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The Viola da Gamba Dojo
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The Viola da Gamba Dojo  

Link: The Viola da Gamba Dojo of New York

Link: Books - The Repertoire of the Viola da Gamba Dojo

Link: The Dojo Blog

To see an example of my work with young students, view this video clip: .

Viola Da Gamba Dojo Laureates

Martha Bixler, Book II, bass

Dawn Cieplensky, Book I, tenor

Dawn Cieplensky, Book II, tenor

Susan Daily, Book I, treble

Susan Daily, Book I, tenor

Susan Daily, Book I, bass

Susan Daily, Book II, tenor

Susan Daily, Book II, treble

Hans Lie, Book I, bass

Hans Lie, Book II, bass

Hans Lie, Book III, Bass

Judy Lie, Book I, treble

Judy Lie, Book II, treble

Lucine Musaelian, Book I, treble

Lucine Musaelian, Book II, treble

Lucine Musaelian, Book III, treble

Katherine Shuldiner, Book I, treble

Katherine Shuldiner, Book II, treble

Diana Wall, Book I, tenor

Scott Zoid, Book I, bass

Scott Zoid, Book II, bass


The viola da gamba is a social instrument. The viola da gamba, its repertoire, and its practice all seem to thrive in places where groups of viola da gamba enthusiasts come together with common cause. The instrument and its music simply sound better and reward us more richly when two or three or more are gathered together.

Some years ago, I noted that my private viola gamba students' work tended to lack momentum and motivation if they did not have peers to work and play with regularly. (So does mine.) Students of the viola da gamba need viola da gamba friends to share inspiration, information, and respectful competition, and simply to play the parts in our wonderful ensemble repertoire. No matter how much we love the instrument, it is difficult to keep it up alone. It is like cooking for one, difficult to maintain standards. With this insight I started to make some efforts to bring my students together on a regular basis.

When I established the Viola da Gamba Repertoire class at The Music Institute of Chicago I drew from to my various experiences of observing and participating in groups of people learning together: ballet classes, Anglican church choirs, karate dojos, and Suzuki 'cello groups. In each of these contexts I had seen something really worth emulating. In ballet schools students often are not able to attend every class. They tend to come to regularly scheduled classes when their schedule permits, and the financial arrangements of dance schools support this flexible approach. It works in the studio because of the way the class is structured. Each class begins with the most basic barre exercises (pliés) and proceeds very gradually to more difficult material. This routine works well for students at a range of levels of ability. The most advanced students need to review the basics, to do their pliés every day. The newest students work during every class at their level of competence, and are shown how to move beyond. In Anglican church choirs I have been thrilled to see people of a wide range of ages work together respectfully and supportively motivated by dedication to shared purpose.

In martial arts dojos and in Suzuki violin or 'cello classes fixed curricula are presented. Students are expected to demonstrate mastery of the material of one level before proceeding to the next. This approach has both great value and certain hazards. The values are principally that students can clearly see the way forward. "After I learn Book Two (earn my yellow belt) I can work on Book Three (prepare for my orange belt), just the way James did it." This structure also supports the community. Simply put, we can play together because we know the same songs. The danger here is creation of a culture of conformity. After much soul-searching I have determined for myself that excessive conformity has rarely been a problem in the world of the viola da gamba, and that the potential for synergy that a shared repertoire presents is well worth taking the chance.

One other aspect of Suzuki instrumental instruction is worth noting and considering in our work with the viola da gamba. Dr. Suzuki advocated what he called the "mother-tongue" method of learning to play the violin. Dr. Suzuki noted that we learn to speak by hearing and imitating sounds long before we learn to read. He reasoned that it made sense to learn to make beautiful sounds on the violin, and even to play songs before learning to read notes. This allows the student to devote part of his study to technique and musicality without the distraction of the visual element. No one would ever give a book to an infant expecting it to learn speech from written text. But that is precisely what we are doing when we give beginning instrumentalists staff notation and expect them to translate the written notes into musical gestures that they have not yet learned. I encourage students at all levels to learn the dojo repertoire from memory, and teachers to consider teaching it by rote without reference to the part. This allows us all, both beginning and advancing students, to concentrate fully on raising our standards and playing our music as beautifully as possible.

To support "mother-tongue" learning it is very important for music students to listen to the music that they are studying. Therefore a recording of the repertoire in this book is available. Students are encouraged to listen to it many times.

About the word "dojo:" the word "dojo" comes from the Japanese martial arts. "Dojo" refers to a place, a time, and a community of learners committed to supporting one another's personal growth through a process of mindful skill building. It was originally used to designate a place where people came together to practice meditation. As Japanese Zen instruction developed to include mastery of archery and other martial arts the word came to be used for the classes in which those skills are taught. The Repertoire of the Viola da Gamba Dojo is designed to support and inspire the work of a community of learners dedicated to sharing the work, play, and growth that we experience with our beloved viola da gamba.

A word of caution: although the Dojo repertoire is designed to be useful to beginning viola da gamba players, it is not a complete method. Beginning players are urged to work on this repertoire with the guidance of a private teacher. The repertoire offers opportunities to study many idiomatic viol techniques (tenus, doigts couchés, etc.) which are not always explicitly marked in the text. A good teacher will be able to help the student execute these correctly.