Some of you might have read my last week's blog about how I stumbled into playing the viola (although it might be more accurate to say that the viola tracked me down, tripped me, and caught me while I was down). I also mentioned the possibility of playing viola in a local orchestra. Well, the fickle finger of fate has struck again, and yesterday I wound up in a rehearsal of the Ambleside Orchestra.
I arrived early at the church where the orchestra holds its rehearsals. I've always liked wandering through a church when nobody else is around - there are so many strange rooms and passages to explore. But eventually, as I passed one of the entrance doors, a woman came in towing a cello case, so I followed her to the sanctuary, where people were starting to gather.
Everyone was very friendly, and when they found out I had brought a viola they were positively thrilled, since the orchestra has only one regular violist. I busied myself helping push the piano out of the way, setting up chairs, and unpacking my instrument.
It was when everything was set up and I was waiting for the rehearsal to start that I began to get the nervous jitters. Just what was I doing here anyway? I haven't played in any structured musical organization of this size since my days playing cornet in the high school band 45 years ago. (Jam circles don't count.) I have a total of a week and a half of experience with anything related to the viola, and there I was facing a standful of music I had never seen before, all written in alto clef. And some of the key signatures were brutal.
For a moment everything dissolved into a mass of meaningless black dots on the page. But everyone from the conductor to my fellow violist was encouraging me, and we dove in, starting with portions of Rossini's Semiramide Overture. Sometimes I could find a note here and there, sometimes I'd just quietly fake my way through. Repetition wasn't boring, it was a relief - once I found the right notes I could play them over and over and sound like I knew what I was doing. The last movement of Bizet's L'Arlesienne Suite no. 1 (Le Carillon) gave me similar relief.
At the break I had a chance to unwind a bit and chat with some of the other members. They're human!
We also worked on bits of Bizet's L'Arlesienne Suite no. 2, Mendelssohn's "Ich wollt' meine Liebe", Delibe's "Lakme" (complete with a singer), and Saint-Saens' "Romance for Flute" (which is full of perfectly dreadful key changes).
By the time we finished I was feeling completely wrung out. But at least nobody was moving to throw me out. Actually, it was kind of reassuring to be in the middle of enough instruments that I could be unobtrusive when I wasn't sure of myself. But my buddy who got me into this mess, who was sitting among the second violins, remarked that he was hearing a much better sound out of the viola section, so I must have been doing something right.
And occasionally, despite all the stress, there would come those moments when everyone was playing together well and the music would wash sweetly over us - and I would realize that here I was, sitting in the middle of an orchestra, being part of it all.
Afterwards, my friend and I went to a Chinese restaurant. At the end of the meal the fortune cookies arrived - and mine read: "The longest journey is started by a single step; take it."
I didn't sleep too well last night. Part of it was due to the dreams. I was driving around North Vancouver trying to find the church, and I just couldn't make the lines on the map line up. It must have had something to do with my struggles to make the lines on the alto clef staff line up into something meaningful.
Am I going back next week? You bet! I've now taken that single step. Just think of what I'll be able to do after having the sheet music to practise with.
I guess it all goes back to a violin-playing friend of ours, under whose influence I got serious about studying classical violin three years ago. My wife, under the same influence, took up the cello, even though she had never played anything before. We've had a lot of fun playing as a trio, and have even played at a couple of weddings.
I knew that the next step (aside from getting involved in an orchestra) was to play string quartets. We have a couple of other violin-playing friends - but who would play the viola? I had a sneaking suspicion that the task would someday fall to me. But I didn't give it much thought - we continued having fun with our Corelli trio sonatas and concerti grossi, along with bits and pieces of Bach, Brahms, and whatever.
About a month ago our violinist friend found out about a local orchestra, and decided that joining would help his musical development. The rest of us left him to it, feeling it was better not to distract him in his new and somewhat intimidating environment.
After a recent rehearsal our friend told us that the orchestra desperately needs a good violist. We met him, along with his violin teacher, at the local Gliga shop, and tried a number of instruments, eventually choosing a viola which he bought - and immediately handed to me with instructions to learn how to play it!
The last couple of days have been surreal. I don't have much trouble getting a decent sound out of the viola, but now I need material. I tried playing the violin part of our familiar Corelli trio sonata (opus 4, no. 12), but it took a lot of shifting to play the part which on violin can be done entirely in first position. Besides, it didn't sound right - I was trying to make the viola sound like a violin, and there is a wrongness to that which made me feel guilty for trying. Transposing the part down an octave wasn't much better - and besides, it made my brain hurt.
Digging through my sheet music, I found an arrangement of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" for string quartet. And there it was - the dreaded alto clef. All I knew was that middle C was on the center line, and that my open D string was the space above. Fortunately, the piece is simple and familiar enough that I was able to stumble through it. But it feels like a foreign language.
One of the people listening to us play commented that the viola gave us a more balanced sound, filling in the gap between the violin on the top and the cello on the bottom. I must have been doing something right at least part of the time, although I don't yet feel confident enough to make the instrument really speak.
Tomorrow night we're going to a concert by our friend's orchestra. His descriptions of the rehearsals and the other players make me think that he'll do fine. Since he's already asked me how long I think it will take to learn to read alto clef, he's probably going to introduce me to them as their future violist... ack!
I've decided that the best thing to do is just (ahem) face the music. I'm looking for simple pieces written in alto clef to build my skill and confidence.
It's amazing, isn't it, how things will sometimes find you even if you're not looking for them. Although I suspected that both viola and orchestral playing might be somewhere in my future, it still comes as a shock to see how suddenly it's all happening.
I have a violin lesson tonight - I wonder what my teacher is going to say about it.
Charlie Gibbs is from Port Coquitlam, Canada. Biography
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