When I was a young violist in high school, I was fortunate enough to be able to play in a really excellent symphony orchestra and an equally excellent chamber ensemble. I was good enough to keep up – I could learn the pieces, play all the notes, nail the rhythms, coordinate with the rest of the ensemble. Admittedly, however, I wasn’t much for practice habits, and so I never got nearly as good as some of my classmates. In particular, the one aspect of playing that always seemed to elude me (my instructor even said as much) was capturing a really proper tone.
Over ten years later, I’m a few years into my jazz piano journey, and I’m struck by how, even with a remarkably different instrument from a viola, creating the right tone still seems to stifle me. I really enjoy learning harmonic concepts, different voicings, different rhythms. But often I reach the end of one of Hayden’s standard lessons having learned all those aspects of the arrangement and thinking I know how to play the song, but still hearing a world of difference in the overall sound of my playing and the lesson. I think I’ve gotten a bit better as I’ve gone along, but ideally I’d love to have a more regimented approach to tackle what I feel is one of the weakest elements of my playing.
I imagine it’s tough because it’s a bit of an amorphous concept with high variability due to different instruments (I have a Yamaha DGX-660). Some elements of it, though, feel like they are able to be isolated, particularly dynamics and pedal control. For example, a couple specific problems I have related to these concepts are melody notes being buried underneath the chord, or awkward/uncertain pedal control playing over broken chords or when playing with more uptempo swing rhythms.
So, what I’m in search of is the answer to the title question: Can you practice tone directly? Do you? Should you? I’m curious to hear some different thoughts on this, from beginners to experts. Thanks in advance!
P.S. Feel free to post any viola jokes you may know – it’s been a while.