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Mastering Berlioz' Roman Carnival Viola Excerpt: Unveiling the Secrets of Audition Brilliance

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

Great Audition preparation leads to the stage

Berlioz’ Roman Carnival excerpt is deceptively difficult which is precisely why it is a standard viola excerpt. It is almost readable (besides the last part with the sextuplet string crossings!), but the intonation is very hard to pin down and the singing sound quality adds another challenge. A great performance of this excerpt takes real maturity and patience with your practice. The Roman Carnival Overture is a wonderful moment in music, written with very colorful orchestration to depict a carnival scene. The English Horn sings this main tune first, and the violas add their own distinct color to the same song in this excerpt. I am going to share exactly how I practiced to record this excerpt for All State 23/24 so that you can go into your audition with full confidence in your preparation and with the maturity of your sound.


1. E Major scales-Practice the E Major scale in a variety of different ways to pin down the intonation in the opening of this excerpt. The middle range on the viola is notoriously murky, and E Major is not the most ringing of keys on the viola. G#’s are hard to place as the 3rd of the key, and D#’s are hard to place as the leading tone. A good rule of thumb is to make sure 3rds are not too high and leading tones are not too sharp even though they are leading back to the tonic. Even more importantly-the E’s and A’s have to be right on point and should sound exactly the same regardless of what octave you are playing in. Do you see how it would be very easy to overthink the intonation in this excerpt? That’s good-you should overthink it in the beginning of your practice so that you don’t build any bad habits that are hard to break. When we take intonation for granted the result is that we may not realize that we’re are playing out of tune, but the audition panel certainly will!

Step one will always be E Major in first position. Put a drone on E and make sure that the E’s and A’s have a perfect blend with the drone. Then work on the placement of the G#. The goal is to make it sound neutral against the E-when it sounds neutral that means you have the right blend. It might be hard to find at first, so try singing the G# with the drone on E, move the G# around a bit to see where it feels like it has the best ring with the E drone-it will be probably be lower than you think.

Practice in 1st position

Once you complete the first step of blending the simple scale with the drone, practice the same E Major scale in 3rd position. It should sound exactly the same as the scale in first position. A good trick for this is to bring your bow a little closer to the bridge as you are playing. The string tension changes as you work your way up the fingerboard, so a good rule of thumb is to play closer to the bridge as your left hand climbs higher on the fingerboard. The contact point of the bow determines how focused the sound is. The tension of the string is highest where the strings meet the bridge and the tension gets lower as the bow moves down the fingerboard. This is why when you play on the fingerboard the sound is “looser” or fuzzier. As you bow closer to the bridge, the sound becomes more "focused" or “tight”.

Practice E Major in 3rd Position

2. String Crossing Practice-One of the biggest challenges with string crossings comes right at the end-5 bars before Rehearsal 4. When I practice this excerpt I always warm up with a string crossing exercise. I do this because, as I tell my students, it allows me to practice this difficult passage without really having to practice it, so it improves my quality of life! Instead of struggling through with a metronome and trying really hard to make every note perfectly even, why not take the left hand out of the equation all together? Get the smoothness down and then add in the left hand. This open string exercise is an accelerated string crossing exercise-you start out by alternating half notes between the C and G strings and you break down the rhythm pattern into smaller and smaller subdivisions between the two strings.

Open strings practice
Put the metronome on quarter=60 for this exercise

Pro Tip: Place your bow evenly on both strings as if you are going to play a double stop. Move the bow over just enough for the bow to be on only the C string, then move the bow over just enough for the bow to be on the G string. This is the range of motion you should have as you are crossing strings. If the bow is moving over too far it makes it more difficult for you to make a smooth sound. The motion you are making with the bow needs to be as smooth as possible so that the string crossings don’t sound jerky.

3. Tackling the ending with doublestops-Having a smooth bow is only half the problem with the sextuplet section. Nailing the intonation is no joke! Trying to navigate through the murky lower end of the viola between half and first position is enough to make anyone want to pull their hair out. The good news is that with the right fingering and choreography, practicing will be a much more enjoyable process. When we play double stops on the viola we have to put two fingers down at the same time-I like to think of that as a double stop block. I like this word because blocks are structural and we want to have a structure in our hand as we play double stops. In this exercise we practice structuring our hand into double stop blocks so that we can practice the choreography of the left hand. The way we get from one note to the next is a dance that we need to choreograph, and then we need to practice that choreography. As you practice each string crossing in double stops, pay very close attention to how you need to move your hand to get to the double stop. This exercise is best practiced going back and forth between the double stops in each measure and then playing it as written after you are confidently nailing the intonation on the double stops.

Original Sextuplet Passage

Sextuplet Passage original

Sextuplet Practice Exercise

Sextuplet passage broken down into double stops

*Practice this exercise note by note, paying close attention to how you need to move your hand & arm to get each set of double stops in tune. This will train your arm in the subtle choreography that is needed to play this in tune. Every person's hands works differently, so take time to discover exactly what choreography you need in order to play this efficiently, smoothly, and in tune.

This excerpt shows the maturity of any musician. There are a lot of fine details that are easy to miss, including the legato, the vibrato, the rhythm (which we didn’t even touch on here!), and the bow control. Do not be deceived by how simple this excerpt looks-it truly demands many hours of practice to nail the precision and the fine details. We can only talk about the music and the character of the piece once these technical aspects are mastered, so practice that E Major scale every day, practice string crossings every day, and practice with a metronome every day. Every extra hour makes a difference, so put in as much as you can so that you go into the audition feeling confident that you did your absolute best with the preparation!


Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed this blog and you have an awesome audition!

🎶🎵🎶 Happy Practicing! 🎶🎵🎶

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