Technical Syllabus for viols

I started teaching the viol in 1998 for Warwickshire County Music Service, now called Warwickshire Music.  The first ‘Viol Player’ viol tutor I wrote and was published  in 2005 for treble, tenor and bass.  Being able to teach the same students in groups of 2-5 and have regular consort sessions enabled me to get an overview of what they struggled with and what they found easy.  Viol technique developed in the same way as the standards set out by the ABRSM for cello graded examinations.  I based it on what it felt like on the cello to be a certain standard and transferred it to the viol.  The following is my version;  all books have scales and arpeggios throughout the book and are a core part of the technique, but not as many as there are in ABRSM exams.  All musical examples are for bass viol, but are also available for treble and tenor viols and represent a small part of the technique learnt in each book.

Technique:  Book 1 (equivalent Grade 1)

  1. To be able to play on all 6 strings, with a bow parallel to the bridge, especially on the top string.
  2. Fingers placed on the frets so the pizzicato sound rings.
  3. Hold fingers down when string crossing.
  4. Holding different fingers down on different strings simultaneously with thumb placed correctly on the back of the viol with the joint bent out.
  5. Playing with dynamics.
  6. Be aware of bow distribution: how much bow to use for each note value.
  7. Bow retakes for the beginning of each phrase.
  8. Playing notes with 1st, 2nd 4th finger; the introduction of the 3rd finger.
  9. One octave scale and arpeggio.
  10. Always play with a good tone.

Example: Extract from Bransle by Gervaise, Viol Player Book 1, demonstrating holding fingers down across two strings, dynamics and bow retakes.

Book 2 (equivalent Grade 2)

  1. Placing of 3rd and 4th fingers down together across strings 1, 2, 3, 4.
  2. Holding different fingers down across 3 strings.
  3. Chordal Fingering in 1st position using 2nd and 3rd finger.
  4. Taking the bow off the string with the tip of the 3rd finger.
  5. Notes on the D (1st ) using fingers 1,2, 3 and 4.
  6. Playing close to the bridge on top string with the bow parallel.
  7. Two octave scale and arpeggio.
  8. Playing with dynamics using bow speed.
  9. Slurred quavers in pairs, feeling strong weak.
  10. Always play with a good tone.

Example: Extract from Fanfare by Chedeville, (adapted), Viol Player Book 2, demonstrating Chordal Fingering in first position.

Book 3 (equivalent grade 3)

  1. Half position
  2. Chordal fingering in half position using fingers 3 and 4.
  3. The use of the flexible wrist when bowing.
  4. Shifting from half to first position.
  5. Shifting using chordal fingering.
  6. Shifting using contracted fingering.
  7. Playing with dynamics using bow speed and supporting the hair for playing quietly.
  8. Awareness of where to use the bow for different notes values. ie bow distribution.
  9. Place the bow on the string near the tip of the bow for a pull bow for an up beat.
  10. Always play with a good tone.

Example: My Love gave me a Cherry, Anon, transcribed by Tamsin Lewis, Viol Player Book 3, demonstrating ‘Contraction technique’ (Crab!)

Book 4. (equivalent grade 4) 

  1. Playing with dynamics using the tension of the bow hair to shape notes, i.e messa di voce.
  2. Sight read with choral fingering in 1st and Half positions.
  3. Shifting to the top fret with either diatonic fingering for treble or moving the whole hand for tenor and bass viol.
  4. Simple double stopping.
  5. String Crossing over 4 strings.
  6. Extensions forward and back.
  7. Slurs over 3 notes.
  8. Playing semiquavers.
  9. Working up and down the bow with a smooth stroke (Z bowing).
  10. Always play with a good tone.

Example:  I care not for these Ladies, Playford, Viol Player Book 4, demonstrating chordal fingering, shifting to the top fret and shifting back with contracted fingering.

Book 5. (equivalent grade 5)

  1. Chords.
  2. Simple scales in 3rds.
  3. Playing off the frets in alto clef.
  4. Shaping notes: the use of messa di voce where appropriate.
  5. String crossing over 5 strings.
  6. Shifting without open string played first.
  7. Shifting with leaps.
  8. Holding fingers down across 5 strings.
  9. Dotted rhythms
  10. Always play with a good tone.

Example: Allegro, Abel, from the Countess of Pembroke’s Notebook, Viol Player, Book 5, demonstrating double stopping, shifting and string crossing.

So far I have published 3 books, each with repertoire the same for treble, tenor and bass viols.  However, with the difference of technique required for each viol, Viol Player Books 4 and 5 have different repertoire for each instrument. Writing viol tutors was a core part of developing repertoire for large numbers of children.  This was a huge, but really worthwhile process and choosing to found Rondo Publishing and publish this material,  has made resources available for other viol teachers.  Viol Player books, some of which are also available in French, will never be best sellers and are very much a labour of love, but the recording of the play along CDs, which students find worthwhile, makes them viol unique.   I am also currently working on a scale book and progressive duet books for the Rondo Viol Academy.