What do you call someone who hangs around musicians a lot?
Why don’t violists play hide and seek?
Because no one will look for them.
What’s the longest viola joke?
Harold in Italy.
Did you hear the one about the violinist who got frustrated arranging music for string orchestra because she didn’t read alto clef, who had some weaknesses in her violin playing that she thought viola playing might solve, and who had a viola-playing friend who she thought might help her navigate the subtleties of switching between instruments?
She took up viola.
No. She did.
Seriously. I’m not joking. This actually happened.
A month or two ago I arranged a piano piece by Amy Beach for my little string orchestra. The two violin parts were a piece of cake, obviously. The cello parts didn’t come quite as effortlessly, but they were still relatively easy; I did play for a year or two in my teens, and although I’m a terrible pianist, I’m fluent in bass clef.
But those violas. And that alto clef.
I know that technically it’s not possible for clefs to leer, but I swear this one did. It taunted my cluelessness. I might as well be a cipher to you, it said. For all these years, you’ve sat next to violists; learned chamber music featuring violas; heck, worshiped Lillian Fuchs and had the wildly unpopular heretical thought that there are times in her hands that the Bach cello suites sound just as good, if not better, on the viola…and you haven’t even bothered to glance at me, let alone take the time to learn my pitches. You have to go to Wikipedia to figure out what you’re doing when you’re writing notes on me. Wikipedia! You don’t know when you’re asking violists to make inconvenient shifts, do you? – you don’t know how to finger beginner players’ parts, do you? – in fact, you don’t know anything about violas period, do you? You like to think of yourself as a well-rounded musician, but you don’t know a thing about me. Haha. The joke’s on you now, isn’t it, Miss Violinist? Isn’t it? Isn’t it??
I kept hearing Edith Lynwood Winn’s opinionated turn-of-the-century voice in my head: Every violinist should play the viola to some extent. This aids one to produce a robust tone, and a knowledge of it is very helpful to the ensemble class.
Every violinist should play the viola to some extent…
Every violinist should play the viola to some extent…
In one of those common real-life coincidences that editors view as contrived in novels, the guy who sits next to me in orchestra is my luthier, and he has a shop and rents out stringed instruments. In early December my portable stand broke during one of our gigs (FYI, cold Wisconsin winters + plastic stands + forgetting plastic stands in cars in cold Wisconsin winters = problem), so I emailed him asking if he could bring along a spare stand to our next gig and I’d pay him there.
Then, suddenly and on impulse, I tacked on a quick paragraph asking about viola rentals. I asked if he had any available, and if so in what sizes, because with my small frame and chronic pain problems, I’d prefer a smaller one. Weirdly, I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing. I was treating the request like a covert mission. A drug deal. Looking back, I’m not sure if I was keeping it a secret to cushion against disappointment in case it didn’t work out, or whether if deep down all the jokes over the years actually have engendered some anti-viola prejudice in me.
I needn’t have feared disappointment. Sure, he wrote back. I’ve got a 14-inch in stock; if you can handle your violin, you almost certainly can handle this viola. $20 a month.
Yes, it turns out that for pennies a day, you too can give a home to a lonely viola in desperate need of love and attention.
After I heard from him, I started a thread on violinist.com about adding on viola to my musical workload and got some helpful advice (thanks guys!), the most urgent of which seemed to be, take a lesson from a violist.
As it turns out, I’m lucky enough to have an obliging professional violist friend (to be referred in this and future installments of Violaland as “PVF”). He was kind enough to agree to take some time away from his busy schedule of doing the mysterious violay things professional violists do to let me in on some trade secrets. My lesson is this weekend, so by Sunday I should be fluent in the secret violist handshake. (There is a secret handshake, right?)
Yesterday I went to pick the instrument up, half nervous, half giddy. My luthier came in the room with a Hoffman Concert from Shar – a really nice sturdy little thing whose value I would have assumed to be at least four or five times what it actually is. It’s not so bad to look at, either. I wonder if this is just a particularly nice shop and a particularly nice rental, or if cheap stringed instruments have drastically improved in quality since I began playing twelve years ago.
He left the room so I could be alone for my big viola debut. I took a breath, raised the bow, and started a scale on the C-string, making sure to relax as much of my weight into the bow that I could.
The weeks of waiting were worth it. The tone resonated through my chest, like someone humming very loudly right next to my heart. I remember the feeling of a soothing vibration from my cello days, but this was so much better because it was right beneath the ear, and the tone didn’t take nearly so much effort to draw out. The G and D strings had large, wide, wise sounds. (How can sounds be wise? But they are. I felt like I was listening to a philosopher.) And the A-string! It should basically be the same thing as my violin’s, right? But it’s not, at all; it’s a totally different creature. It’s mellow, mournful, melancholy. Shifts on the A-string just tug at the heart. It’s the stringed instrument equivalent of walking through an animal shelter and seeing dozens of sad eyes follow you around. And there’s no bright silvery quick-vibrating E-string afterward to cheer you up. The mellow, mournful, melancholy A-string is the high point of the viola. It’s the happy part. I’m melancholy by nature, so I loved it.
While I was at the shop, my luthier kindly offered a fifteen inch for me to try. Its sound was even bigger and broader, and more (for lack of a better word) viola-ish. But my intonation was dodgier, and it was harder to get a good tone out. Verdict: if I didn’t have chronic pain issues and could have weekly lessons with a well-trained teacher, I would have assumed I’d get used to it and brought the fifteen inch home. It wasn’t unmanageable by any means; it just felt inconvenient. It was heartening to know that a woman who’s ninety pounds and five feet five inches can almost handle a fifteen-inch viola. Something to keep in mind for the future.
But for today leastways it would be the fourteen-inch. I signed the papers and away I went.
I got home and compared my violin and the viola, both aesthetically and aurally. I spent the whole time playing various excerpts of solo Bach. I marveled at how the same passages could sound so entirely different on the two instruments…and how brilliantly Bach wrote for each range. I ended the session with my violin (I have to let her know she’s still my baby) with a quiet double-stop from the g-minor adagio – D on the A string and open D. I gently raised the bow from the string and let the pitch ring in the air. This was a day well-spent, I decided.
Suddenly I heard a strange sound behind me that I’d never heard before, as if there was another player in the room. I turned around just in time to see the D-string on the viola vibrating in resonance. My violin was talking to the viola…and the viola was answering. For a brief moment I got weirdly emotional (it was a long day, okay?). It was touching, and all the confirmation I needed that the two instruments can live happily in harmony.
This video includes, in order, 1) the allemande from the first Bach cello suite, transcribed for violin, excerpt, 2) the allemande from the first Bach cello suite, transcribed for viola, excerpt, 3) the adagio from first Bach sonata for solo violin, excerpt, and 4) the adagio from first Bach sonata for solo violin, transcribed for viola, excerpt. I thought it only fair to give each instrument a piece from their “native” rep. Also, I’m familiar with the whackload of mistakes in these clips, but forgive me; I always regress in front of an audience or a microphone. Plus, I used my laptop mic, which is made obvious by the mysterious crystally sounds scattered throughout. But hopefully, crap quality aside, the clips give a general idea of where I am at the moment in my viola journey.)
So what have we learned in this installment of Emily Visits Violaland?
Lesson Number 1: You don’t need an excuse to try the viola. A simple curiosity is reason enough.
Lesson Number 2: Don’t let your size hold you back from at least trying a viola.
Lesson Number 3A: The viola is amazing. The melancholy of the A-string may lead to dysthymia, but it’s amazing.
Lesson Number 3B: Refuse to listen to Edith Lynwood Winn at your peril.
Coming up in future installments of Emily Visits Violaland…
- Emily experiences how frustrating it is when people have no idea what your instrument is, and learns how to strategically deploy the phrase “um, it’s between a violin and a cello…”
- PVF makes his first appearance and offers wisdom from the rarefied world of professional viola-players.
- Emily prints out a transcription of the first cello suite by Bach and learns that the pitch of the bottom line of alto clef can be remembered by thinking “F this!”
Until next time…