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Jim Hastings

Violas and Bullfrogs

July 12, 2013 at 12:40 PM

Treating the viola like dirt? Not at my place.

For one thing, I've never owned or even rented a viola. In fact, I don't recall ever handling one. And I don't read the C clef fluently, although I'm familiar with it from reading orchestral scores -- a pursuit I picked up in my teens.

I love the sound of a viola -- always have. Probably my main barrier to playing one, besides sub-par C-clef fluency, is having three older fiddles already and spending about 3 hours a day playing them -- 1 hour per fiddle. On the 1869 and 1883 instruments, the stiff versions of Pirastro's Eudoxa or Oliv (Olive) D and G strings bring out a viola tone in the contralto range -- especially on the 1869 instrument. So l get a partial viola "fix" by working a good dose of sul G tones into the daily warm-up.

The viola is also one of several instruments I associate with animal or bird life. Flutes remind me of birds. Oboes remind me of kittens. Bassoons remind me of cows. And violas remind me of -- bullfrogs. That's right -- just like the ones I heard in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan as a kid. No -- that's not a viola joke!

The only remaining barrier is hand size -- maybe. While I don't have quite the problem another v.com writer described -- puny paws and diminutive digits -- still, my hand size, M (medium), is toward the lower end of the range: S-M-L-XL-XXL. I can vibrate with the 4th finger sul G on the violin in 1st position and can play 10ths. But to stretch the left hand any farther than this? You ladies, who generally have smaller hands than we fellows have: How do you manage it? How is it that so many of you take to the viola so well?

Maybe, if I just plunged in and tried it myself, it might not be as tough as I thought. For now, though, I'll just sit back and enjoy the music -- and be thankful that there are others, whether ladies or fellows, who give time and talent and effort to play this seductive instrument.
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www.tchastings.com/blogs.html


From Pauline Lerner
Posted on July 17, 2013 at 7:31 AM
I am a long time violinist who has been seduced by a viola. I've written about my experiences in a blog called "Violinist Seduced by a Viola" at https://sites.google.com/site/violinistseducedbyaviola/. I love the sound of the viola -- deep, rich, and strong, sort of like dark chocolate. I really don’t think it sounds like a bullfrog. I suppose that you could make it sound like a bullfrog by abusing it and playing the lowest string, C, and using the bow entirely incorrectly. pressing it down very hard and stopping intermittently, but I shudder to even think about it. When I first read your statement that you think that violas sound like bullfrogs, I thought that this must be another prejudicial viola joke. Now I believe that you didn’t write it as a bad joke, but I still can’t agree with you.

My hands are long and slender. I wear men’s size large gloves, even though they are too wide. I could not possibly play a tenth on the fiddle. I’ve tried it and can’t even come close.

The first time that I played a really good viola, I was hooked, and just had to have one for myself. I do, and my life has been tremendously enriched by it.

From Jim Hastings
Posted on July 17, 2013 at 2:48 PM
Pauline, thanks for your feedback. And thank you for pointing me to your blog -- I enjoyed reading it. The Schubert clip is delightful.

About playing on the lowest string, the C string: Yes, I see I should have stressed this point. It's here, in the sub-violin range, that the instrument sounds to me a little like a bullfrog in some passages -- not on long, sustained tones but on short, incisive rhythmic figures, where the player stops the bow intermittently.

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