry on studying with him during my university years, and then I came here to continue with him, in 1982. In 1984 I was asked to teach second-study viola players, and I’ve been here ever since.

John White was a wonderful teacher. He was always positive and supportive. His teaching was very practical and was founded on a lot of British repertoire. I learnt some of the European greats with him – Brahms and Schubert – but he knew, as I should have known, that I was too young to play that sort of music. So we covered repertoire by Benjamin Dale, Gordon Jacob, Paul Hindemith, Rebecca Clarke. He was a squirrel – he gathered in every piece of the viola repertoire, and he had many contacts abroad who sent him music, which he would use with students. He was also a great protagonist; some of the viola repertoire had been written for him.

Awareness of the repertoire and of the viola as a solo instrument has grown hugely. I recently led a workshop where there were four children under the age of ten who played fantastically well. When I was a student there were a few star students, but, without question, the average level is far higher now.

One of the first things I look for in a prospective student is how aware they are of sound. Quite often, good violinists come along who have recently switched to viola, and they pick it up thinking, ‘I must press.’ That’s the worst thing you can do. I always emphasise that we should have weight, but choose if and when to use it. I quote William Primrose in his description of trying to keep your upper arm in the same diagonal plane as the stick of the bow. Violinists often keep their right elbow too high. I make them aware of this and plant them in front of a mirror so they can check it at home.

I frequently talk about portato, the pulsing of the bow, and the feeling that the fingers of the right hand are active the whole time. I once read that to a mathematician, a straight line is an infinite number of points stuck together, just as a perfectly legato bow is an infinite number of pulsations stuck together. This helps to explain the concept that we’re always drawing sound with the right hand – the fingers are always active. This is so essential with the viola, because it means you’re constantly monitoring the weight and the sound.

One of the great attractions of the viola is that it can sound feminine or masculine, and any stage in between. We can change our voice endlessly, according to the register we’re playing, which is enormously exciting. By changing vibrato, weight, speed, position and angle of bow, we can get the best and most vivid colour in any register.

I can always tell if someone has practised in a confined space: there’s a certain held-in quality to their playing. If you practise in a large space you’re exposed, and have to be freer, more extrovert. I get students to stand in the middle of the room, away from things, away from the music stand, because that’s what it feels like on stage.

One often hears people talking about practising an even bow speed, but it’s actually quite rare that we need an absolutely even bow speed. Most long notes and phrases have some sense of direction. So do practise long, even bows with a metronome, but also practise uneven bow strokes. Deliberately vary your bow speed, using scales or just open strings – keep it simple.

We have to keep returning to the basic things. I use a variety of studies, but I like to have simple exercises alongside them. Rode Caprices are fantastic studies – very operatic and dramatic – but they’re quite challenging, and it’s easy to get so caught up learning notes and difficult bowings that we forget to carry on addressing the simple things. I try to stress that students should keep coming back to the real basics – bow distribution, finger shape when shifting, varying vibrato and so on.

I’m always trying to get students to play as slowly as possible. It’s easy to add speed when you practise – you can just add rhythms and faster bow strokes. When the heat is on, speed comes quickly. But if you haven’t invested in a reservoir of softness and slowness, things start becoming jerky and angular.

The more rounded our gestures are, the more reliable we are, even in terms of intonation. I spend my life stressing the importance of relaxation, softness and gentle shifts. One of my favourite studies is Kreutzer no.11, adding the shifting notes, so that the shifts become light. The means of production must be soft and light, and as gentle as possible. That’s what ensures not only that you get it right tonight, but also that it still feels okay when you wake up tomorrow.

There’s a story that William Primrose didn’t consider he had the music under his fingers until he could play a passage 60 times without making a mistake. I don’t encourage mindless repetition, though. If you’ve got 120 minutes to practise, it’s worth spending 5 minutes organising your practice. Don’t just plough straight in. Structure it. Say, ‘I’m going to spend 10 minutes on this and 15 minutes on that.’ Be specific and stick to that schedule. Music has a lot to do with the mind and focusing one’s powers of concentration. Imposing some kind of mental discipline is far more effective than just doing endless hours of repetitious practice. Most students don’t do this. I understand, because I remember myself as a teenager, smashing through music because I loved it. I couldn’t get anywhere near it, but I was having a good time. When I look back on what my practice must have sounded like, it fills me with horror. It took me a while to discover these things, so I try to pass them on and save students time.

It’s useful to practise from memory, because you dislocate yourself from the music stand. I encourage students to memorise studies. I ask them for one by memory every week, and another one that they’re learning, so there’s always an overlap. When you’ve memorised music, you’re more aware of what you’re doing. When you read from the music, that’s just what you’re doing. Playing from the music is a fact of life for most of us, though, because there isn’t enough time to learn everything from memory. Some performers even use the music in concertos. If you do that, you have to practise having the music there as a prompt. The worst thing you can do is practise a concerto from memory and then use the music on the day. It can come off the rails.

It’s essential to use the score when learning a piece. Playing solo successfully is partially about understanding your part in relation to others, whether that’s an orchestra, piano or other string players. The best soloists play chamber music with the orchestra. I don’t have much time for soloists who don’t know what’s going on around them.

The solo line is only the surface of the music. It’s what the public hears first of all, so it’s important, but surfaces have texture, and the texture reflects what’s going on underneath, otherwise the solo line becomes a shallow, disconnected veneer. A great performer is embedded in the texture and understands that relationship. Even in Paganini where you need to be, ‘me, me, me,’ it is still, ‘I’m doing this here because the bass line is doing that there,’ or ‘I’m doing that there because the second violins and violas are moving in thirds and there’s a thickening of the texture.’ It’s all about responding to those subtleties, even in the most virtuoso pieces.

I try to help students to be able mentally to access a space where they feel calm. What is it that makes you serene? Lying on a beach listening to the waves come in, or lying in a bubble bath? It could be anything that your brain associates with feeling relaxed, confident and unchallenged. If you can practise fooling your subconscious that you’re in that tranquil place, then when you’re on the platform at Wigmore Hall, you can imagine you’re somewhere you’re not being judged, and feel calm. Playing isn’t just about the physical. Life is not only about what we do, it’s what we think about. I wish I’d done more of this work when I was younger.

The viola repertoire of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms is so challenging. I’d never stop any student having access to it, but it can be frustrating. It’s one thing to crash through the notes, but these pieces are subtle and require a sensitive approach. You have to grow into them over a long period of time. Students are usually happy to wait until their mid-20s, though, providing you keep feeding them challenging repertoire.

Musically, some things get better with age. Many students play the Bartók Viola Concerto now, because they can get round it, but playing it meaningfully is another thing. You have to have lived a few years and had a few life experiences. It’s the same with the Walton Concerto. I love it to bits, but it’s rare you hear a performance that does much more than superficially answer the questions posed by the music.

There’s plenty of repertoire that’s not as demanding musically as the Bartók or Walton. I use the concerto by Edmund Rubbra – written for Primrose – which is a gem, from a great composer. The Martinů Rhapsody–Concerto has a big soul, and is a great stepping-stone to the Bartók, just as the Malcolm Arnold Concerto is a good bridge towards Walton. The Arnold is a jazzy piece, with a dark slow movement. The notes may be few, but the feeling is intense, like an English Shostakovich.

One of the things I love about the Academy is that each student has different interests. I have pieces that follow on from each other, and when students ask me what they should play next, I’ll advise them, but I love it when someone comes along and says, ‘I’ve just heard this.’ I’ll say, ‘Let’s go for it.’ Their enthusiasm is so important to carry them through. It’s enormously satisfying when a student falls in love with a piece and makes it their own.

It’s important to understand the interconnections between the arts. I encourage students to go to concerts, theatre and art galleries and to get life experiences under their belts. Architecture is important, too. My supervisor at Cambridge, Peter Le Huray, was best known for his work on Restoration music, but he taught me about Bauhaus, and now when I teach Paul Hindemith, who was a great friend of Walter Gropius, I make the connection. When I teach Walton we talk about his relationship with the Sitwell family, and with Bartók you can’t avoid talking about folk music. His concerto was written in 1945 when the world was in a mess and he was dying of leukaemia. Shostakovich’s sonata was the last music he wrote. A composer’s life situation is so critical to understanding their work.

Playing contemporary music challenges your inhibitions and gets you out of yourself. I remember painting with my children when they were small. They splashed on the paint with great colours and shapes, while I was careful. It’s good to be reminded to get out of yourself and to chuck away all that inhibiting adult stuff. Students have to play contemporary work at some point in their time here. Some are more interested in that than others.

Some would argue that there’s no one more gestural than Bach, so if you’ve learnt a sense of gestural freedom with contemporary music, and you come back to Bach, you’re bound to play it more convincingly. You’re able to become the music, and not get in the way of transmitting the incredible variety of gesture there is in his music.

With the Bach Suites, we don’t have the original score, so they are a bit of a conundrum. The first source we have is Anna Magdalena’s copy, and then four or five other sources from slightly later. I encourage students to look at all of these sources in the library or online and to come to their own conclusions, because that’s all any of us can do.

The emotion in Bach’s harmony is important and I’ll sit at the piano with students and discuss it. More often than not, his melody comes out of the harmonic logic – in the First, Second and Fourth Suites, particularly. I am fascinated by the idea that starting in a certain way leads you in a specific direction. Point A leads to point B, which leads to point C and then point D, but you might start at Point A in one way on Monday, and if you start it differently on Tuesday, everything else could be different. The music must be so much part of you that you can respond to that line, but you can only get to that stage by first analysing the harmony and what sort of logic that presents – how the different tensions and resolutions relate to each other.

I love being at the Academy, because you have interesting conversations with colleagues all the time, which cause a spark, and you go off in a direction that you hadn’t thought of before. It’s also endlessly inspiring and fascinating to learn from watching students play. It’s a great job because you can never stop learning, improving, and going forwards in some way, which is an amazing privilege.

This interview was first published on the Royal Academy of Music website in 2016

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