I usually write about music and teaching music, but this is one for the “running the business” side of having a music studio.
Like many private studio teachers, my students come to the house. I love this arrangement. There is no commute. I can grab a cup of coffee between students or throw in a load of laundry. I get to keep all the money rather than pay a percentage or rent to a commercial studio or music store.
But there are downsides. My teaching hours are restricted to those times that don’t disrupt the rest of the household, which for me means no evening or weekend lessons. I have to keep the house clean and neat and the lawn mowed. Morning students sometimes get a whiff of breakfast bacon and coffee or dinner in the crockpot. And we have cats.
My husband happens to be allergic to cats. But before you conclude that he is being a hero and a martyr to my desire for cats, let me point out that I am a dog person. He is the cat lover, so we have cats because he wants them. And in order to make this work, we discovered Ace Allergy Drops, which also happens to benefit my students and their family members who are also allergic to cats.
Here is how it works. People are generally not allergic to the actual fur or dander on cats, they are allergic to the protein in the cat’s saliva which gets all over their fur when they clean themselves. And someone very clever discovered that if you give cats a very lose dose of acepromazine (a pet tranquilizer) they stop producing that protein in their saliva.
The formula: one 5 mg acepromazine tablet crushed up and dissolved in 30 ml (one ounce) of distilled water. Store it in the refrigerator and shake it up before adding about 5-6 drops to the cat’s food once a day. It should take effect within 2-4 weeks.
You’ll need a prescription from your vet. Ours was skeptical, but was willing to make up the solution for $30 a bottle, which lasts us about 3 months. We have not noticed any behavioral effects on the cats – no lethargy (well, aside from the fact that they are cats), no tendency to get sick more easily, no dullness in their emotional connection to us. They still hate each other. They are utterly themselves, even with the drops.
About a month ago we were really busy with back-to-back trips and visits from family when we ran out of the drops. My husband said he didn’t think they were working anyway, so I didn’t get the prescription refilled. Then the mother of one of my students asked me at the end of a lesson if we were still giving the drops to our cats. Her nose was runny…. Yay! They do work.
When someone decides to start taking violin or viola lessons, here is the typical list of equipment:
For some reason, music stores and music teachers talk a lot about the different kinds of shoulder rests available and how to adjust them to fit the shape of your shoulder. But we almost never talk about the importance of getting the right chin rest, even though they are easy to replace, inexpensive, and play a critical role in how comfortably you can hold up your instrument.
Most chin rests mount to the left of the tailpiece, even though only about 30% of the population fits this style. The rest of us need some version of the center-mount chin rest, because that is where our jaws naturally fall when the instrument is properly balanced on the left collarbone. (Btw, it really should be called a “jaw rest”. You don’t put your chin on it, you rest the side of your jaw on it.)
Even if you need your chin rest on the left, there are several different shapes available and the one you have on your instrument might not be the most comfortable for you.
I’m currently teaching a beginner viola class at an elementary school (a terrible way to learn a stringed instrument, btw, but we do our best for the kids who will never take private lessons) and for most of these kids, holding their instruments correctly is really uncomfortable. They try to adjust by holding the viola in front, “viola beard” style, because it doesn’t hurt that way. How do you tell a kid that even though it hurts, they are doing it right? “Play” is supposed to feel good, not hurt. That goes for playing an instrument too.
And so, I wish that every music store that rents violins and violas would stock a good variety of chin rest styles, and that they would spend time helping the student get the right chin rest for them, just as they make sure the student gets the right size instrument and the right shoulder rest. It should be a standard part of fitting a student to the right instrument.
Here’s how it works:
Have the student stand facing you. Tell her not to move anything, but to let you place her hands/arms/head around the viola. Balance the instrument on her left collarbone, all the way against her neck, parallel with the floor, at a 45° angle. If you are standing in the middle of the room facing a wall, the scroll should point into the front left corner.
Place the student’s left hand in playing position with the palm of her hand up against the shoulder of the viola and her fingers hovering like an umbrella over the strings.
Have her move her head up and down and side to side (like saying “yes” and “no”) to make sure her head is comfortably upright and centered. Then help turn her head slightly to her left and gently rest the left side of her jaw down on the instrument. Her head should drop just an inch, and the natural weight of her head should make it easy for her to hold the viola up with her arms down at her sides.
Is the current chin rest cupping her face comfortably? Or is it off to the left, and her jaw comes down on the edge of the chin rest, or sits on the tailpiece? Does she instinctively want to stick her chin out, or cock her head, or move the viola higher on her shoulder or down in front of her?
Try different chin rests until you find the one that sits directly underneath her left jaw and feels comfortable. It should feel to her like the viola is nestled comfortably, not pulling away from her. There should be no sharp edges poking under her jaw or hard lumps pushing her head out of the way. She should be able to turn her head to look forward and back down the fingerboard.
Here are several styles to try: https://www.sharmusic.com/Accessories/Chinrests/
If you are renting your instrument, keep the chin rest that came with it somewhere safe so that when you return it, you can put it back on.
Email me if you have any questions.
This summer I was able to take a break from teaching and be a student for 10 days. The Indiana University Jacobs School of Music has an annual summer violin & viola teachers’ “retreat” – but as intense as it is, there is no retreating about it. I came home with a thick binder, a notebook full of notes, and a head exploding with information to apply to teaching my own students. It was very good, but it is going to take me a while to process it all.
Though I live in the Seattle area, I just happened to be in the Midwest the week before the workshop at my parents’ 60th anniversary party at the south shores of Lake Michigan, not far from their hometown of South Bend. The lake house where we were staying was just a half day’s drive south to Bloomington for the workshop.
I got up early Friday morning, missing the first half day of the workshop and the last 2 days of my family’s reunion. No one else was up except my husband and parents to see me off. And as I was closing up my suitcase, I saw a tick. Then discovered one on the back of my neck. Took off my blouse, and found two more! Thankfully my husband was able to confirm that there were no more on me while my parents went through my stuff.
I didn't find any more ticks, but I was still a bit rattled when I arrived at the workshop, having missed the orientation and barely making the first lecture Friday afternoon. But Brenda Brenner, who manages the workshop and is a friend of mine, gave me a hug after her lecture that afternoon. Brenda is a pedagogy professor at IU and founder of The Fairview Violin Project, which is a public school program that teaches beginning violin classes in a Title 1 school near Bloomington, IN. Brenda and I played in the youth symphony quartet together back in high school. And she went to the prom with my brother Greg. 😊
And then at dinner, I happened to sit next to Rebecca Henry, one of the workshop's professors. As we talked, we discovered that we are both from South Bend; that her parents went to all my dad’s concerts when we lived there in the late 60s/early 70s; and that her sister Ruth was a friend of mine in elementary school!
The workshop is headed by Mimi Zweig, renowned pedagogy expert at the Jacobs School, founder of string academies in Wisconsin and at IU, and former teacher of violinist Joshua Bell. (Here is Joshua while he was studying with Mimi; and here is Joshua as an adult.) Her eclectic mix of theoretical approaches includes Suzuki, Paul Rolland, and several others as well as her own thoughts on setting up a "non-judgmental environment" for students to learn.
And then there were several other pedagogy professors from around the country, all proteges of Mimi’s. My group and private teacher for the workshop was violist/violinist Jim Przygocki from the University of Wyoming and founder of the UW String Project. (Are you seeing a pattern here?) Such a nice man and an excellent teacher! His wife, violinist Sherry Sinift, also gave some of the lectures and played on one of the several excellent concerts we were able to attend.
All of the professors at the retreat are involved with community string programs, including Rebecca Henry. She teaches pedagogy at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and is also the founder of ViolinPractice.com.
Also teaching at the workshop were Elizabeth Zempel and Bonnie Greene, both experts in teaching young children and both from Wisconsin. Bonnie has collected folk tunes from all over the world and publishes her own collections and others' string music at One World Strings.
I don’t know about previous summers, but this year was quite international. There were several from Canada who are involved with El Sistema, a music education program that started in Venezuela to teach children from the slums. There were teachers from Korea, Japan, Australia, Spain and Portugal, Brazil, and India, as well as several states in the US.
This summer also drew a lot of young teachers in their late 20s to early 30s. There were a few around 40, and then the three of us "older" ladies: me, Sarah from Muncie, IN, and Jane from Prestwick, Scotland. All three of u are on our second (or third) careers and set up our teaching studios two years ago. It was lovely to get to know these women! We were often joined by our friend Paul from SoCal. Here is a picture of the four of us at the Irish Lion in Bloomington.
And here are Jane and Sarah:
On the last day of the workshop we all gathered at Mimi’s house for our last session (Kreutzer etudes!) and brunch. We got a chance to chat with the professors more, and I was surprised to learn that they thought this workshop would run for a few years and then stop – because there would be no more teachers interested. But every summer they get a new crop of about 30-35 teachers, even now after a couple of decades. I hope they continue. It is excellent.
If you are interested in attending the workshop and have any questions about my experience there, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Somehow, the word “discipline” has become synonymous with “punishment”. Corporate HR departments and public school administrations have “disciplinary procedures”: the process to follow when someone breaks the rules. A parent might be referred to as a “disciplinarian”, meaning they are the parent who punishes you when you disobey.
This isn’t particularly new. In fact, Merriam Webster says that in the 13th century, the term referred to religiously inspired punishment, such as self-flagellation. These are probably the same people who misunderstood the proverb “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” More on that in a minute.
In my opinion, all of this is a misunderstanding of the word. Just as “discipline” sometimes refers to a body of knowledge or field of study, the word originally referred to the activities of a student who is learning something or following a particular teacher. That student is a “disciple”.
Learning something well requires regular, consistent, persistent, and sometimes repetitive action. This is discipline, and it takes time. No punishment is needed, just motivation to do it, do it correctly, or at least do it better than the last time, and keep on doing it.
Few things in life require as much discipline as learning to play an instrument. This is one of the reasons why music students score higher on their SATs, do better in math and science classes, and are pursued by law schools and med schools. In order to succeed in learning an instrument and getting good at it (where the fun really begins) you have to have developed a capacity for discipline. Therefore, you are already used to the dedication needed to study law (so much reading!) or medicine (long, long hours) or any body of knowledge that takes concentration over a long period of time.
One of the hardest things I do as a violin teacher is teach my students how to practice. It isn’t consistent with our culture to stop playing with your friends, or turn off the video game, and go practice. Alone. Doing something that, at first, feels awkward and sounds terrible! And later, it sometimes feels like a journey that never ends. It's hard to notice improvement, which would be so encouraging if it were obvious!
I don’t believe in punishment for failure to practice, by the way. That “rod” that we’re not supposed to spare was originally referring to a shepherd’s crook. And a shepherd would never use his rod to hit his sheep! If he did, he would either damage them or chase them away. He might use the rod to hit or threaten a predator, but for the sheep, the rod was for guiding and keeping them on the path and moving in the right direction. This is what a good parent does.
Parents play an important role in helping their child to practice – not being there with them, though occasionally that is a good idea, but creating the conditions that make good, consistent practicing possible. Parents can help by setting aside a space that is relatively free from distractions (the TV isn’t on 20 feet away), setting a regular time every day that doesn’t conflict with other desirable activities (“We’re going to the park to play; you stay here and practice.”), reminding the student that it’s time to play violin, and not tolerating excuses.
Here are some ideas I have come across that might work for you:
I once heard discipline described visually in this way:
Water is the talent. The riverbanks are the discipline. If you have no riverbanks, you have a swamp full of stagnant, smelly, muddy water. But if you have good boundaries, the water flows – sometimes very rapidly – in one direction, eventually reaching its goal.
Forty years ago, I switched from violin to viola. Jeff Irvine – fresh from a master’s degree at Eastman – was my first viola teacher, and the best string teacher I ever had. Several years later he became my sister-in-law’s viola professor at Oberlin Conservatory. And this last weekend we were all together at the Viola Festival at UNLV, where Kate is the viola professor.
Jeff was the featured guest, escaping from the snowy weather in Cleveland for a few days in the Nevada sunshine. He gave a master class, played in the viola choir, and hung out with Kate and me. Just as I remember him, Jeff is kind, generous, and engaging. He obviously cares about the people he is working with. He always starts with positive feedback before identifying the weaknesses. He asks questions, uses insightful analogies, demonstrates and coaches through new techniques and approaches to problem solving. Jeff was the first teacher who walked all around me while I played, observing my form from all angles and correcting a bow hold here or a neck tilt there. It was unnerving at first, but he caught things my previous string teachers hadn’t noticed for years. I soon came to appreciate his unconventional style, and rapidly improved.
Cuban American violist Yunior Lopez gave the master class for high school students from the community. In addition to performing and teaching viola students, he is the founder and conductor of the Young Artists Orchestra in Las Vegas. I didn't get a photo of his master class, but you can check out these excellent performances by Yunior and a few of his high school musicians: Bach Chaconne for Four Violas and Brandenburg #6.
If you’re not sure you like the sound of the viola, listen to a viola choir – you will develop a new appreciation for this beautiful, rich sounding instrument. Twenty-five of us gathered on the stage to play a few pieces, where finally, with no violins in sight, we got to play the melody. And that melody wasn’t just for the Viola 1 part: violists are nice people, and we like sharing. Each of the four parts took turns playing melody, harmony, and accompaniment.
It was a great group of violists – visiting professionals, teachers and musicians from the community, college students and high school students. And Joey, the extremely well-behaved black Pomeranian mix, who wandered among us on stage during the viola choir rehearsal wagging his tail and enjoying the beautiful music.
Hopefully, this will become an annual event!
Fingering: One of the first things for more advanced students to do – when the basics I’ve already described become second nature – is look through the music to see what notes go higher than first position. Once you are used to shifting you will be able to figure out a good place to shift up and when to shift down. And if you can figure this out before you get there, you won’t need to stop and figure it out.
Articulations, Dynamics, and Other Nuances: For more advanced music and musicians, you’ll want to look at the markings the composer has written into the music – e.g. slurs, staccato or spiccato, up-bows and down-bows; mezzo-pianos and fortes and crescendos; fermatas and caesuras and ritards; and so on. Just take a quick look over the page to be aware of what’s coming up so it won’t take you by surprise.
Intervals: Musicians who have had ear training have a huge advantage over those who haven’t. If you’re one of the lucky ones, you can hear intervals in your head when you look at the notes. This helps you anticipate what the next note is going to sound like. When your eyes, ears, and fingers are all helping, you will be much more fluent in your note reading.
Scale degrees: For more advanced students, I ask them to look at what note the piece starts on. Where in the scale is that note? Musicians who know their scale degrees and intervals can hear it in their heads, and can hum the music out loud.
Eventually, your goal is to read music the way you read a book. You don’t know how the story goes before you turn to Chapter 1, right? But as you read the words, the story unfolds. You can hear the words and get pictures in your mind as you read. Sight reading music is the same: by looking at the music, you will hear it and feel it without playing a single note.
Over the last two months I have been writing about sight-reading skills. First I discussed the importance of developing these skills, and the levels of ability. Next I outlined the basics I start with when teaching young and less advanced students. Here, I go into more detail, and I'll post a bonus section for more advanced musicians next month.
More details about key signature
Major & Minor Keys: Usually at first, we are just working with major keys. But when we come across a minor key, I explain the concept of relative minor and show the student how to find the minor key a minor third down. It’s a little tricky for younger and less experienced students to understand, but with repetition everyone gets it eventually.
To explain the concept of relative minors, I talk about relatives having the same signature – the same last name – but are different people. This helps students remember that E minor and G major, for example, are relatives; they have the same last name and “sign their names the same way” – with an F#.
Next I point out that a lot of music starts and ends on the tonic (e.g. C is the tonic in C major). Not always, but it’s a clue if you’re not sure (and might be a clue that this one is in the relative minor). And I have them find the lowest of that note on their instrument and play a scale in that key so they orient their ear.
Accidentals: I ask students to look for accidentals, so they’re ready when they get to them. And I ask: Will you just slide your finger up or down when you get to that note, or is that going to be an extra wide stretch from first to third finger, or…? Those might just be chromatic notes, or they might indicate a modulation to another key.
More details about rhythm and meter
Rhythm: In addition to clapping the rhythm, I also have students look for anything unusual; for example, a triplet in 4-4 time, syncopated notes, or ties across a barline.
Tempo Marking: We look at the context for the rhythms and meter, because the tempo can have a dramatic effect on how the music sounds and is played.
Form: I might also have students take a step back to look at the big picture, the “road map”.
Putting It All Together
Once a student can do all of the basics pretty easily with prompting, I start having them do it silently in their heads. We turn the page to a new piece of music, and I wait while they look at all the basic elements. When they’re ready, they give it a shot (starting with a quick one-octave scale if they want to orient their ear), and then I compliment them on the parts they got right and have them take another look at the sections they missed.
What we are aiming for is a musically expressive rendition of what’s on the page. Slowly (with practice) students move from the music equivalent of “See – Jane – run – see – Dick – run – see – Spot – run” to a dramatic interpretation of whatever the composer wrote. And eventually, musicians learn to do all of this pretty quickly. You won’t need to play a quick scale to orient your ear to the key, because you’ll be able to hear the notes in your head and translate that as you play.
Things that help:
Have fun, and don’t be in a hurry. You will learn how to do this, but it will take time. If you want, record yourself trying to sight read something today, and then in a year record yourself again. If you have been working on it consistently, you will be amazed at how much better you are!
Last month I wrote about the importance of sight-reading skills and the different levels of ability. It’s a complex skill that involves more than just the ability to read notes and note values correctly on a sheet of music. It also requires musical instinct and an engaged musical ear, just like with learning and playing music by ear with no music in front of you.
Although it does take time to learn sight-reading skills, and even more time to develop confidence in your ability, there are specific things you can do beyond just using your musical instinct and your ear. This post describes how I have been teaching my students to approach a new piece of music they have never heard before.
Note Names and Note Values: The first thing students must learn is what notes they are playing (the note names, not just what finger to use on what string) and how long that note lasts. I ask questions such as:
These are the basic elements students need to know before I start teaching them to sight-read. I have found that my former Suzuki students are a little hazy on some of this, even though their playing is quite advanced. For example, they might or might not know that that note is called an 8th note, though they probably know it is faster than a quarter note. Because they have learned the music by ear first, and then are using the printed music as a reminder of how it goes, I need to figure out what gaps they have in their knowledge and fill those gaps in.
Next I introduce students to the steps for sight-reading a piece of music.
Key Signature: When we turn the page to a new piece, these are the first questions I ask:
Then I have the student figure out what the key is. If it’s sharps, then the key is the note above the last sharp (reading left to right). If it’s flats, then the key is the second-to-last flat.
This means there are two keys you have to memorize: C major, which has no flats or sharps, and F major, which has only one flat.
I also point out that the first sharp in the sequence is always F# and the first flat is always Bb and the order of the sequences is always the same.
Time Signature: The time signature is the first clue to the rhythmic feel of the music.
I have students clap the rhythm while I tap the beat on the stand with my pencil. Or I have them point to the notes while saying the rhythm: “One two-and three four”.
As they get used to these basic elements, I start to add more details. Next month’s post will talk about these details, and I might add a bonus section with some extras for more advanced students.
I have a couple former Suzuki students whom I am teaching to sight-read. Typical of Suzuki students, they are both beautifully set up: perfect left hand form, consistent intonation, excellent bowing technique. But as is also common with Suzuki students, they are not good note readers in spite of their advanced skill.
Learning to play “by ear” is an extremely useful skill which I teach to all my students. But learning to read notes is equally important, especially if you want to play in an ensemble or do well in an audition.
I think of sight-reading skill in three stages.
Beginning: Learning what finger to put down on what string when you see a particular note on a specific line or space, but still needing to hear the melody, either someone else playing it or listening to a recording, in order to understand how it sounds.
This is like the child just learning how to read. She’s heard the story before and know how it goes; she could tell it to you herself. And now she has the book in her hands and is learning that that three-letter word starting with a “p” is probably “pig” because the story is about the three little pigs.
Competent: Knowing the note names on sight (not figuring it out by using “Every Good Boy Does Fine” or “F-A-C-E”) and playing them accurately (including sharps or flats in the key signature) in “real time”, with correct rhythm.
This is the student who can read a book out loud in his reading group, even if he doesn’t know the story yet, with the teacher there listening to correct pronunciation or help with an unfamiliar word. This student is now starting to know when a vowel is short or long – just like sharps and flats – and can figure out by context how a word should sound.
Fluent: Looking at a piece of music and hearing it accurately in your head before you play it.
Eventually you want to be able to read any book on your own and understand the story as it unfolds. Unfortunately, a lot of musicians don’t get to this stage until college, when they are forced to take sight singing classes!
My former Suzuki students are both at the beginning stage. They know what finger to put down, but aren’t sure when it should be high or low (and why), and they need a significant amount of help with rhythm and counting.
Sometimes they write the finger number and string below the notes, or color-code notes to indicate when to play it sharp or flat, but I encourage them to drop these habits as soon as they can.
Ironically, these habits are an indication that the student’s ear is disengaged and their musical instincts are asleep. They are simply reading by rote with no musical comprehension, and can’t tell when they make a mistake.
However, if you are forced to rely on your ear & instincts while reading music, you will begin to be able to tell if that sharp or flat makes sense in the phrase. It’s this experience – deciding if a note you played makes sense in context – that begins to develop your fluency.
The same is true for note values. If you are “feeling the beat” (i.e. your musical instincts and ear are engaged) then you’re less likely to short-change rests or play a series of eighth notes twice as fast or slow as they should be.
It is a difficult thing to do at first, especially if you haven’t grown up reading the notes. And developing confidence in your ability to sight read takes time. But there are specific things you can do to build your skill, which, along with using your ear and instincts, can help you become a fluent sight reader. I’ll address these in the next part next month.
A violinist was having lunch with another violinist friend one sunny day. She had come directly from a quartet rehearsal, so she brought her violin with her into the restaurant.
While eating, she got a call from the violist in her quartet (whom she had given a ride home). The guy said he had left his viola in her car, and could she please bring it back when convenient. The violinist agreed and said goodbye.
Then suddenly she gasped.
“Oh don’t worry,” said the other violinist. “He won’t even need it before your next rehearsal.”
“No, you don’t understand! It’s a hot day, and so I left the car windows wide open!”
Now the other violinist gasped too. “Oh no! If we hurry, maybe we can stop the worst from happening!”
Together they ran out to the parking lot. But it was too late. There were five more violas tossed into the backseat.
Yes, there are many, many viola jokes. Some of them are quite funny, and (to be honest) apt. But it is still a beautiful and under-appreciated instrument, and I am glad I made the switch from violin to viola.
If you’re thinking about trying the viola out, I would probably encourage you to go for it. You can always go back to violin if it isn’t for you. I still play both, and it’s pretty easy to go back and forth.
Here are some of the pros, cons, and challenges:
Learning the Clef
The hardest part for me was learning the alto clef. In terms of note names, it is one note (plus one octave) off from treble clef. In terms of fingering, it is a third off, so third fingers become first fingers and twos become open strings.
This was mind-bending for me at first. It was like trying to learn a foreign language where a word sounds almost like a word you already know, but means something completely different.
I crammed that first day – slogging through all of my viola parts for several hours – and then, exhausted, slept like a rock that night. The next day things just clicked. Our brains do amazing things while we sleep!
Now that I am fluent in both clefs, the alto clef feels more logical to me. Middle C, for example, is right in the middle of the staff.
Making the Physical Adjustments
A full-size violin is about 14 inches, while a standard viola is 16 to 16½ (though some are larger – even 18 inches long). The bigger the viola, the more resonant the sound, which is particularly important for the C string. So you’ll want to play on the largest size you can comfortably handle. Of course, the longer the viola the more you have to stretch out your fingers to play in tune. It is a case of maximizing within natural limitations: fuller sound without losing playability.
If you have at least average length fingers, you’ll be fine. If your fingers are long, playing viola might be even easier for you than violin. If your fingers are short, well, try to find a smaller viola and do the best you can.
One of the big differences I noticed when I switched was that the viola is slower to “speak” than the violin, especially on the lower strings. These strings are fatter and less responsive, so you have to work harder to coax the sound out. I found that you can’t bow as quickly and get the same purity in the note. You have to use shorter, slower bow strokes and a bit more bow pressure – but not too much, which will crush the sound. In contrast, the violin is much easier to play!
Playing the (Luscious, and Sometimes Boring) Internal Harmonies
There is a joke about singers:
Q: What is an alto?
A: A soprano with a brain.
The viola is the alto of the string section; the violinist with a brain. The first violins almost always get the melody, so if you know how the symphony goes, you can guess your way through the main themes. With viola, this won’t work; you have to actually think – and read the notes. Often they don’t make any sense at all by themselves, but there is this wonderful revelation when playing them in context with the other parts.
Often the violas get the luscious internal harmonies, the part that makes the music so interesting and beautiful. And yes, sometimes, we are playing “oom-pah-pah” measure after measure and trying not to fall asleep, while the violins trip merrily up and down their fingerboards. It takes character to endure these boring bits, and makes those times when we finally get the melody so much more special.
To hear the viola section at its luscious best, grab some tissues and try listening to Beethoven’s 7th symphony, the second movement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J12zprD7V1k
Indulging in Open Strings
The legendary violist William Primrose is famous for saying that “The glory of the viola is the open strings.” I agree! Violinists are taught from an early age to “cover the E string” in particular, by using their fourth finger rather than the open string. How freeing it is when switching to viola to just let them all ring. And, oh, the open strings are gorgeous.
Coping with the Relative Lack of Literature
One undeniable downside to playing the viola is that there is a lot less solo music written for the instrument. Violinists have hundreds of concertos and sonatas; violists have merely dozens, and many of them will never be audience favorites. If you ask a hundred classical music lovers who their top ten favorite composers are, none will say Paul Hindemith or Walter Piston, who composed several pieces in the standard viola repertoire. Their music is simply less melodic, and therefore less enjoyable for most people to listen to.
Violists make up for this lack by borrowing music from other instruments: for example, the Bach Suites and Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise for cello; a couple of clarinet sonatas by Brahms; Schumann’s Adagio & Allegro for horn; and a few from now-obsolete instruments: Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata (yes, there was an instrument called the arpeggione) and Bach’s Gamba Sonatas. (To be fair, the gamba isn’t exactly obsolete, but people pretty much stopped writing music for it after Bach’s time.) All of these work pretty well on the viola.
Enjoying the Camaraderie
I have found violists to be a more friendly and approachable bunch of people than violinists. The instrument does tend to attract a different personality: someone who doesn’t need to be in the limelight, who is happy in a supporting role, who is motivated to seek out less obvious treasures, who will patiently wait for the exciting parts.
This is, of course, a stereotype, and like other stereotypes it is often, though not always, true. There are violists who are soloists at heart, who have big egos, are territorial, sometimes misanthropic. And there are plenty of violinists who are humble and get along with everyone. However, most of the viola sections I have played with have had a sort of “we’re all in this together” team spirit that I don’t remember experiencing as a violinist. We just have more fun, and seem to like each other more.
The “Required Viola Year”
I once heard of a violin teacher who made all her students take a year off and learn viola. Some approached their viola year as if they were fulfilling an unpleasant but necessary obligation. Some were surprised at how much they liked it, and decided to keep going. (Her studio had a lot more violists than others like me who teach both.)
All, however, benefitted from the experience: increased sensitivity in the bow arm/hand after working harder to coax the sound out of the viola’s fatter strings, a new appreciation for and awareness of the internal parts in an orchestra, more nuanced vibrato, and more.
If you get the opportunity, I highly recommend taking the plunge. Just see what happens. And just ignore the viola jokes. In fact, I’ll leave you with one of the other kind…
Q: Why are violas bigger than violins?
A: They’re not; the violinists’ heads are bigger. :-D
Quodlibet: A piece employing several well-known tunes from various sources, performed either simultaneously or in succession. (Schirmer Pocket Manual of Musical Terms)