“The viola,” says Susan Gottschalk, “is the violin’s mellower sibling.”
If Susan, who teaches violin as well as viola, “with a little fiddle thrown in for a change of pace,” shows a familial affection for the viola, that’s to be expected. She learned the viola from her father, Dr. Nathan Gottschalk, an accomplished musician who once played violin on Broadway in Irving Berlin’s World War II-era hit, “This Is the Army.”
In addition, Dr. Gottschalk taught at Oberlin College and Conservatory, as well as the University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music. And he was a perennial instructor at the prestigious Greenwood Music Camp in the Berkshire Hills.
It was there that he introduced Susan to the pleasures of the viola, when the camp needed a summer fill-in. Susan, who was in her early 20s at the time, stepped in and has been hooked on the viola ever since.
Singing the Viola’s Praises
While Susan’s love affair with the viola has been in full bloom since Day One, the larger music world has only recently begun to warm up to its potential. For years the viola was considered a fallback for those who struggled with the violin. (To some degree it still is; “viola jokes” remain a thing on YouTube.) “It was commonly recommended that If you couldn’t play the violin well enough, you should try the viola because viola music wasn’t as hard,” Susan says.
More and more, however, viola music is considered a worthy genre of its own. “It has a unique sound — not as deep and as low as the cello, or high as the violin, says Susan.
It’s a sound that resonates with her. She embraces chamber music in part because it plays to the viola’s strengths. “I love the harmonies — how it plays in a quartet,” Susan says. “The viola is like a chameleon — it changes as you need it to change, first playing rhythms and harmony with the second violin, and then with the cello, pulling the group together. It creates a musical camaraderie. You can hear this in many symphonies and quartets from the Classical period, including those of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.”
Teaching Students by Reaching Them
Susan says the stereotype that the viola is “easy” does a disservice not only to the instrument but also the students who choose to pursue it. “If you challenge yourself, at some point it stops being easy,” she says. Her goal is to encourage every student to reach that level.
At the same time, she recognizes that not all students have the same level of ability, nor do they all respond to the same style of instruction. “People learn by different methods, so you must be flexible,” Susan says. “A good instructor must be able to analyze and understand the level of each student. The best teachers are the ones who can continue to help students grow and learn even when things don’t come easily for them.”
Susan says virtuosity for its own sake should not be the goal. She cites Yo-Yo Ma as an example of a world-class musician who embodies that approach. “Along with his talent, he has humanity,” Susan says. “It’s not all about him — it’s about him giving to others musically and personally. He’s always trying to find different ways to express himself, with and without the cello. To be a great musician you must be a whole person. He’s relatable. He’s also so down-to-earth.”
Staying Grounded with Tai Chi
Susan helps maintain her own down-to-earth approach to music through tai chi. “It’s very copacetic to being a musician,“ she says.
In fact, Susan uses tai chi to help her students increase their mindfulness. “It’s about connecting with what you’re feeling as you move,” she says. “That’s especially important with the violin and viola. You have to make sure you are focused not just on playing the instrument, but also on being able to express how the music feels.”
Susan, who learned about tai chi from a fellow musician about a decade ago, says it helps forge a better mind/body connection — and that’s really what musicianship is about. “It helps you find the sensation,” she says. “Thinking how you connect, thinking of your inner self and your outer self, bringing your mind to other parts of yourself. Can you feel your feet when you play the violin or viola? Can you feel the top of your head? Tai chi is a great reminder to stay in touch with yourself.”
Resolving the Solo
Susan’s musical journey has carried her far and wide, from liberal arts studies at the University of Colorado to studying violin under the great Roman Totenberg at Boston University. “He was an excellent teacher and a warm human being, and I still use his suggestions in my own teaching,” Susan says.
Susan also enjoys ballet, and performing as a member of Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, as well as many free-lance jobs including opera and backing up popular singers. But she always finds her way back to her roots. She has been a mainstay at CCM since it began in 2005 — and she remains a faculty member at the Greenwood Music Camp, which she first attended as a baby, and where the Nathan Gottschalk Memorial Commission is still awarded each year.
It’s also where she first discovered the appeal of the viola. “I love that Greenwood has stayed small, and stayed on message on both the community and the music,” Susan says. “That never gets old. The focus is on the whole person, not just the music.”
It is a focus that she continues to apply as an instructor at CCM.
Introduction to the Viola
Want to give the viola a closer listen? Susan recommends the following playlist:
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