viola class 2013Having viola classes was a bit of an experiment at the Community Music School of Santa Cruz’s Teen Camp this year.

We of course had a lively series of viola jokes going around camp.  Not to be outdone, two students presented an epic poem on the subject at the Friday night talent show.

It was indeed fairly awesome.  Cadence, rhymes, pathos, the whole thing!  Here’s an excerpt:

‘Twas the first night of Teen Camp
As poor Catherine slept
And dreams of swing class
Danced through her head
The next day though, she was granted a ‘gift’
A large violin appeared that was not well equipped
With a C string, what in the world was this?!?
She tried in vain, but could not resist
Before her eyes, her whole world changed
She found she liked life in the lower range
She envisioned herself with the cellos and basses
And not with those of high-pitched disgraces
She found this new instrument misunderstood, often mispronounced
And that any solos for her would ever be announced
Without Shelley’s love, her kind were oppressed
Never to be heard in this musical mess
Reading from neither bass nor treble,
She read from the alto clef, the clef of the devil
And as she journeyed through her downward spiral
She found herself competing with keyboards for survival
She was often asked “What instrument do you play?”
She meekly replied while walking away,
“I’m a musician. I swear that I am, no lie!”
Instead of answering, she’d turn and cry
So remember this story of poor Cassie’s fate
One whose mockery would never abate
Violists are fragile and delicate creatures
And are protective of their instrument’s odd features
Be kind to them, they’re good in quartets!
Though with that in mind, they’ll play hard to get
They try to make up for their lack in popularity
Because verbal appreciation is a rarity.

No kidding, ladies.  Verbal appreciation really is a rarity if you’re a viola player!  So here’s some to even the scales a bit.

In the post on cabin bands, I talked about the transferrable skills that are emphasized in small ensembles – the ability to communicate a vision and collaborate toward a shared goal, directly and without mediation.

Today I’m thinking about what large ensembles offer us.  What skills do we learn when a conductor is coordinating our work?

Simply put, we learn how to sit quietly, to not have to be the center of attention, to be attentive to what is happening with those around us.

And that’s extremely valuable.  There aren’t many places left where we ask for this kind of patience and attention – even at dinner with friends, any down moment is a chance to pull out your smart phone and get online.  It just takes a moment to check things, we think, I’m not really disengaging from those around me…

It’s hardly surprising, then, that students sometimes have a hard time not talking and not playing when a conductor is working with a different section!

And now let me speak from my section of the orchestra.  Viola is an instrument that makes particularly stringent demands this way.  Yes, we play offbeats.  Yes, we are often holding notes that fill out chords.  No, we don’t get the melody very often.  And no, we don’t often get thanked for doing this work!

violas lamentHere’s the thing about those offbeats – if you’re a melody player, you need me to place those exactly and with the same inflection every time.  If you want to achieve a certain lilt in your playing – a hesitation here, a moment of arrival there – you need me to keep paying attention, even when you’re the one doing the more interesting thing.

The discipline of staying with something, even when it’s not particularly exciting, even when it’s not all about the self – that’s a valuable skill.

It builds people who will listen before speaking, who will look beyond themselves to see how they can serve a broader vision.

It builds people who can delay gratification and keep going at something, even if it doesn’t pay off in the moment, and even if they don’t get credit in the end.

Come to think of it, those are classic leadership skills!  And they’re shared by everyone in a large ensemble who develops the self-discipline that’s the necessary foundation for contributing.

In closing, allow me one more response to the Viola’s Lament – or at least this stanza:

Just remember all the great violists of our time!
If you can name one, I’ll give you a dime.

Challenge accepted!

Let’s start with these: Mikael Marin, Garth Knox, Kim Kashkashian, Nobuko Imai, Yuri Bashmet, Karen Tuttle, Michael Kugel, Rebecca Clarke, Cathy Basrak, and more

Plus a few before our times: Lionel Tertis, William Primrose,  Jimi Hendrix (believe it or not!), and more

Plus a few who became famous composers:  Dvorak, Vaughn Williams, Hindemith, Britten, Beethoven, Mozart, Monteverdi, Mendelssohn, Stamitz, and more