Finding Your Niche?

December 4, 2010 at 03:30 AM ·

As usual, when I'm the OP, I'll go first:

For me, the winners are solo -- either unaccompanied or with piano or guitar accompaniment -- and small chamber.  I like people, but I'm not a big-group type; I prefer small, compact units and 1:1 relationships.

As a student, I did all types of playing listed above.  My teachers encouraged me to branch out this way; and thank goodness they did, because it helped me to get a fuller idea of what the different types of playing demand of the performer -- and get a better idea of what I wanted to do musically.

Orchestra was the last avenue I got involved in.  Although I was a kid beginner in violin and took to the instrument readily, I didn't have my first orchestral experience till I reached high school some years later.  I enjoyed the experience and was a bit surprised to see myself advance through the ranks faster than I had first thought I might.

After high school, I auditioned for and got a seat in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the CSO's training school, thinking that the symphonic profession was where I wanted to go career-wise.  I wouldn't have wanted to miss this experience for anything -- many fond memories here.

Yet, by 21, I decided that orchestral playing was something I no longer wanted to do.  It was cutting into the time I had available to play the kind of music I now realized I had my heart set on -- solo and chamber -- where my individual musical voice and style and individualistic personality could best come through.
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EDIT: Prior to Mike Laird's input -- first reply, immediately below -- I had originally listed jazz and improv, too, but cut them at the last minute before posting.

Replies (22)

December 4, 2010 at 03:08 PM ·

Lets open up the categories - a lot - because people perform the violin at high levels of skill in many other categories than solo, chamber, and orchestral.  So to add just a few, consider:

straight ahead jazz

fusion jazz

fiddling, in several styles



country music

free improvisation

contemporary classical improvisation

Indian styles of improvisation

several Latin and South American styles of improvisation


The list could go on.  We should think broadly about the violin.  It is a very versatile instrument.

December 4, 2010 at 05:33 PM ·

Mike, great idea -- this should liven up the discussion considerably.  Originally, I had jazz and improv on the list but deleted them shortly before posting.  Consider them restored.

Now, what about your story?  What has influenced you?

December 4, 2010 at 06:38 PM ·

Probably solo when I actually get up to speed.  Raised as a pianist, I tend to think in those terms, even on a made-for-accomp instrument like a viola.  Filling in inner harmonies is fun, but I can do that in a much more thorough way on a piano with handfuls of notes as opposed to one at a time on viola, so going the community-orchestra or even chamber route has zero interest for me, although that may change in the future for all I know.

Plus, violas sound like human voices anyway, so thinking of them as a solo or solo+accomp seems to make sense to me.  All the good tenor and countertenor/contralto arias and most good voice work sits smack dab in the  middle of the thing's range.

In terms of categories, I play basic stuff now, but I aspire to play classical (heavy on Baroque since I love it so much), opera, and arena rock.  And really, anything else that appeals.  I tend not to care much for jazz or country, but everything else will be fair game.  :-)  I do plan to attack Haendel's Senesino arias and most Journey or ELO like a Jack Russell terrier going after a towel, though.

December 4, 2010 at 08:20 PM ·

The last time I played solo was in the sixth grade, our class play, a square raised stage with audience on all sides, and I had to walk around while I played! And I wore a leotard! My teacher and I were both totally nuts.

Orchestra was my favorite. Also did the pit orchestra in high school. Fun!

December 4, 2010 at 09:17 PM ·

Actually I just began to collect some classic rock riffs to be the themes for my meandering improvisations. Mixed in with many other genres will be great for busking.

But If I'm playing with a band I learn thier stuff.

December 5, 2010 at 04:30 AM ·

 It's been orchestra all the way for most of my life.  I'm generally quite introverted and dislike large groups in social situations, but for some reason, an orchestra (or chorus) is perhaps the one situation where I find a large group exhilarating rather than alienating to be part of.  I am not very conventionally religious, but I find the deepest spirituality in group music.

I'm starting to understand the appeal of chamber music, though, as I do more of it.  Solo is the situation that I have found it hardest to warm up to.  

I find this ranking reflects my listening preferences as well.  The symphony is my favorite instrumental form, followed by chamber music, followed by solo repertoire.  And this preference for groups is even more pronounced for me when listening to choral music.  I enjoy big oratorios and Masses with 100+ voice chorus.  But I dislike opera to the point that I would only attend one as a favor to someone else, or if the instrumental part was particularly good.

December 5, 2010 at 04:35 AM ·

Karen - I must be your natural opposite :)  Want to play sometime?

We had a topic on this not so long ago - but I seem to have changed a bit.  I always thought the less instruments the better (hated orchestra, never really liked playing with even a piano) - so the unaccomapnied solo was my goal.  But now I've tried string chamber music I'm sold.  its like soloing with a bunch of friends!  The sweep of the music as you play together is totally exhillirating, actually more fun and challenging than playing by yourself.

December 5, 2010 at 07:37 PM ·

Elise, chamber music does seem to be kind of like a bridge, of sorts, to music outside of one's comfort zone.

I have started to warm up to solo-ing more now that I've 1. learned to play the viola, and 2. played both viola and violin parts in chamber music.  Even if I'm the only one on my part, a situation I generally find intimidating, somehow it's helpful to know that the rest of the group is there too, with me.   

But it's funny, what really helped me warm up to solo more than anything else was learning a couple of movements from the unaccompanied Bach cello suites on the viola.  I played two movements alone at the Farmers' Market, and I got both positive feedback from the listeners and some free vegetables.  After that, playing solo hasn't seemed quite as scary.

December 5, 2010 at 09:29 PM ·

Karen, your comment about the farmer's market underscores a HUGE attraction for me of the small string instruments -- portability.  The unimaginable luxury of being able to pick up an instrument and bring it ANYWHERE, and to always play on your own instrument instead of constantly making adjustments and feeling subpar for it ... it's an incredible luxury speaking as a pianist who has ALWAYS struggled with adjusting to strange instruments, feeling clumsy and unsure as a result, and never, ever being able to play anywhere I want, even on the top floor of my own house or apartment versus wherever the whale happens to be beached.  That ALONE makes any portable instrument perfect for solo work to me.  I'm still overjoyed at just being able to carry mine up to the loft and play there.  :-)

December 6, 2010 at 02:36 AM ·

 As for myself, though I get really nervous, I'd have to say the solo violin is my favorite way to play, I sit in an orchestra and I don't really feel connected with the music of the whole, I enjoy conducting and playing solo much more. Also I've had awful experiences in orchestras where I was the only one with any musical dedication or work ethic, so I've become somewhat loathe to play in orchestras, however I have developed a love of playing chamber, how I can sway around in my seat, and simultaneously be independent without all of the pressure of solo violin. However, I still wish to have a career primarily as a soloist, and then also do lots of chamber later on.

December 6, 2010 at 12:10 PM ·

My niche would definitely have to be group-oriented. I personally think there's something really amazing about being able to be a part of something so huge and great. And when you're among all these other great musicians, you just feed off of everyone else's energy and musicality and playing style, and when all of these very diverse qualities mesh together, it makes a beautiful thing

Orchestral would have to be one of my favorites. Next after is quartet. Just recently, I formed a string quartet with some members of my high school orchestra, and we're working on rocking out with Bond by Explosive, which is pretty easy, but very rhythm oriented, and we're still trying to learn how to sync with each other.

December 6, 2010 at 04:00 PM ·

Janis, I always thought the biggest attraction of the small string instruments was the ability to play in orchestra and chamber groups. I think that an honest assessment of my (modest) musical abilities would indicate that the piano would have been a much better instrument for me than the violin.  I never had formal piano instruction but I taught myself to play simple pieces like hymns, Christmas carols, the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, and arrangements of pop songs.  I always found just sitting down at a keyboard and playing something, wherever the whale happened to be beached (love the metaphor--LOL), to be very enjoyable and relaxing.  

I have good finger dexterity and fine motor skills, and I seem to be able to keep track of several musical lines at once, but I don't have much of an ear for subtle differences in pitch, especially up in the gerbil zone, and the constant harping that people do on "trusting your ears" for violin intonation drives me more than a little nuts.

But I have persevered with the violin (and the electronic tuner, at times) because I enjoy playing it in groups.  I can also hear and adjust my intonation much better if I have someone else to listen to.  If I'm playing in an orchestra or chamber group, I can tune myself to the other person/people.  Playing solo, all bets are off :(

December 6, 2010 at 09:03 PM ·

" ... up in the gerbil zone ... "

*laughs out loud*  Yep, that's why I'm on the viola -- I can barely tolerate my own A string.  For all I know as a rank n00b, my own viola is just cranky up there, but I LOVE the D and G strings.

And I agree that figuring stuff out is a big part of why the piano is such a great instrument, even for all its disadvantages.  It's a great toybox when you want to work on and think about music in an abstract sense as opposed to manipulating one particular device.  Handfuls of notes at once, tons of the things!  It's part of why I don't understand why violinists are so focused on the idea of always "playing the melody," and that attitude that some have that, if you aren't playing the melody, what's the point?  That's only the skin of the piece -- there's muscles, tendons, and a skeleton beneath, and on a piano you really get to dig into all of it.  It's definitely worth the disadvantages of being chained to something possibly the size of a car and at least the size of a sofa that you can't tune yourself ... although the chain definitely chafes.

Look into getting a clavinova or something for yourself -- the feel of the things is perfectly fine compared to the acoustics that you're likely to find on craigslist, they have headphones, and you can record yourself trivially easily with total fidelity if you have a laptop.  You can even accompany yourself.

December 7, 2010 at 08:44 PM ·

Karen, I've still been thinking about what you said about "the gerbil zone," and I think that's also a source of frustration for me as well, as a beginner.  Every other instrument with the exception of the voice has valves, keys, or frets.  I simply do not see the string-instrument obsession with going not only fretless but being almost constitutionally opposed to markings or any kind, even the inlays or half-step marker dots that fretless bass players will use.  That and the irrational hatred of tuners reminds me of the opposition to fine-tuners, almost a macho obsession with deliberately making the device harder to use, like making the black keys on a piano white just to make them harder to make out easily.

I've been getting frustrated lately with the viola, though.  Whenever I have something meaty that I just bit off on the piano -- particularly an arrangement or something I'm writing -- all of the flaws of an instrument that requires almost monklike concentration just to make one noise come to the fore.  Not only does it take so much concentration just to make one sound, but the device is deliberately made so that it's as difficult as possible to manipulate.  Fretless bass players use inlays all the time -- they are not wedded to them and forced to use them.  It's not like Jeff Schmidt thinks to himself, "Gosh, I'd love to make that third a nice, clean one, but the inlay is up here, and so I HAVE to put my fingertip RIGHT THERE or else the Bass Police will cart me away!"  They still exercise judgment as to when to go right down on the inlay and when to go sharp or flat a bit -- any good musician has to use judgment, and it's not like inlays and tuners suck your free will out through your eyeballs.

I've also seen plenty of good players look right at their hands like they're staring holes through cinderblock, so it's not like they don't use visual cues.  I watched Nicola Benedetti play once, and she stared straight down the fingerboard like her eyes were lasers the entire time.

I want to continue with viola (even though the time sink is ungodly frustrating when I'm messing with "Con Rauco Mormorio," which is my favorite Haendel aria after "Dove sei?"), but I really do think that I'll be getting an electric viola-scale with inlays from Wood Violins in a couple years time.  Between the disdain for fine tuners and inlays, and the prejudice against allowing people to use the hand they prefer for bowing, it's as if the string world wants to make it harder than it needs to be out of some macho insistence that as few people play well as possible.  I've escaped the vast majority of the stodginess through having a teacher with common sense, but the device still has not moved an inch in 300 years, whereas every other musical instrument on Earth saw fit to benefit from the industrial revolution.

Sorry for the vent, and I apologize for springboarding off of your quite innocent comment.  Like I said, being up to my nose in a piano arrangement that I want to focus on and still having to spend an hour a night making one note at a time is getting to me at the moment, so all the irks that I can just ignore normally are getting magnified.

December 7, 2010 at 09:15 PM ·

Janis: I think you are hitting on exactly why we all love the violin (or viola).  Its truly byzentine - and thats what makes it so totally engrossing and delicious...

I'm starting to think of violinist stereotypes - based on the perfectionist topic and other things I am reading, like here.  It seems the violin attracts a certain mentally deficient/brilliant personality...

December 7, 2010 at 09:26 PM ·

It's not just byzantine, though -- it's seriously problematic.  Every instrument has its parts that make you wonder what goober could possibly have imagined they were a good idea.  String instruments are maintained by the string world in as unwelcoming a state as possible, it seems.  It's the only class of instruments I've encountered that goes out of its way not to benefit from the past 150 years of industrial advance.

Again, I know that I'm speaking from a position of frustration with the time sink posed by my viola at the moment.  And to be honest, the sound of the things is still unparalleled, with only the human voice exceeding it for beauty.  But the device itself could stand to have some logical improvements made to it that would improve its playability, even if its raw sound is perfect as it is.  Byzantine difficulties inherent to a given pursuit are one thing, but byzantine difficulties that seem to come from arbitrary obstruction are less easy to tolerate.

December 8, 2010 at 12:51 AM ·

Then Janis - go for it.  Redesign the instrument so that its more practical - but without losing any of its unique charms and gifts, not least of what is possible to achieve by the most talented and trained performers.

Once you think of it that way redesigning becomes rather intimidating I think.  Its not that the instrument has not changed, its that it has quietly evovled - and just like nature, evolution is an amazing way to get perfection, or darn near to it.  Of course, it depends what you are trying to perfect....

December 8, 2010 at 01:05 AM ·

I've contemplated it -- at least doing inlays.  At some point in the future, I may give it a go and see what happens ...

December 8, 2010 at 01:54 AM ·

 At present I'm grateful just to be able to play in a chamber orchestra and the occasional ad hoc ensemble.

December 8, 2010 at 12:43 PM ·

Dear Readers,

I would love to play in a string trio or string quartet the most, i think theres smething magical about the way the music combines and flows as if the performers are connected by the same string of thought.  this is what i feel..

Ana Ottenwalder



December 9, 2010 at 01:50 PM ·

 Janis--I have a Korg electric piano with full keyboard.  While it wouldn't please the piano purist, it can be moved and carried by two normal adults, it never needs to be tuned, and it has headphones--all which make it ideal for my purposes.  I hadn't thought about recording or accompanying myself before.  And anyway, right now one of the pieces I'm preparing on the violin is the Franck Sonata . . . there's no way I could play that piano part!  I do have a professional pianist/conservatory student who is willing to play it with me, and even he says it's a bear.

I'm curious what you think is actually obstructionist about the viola or violin.  I'm intrigued by the idea of a fingerboard with inlays.  I found finger tapes beneficial when I was just starting out as a kid, but I think ideally that's a developmental or training stage rather than something you should always need.  Eventually your fingers just need to know where to go without thinking (or looking, or feeling), both because you need to play quickly and because you need to free your conscious mind to think about other things.  I think always having to find the tape or inlay or whatever puts too many synapses in the neural pathway to be able to play with true fluency.

And apropos of nothing in particular, three cheers for teachers (and students) with common sense!  There's really nothing worse than somebody's agenda about which of these types of playing is "better" getting in the way of the teacher-student relationship

December 9, 2010 at 07:23 PM ·

For me, I just don't see the problem with inlays -- I've seen and heard too much good bass playing both with and without inlays (at least marker dots) to imagine that they kill musicality.  With the exception of the voice (and a trombone), every other instrument on Earth has valves, keys, frets, or inlays.  Yet, these other instruments aren't musically dead -- a vast amount of brilliant work is done on all of them every day.  If they're there, you just use or ignore them at will; they'd only be a crutch if you're looking for a crutch.

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