Sarah Graham

Practice Tips

Thoughts on how to learn a new piece of viola music

by Vanessa Gaidoni

September 2019

Keep Life Sweet



Do you have a new piece to learn?

Swiss artist Paul Klee (1879-1940) said about the word ‘line’

“​A line is a dot that went for a walk.”


As musicians we are always taking dots for a walk, and lifting them right off the page!

Learning a new piece can be very rewarding, especially as you begin to hear great improvements. The way in which you approach this process can dramatically affect the final results. Like any skill, it is important to prepare a good foundation, and then gradually build up the layers until you have your polished performance.


I live very close to the exceptional artist Sarah Graham….  

Sarah Graham - Kaiser Chiefs Album Cover


I have been lucky enough to visit her studio a couple of times; it is always fascinating to talk to her and hear her describe how she works.

Sarah Graham Studio


I was struck by how similar her painting process seemed to learning a new piece of music.

An artist paints their interpretation of what they see. In a similar way, you play your interpretation of the music on your stand.


Sarah explained to me that she starts with an underpainting, always using the colour yellow.

Sarah Graham - 1


When you first get a new piece, it is a good idea to look through the whole composition and get a good feel for the layout. Look for the overall structure; can you see the big picture, the form of the piece? Can you spot the general shape of the phrases or notice any melodic sequences? Like in a landscape painting, long horizontal lines often convey a peaceful feeling, whereas more broken up lines can mean tension or a sense of movement. Look for the key signature, time signature and tempo markings; these will give you a really good idea of what the piece will sound like before you get started.

Building from that yellow base, Sarah gradually adds colour and detail, bit by bit.

Sarah Graham - 2


Once you have a good feel for the overall shape of the piece, you can start to add in some of the detail. It is a good idea to work on a small area at a time. You can take it a phrase at a time or pick out similar motifs that appear in different sections of the work. This is the time to familiarise yourself with the notes and rhythms, start to work slowly on some of the more technical challenges. Decide on the best bowings, string crossings and shifts. Try to master each section before you move on to the next.  

Focusing on each area in turn, Sarah gradually brings the painting to life.

Sarah Graham - 3


Keep working slowly, as faithfully as your patience will allow. Have you taken note of the dynamics, all of the articulation and tempo markings? Gradually the sections will start to join together, bringing your musical picture to life. There is no hurry; the more attention to detail at this stage, the better the final result will be. Trust the process! Always keep a clear idea in your head how you would like it to sound in the end.



This is the point that a lot of people sit back and think they are done! As it stands, it is a good painting and many people would be impressed and happy with it.

Sarah Graham - 4


At this point you know the piece well. This is the fun bit, you have the notes under your fingers. Now you have to determine the character. Do you have a clear idea yourself of the style and picture you would like to create? Experiment with contact points and the different sounds that you can produce with your bow. The broader your colour palette, the more vibrant the picture will be. Vibrato is another great way of adding contrast and variety to the colour. What is your musical intention, are you telling a story or creating an atmosphere? Is it a solo or are you playing with others? If you are playing in a group or with a pianist you will need to consider the balance, which lines need to fade into the background and which need to come to the fore.



This is, in my opinion, the biggest step of all and what turns a good painting into a stunning work of art!

Sarah Graham - 5


Polishing is what makes the difference. It is all about elevating your piece to the highest level possible. You can only polish a piece when everything is in place and you know it inside out. Learning your piece from memory can really help at this stage, even if you plan to perform using the music. Focus on strengthening everything that you have already worked on. Meticulous listening to both intonation and clarity of sound is of utmost importance. Build your confidence by playing to anyone who will listen. Performing is different to practice, it is finally a chance for you to tell your story, express your own personality and communicate your message for others to enjoy. Try to let go, focus, trust your practice and find your musical flow.

“A painting is music you can see and music is a painting you can hear.


A huge thank you to the very lovely Sarah Graham, for inspiring me to write this article, letting me share her painting process and for the use of her photographs.


If you would like to see more from Sarah, check out her WEBSITE – CLICK HERE 

and follow her on INSTAGRAM – CLICK HERE

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