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Studying the (Body) Language of Music

Violist Samuel Kelder finds a mentor and a new technique at BU

Samuel Kelder’s bow glides across the strings of his viola as his six-foot frame sways to the rhythm of Bach’s Suite No. 3 in C major. His body is loose, almost elastic, as he performs the prelude, coaxing his instrument through the complex arrangement with his eyes closed.

Acquiring the skill needed to play at this level takes relentless practice and devotion. And a good mentor.

The latter brought Kelder (CFA’17) to Boston University four years ago, much the way a professional athlete seeks out a talented coach. He came to begin a doctoral studies program in music studying under Michelle LaCourse, a College of Fine Arts associate professor of music, because of her expertise helping violists improve their body awareness and coordination.

Kelder says that playing the viola is “kind of a puzzle to get your body to cooperate. Your body needs to have a certain degree of coordination and synchronicity.”

LaCourse, chair of the School of Music string department, is part of a small but influential cadre of viola instructors around the globe who specialize in the Tuttle Approach, which helps violists relieve the stress on their bodies to improve the quality of their sound.

Viola players often face special, if largely overlooked, challenges. Known as the Cinderella of string instruments because it is often in the shadow of the violin and cello, the instrument is larger than a violin and more unwieldy to play. Although its rich alto tones can be hauntingly beautiful—it’s the closest of all string instruments to the human voice—violists must apply more pressure to its thicker strings to make it sing.

Basically, it can be awkward and uncomfortable to play.

As a result, those who practice viola for hours daily from a young age, joining ensembles, quartets or orchestras to hone their skills, often suffer from aches and repetitive stress injuries or play through outright pain.

 

“It was this revelatory moment,” Sam Kelder says. “I thought, I’ve found my voice.”

Like many violists, Kelder began by playing the violin. He was six when he took up the instrument. It wasn’t until his early 20s that he tried the viola for the first time. He was instantly smitten.

“It was this revelatory moment,” he says. “I thought, I’ve found my voice.”

That passion would launch him in a new direction and guide him through the years of intense practice necessary to technically master the instrument. He graduated from the University of Houston and later from the Mannes School of Music with a master’s degree, performing in countless string quartets, orchestras, and festivals to refine his skills. He also cultivated an interest in playing edgy contemporary music in electrified ensembles.

Now 29, Kelder says he’s lucky he hasn’t been injured or forced to play through pain, but the relentless schedule took a toll on his body, making his neck and shoulders ache. He was playing at the Green Mountain Chamber Music Festival in Vermont when he learned about LaCourse’s work from a fellow violist, who pushed on his sternum as he played, relieving a strain in his shoulder.

“I thought, how did I not know I was playing in this weird and contorted way?” he says.

That brought him to BU, where LaCourse, winner of the 2009 Metcalf Cup and Prize, BU’s highest teaching honor, has been teaching music for more than 20 years. LaCourse is a disciple of noted viola player and instructor Karen Tuttle, who encouraged violists to tap into their emotions and channel them into their music. Tightness in a player’s body can affect the quality and richness of the viola’s sound, the thinking goes, so violists benefit from learning, or relearning, how to play in a free and natural state.

Violist Samuel Kelder (CFA’17) says he chose to study at BU so he could work with Michelle LaCourse, an expert in a body coordination technique called the Tuttle Approach, which emphasizes the relationship between tension and release. Photo by Cydney Scott

Kelder says he chose to study at BU so he could work with Michelle LaCourse, an expert in a body coordination technique called the Tuttle Approach, which emphasizes the relationship between tension and release.

“How do you make beautiful music?”

Tuttle’s teaching, although widely respected, had some unconventional elements. Teaching at Julliard in the 1990s, she taught freshmen that playing the viola is about communicating, much like lovemaking, and encouraged the exploration of repressed feelings as a way to free the body.

Tuttle played with eminent cellist Pablo Casals and studied in depth the technique of Scottish violist and teacher William Primrose. She died in 2010, although many of her students continue to teach her methods.

LaCourse is one of the foremost experts on the Tuttle Approach. She studied with Tuttle for years, as an undergraduate, grad student, and teaching assistant at the Peabody Conservatory. After she graduated, she regularly visited Tuttle at her Philadelphia home to play for her, and she had a successful career as a viola soloist and chamber musician on four continents.

She says that while the sexual aspect of Tuttle’s teaching may draw the most attention, it really wasn’t about that.

“It was about: how do you make beautiful music?” LaCourse says. “You need to play accurately and with good articulation to make a beautiful sound. But there’s so much more to being a very special player who has something to say with their music.”

Getting rid of unnecessary tension in the body instead of playing through aches and pain is one step. “Karen Tuttle recognized that the more comfortable one is with their own body, the better everything functions,” she says.

“I have a psychological understanding of myself as a human being. It’s been about trying to learn my body and know my fears. The by-product is a better musician.”

Such strategies have become increasingly popular and necessary as music students begin playing intensively at younger ages, putting them at risk of injury sooner, LaCourse says. BU is home to two orchestras and about two dozen viola players living in an age that sees them tightening their bodies as they hunch over a computer or text messages on mobile phone keypads.

“These days I find students have overdeveloped thumb muscles—they’re doing so much with their thumbs that they tend to grip the bow much harder,” she says. “I run into much more severe cases of this than I used to.”

For Kelder, the proof is in an improved sound. He says he’s better at spotting tension in his body and addressing it as he plays. A regular yoga practice has helped him too. And what he’s learned, he says, will also help him in the months and years to come as he auditions for high-stakes positions in globally renowned orchestras and philharmonics.

“I believe that I have grown emotionally while studying coordination, but it seems like something that will be an ever-evolving understanding,” he says. “I don’t think anything about music-making is permanently achieved, but is always in a state of growth and flux.”

LaCourse says the ultimate benefit is that he has made his musical voice more interesting.

Kelder agrees.

“I have a psychological understanding of myself as a human being,” he says. “It’s been about trying to learn my body and know my fears. The by-product is a better musician.”

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megwj@bu.edu.

6 Comments

6 Comments on Studying the (Body) Language of Music

  • Shola Friedensohn on 09.18.2017 at 9:36 am

    I loved this article, and the video that accompanies it. Since I have had some opportunity to study the Alexander Technique, I wonder if it figures into any of either Tuttle’s or LaCourse’s teaching. There seems to be some similarities. Would love to know.

    • Sam Kelder on 09.18.2017 at 6:14 pm

      I too have studied AT while at BU with Betsy Politin (amazing practitioner!). The bodily concepts of identifying and relieving habitual tension based on trauma or learned patterns are very similar. Thanks for your comment!

  • John Austin on 09.19.2017 at 3:19 pm

    KT Coordination has some principals that are similar superficially to Alexander Technique but a lot of the substance is left for the student to discover on one’s own which is why I trained to be an Alexander teacher after studying viola with KT students for many years. One doesn’t replace the other although if you have good use in the Alexander sense you will do many of the gestures taught in coordination naturally. KT’s Coordination, I believe, was much more than most of her students could grasp and what’s left being taught now is a watered down version. Granted it’s better than other approches to playing viola and its a huge topic that goes far beyond music and basic body machnics and requires becoming familiar with a number of topics not typically studied as a music major.

  • Michelle LaCourse on 09.20.2017 at 10:07 pm

    Some of the physical aspects of Karen Tuttle’s approach do overlap with the goals and awareness taught by some Alexander teachers – likewise Feldenkrais, some Yoga practices, Qigong, and many other forms of bodywork or physical awareness/freedom of motion practices. So much depends on the teacher, the student, and physical habits, training, and attitudes of all parties involved – as with so many things! While I admire the fact that Mr. Austin has developed his AT practice, I must disagree with the sweeping pronouncement that “what’s left being taught now is a watered down version” [of Karen Tuttle’s teaching approach], and point out that the ultimate goal of Karen’s approach was certainly never to “do” gestures.
    Of course any tradition that is passed on from teacher to students will certainly not be identical for each student – especially in the case of Karen Tuttle, who recognized and addressed each student’s unique strengths, weaknesses, and needs with endlessly varied approaches – and obviously the further one gets from “the source”, well — that’s self-explanatory. But she also felt a responsibility to pass on her legacy and invested an enormous amount of time, energy, and personal attention in her involvement with some of her long-time students and teaching assistants to make sure we “got it”, and would carry on her teachings in ways she thoroughly approved.
    In addition to one aspect of her teaching that she called “Coordination” (which means so much more than most people understand the word to signify), Karen addressed one’s physical relationship with the instrument; every conceivable aspect of playing technique, practicing, learning, interpreting, sharing, and experiencing music; mental and psychological aspects and implications of the work involved; teaching strategies; and so much more – including how this all translates into our relationship with the world around us. I studied with her in weekly lessons for about a decade, and met with her between most of my own lessons to discuss the work I did as her assistant, and then for decades afterward, I visited regularly and continued the exploration. I’m honored and humbled to share concepts of Karen’s teaching in annual Karen Tuttle Viola Workshops along with my colleagues Shiela Browne, Susan Dubois, Jeffrey Irvine, Kim Kashkashian, Lynne Ramsay, Karen Ritscher, and Carol Rodland. Karen Tuttle herself attended, taught, and observed each of us (until she became too ill too attend) with a twinkle in her eye, many smiles, nods, and spontaneous outbursts of “That’s it!”, and was reassured that what we taught was not “watered down”. She celebrated the fact that we each had our own vocabulary for teaching the concepts we had studied with her, had found new ways to demonstrate and explain, and had found new tools and related practices that could help our own students. Not every student is open to or able to re-examine their relationships with the instrument, with music-making, and with the world in such a multi-faceted and profound way, nor should we expect this of all of them (neither did Karen Tuttle). But when a wonderful, talented, and serious student like Sam Kelder comes my way and embraces so much of this tradition that is central to my playing and teaching, I feel an enormous amount of satisfaction – and, yes, find myself nodding and smiling and saying “That’s it!” as we explore – knowing that Karen Tuttle would be pleased with what he has accomplished too.

    • John Austin on 09.22.2017 at 2:50 pm

      What I meant by watered down is that I often see coordination taught as body mechanics and/or some sort of relaxation technique along with a number of gestures (over the bow, going under, repull, etc.). This is a trap for Alexander teachers too of course, missing the forest for the trees in a way. In my humble opinion the relaxation bit is overdone but maybe this is because most people are too tense. I would question why we do those particular gestures, and if they should be done consciously or if they just happen naturally when someone is “coordinated.” It seems to me that players that have a natural coordination do these things automatically and you can skip imposing those things on yourself. So it’s an open question, if you just learn how to use yourself well by studying the Alexander work or something else in the same vein would you even need to learn those things.

  • John Austin on 09.25.2017 at 12:50 pm

    If you’re interested in what I mean by watered-down invite me to teach a class at BU, I’d be happy to talk about my discoveries and show how to reproduce them. There are a lot of misconceptions in the pedagogy about how to use one’s self that you wouldn’t know if you didn’t extensively train in the Alexander work. Most notably with the setup of the instrument and the nonsense about filling in all the space with sponges and such. I went through years of that (and the resulting shoulder a pain) with most the teachers mentioned above before I learned how to use my shoulder girdle properly in the Alexander training and threw away my shoulder rest.

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