Wednesday, 24 June 2009

On Why I Play The Viola

Whenever I tell anyone I’m a musician, the first question they usually ask me is “What instrument do you play?” When I give the answer “Viola” I get a mixed bunch of reactions. Many people just look puzzled when I don’t instantly say “Piano” or “Guitar”; some, showing their immense knowledge of orchestral instruments, say “Ah, is that the small violin thing?” and I gently correct them; non-viola-playing musicians often tell their favourite viola joke; amateur conductors ask for my telephone number; and viola players usually greet me as though I am their long-lost friend!

So why do I play the viola? What circumstances led me to become a first-study violist and consequently sit pretty much in the middle of the orchestra, become an honorary tenor from time to time, develop strong muscles on one side of my neck, shamelessly steal transcribed repertoire from other instruments, read alto clef fluently, hear endless viola jokes, and generally confuse all the non-musical people who can’t quite comprehend the differences between a viola and a violin?

At this point I’d like to tell you a beautiful and romantic story, about how I, as a small child, heard somebody playing viola and instantly fell in love with its wonderful and entrancing sound. I’d like to say that I begged my parents to let me play the viola until they were so impressed by my passion and commitment that they eventually relented and I was able to fulfill my dream.

But it wasn’t really like that - it was less a “love at first sight” scenario, and more of a “marriage of convenience”.

At the age of nine I had two ambitions. One was to be an astronaut and the other was to be a professional clarinet player. I was a VERY good clarinet player – I had the highest music grade of anybody in my school, which was excellent because the Headmistress made me stand up in assembly and the whole school clapped and they gave me a sweet.

However, by the time I reached age twelve, clarinet dreams had faded. I had braces on my teeth, my lips bled when I played, I couldn’t get into an orchestra and I hated my teacher. I knew now that I wanted to play the violin. My brother played the violin and got into orchestras. Furthermore he was taught by a cool boy in the fifth-form who I found just the tiniest bit attractive. So I started to pester my parents to let me give up the clarinet and play the violin instead.

Eventually they approached the attractive boy’s mother, who was the local violin and viola teacher. She said I was quite big, and really a bit old to start the violin but I could always learn the viola. Could the attractive boy still teach me? Apparently he could.

That settled the deal. A beaten up old viola was located somewhere at the back of a cupboard in the music centre and I started lessons, which were really cool. I painted my fingernails black every week to impress the attractive boy and I even got into an orchestra. On the day I joined I passed my viola to the teacher for tuning and she became so excited at having a viola in her orchestra she nearly fell over. I was the oldest in the orchestra by several years and I sat towering above tens of seven year-olds violinists and a couple of eight-year old cellists.

The honeymoon period ended with grade 4 scales. I hadn’t signed up for tedious minutes of scale practice – I wanted orchestras and the attractive boy. So I decided to give up. However, my parents had already paid for the exam, so I wasn’t allowed. Instead my Dad wrote out all the names of my scales on little bits of card and sat in my bedroom for 30 minutes every day, making me pick out cards and practice scales until they were perfect. In that way I worked through “C major, slurred”, “G minor, separate bows” and the rest of them until I eventually passed grade 4 with flying colours.

At that point all thoughts of giving up evaporated. After 8 months learning the viola I had gained grade 4 and I got moved up an orchestra. I was now “A Viola Player” and what had started as a “marriage of convenience” was rapidly becoming a full-blown love affair!

And that is why I play the viola!


  1. As a fellow violist, I deeply relate to your first paragraph. Spot on.

    Why do I play viola? Because my violin teacher / orchestra conductor needed a viola player in the high school orchestra. I started out on violin and moved to viola... hm. I can't remember when exactly, but it was some time before junior high school (7th grade in the US - 12 years old). I grew to love how that viola sounded and found I didn't want to play the violin nearly as much as I did the viola.

    Love the blog; follow you on Twitter. Keep on keepin' on!

  2. Whenever I tell anyone I’m a musician, the first question they usually ask me is “What instrument do you play?” When I give the answer “Viola” I get a mixed bunch of reactions.

    Mine would be 'Must be difficult keeping that up under your chin'. But said in jest.

  3. I don't think I've ever made a viola-joke at you, have I?

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  4. ps my blog is very political and not personal at all. Just warning you :)

  5. The fairytale version would also have you marrying that attractive boy. Was this the one who eventually became wonderspouse?

  6. Isn't that just the way life happens?

  7. Violinists and Cellists have all these commonly recognized greats to admire that other people can relate to. Most non-musicians have heard of Yo-Yo Ma or Jascha Heifetz. But WTH is Primrose or Tertis? Walton? This can make it hard for a young student to get really excited about viola.

    Viola finds interest among composers, though.

  8. Well, I'm totally bowled over by the number of fabulous comments! I'm pretty convinced that many viola players DO start playing the viola "by accident", but fall in love anyway!

    I'm actually rather pleased that the attractive boy didn't become the Wonderspouse. I did meet up with him as an adult and he was a jolly nice bloke but, in the end, really not my type!

    As for the viola idol of my youth (attractive boy aside), the wonderful Yuri Bashmet!

    Huge thanks for the comments and taking an interest - hope you enjoy what is to come!