Viola da Gamba Beginner Classes

I spent the last week of July 2009 taking beginner classes at the Viola da Gamba Society of America ( annual conclave.  The conclave was hosted at St. Xavier University here in Chicago, and the beginner class was offered to community members at no charge, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity to learn something about another instrument.

Classes were held Monday through Saturday late in the morning, ending just in time for lunch.   I rearranged my work schedule and took some vacation to make the time available.  Even with the daily 75 mile round trip from home to St. Xavier to work and back home (instead of my regular 22 mile round trip), I think it was worth while.

The class was about half a dozen people, with wildly varying skill levels and ages.  The youngest was 11, the oldest probably into their 60’s, with about one a decade in between.  Two were cello players, a couple had picked up the gamba on their own and were ready for some actual instruction, and a couple of us were experienced musicians but real  beginners on this instrument. As far as I could tell, everyone could read notation in a clef appropriate for their instrument.

The first thing we did is learn to tune.  Tuning strings is a bit different than tuning winds, and you can hear quickly when its wrong.  And if you happen to have perfect pitch (I don’t!) you may be in for a disconcerting time, as gambas typically play at A=415, instead of the more common A=440 that modern recorders use.  Good thing my tuner is adjustable!

Actually, the first thing we did is learn to hold the instrument correctly.  “Viola da gamba” means “viola of the leg”, and you hold it on your legs.  That’s “on”, as you sort of make a cradle with your legs to rest the instrument in, instead of squeezing with your knees.

And once holding and tuned, we took off playing!  The gamba is fretted on the neck, unlike the violin/viola/cello family of instruments, so getting the right pitch is just a matter of getting the right finger on the string and fret at the same time.  (Ever notice that “just” is a four letter word?)  There are six strings to keep track of, and many pitches can be played on at least two strings, so there’s a lot of choices to be made while playing.  That’s what practice is for!

Then there’s the bow.  We actually spent quite a lot of time on bowing technique, how to articulate with the bow, how to choose when to down-bow and when to up-bow, and so on.  And now I know what some of those funny extra squiggles mean in some of the early music I play — they’re editorial hints for string players, suggesting which way the bow should be moving.

By the end of the week I was fairly comfortable playing simple and slow tunes, even sightreading if slow enough and mostly steps and thirds.  “In nomine” and “La folia” were recognizable at a respectable speed, even if my tone could use some work.  Overall, I had a good time, and can heartily recommend taking advantage of this opportunity if it comes up again!