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Dottie Case

All Things Viola

August 12, 2012 at 9:29 PM

Viola is obviously the topic of the moment. The visible rising of the alto-clef crowd here on 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!

From Emily Hogstad
Posted on August 13, 2012 at 12:27 AM

Yay for violas!

From Sam Rubin
Posted on August 13, 2012 at 1:24 AM
Time to make a viola club on

I've found that many times past the second desk of violas it is horrifically bad in some mid sized orchestras... It's such a beautiful and challenging instrument, however many times because of lack of violists these "imposter musicians" get in and make a bad name for all of us

From Nairobi Young
Posted on August 13, 2012 at 1:33 AM
Ahh, reading this blog along with all the other viola talherons on has made me feel so good for being able to play both :) I love the viola for the same reasons that you do and I love the violin just as much and I can't pick which one I love better because I love them equally. Thank you for making my day and making me smile a little :) oh and making me not feel so terrible about laughing at viola jokes. There is a truness to jokes about all instruments :).
From Ann Marie Cordial
Posted on August 13, 2012 at 11:42 AM
I can remember when I first started lessons with my original instructor, (and I was on the fence as to which instrument I wanted to be my primary instrument) he told me,"There are plenty of good violinists, but a good violist is literally worth their weight in gold. Orchestras and Quartets will fight for a good violist."

---Ann Marie

From Gail Nelson
Posted on August 13, 2012 at 5:22 PM
I think we need a viola club too. :)

I have played viola since junior high, when I switched from violin due to sheer ambivalence over the E string. That C seduced me right then and there when I first heard it.

That said, I still do play violin from time to time, and it feels so much easier to play than the viola. I can shift positions easily and play very fast passages without undue effort. However, nothing sounds like a viola, even the other strings sound fuller than the violin to me. This is why I work through the challenges of playing a bigger instrument with that thick C string that I love so much...even if it speaks just a little more slowly.

As violists, we should remind ourselves that we're in good company with the viola, so many brilliant composers chose it. We should always strive to do them honor when we pick up our instruments. Not just be the lazy violinists. :)

From Emily Grossman
Posted on August 13, 2012 at 9:10 PM
That lemming footage in the Walt Disney film was faked. The whole story is untrue. I was pissed when I found that out a few years ago. Anyway, I think it's strange, too, about the viola surge. Promise, I had nothing to do with it! That's just how it played out in my life this year. I agree with a lot of what you wrote in this blog entry, and I wish I'd thought about picking it up sooner in life. Or maybe not. It was nice to have something brand new to discover this summer.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on August 13, 2012 at 9:20 PM
Well, we do have a "Viola" category for discussions and blogs, but what else can we create there that would feel "clubby" for violists? :)
From Emily Hogstad
Posted on August 13, 2012 at 9:46 PM
A special page that can only be accessed via a code that can only be deciphered if you know alto clef.


From Dottie Case
Posted on August 13, 2012 at 9:46 PM
I actually kind of like the 'intermarriage' of violinist and violists that we have happening now. Sort of helps us all to expand our understanding, intermingling with our close cousins this way. (Not to mix familial metaphors...)
From Dottie Case
Posted on August 13, 2012 at 9:57 PM
By the way, there actually IS a secret 'viola hand shake', which I sadly can't share here in this forum.. :)
From Gail Nelson
Posted on August 14, 2012 at 3:16 AM
Dottie, why did you tell them? :)

And I too like the intermingling of disciplines, it gives depth to our knowledge in ways studying and discussing just one instrument wouldn't do.

From Paul Deck
Posted on August 14, 2012 at 1:22 PM
How much do violists play violin repertoire that's just transposed down a fifth? I realize that accompaniments and orchestrations could require a significant amount of rework, but aren't there quite a few pieces for which the effort would be worthwhile? Or is this viewed as just pointless? I've always been curious about this because if I were to take up the viola, I think I would start by just playing through much of my violin repertoire and recalibrating the absolute pitch scale of my ear, which (perhaps fortuitously for the stated objective) isn't very good anyway.
From Gail Nelson
Posted on August 16, 2012 at 5:36 AM
Paul, that happens more than I would like. :)

But, when I feel particularly neglected, I do pretend I read bass clef *well*, and pull out cello music. It's just so weird seeing that the open string notes are on lines instead of in spaces. I often feel the cello stuff suites the viola better than just transcribing violin for viola. Not always, but often. :)

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on August 18, 2012 at 4:14 AM
When I started playing viola again, around 5 years ago, people told me I'd be more in demand as a violist than as a violinist, but that hasn't been the case for me. In fact, I went to the first rehearsal of the orchestra I'm in now with my viola and sat with the person whom I now play string quartets with (I'm now the 1st violin in this quartet). I played viola for 2 concerts, I think, and then permanently switched to 1st violin and also became concertmaster. And when I play chamber music, I invariably get the violin I part. Yes, violin is my first instrument, and yes, I'm a better violinist than I am violist, but I'm not that much better of a violinist. For some reason among the serious adult amateurs I know, and play music with, there seems to be a real solid core of good violists, and fewer players who are crazy enough to be willing take on difficult, exposed violin parts.

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