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Emily Grossman

Going Lower

August 25, 2011 at 6:16 AM

Every time the sheet music stacks up a staircase of ledger lines, I'm less than thrilled to ascend them; high notes have never really held much appeal to me.   A nice, dark chocolate C string, on the other hand--now that has always been my secret envy.  So when a prospective client informed me that her son bought a viola and wanted to know if I would teach him, I jumped on it.  Since I already play by ear, finding the pitches on a new string setup wouldn't be a problem.  The only thing really left to conquer would be the notes of the alto clef, and then I'd be all set. 

I wrote Shirley Givens to see if her method books included Adventures in Violaland, so I could use them with my new student.  She wrote back saying that unfortunately, Violaland didn't exist yet, but suggested I transpose her existing violin material as needed.  Suddenly, I could picture my own illustrated Alaska-themed version, complete with finger-ravens, grizzly bear workouts, and even a Bogman treasure map.  What fun!

But first, I had to have a viola.  My folks and I were ready for a road trip, and of course Kansas City barbecue always sounds good, so I scheduled a viola trial with Matt Wyatt on Monday afternoon and printed out directions to Arthur Bryant's.  

Who knew a business trip could taste this good?  

The shop was bustling with back-to-school business, but Matt took time to lay out a nice selection of violas and bows, still managing to be as incredibly helpful and courteous as ever.  I didn't really have to select an instrument, actually.  The first one I picked up that day, a 2009 Jay Haide Maggini model from Ifshin, had a full, sweet, woody tone that blew all the other violas in this price bracket out of the water.  It sang deeply, wooing me with its cello-like voce.  We were meant for each other.  It's just a shame it took us so long to meet; I mean, I feel like I've lost so much time, and now we have a lot of catching up to do.  

Hours passed.  Matt and I had fun, messing with sound posts and chin rests and picking out new strings.  After selecting an Arcos Brasil bow and a Bobolock case,  I reluctantly concluded my shopping spree and bid farewell.  Could've stayed longer, but I felt kinda sorry for Matt, who missed lunch and it was already 7 in the evening.  (Maybe I'll send the shop a batch of thank-you cookies or something; they deserve it.  Hmm, what kind...)

My mom and dad had a couple of cd's they'd picked out while they were waiting (ever so patiently, I might add), and stuck a collection of Lewis-and-Clark era fiddle tunes in the player for the car ride home.  Daddy drove 'til midnight while I sat in the back seat, taking turns picking out melodies and accompaniments on my violin and my viola, jamming softly alongside the faceless musicians.  Together, we resurrected a past-time from the days before surround sound systems and turnpikes, a time when people took a whole lot longer to get across the country, and made some excellent discoveries in doing so. 

From Tom Holzman
Posted on August 25, 2011 at 4:33 PM

Congratulations on acquiring a nice viola.  Enjoy it and its mellow sound.  There is undoubtedly a good reason that most of the great composers (e.g., Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, Hindemith) played viola in preference to violin.  And, I have heard you can adjust quickly.  The violist of the Shanghai Quartet once told me that they lost their violist and were having trouble finding a new one, so with five weeks until a recording date, he, at that point the Quartet's second violin, learned the viola from scratch, and they found another second violin.  The recording date went fine.

From Jami Kleinert
Posted on August 25, 2011 at 8:24 PM

I love playing viola!   Congrats on the new instrument -- what a great way to spend a weekend :)

I started playing viola during my first trip through college, when we split our symphony orchestra into a symphony and a philharmonic, and didn't have enough viola players to fill the phil.  I set it aside for a few years, then picked it back up when I started teaching and returned to finish my music ed degree.  Now I perform on viola much more frequently than on violin.  My private students love it when I bring my viola to our lessons and use the lower registers to accompany their etudes and pieces.  

From Emily Grossman
Posted on August 25, 2011 at 9:24 PM

Oh wow, I never even though about the accompaniment possibilities for my violin students!  Should be fun...

From Delmar Williams
Posted on August 25, 2011 at 9:59 PM

I have a nice story about my visit to Arthur Bryant's in KC several years ago.   I stood in line for 15-20 minutes to get in the door and to the counter, and I happened to mention to someone that I was a tourist.   As I got ready to pay for my meal someone said.."Please come over here and sit." They told me that Kansas City people are a friendly bunch, and since I was alone, they wanted to invite me over to their table.  I've traveled a lot, and a little act of kindness like that means a lot to me!

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on August 25, 2011 at 10:28 PM

Uh oh, there goes another one down a fifth!  Does Arthur Bryant's still sell the bottles of sauce to take home?  With about a gallon of that and a new viola, who cares what the next Alaska winter is like?  You'll be fine!

From Emily Grossman
Posted on August 25, 2011 at 11:32 PM

Down a fifth?  After downing a fifth, I don't see how it's possible to care about much of anything... ;)

Delmar, I couldn't agree more about KC congeniality; I'm already missing it.  Next time, though, it's Oklahoma Joe's--Anthony Bourdain says it's a do-before-you-die destination.

From Mendy Smith
Posted on August 26, 2011 at 1:26 AM

 another conversion to the dark side......  ;)

Enjoy your Cing Emily!

From Asher Wade
Posted on August 26, 2011 at 10:00 AM

 Wow! Nice looking viola from Ifshin (Jay Haide, right?); I own a "Jay Haide" violin & it's really super captivating; also, glad to see you put on Evah Pizzaro strings (I'm almost sure), 'cause I'm just testing out my newly learned skill of having memorized the major sting companies by their bindings at the tailpiece; - anyway, I find Evah strings to really be the best; continue enjoying the music!

From Eloise Garland
Posted on August 26, 2011 at 8:29 PM

 What a delightful post to read, as always! Have fun with your new 'friend'! 

Posted on August 27, 2011 at 10:30 PM

I love the viola and would like to give it a try, but I don't know what the correct viola size would be the most convenient for me. When I see these huge 17" size violas I get the impression that I would have a cello in my hands !  I would be much more inclined to try a 15 1/2" size. Please give me your thoughts on this size issue. Am I correct to think in medium or small viola sizes ?  My hands are not big and I am a man 5' 7" tall.

Best Regards,


Juan Manuel

From Peter Kent
Posted on August 28, 2011 at 4:12 AM

Something you might consider in selecting the correct sized viola...I'm about 6'1" with big hands....violin intonation above 5th position is problemmatic lest I substitute and slip fingers under and all the other tricks that Perlman makes look so easy.... Intonation problems in viola would appear to be less with an instrument closely the same size as violin....Initial viola experience was on a 15 1/2"....intonation was a significant  problem.....Several years later with a 16" size, the extra size forced a new hand position and:,  intonation became less of a problem....but there are two distinct hand positions for my scrunchy one for vln and the stretched out one for viola.... 

Posted on August 28, 2011 at 5:42 PM

Hi Pete,

Thanks so much for your advise.

Let me ask you a question :  If you play a one octave scale in C major in your 16" viola in first position, starting with the C open string, and then instead of playing G with the G open string (while ascending) you play this G with your pinkie on the C string, can you reach this note comfortably and without overstretching your pinkie ?  More generally, for those violin players who also play the viola, what happens with their fourth finger when playing scales in first position on the viola ?  How do they avoid the overextending of this finger due to the larger viola fingerboard ? Do they displace the thumb towards the bridge in order to avoid the overstretching of the fourth finger ?

From Emily Grossman
Posted on August 29, 2011 at 10:24 PM

It is much easier for the first finger to reach back for its note than it is to make the pinkie stretch to reach its note.  I simply bring my hand and thumb a little further forward and balance the hand so that the first finger reaches back.  Basically, split the difference.  I play a 16".

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