Brookside Center for Counseling and Hypnotherapy

On The Joys of Playing Chamber Music

by Maurice Kouguell, Ph.D., BCETS. 

A Memoir


Love-Hate Relationship With My Viola

I know what is right and wrong in performing. I know the extreme demands one places on oneself to play up to certain standards. I know what my strengths and limitations are as a violist. A graduate from the prestigious Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris with a Licence de Concert, the highest degree awarded, I was destined to become a concert violist and had a brief career as a soloist and also played in various orchestras in Paris in 1950. I love music. I love to play. After a short career as a musician which meant practicing at least 4 hours a day, going over the same passages dozens of times until the intonation was right, memorizing new repertoire. I took master classes. I always enjoyed these tremendously because the emphasis of all those masters was on musicianship and not technique and that always spoke to me. However there is no getting away from it: with a limited technique you are also limited in your musical interpretation and can only express yourself in a limited way.

What is one to do when one does not like to practice and I never did and I guess never will.

At one time in my life I gave up playing totally for almost 8 years. It was a relief to me at that time as there was a strong love/hate relationship between my viola and myself. The process of alienation was a gradual one. I did not play for one week then for another week and then a month and then another month and eventually it turned into eight years. Every once in a while I would hear ominous sounds coming from the viola case. I would open the case and realize that either the bridge or the sound post or tail piece needed adjustment. I would take the viola to a luthier and when I was to play it after it had been adjusted I would ask the violin maker to play it for me. I would then take the viola home and every so often I would repeat the trip. This process lasted for about 8 years. My greatest fear was to hear myself play knowing full well that my playing would be unacceptable to me. I remember looking at the viola case and almost succumbing to the temptation of playing. The sound of the viola was the sound of my soul and as time went by I knew that the wonderful sound would not be there any longer. I looked so often at the unopened case with sadness, anger, remorse and hate. THE CASE WAS CLOSED.

Both my parents were professional pianists and teachers. They urged me to play again. They used my talent as a motivating factor, they used guilt, and frequently cajoled me, all to no avail. I was stuck in this place and did not want or could not get out of it.

My relationship to my viola was and continues to be a very powerful loving one. To me of all the family of string instruments, the viola has a very particular beauty about it. Almost a spiritual quality. Actually, a totally spiritual, haunting quality which defines life and what it is all about. Prior to playing the viola, I was a violinist. I played the Mendelssohn Concerto, the Beethoven Concerto, most of the Mozart concerti, Franck, Beethoven, Faure sonatas et al. I played the violin. I never felt that the violin was part of me. It was an instrument in my hands.

I was destined to become a violist.

I discovered in my father’s record collection a recording of the Mozart Symphony Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra. The records were on 78 rpm. For those of you who may not remember that far back, 78 records preceded the Long Playing records which preceded audio tapes and later the CDs.

Lionel Tertis was the violist and Sammons was the violinist. The beauty, the warmth, the tenderness, the fury, all those emotions came to fore as I focused on the viola sound. His sound enthralled me. That was the sound I wanted to have. To this day I have very vivid memories of listening to the music in my father’s studio in Beirut. A very warm room with Persian rugs on 3 walls and on the floor: the sweet smell of the trailing pipe smoke. His brand of tobacco was Capstan and I used to open the can and smell that wonderful aroma. I was still a violinist at that time but was enchanted by the beauty of the sound of the viola. I played the record so many times that it started to wear out. I used my father’s very special phonograph. A portable one covered with snake skin - very fancy in those days. It was an advanced model . You could stack 3-4 records and they would fall on top of the previous record and continue playing after a few moments of interruption, waiting for the next record to fall on the turn table. I believe each disk played for about 5-7 minutes so that the concertante, for instance, was recorded on at least 6 records. One used needles with 78 rpm records and they had to be discarded and replaced after 5 or 6 disks. When the disks were played too often the grooves on the record would start showing some wear and tear. But I continued to savor that exceptional sound.

Other records I played over and over again were the Poeme of Chausson with Yehudi Menuhin , and the Chausson concerto for violin, cello and piano and string quartet.

Even years later when the record became available on CD, and by that time I had heard just about every violist on record ,the dark quality of Tertis’ playing was my ideal sound, the sound I wanted to duplicate.

About the same time, I believe it was probably around 1948, I was given permission by my father to try his viola, He had a relatively small viola which he used when he played chamber music. From the first moment that I drew a sound on that viola I became one with the instrument. The sound went through my entire body and it was great. I played it for many hours and never went back to the violin. I was a violist. I am a violist.

I love the viola register and love to hear other violists play. Yet what I love most is hearing the viola when played with other ensembles. That could be any combinations from duets to octets and even orchestral works. I find that the viola sound is served best when it is heard in contrast or with other strings. In the words of Henri Benoit, my viola teacher who was the violist of the well known Capet quartet, ”you need to say something, then go away, but always be there.” Perhaps that sums it up for me. When the dark plaintiff sound of the viola is heard it is as though it rises from the soul, from the deepest layers of emotions. When a viola part is dominant, the public always seems startled as though wondering where this sound comes from. That is how it is for me.

The viola does not dominate a string quartet but brings about attention when it has a phrase or even repeated notes. It is a cross between a heart beat and a cry of the soul. The viola holds a quartet together. It comes to the assistance of the first or second violin, dialogues with the violins and celli, makes a statement and goes back to being in a way a silent partner in this agglomerate. Because of the nature of the viola sound, which is not as powerful as the cello or certainly not as the violin which is always heard because it is in a high register, the violist needs to listen most intently for the balance of the other players. Most players are sensitive to dynamics: maybe the violist more so because they are not so intense at being heard but more as the pillar of the group. I maybe as bold as to say that any quartet is as good as its violist. The audience always remembers the statement the violist makes.

On a very subjective note since I am a violist , I noticed that there are personality traits associated with each instrument. Violists do not seem to care wether they play first or second viola parts in compositions requiring more than one viola.

The viola is the language of the inner soul. It is the inner language.

As a violist, particularly as a chamber music player, I consider myself as an amateur at this time in my life. However, my professional schooling and innumerable coaches, including members of the Guarnerie Quartet have made a strong impact on my playing and the joys of chamber music playing. The hardest part to achieve in chamber music playing is to recruit players not only compatible as people, not only compatible as to the sounds of their instrument, but also compatible musically . The latter is probably the most difficult one. Musicianship in chamber music playing is hard to define when it comes to ad hoc players. As a member of several non professional quartets there are realities to be reckoned with. There will always be a vast gap between the rendition of the piece and the closeness as to how it should sound or meant to be. I have reconciled myself with my technical limitations

and other players accept one another for it within themselves. The joy of playing and continuing to play, in my case, is the hope or the anticipation that there will be a moment, no matter how brief, where making music happens. Those moments are rare, but to me well worth it. It encourages me to keep on playing. Once in a while a beautiful phrase is played by one of the players and to be there surrounded by those harmonies, melodies, and magical sounds is an elating experience.

How do I know what expressions I want for myself and what phrasing do I seek? The answer in simple and what I want to emulate is the style of my brother, Alexander Kouguell. To me he is in a league by himself. When he plays you can’t help but experience goose bumps all over your body; I have seen people in the audience cry when he plays. He speaks from a high spiritual, intellectual plane which goes straight to your soul, touching every emotional fiber. One of my earliest memories was to hear him play the Boccherini concerto with orchestra. He was in his late teens. I was not the only one with tears of joy. I remember sitting next to my mother and remarking how many people had tears. His playing touches. I have played chamber music with well established international musicians. Playing next to my brother has always intimidated me: it is a little bit like being in the presence of a very humble greatness. I still remain intimidated but elated when I play chamber music with him. That is what I want to sound like says my inner voice.

To go back to attitudes toward chamber music playing, a sense and sensitivity to balance has been drilled into me by my chamber music teacher. I remember vividly studying the Cesar Franck Piano Quintet with Henri Benoit.

Although a masterpiece, that particular work can become very bombastic in the hands of certain pianists. The piano can easily drown the other players. Benoit had us repeat and repeat the same passage always asking the pianist if he could hear the violist and always admonishing us when our sounds did not match the weakest one. By nature because of its register, the viola cannot compete with the projections of the violins or celli. He stopped the group as many times as necessary until he was satisfied that the pianist could hear all the other players and especially the viola. His words still resonate ”balance, balance, balance”. Easily translated: listen, listen, listen. I would like to add watch, watch, watch. I have played in some groups where the first violinist started to play and after 8-to 10 bars I would ask if I was missed since I had not played yet. One has to become like one. In an amateur group that can happen only occasionally, not only because of the proficiency and varied level of each player but also, the caliber and quality of the individual instruments.

All this to say: what a wonderful blessing we have as we can get together and play our best and enjoy the camaraderie, the friendship and a few moments with highlights which make everything ok.

I no longer play nearly as well as I did many years ago. But it is also true that I no longer walk as well as I did, my memory is not as sharp as it was but my attitude in playing chamber music is, do the best I can under the circumstances. I can no longer hold the viola and must play in an arm chair but that does not take away the joyous moments. There is no need or time to whine, to apologize, to state that once upon a time………. You do what you can because that is what you love to do.

There are no words to express my deep gratitude to all my fellow players and my gratitude for the circumstances that lead me to appreciate and play music.

Finally my gratitude for not being a perfectionist and to be able to appreciate what I have.


One Of Those Days, The Bell Will Ring and It Will Be You


The case is reopened.

I thought I would share with you what made me start playing again and the long journey which lead me to redefine my status.

I received a phone call from a resident of my town, Baldwin, N.Y. She identified herself as a language teacher in the district where I worked as a school psychologist. She stated that she has chamber music sessions in her home on a regular basis but the violist was unable to attend the session. She knew someone who heard me at my viola recital in Paris and she was wondering if I was the same person and if so if I could come over and join them. I broke into an anxiety attack. I was mute, my body totally soaked in perspiration, my feet swimming in my shoes. With trembling hands I took her phone number and declined the invitation. In the next half hour or so I recall feeling as though I was sucked in by a tornado. All kinds of emotions racing through me. Anxiety, fear, anger at myself for not having played for so many years, shame and God only knows what else raced through my exhausted body.

 I do not recall the specific time or moment when I decided to accept the invitation. I called her back and got the directions to her house. I opened the case, most strings, I recall, were loose and the bridge had moved. I remember at that moment looking with such love at this wonderful viola. Armed with my viola and my wife who was always a pillar of strength, we went to our destination or, should I say, to my new destiny. I met the other players. Our hostess played piano, her husband, the clarinet. There was another couple, the husband played violin and his wife the cello.

Everybody knew one another and engaged in lovely conversation but I remained tense, anxious, frightened anticipating what sounds I would be producing from this instrument.

Finally the big moment came. My hands were trembling so much that I could not use the bow to tune up… During the first moments of playing, the fingers of my left hand felt like unbendable carrots, my right arm felt as though it was in a sling but above all, my legs felt like well cooked noodles. My heart beat was much faster than the movement we played. Thoughts raced through my mind. Approval is a major disease for any instrumentalist and I had a severe case of extreme insecurity, poor or practically no sense of self confidence and shame. I remember clearly at that time during the first ten minutes or so telling myself repeatedly “this is how you play now do not compare yourself to how you used to play.” It was fortunate that except for the cellist, who was a solid professional player, the others were by all standards weaker players and that fact helped me relax and in that group my playing the viola was not that vile after all. My carrot like fingers gradually turned into sausages and shortly after did what I wanted them to do. I actually started to enjoy the playing. I remember enjoying some of my own playing and that was a major step. I CHANGED HATS AND THE NEW HAT FIT. It was not expected of me more than I could produce. In that group, I was o.k. I was not criticized at the contrary I was complimented and was thanked profusely for saving that evening. I do not think that any of the players had any notion of what they had done for me. This was a turning point in my new relationship to my instrument. The viola was no longer the monster I created in my mind: it was once again my loving partner in expressing my deepest secrets.

As a result of that session, one of the participants recommended me to Bill, the conductor of a local community orchestra. Bill called me a week or so later and asked me if I would be interested in playing sextets. We did. He then called me to invite me to play piano quintets. We did. Then he invited me play string quartets. We did. Then he called me to ask me to come to his orchestra. I did. Taken completely by surprise he gave me the music and had me sight read with the orchestra a solo viola piece Traumermusic by Hindemith. I did. When I finished the orchestra expressed their approval by tapping their bows against the music stands.

With a very dramatic gesture, Bill pointed to the principal viola seat and now it was mine. He whispered to me”the audition is not over”. I said OK. At the end of the rehearsal he told me to wait for him. Bill and some of the musicians proceeded to tell me how to get to a certain bar in town. That was where we met and the audition had to do with how well I could hold my liquor. I could not and was not interested and left. That day I failed my bar exam. I heard Bill was brought home close to 3 a.m. I failed my audition con spirito but retained the position of principal violist. The word was apparently out that there was this new violist and I started receiving calls for other orchestras, chamber music ensembles, et al. I was never a perfectionist so the transition to establishing myself as a good musician (not a virtuoso) was a comfortable one. Conductors of community and university orchestras offered me the principal position and I retained that position for years to come including 5 seasons with the Ostschweizer Kammer Orchester touring Switzerland.

I have learned to play with self confidence and with no apologies for my limitations. In brief: I have accepted who I am as a violist.


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