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Articles by John Graham

CONCERTOS FOR THE VIOLA: Expanding the Repertoire


Articles about John Graham

John Graham: An Adventurer on Roads Less Traveled
By Laura Gibbs Rooney





Choosing Contemporary Repertoire

I am often asked how I go about choosing a piece of new or contemporary music. If there are no recordings of the new work, how am I able to determine its worth or suitability by looking through the score? My first response to the question is to discuss the frame of mind in which we seek new music.

It is a basic concern of all students to master the historical repertoire for their instrument. Of the works that make up this collection, some are played more often or less often and some are valued more, some less, but they all have come to be central to what we recognized as the identity of the instrument. As we choose which of these works we will study and perform, we are choosing from within a set of givens. Our choice is a matter of whether the work is appropriate to our degree of musical development or to our aesthetic concerns.

The choice is not so clear with new music. Often we face styles of composition that involve unfamiliar concepts. Before we can choose the work, we might have to decide if it is music at all. The composer has said that it is music, but do we agree? Do we recognize it as such in the ways we recognize music from the repertoire that we already know?

Composers of the twentieth century have been very experimental in their conceptualization of music and have thereby asked us to stretch our understanding of what music can be. What is the process that allows these experiments in music to become a part of our repertoire?

Remember, every piece we now take for granted was at one time brand new. Some few listeners responded to it, made a case for it, and urged others to consider it. The process of acceptance may take a shorter or longer time; it may raise, lower, or totally overlook the worth of the composer or the style of composition. The process is, in short, an extremely human one of distributing the works, hand to hand, among fellow musicians.

First Hearing
In the engagement with a piece of new music, your frame of mind should be one of openness to adventure and risk. You are setting yourself to investigate. The music you are looking over carries no sanctions about its worth either as music or as “identity” for your instrument. You, the player and interpreter, are making one of the first responses to what a composer has imagined as music.

This dynamic is for me the most exciting and rewarding part of an involvement with the new. I recently premiered a work and the performance had a lot of excitement. Some time later, I prepared a second performance of the piece and found, as with all music, that it was easier to play this time. I rethought what I was trying to do with the music, giving it a more supple, less tense degree of excitement. The composer, hearing the dress rehearsal, was pleased but mentioned that the opening section had lost a tension that he recalled from the first performance.

“It sounded then more stirred up, more desperate, and this is what I had in mind”, he remarked. I replied that a part of that “desperation” was a result of how difficult I had found the notes. He really wanted the desperation, so, with suppleness, I put it back into the reading. (1)

Your considerations in bringing a new work to life may not bear immediately on whether the work will make it into the repertoire. You may speculate on whether this or that piece will be of interest to you as a violist or to a specific audience, but I feel that it is wise to leave speculation as to a composition’s ultimate place in history to history. Involvement in the new is, by definition, involvement in the present.

Then, what do you look for in new music, and how do you choose? How do you decide to spend all the time it will take to learn a work if you don’t know how you, or history, will regard the piece once it is sounded?

Making a Choice
First, consider the composer. Has a particular contemporary composer who has aroused your interest or emotions with other music written a viola piece? Have you a friend or colleague who is a composer - known or unknown? Might you have the opportunity to discuss his or her musical concepts - and your repertoire or performance needs? Is there a composer who is “hot”, who could lend his/her notability to writing something for the viola? Music is commissioned for a fee but it is also written for an interested performer - fee or no fee - for the sake of friendship or the chance of a first performance.

Next, consider the program. A performer typically wants one new piece on a program of standard repertoire.Why not look for a work that is as far removed from the other pieces as is possible - one that offers, for example, electronic accompaniment or additional instruments other than the piano? The piece might be an experimental work or the music of a composer from abroad.

Or, you might want to present a program from only the twentieth century. Can you find five or six works for the viola that represent some of the paths in composition that have been followed in this era?

This all implies research. Before you jump at the notion of how much time that will take or worry about where all this music might be found, let me say that research can begin as you listen to the radio, go to concerts, or talk to colleagues. It may then proceed to libraries, publishers’s lists and record catalogues. It is mostly a matter of taking on - musically speaking - this century, this year, and noticing what’s going on.

When I was in an orchestra in college I played for the first time the music of Bartok, Bloch, Shostakovitch and Schoenberg. I was also conscripted, as it were, to perform the works of student composers. I found that it was much more engaging to talk to student composers about how and why they were creating music than to talk to other instrumentalists about how famous performers recreated music.

At this time, I moved from the violin to the viola. The slow realization that there was not a large body of eighteenth or nineteenth century literature for the solo viola was offset, in my adventuresome mind, by the fact that there was a twentieth century repertoire.

My interest in new music thus developed simultaneously with my development as a violist. This is not to say that there was no pre-twentieth century viola music in my repertoire or that I was not interested in the proceeding eras. My point is that I came to feel, as a solo violist, that the identity of the instrument, the true breadth of its possibilities as a solo voice, had really been defined in this century.

Studying the Choice
Hear a recording. If there is a recording of the work, you may easily listen a few times to get an impression of whether it fits your program plans or your technical level. Beware, however. If the work is in a style unfamiliar to you, give it several hearings, and not all in the same hour. Come back to it over a period of time; listen to other works of the same composer or in the same style.

Also, if it is a first recording of the piece, try to determine if you could do it better. How do you know how long the performer lived with the work before recording it? You may be hearing the first raw attempts at understanding a piece.

Find manageable bits. If there is no recording and you face only the score, you probably won’t be able to “hear” all of the lines. The ability to hear a score is a variable as other abilities are, but it is safe to say that most musicians are not able to hear all of the lines, or even one line of music, at anything close to tempo. So you begin by breaking it down into manageable bits. Sound out lines and harmonies; play or tap rhythmic patterns. Don’t be alarmed at hearing something that you have never heard before ( you are an adventurer, right?). Don’t ask, “Do I like what I hear?”, but rather, “Am I intrigued, am I interested by what I hear. Does it make me want to investigate further?” Often the issue of “liking” the music must wait until you begin to understand and digest it. Sometimes it must wait until you have performed it.

Look for affinity. As you investigate, notice which elements of the piece immediately excite you. Is there a passage that makes you imagine really playing it? I have chosen to learn a piece after initially responding only to its final section, or to the quality of of its rhythmic invention, or to the fact that, in an entirely new way, the work is as virtuostic for the viola as a piece by Paganini.

Approach tempo. Having found some bits of interest, learn a page or a section and get a feel for what it is like as you approach the designated tempo. If the piece has piano accompaniment, go through this sounding process with a pianist.

Learning the Choice
Now take a section and break it down. Play what is there, not what you wish were there. If the work is atonal, don’t suffer from the lack of tonality. If it is rhythmic, don’t pine for a steady pulsating beat. Try to determine what the elements are doing. Is the harmony progressive or static? Does the top line actually describe a phrase, or is it disjunct, part of a texture of sound or a free-floating filament of sound?

Once you start to get it “into the fingers” what does the music make you feel? In some music it is easy to imagine actual feelings, little scenes, whether the composer intended such or not. Other music might suggest states of mind, physical senses of motion or stasis, aural sensations of diffusion or tension. Use these images - not literally, not in the sense of fixing them forall time - but in an unfettered way, as fleeting essences of experience. From your readings, slowly a sense, an understanding, and a liking of the music will emerge.

Of course the easiest way to jump into learning a new piece is to have to learn it because you said you would. Whether you have chosen the piece or not, you have made a commitment to learn it. This is an important part of becoming a professional musician, and the skills it requires cannot be overestimated. To learn this discipline along with the music of your own era seems to me a very profitable use of energy.

By learning a brand-new piece by a composer who is alive and available for consultation - with whom you might even participate in fashioning a first performance - you also learn something about music written by master composers of the past. Learning music is an act of responding to the music itself, not to the traditions that have been built upon previous responses.

1. Note that when a composer initially hears his/her music, the opportunity is given for the the composer to revise, or even rethink the work. Legend about music pouring itself onto the page in its final form does not coincide with fact. Composers relish the chance to actually hear what, prior to a sounding, has existed only in their heads.

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CONCERTOS FOR THE VIOLA: Expanding the Repertoire

It is a goal of most violists to learn and perform the concertos of Telemann, Stamitz, Walton, Hindemith (Der Schwanendreher) , Bartok, the Sinfonia Concertante of Mozart, Berlioz’ Harold in Italy, and, possibly, the Grand Sonata of Paganini.

A goodly number of works, enough to keep us busy in those four to eight years of advanced training; certainly enough to keep the repertoire lists for the juries of music schools and solo competitions tidy and predictable.

But is it enough repertoire to instruct young violists in musical developments since 1950? Is it enough repertoire to allow a solo vioist the expansiveness of identity that is an historic legacy enjoyed by pianists, violinists and cellists? Is it enough repertoire to establish that the viola is capable of holding its own in the ultimate soloistic medium?

The clear answer is no, and for this reason many violists today have commissioned and performed concertos of present-day composers. Thanks to their efforts, the repertoire has been expanded to include many significant new viola concertos.

The Viola Concerto of Jacob Druckman is an outstanding example of such a piece. It was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and premiered by the late Sol Greitzer, with James Levine conducting. I performed the European premiere with Arthur Weisberg conducting the Berlin Radio Orchestra, and have since performed it with Gunther Schuller and the Dutch Radio Orchestra in the Concertgebouw, and with the composer at the Aspen Music Festival.

It is a one-movement work of 20 minutes duration. Druckman’s concerns about balancing the viola with a full symphony orchestra gave rise to a conceptual “scenario” of a series of episodes wherein music played by the viola is picked up and reflected upon by the orchestra.The ensuing dialogue is different in each section, as various instruments or groups of instruments react to the viola’s music. However, each episode, except for the final one, ends with the accumulated sound of the orchestra engulfing that of the viola.Put in pictorial terms, the dreaming viola awakens and arouses the orchestra into a series of frenzies, and is not at all abashed at being overwhelmed, but stubbornly waits for the orchestral spasm to subside in order to dream into the next episode. The concerto closes as the orchestra makes one last crescendo in unison to a final fortissimo chord that catapults the viola into its final solo, a very liberated fling.

The concerto opens with the viola playing alone. Then the hesitant, fragmented gestures of the viola are reflected in the orchestra. The pitches of these gestures are sounded, tremulous and undulating, in the orchestra, while they begin to coalesce into short phrases in the viola part.

A section of the second episode, shown in example 1, displays the elan of one of the more rapid vituostic passages of this amazing concerto.

The fifth episode begins with a recall of the music of the opening, and then breaks into a full-blown lyric statement of those fragments that covers the entire range of the viola fingerboard. (See musical example 2)

This is one work in an impressive array of pieces for the solo viola and diverse ensembles written since 1950, as the accompanying list confirms. All of these works offer orchestras and their audiences fascinating and exciting music to play and hear, as they offer violists challenges to the fingers, the ear and the imagination.

Their entry into the repertoire has begun. Through the constant efforts of violists to study them, and schools of music and solo competitions to include them in their juries, many of these works are sure to find their way to repeated performances with orchestras and to the status of standards in the repertoire.

The 20th century and the viola have indeed been good for one another.

Viola Concertos, from 1950 to the present
(Orchestration is for full orchestra unless otherwise noted)

Luciano Berio: Chemins lll , 1968 (Universal)
Tadeusz Baird: Concerto Lugubre, 1975 (Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne, Krakow/C.F. Peters)
William Bergsma: Variations and a Fantasy, 1977 (Galaxy Press)
Herbert Blendinger: Concerto, 1981 (Orlando-Munich)
Norman Dello Joio: Lyric Fantasies, 1974; string orchestra (Associated Music Publishers)
Jacob Druckman:Concerto , 1978 (Boosey and Hawkes)
Morton Feldman: The Viola in my Life, 1970, version for flute, percussion, piano, violin and cello; 1971, version for full orchestra (Universal)
John Harbison: Concerto, 1990 (Associated Music Publishers)
Maurice Gardner: Rhapsody, 1979 (Staff Music-NYC)
Karel Husa: Poem ,1959; strings, oboe, horn and piano (Schott)
Frank Martin: Ballade ,1973; winds, harp, harpsichord, percussion (Universal)
Bohuslav Martinu: Rhapsody Concerto , 1952; small orchestra (Barenreiter)
Krzysztof Penderecki: Concerto , 1983 (Schott)
Walter Piston: Concerto , 1957 (Associated Music Publishers)
Wolfgang Rihm: Concerto , 1983 (Universal)
Alfred Schnittke: Concerto , 1985 (Sikorski)
Robert Starer: Concerto , 1958; strings and percussion (Leeds/Presser)
Toru Takemitsu: A String Around Autumn, 1989 (Schott-Japan)
Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Antiphonen ,1961: small orchestra (Edition Modern-Munich)
Joji Yuasa: Concerto , 1990 (Schott-Japan)

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Entangled in the New
City Newspaper (Rochester, NY) Jan.13, 1999
by David Raymond

Violist John Graham is at home just about anywhere: a studio at the Eastman School of Music, where he has taught since 1989; fabled musical venues from New York’s Carnegie Hall to Rochester’s Kilbourn Hall; and even the Visual Studies Workshop, where he’ll give a recital of 20th-century music this Saturday night, surrounded by an exhibit of contemporary photography.

For Graham, who has played and recorded with such renowned ensembles as the Juilliard Quartet and Speculum Musicae, performing in an unusual place is nothing unusual. Nor does he find it odd to be performing a program of mostly new music there: his recordings include a three cassette set of music called 20th Century Viola.

“”Obviously, Visual Studies Workshop is not set up as a performing space,” says Graham. “But it's a very intimate setting, and I think hearing up close, being more aware of the physicality of making music, adds to its appeal for the audience”.

The current Visual Studies exhibit, by a group of artists called Buffalo 6, is a powerful, unsettling combination of medically inspired imagery and state-of-the-art photography. Graham’s concert has nothing to do with the subject of the exhibit, but to him that’s not the point of performing there anyway. “Music is special in that it transcends its own space,” he says. “If the performance is good it doesn’t matter where you are. But playing music in a place like Visual Studies reflects my idea that all kinds of new art are complementary. The more we combine them, the more we combine their ability to interact with one another. The eyes and the ears of the audience can be provoked in the widest sense of the word. As a student in San Francisco and then a freelance violist in New York, Graham recalls “a large variety of alternate spaces for performing”: museums, art galleries, even restaurants. “Now, Carnegie Hall is a beautiful place to play, a wonderful experience for any musician. But there’s a strong convention that the concert hall defines the musician, and I think music should happen in more kinds of places. Instead of people going to a particular kind of place to hear or play music, why shouldn’t they say, ‘We want to hear or play music in this particular space,’ and go from there.”

Graham quickly got used to the idea that not every performing space had to be Carnegie Hall, and not every concert program had to consist of the Three B’s. At Eastman, where he chaired the string department for several years, Graham has guided tradition-minded students cautiously into these uncharted waters. “My main responsibility is to show them how to handle the canon, to be sure that they are well-grounded in the standard repertory.” That phrase has a slightly different meaning for violist. Such instruments as the piano and violin have what Graham calls “a rich trove” of solo and ensemble music; his own instrument didn’t really come into its own until the first part of this century, so, much more of the viola’s “standard repertory” is only a few decades old.

“My own entry into music written in my time was as a student, with student composers of my own age,”says Graham. “I still recommend to my students that they get together with their colleagues who are composers. And in the last few years, I think students at Eastman have become more open and more interested in new music and new ways of presenting music.”

Graham’s program for this Saturday night is an intriguingly mixed bag, including a premiere of Entanglements , by Eastman’s Robert Morris. Graham recalls that after working on the piece for a few weeks, “Bob asked me to help him find a title, based on my experience of playing the piece.” The 10-minute piece calls for viola solo and synthesized sounds (devised by Morris and programmed on a CD), and the violist loved the sounds that surrounded him. “The piece has the feel of those photographs you see of gas clouds in outer space: vivid and active, but benign and totally beautiful. I told Bob I felt like the viola was being pulled in and exploded out of the music, and I had this feeling of being enmeshed in the sounds, entangled - and we both shouted Entanglements !”

Besides Entanglements , the concert includes two works new to Graham’s repertory: Folklore III (1994) with guitar, by the British composer and guitarist Gilbert Biberian; and Stanley Charkey’s About Time (1997) with percussion, that Graham describes as aptly titled, “a jazzy piece about shifting senses of time.” Older but equally substantial pleasures will be provided by two solo viola works: Vincent Persichetti’s Parable and the Sonata Patorale of Lillian Fuchs, the “first lady of the viola” in the 30’s and 40’s, according to Graham, and “a piece both elegant and gutsy at the same time, like her”. The golden oldie comes at the end: Falla’s Popular Spanish Songs (1922) arranges for viola and guitar.

“We need to adjust the contemporary music index,” says Graham. “In music we always define the 20th century as facing the 18th and 19th centuries, but now I think we need to figure out how to refer to 20th century music. With the millennium, we can’t really go on thinking of it as new. We should probably just let that adjective “classical” go, too. We’ve broken down a lot of the old categories in the last few decades, but our nonemclature is behind the curve.”

In fact Graham is downright reluctant to refer to this weekend’s concert as a “new music” event: “Better to call it ‘a concert of music that was recently written for viola’, if you have to call it anything.

“These works are all quite different,” he continues, “but what you will hear in all of them is the sense that their composers are playing with the elements of music, as artists play with the elements of space: playing with concepts of rhythm, tonality, color, time.”

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John Graham: An Adventurer on Roads Less Traveled
By Laura Gibbs Rooney
Reprinted with permission from American String Teacher
Volume 55, Number 1, February 2005.

“Some people will drive by a side road all their life and never go down it. Other people will always look, and say ‘I wonder what’s at the end of that road?’ They’ll go down the road and…I’m just one of those people who will always go down the side road; I want to know what’s there!”

Violist John Graham is an adventurer. His career, spanning more than 40 years of performing and teaching in the United States, Europe, and Asia, identifies an artist who has made a habit of following his instincts, and trusting in them. “I found the whole thing magical,” says Graham, relating a childhood memory of hearing the NBC Symphony. “We had an old Philco radio, they were very big standing models, and I can remember very definitely the patterns on the fabric that covered the speaker. And I would just look into this fabric, and all this music would come out.” His family claimed that he was also transfixed by Phil Spitalni and his all-girl orchestra, featuring Evelyn and her Magic Violin. Whatever the orchestra, Graham heard magic and soon took matters into his own hands by asking for the half-size violin that his grandfather was saving for the first interested grandchild of the family. A teacher was found as well, and very soon Graham mastered “Down By The Sea.” By his early teens he knew he wanted to become a professional musician, and his teacher, Harriet McNeil, helped him to prepare for his first recital. It was a great success, and the dye was cast.

In the fall of 1954, he enrolled at the San Francisco Conservatory and studied with members of the Griller Quartet. In residence at the University of California, Berkeley (UC-Berkeley), and teachers at the conservatory, the British-born Griller Quartet was one of the first quartets-in-residence at a United States college. Graham studied violin with Jack O’Brien and received chamber music coaching from violist Philip Burton; the rapport among the three of them was strong.

Noticing Graham’s interest in the viola (he was always picking up people’s instruments during rehearsal breaks) and hearing his flair for producing a characteristic viola sound, Burton and O’Brien began a quiet campaign to turn him to the instrument. Like many violinists, Graham thought the viola was fascinating, but was unsure about becoming a violist, as if there was a hidden implication that a violist was somehow a lesser violinist. However, he was entranced by the newness of the experience, and after playing on Burton’s Amati, he became hooked. Philip Burton became his viola teacher, and his Amati is the instrument Graham plays today.

Graham also attended the Aspen Music Festivals during the summers of 1958 and 1959, and, exhilarated by the level of musical competence he found among his peers, rose to the occasion. He became principal violist in the Student Orchestra and studied with William Primrose and the Julliard Quartet. He also decided that he wanted to go to New York City one day to become a professional freelance violist. Even though his teachers, sensing Graham’s kind nature and high level of intellect, warned him about the fierce competition of the New York music scene, Graham’s experiences in Aspen made him want to be anything but careful in his musical career choices. Once again, the dye was cast.

Graham transferred to the UC Berkeley in 1958, and upon graduation in 1960, he was immediately called to the draft—as he had previously been deferred—and ended up in the Seventh Army Symphony in Europe. After his discharge from the army, he received a scholarship from the University of California and went to Rome, where he spent a year studying with violist Renzo Sabatini. When Graham returned to the States, it was to New York. Through contacts made at Aspen, he began to freelance, first with the Young Audiences concert series and then, as word got around through colleagues, with bigger jobs, including a chamber orchestra series at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As well, he was invited to audition for Leopold Stokowski and the American Symphony Orchestra. “In most cases that’s something students really need to know,” Graham says. “It all begins with your contemporaries recommending you; they are a really important stepping stone into the profession.” Stokowski hired him, and soon he was promoted to principal viola; he stayed with the orchestra for four years.

Adventure is not found without taking some chances. On first arriving in New York, Graham had two goals in mind: to be in a string quartet, and to do solo work. “Imagining who and what you want to become can, in itself, be a risky enterprise,” says Graham, “especially if you are the only person doing the imagining.” Within two years of living there, he decided it was time to give his solo debut. He hired a manager to arrange an engagement in the Carnegie Recital Hall and performed, along with music of Bach and Brahms, works by contemporary composers Milton Babbitt and Henry Cowell. Both Babbitt and Cowell attended the recital.

“You know,” says Graham, “I went out on a limb, and two things happened. A quartet that was in New York for many years, called the Beaux Arts String Quartet (it was not connected to the piano trio), was looking for a violist, and they called me up—one of them had come to the concert, to check me out. And so, I began to do the two things I wanted to do. I did my solo thing, and I get an offer to be in this quartet, and I subsequently spent five years in that quartet!” The Beaux Arts String Quartet, with Graham as violist, won the prestigious Naumberg Competition.

Following these beginnings, Graham spent 25 years in New York City, freelancing and performing as soloist, with major chamber music and new music ensembles, and in orchestras for opera, ballet, and Broadway. “It was a privilege,” Graham recalls, “to play in a great variety of musical venues, to be a musician in so many different ways.” During his early years in New York City, Graham met his wife, visual artist Cinda Kelly. They have a daughter, Caitlin, and currently live in Rochester, New York, where Graham has been professor of viola at the Eastman School of Music since 1989.

For his solo recitals, John Graham regularly performs works of contemporary composers in addition to more traditional repertoire. In a recent program, he performed J. S. Bach’s D major gamba sonata for viola and harpsichord; a premier of Christopher Brakel’s Deploration, featuring electric viola and amplified harpsichord; Two Songs of John Dowland, paired with Benjamin Britten’s Lachrymae, Op. 48; and Luciano Berio’s Naturale, based on Sicilian melodies. Regarding his thought process in making programming decisions, he says “It’s all associative. I’m thinking of how I want to move from piece to piece, and then how I imagine the audience moving from piece to piece. And I like cross-references, not so much in an intellectual sense, but in an acoustical [sense]; acoustical cross-references is a good way to put it.”

Regularly performing newly written, current music helps him to connect to older music with the spontaneity that it must have been given when it was first played generations ago. In addition, Graham believes that the viola, having a smaller traditional repertoire than other instruments, is in an ideal position to be a soloed voice in the flow of current music. “Composers can face it more freshly because there are so few antecedents, and the performers tend to face the instrument a little more openly. We are still developing our sense of what our repertoire is, and so we’re much freer to go about it.”

In February of 2002, Graham premiered Birches, a piece based on the Robert Frost poem of the same title, written for solo viola and electronic sounds by Kevin Ernste, who was then finishing his doctoral degree. In sharing his experiences while working with Graham on Birches, Ernste relates a compositional process that is similar to Graham’s approach to music. “In the 20th century,” says Ernste, “you have to sort of peel away the layers of performance practice to get at what you want. I was striving [in Birches] toward having this balance between what information you give to the player, and what information is left to be communicated. This allows the player to feel his or her own way into the piece.”

Besides a fresh approach to playing technique, Birches asks that the performer relate to the dynamic of the Frost poem, that of an old man reflecting upon his own boyhood. “What I realized,” muses Ernste, “is that John didn’t need to look back, because he’s not built that way. From the beginning, it was so natural for him.” Graham has performed Birches many times since, including at the Aspen Music Festival, where he is currently a member of the artist-faculty.

Ernste has been delighted to witness Graham infuse new elements into the piece with each performance. Graham also appreciates the opportunity to collaborate with so many fine composers close at hand: “In recent years at Eastman, having music written for me by people who know my playing has been a very interesting experience. I feel an extra dimension of personalness, because it’s come out of a natural sense of community.”

In partnership with his performing, Graham has been active as a teacher since his days with the Beaux Arts Quartet. Teaching and performing is a balance that works well for him. Many performers feel a distinction, even a division, between the two, but a pivotal experience in 1983 of teaching a semester in Beijing, China, confirmed to Graham his identity as a teacher: “It was a very emotional experience, to have people so hungry for it. And that experience, of being a teacher on that fundamental level, turned it for me, and I realized there is no division here. I’m as much a teacher as I am a performer.

“Ever since I started teaching, it would immediately funnel back into playing, and then there’s the whole human issue of having an outlet for verbal articulation. To be able to talk to someone and transmit your enthusiasms, to participate in the dynamic of the give-and-take between you and the student—I have gained this through teaching.”

In his teaching, Graham utilizes a natural process of piecing together how he has been taught—in addition to Burton, Sabatini, and Primrose, Graham studied with cellist George Neikrug, and in master class with Pablo Casals—and keying into the student’s imagination in a way to facilitate his or her own individual music making. He does not impose his musical interpretations on his students. “It’s often as if we both discover things together, or he makes it seem that way,” says John Pickford Richards, a former student of Graham’s. “I think the initial thing he tries to do is make the music sound natural to the characteristics of the instrument. But he doesn’t necessarily do it by telling me how to adjust my fingers or how I’m moving my arms; first he clues my ear in to what is happening musically so that the impulses are there, and so that I’m hearing the connection of the sound. After we understand where the sound wants to be, and where the rhythmic impulses need to be, then he starts to talk about how physically I can do it.”

Graham’s approach to teaching and learning makes the process come alive for himself as well as his students; in performing as well as teaching, he lives very much in the moment, and open to discovery. He is also very honest about a teacher’s limits. “We all have to face that basically, in teaching, we are projecting ourselves, out of our own experience.” He believes it very important for both teachers and students to understand that there are many choices to make, and there is no one teacher who is ideal for every student.

As a teacher, John Graham is a role model of an artist who has found success in trusting his instincts. As a performer, he is a boon to composers interested in exploring the voice of the viola. He is currently on the faculty of the Eastman School of Music and the Aspen Music Festival. Graham’s viola is made by Brothers Amati, and his bow is by John Dodd.
Laura Rooney currently directs the orchestra program at Pius XI High School, freelances as a violist, and teaches in a private viola and violin studio in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She is “ABD” toward a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Music Education from the Eastman School of Music.


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