I have just arrived at camp. I am sitting in a lodge, surrounded by thick and deep forest,so dark that at night you literally cannot see your feet on the path in front of you. There are tiny rustic (REALLY rustic) cabins strewn around this forest, like dice tossed from a giant's hand. Each cabin contains a musician, or several. And the most wonderful music drifts out of them... Brahms Sextets, Mendelssohn Octet, Mozart Quintets, as well as Quartets of every stripe, level and composer.
I have come this year exhausted, both physically and mentally. I feel almost fragile in my awareness of how drained I am. This place feels like therapy. It allows me to center myself again...I remember what the journey is really about.
I rest mornings, and then spend the afternoon and evening playing with the same 'once a year' friends who I meet with every August. For 15 years now. We nurture each other.
When you see certain friends only once a year, it causes you to step back and evaluate that year, as you attempt to fill them in. Wow... what a lot this year has wrought. No wonder I'm tired.
This respite feels heaven-given. It is both bare-bones elemental and exquisitely precious at the same time.
Viola is obviously the topic of the moment. The visible rising of the alto-clef crowd here on v.com is paralleling what has been occurring in my own playing life over the last several years. Like pods of whales beaching themselves simultaneously, or lemmings running off a cliff, we many violinists seem to be hurling ourselves into viola cases all at once, for no explainable reason. :P And yet, unlike the poor whales and lemmings, our mass exodus is towards something that expands and enlarges us as musicians.
For years, I've attended an adult chamber music camp where the violists finally decided to meet together one evening and play viola ensembles. When I got to the place where I was beginning to do a few wedding gigs on the viola, I decided I was ready to join the 'viola club', and with excitement, looked towards my first Brandenburg 6, not to mention Telemann for 4 violas, et. al. And this is when I discovered, sadly, that many stereotypes have at least some kernel of truth in them.
(I'm going to slip on my disguise now as I relate this next part...). Now, I find viola jokes as funny as the next person, even though I'm now approaching a 50% treble/alto ratio in my performance life. However, when I attended my first full-fledged gathering of viola club, I was shocked by what I discovered. With this particular group of people, sadly, the jokes were....(shhhhh).....true. (whispering here). Four beats to a measure seemed to mean different things to different people. Counting was a serious challenge. Fast notes were mangled rather significantly. I finally found myself playing from the Telemann score so that I could jump from melody line to melody line to keep things together. (I'm struggling here by not wanting to spend too much time describing the awfulness of what was happening there, because my ultimate point is very positive. Still, the truth is that it was about as bad as you can imagine it was, and I won't belabor the point). It seemed to confirm every viola joke ever told.
And yet, MY experience with the viola has been very different, and challenging. I remember being moved from Vn. 2 to Vla. for a concert several years ago, where we were doing Tchaikovsky 5. There was a series of fast passages, handed around the string section.. my heart pounded every time it got to us violas, because what was so SIMPLE for the violins, up an octave (or two) was a nasty nightmare for us, in 1/2 position on the C and G strings, with no easy way to play it. I remember hearing the asst. concert-mistress telling the conductor that it would flow better if we could go faster, and just WISHING that she could try to play it using the same fingerings we were stuck with. On a thick C string, no less..
I'm currently playing viola for the Opera La Boheme... and it is HARD. Not only is the piece very sophisticated and nuanced, it is often in 5 and 6 flats (plus accidentals). This is a challenge for anyone and occasionally my 'alto clef-as-second-language' reading fails me momentarily when faced with things like E sharps and C flats. . Still, it is gorgeous and lush and hard..but so worth it.
As I've pondered the seeming confirmation of the stereotypes at camp, and have balanced that with the fact that many of the best musicians I know are violists, I've decided that it's just because there are fewer of them (Us), I think, that makes anecdotal evidence stick out. I have a friend who openly concedes that she chose viola because she doesn't like to shift and hates 'lots of black' as she refers to 16th notes. But,I also know several violists who changed after being very accomplished first violinists.
What seems to be true is this...there are plenty of poor violinists...but maybe we notice them less because they get lost in the numbers, in an orchestra setting. But a good violist will be in high demand, always... and a violinist who can transition well will soon find that the word is out.
I love playing viola, for different reasons than I love playing violin. I love the bigness of the voice, the authority it can carry...and I love the opportunity to fill a hole in the orchestra, where there might be 16 violins and 2 violas. I like 'being there', making that entry, being reliable and heard against the treble horde.
And I like that it makes me more employable. There is 1 group near here--a chamber orchestra-- that I will likely only ever have opportunity to play with as a violist. I feel confident that day will come. They have, on their own faculty, enough violins.. but ah, who to play viola. It'll happen :).
So, when I read viola jokes, I smile, because I do know a few people for whom they ring true...but the same is true of violinist jokes. (Why are violins so much smaller than violas? They're not, it's just the violinists heads are so big.... :) ). But I also know how much it matters that an orchestra or a quartet has a GOOD violist, and I'm smiling as I see how many of you are joining me on the journey.
Time to pack up my viola and head off to rehearsal!
Previous entries: July 2012
Revisit Violinist.com editor Laurie Niles' coverage from Canada of the 2013 Montreal International Musical Competition, including her interview with gold medalist Marc Bouchkov.
Dottie Case is from Rudyard, Michigan. Biography
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