Inner Voice

March 8, 2016, 11:57 PM · The first video of our South Bay Philharmonic's Beethoven/Mendelssohn concert is out, and I'm in it. There, framed between the soloist and the conductor, you can see me in the orchestra's viola section.

I want to mention, first of all, that the soloist here, Gene Huang, is a violinist.commer and an adult re-starter on the violin. He told me that he didn't play for about 20 years, in college and afterwards, and then started playing again a few years ago. I "met" him online on back in 2012 when we both entered the Rockin' Fiddle Challenge to learn Adam DeGraff's arrangement of "Violinists Don't Stop Believin'". We were two of a group of players over 40 entering what was largely a contest for conservatory-bound youngsters. Gene came in 2nd overall, a resounding victory for the old-timer contingent. His performance of the Mendelssohn violin concerto here is even more impressive. I think he could still go to conservatory if he wanted (if that software job doesn't work out-ha).

I'm thrilled for him and wish him the best, but that's his story. Mine is different. While I have gotten more comfortable performing as a middle-aged adult, I still don't have the skills or the temperament to be a soloist. What I really enjoy most is to be in a section, part of a group, contributing to something larger than myself.

Way back when, in 2006 when I had my own playing re-start, I re-started on the viola. And when I talked to my prospective teacher, she said to me, knowingly, "you like the inner voices." It was on the phone, but I nodded. She was the first violin teacher I'd ever talked to who seemed to get that. I was a perennial second violin. The E-string often made me cringe while the viola's lower register and plaintive sound touched my heart. I'd messed around with the Mendelssohn concerto in high school, but never gotten very far. In fact I didn't dream of big romantic concertos, or of myself standing on a stage. I dreamed of structure, and of finding somewhere to fit in. I dreamed of understanding how teamwork worked. I would go on to work with that teacher in Boston for almost 8 years. And yet, ironically, I would play the violin more than the viola, and I would get a chance at leadership and even at playing solo at a level I never imagined possible.

Now, here in CA, in a new orchestra with a new teacher and what could be viewed as another restart but without much of a break in between, I wasn't sure how this viola playing thing was going to go this time. Back in my old orchestra, I'd gotten a little spoiled. Although being in charge of the bowings for the section can be a bit of a pain sometimes, there is the advantage that, by definition, you're always right. You can do whatever, and people have to follow you. Okay, I admit it. I kinda liked that. I took the responsibility seriously and then I could forget about it. I wasn't like, "oh, gee, what is that section doing and how can we look like them?" the week before the concert.

Also, in my old orchestra, people turned pages for me. I admit, I kinda liked that too. There was a nice gentleman who sat second stand inside, who occasionally sat with me when our regular stand partners were absent, and he always said, politely, at the end of rehearsal, "it was a pleasure turning your pages." My regular stand partner was a great page turner too: quick, anticipatory, accurate, thoughtful. She made copies of the next line of music and taped them on the bottom when necessary. I didn't turn a page in that orchestra for 8 years.

Whereas the first time I turned the page here, the music came apart and ended up on the floor. My stand partner was nice about it. She even managed to keep playing while I struggled to reassemble the random pieces of paper. I now had another thing to practice. Note to self: the helpful page turning video is better for violinists in more traditional seating arrangements. Inside violists usually sit on the right, not on the left like violinists, and it's easier for us to turn the page with our left hand. Or, it's easier for me, anyway. Just keep the instrument under my chin, bow in the right hand, and reach down and turn the page with the left. No flying music in this concert!

This concert venue is pretty far away from where we rehearse (and from my home), and it was raining. It took 45 minutes to get there on the congested freeway, dodging the unused-to-rain drivers. But the concert turned out to be a lot of fun. It was well-attended; we ran out of programs. And two different people in the audience came up to me afterwards and complemented me on how the violas sounded. One, a violist herself, said she could hear me personally and that I sounded good. Another just said that it was great to hear such a strong viola part. At first I was concerned that she meant we were playing too loud. "Oh, no!" she exclaimed. "It's a rich, solid string sound, with the inner voices holding everything together. The orchestra is getting better and better."

I wore my necklace to this concert. I've worn it to every concert, since my mother gave it to me in high school. Is it a violin or a viola? Yes.


In order to fully trust our inner voice we must first tune to the frequency of the heart. -Ram Dass


March 11, 2016 at 04:26 AM · Bravo, Karen and Gene!

Karen, weren't you mentioning the Nova Vista Orchestra in an earlier blog?

Do you think you'll stay with the viola in this orchestra?

I agree entirely with your preference for viola over violin. In my case, I'm wondering if the violin E just isn't as enjoyable as my upper-register hearing declines.

March 14, 2016 at 11:22 PM · I've been bugged by the E at least since I was a teen. I remember one youth orchestra rehearsal--I was about 14--I was in the 2nds and the conductor had the firsts play a passage alone that was an octave above our part, and I actually felt pain in my head from listening to it. It might have been slightly out of tune too, but that, in and of itself, doesn't usually bother me--at least not when it's kids or adult learners. (Then again, kids and adult learners don't tend to play that high.) Also, the B that is the 4th finger in 1st position on the E makes my head buzz. It doesn't hurt, it's just weird. B-flat and C don't do it. That may have come on in middle age, I'm not sure. I don't remember it from childhood.

Anyway, I just bought myself a new viola bow, so I'm really getting into the viola spirit!

March 15, 2016 at 05:49 AM · What kind of bow did you get? I'll be trying out wood bows for my viola soon. My CF bow is perfectly adequate but I'm curious to see what a good Pernambuco bow would do.

March 15, 2016 at 07:37 PM · Yes, I got a pernambuco bow. The maker wasn't familiar to me. I thought my CF bow was perfectly adequate too, but my viola playing was sounding growly, kind of aggressive. This was okay for Beethoven, there was some of that in the music, but it's not okay for a lot of viola music. It was also getting on my nerves. The new bow is smoother and cleaner, I feel like it give me more versatility. I can play more legato and more gentle with it.

March 15, 2016 at 08:22 PM · Thanks, Karen. I know you've had your viola for several years now. I'm sure I haven't had time to get to a situation that annoys me, but I know how a good wood bow feels on my violin and I miss that. I want to see if I can get the same subtlety on my viola.

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