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Charlie Gibbs

Baptism by fire

October 18, 2012 at 7:07 PM

Some of you might have read my last week's blog about how I stumbled into playing the viola (although it might be more accurate to say that the viola tracked me down, tripped me, and caught me while I was down). I also mentioned the possibility of playing viola in a local orchestra. Well, the fickle finger of fate has struck again, and yesterday I wound up in a rehearsal of the Ambleside Orchestra.

I arrived early at the church where the orchestra holds its rehearsals. I've always liked wandering through a church when nobody else is around - there are so many strange rooms and passages to explore. But eventually, as I passed one of the entrance doors, a woman came in towing a cello case, so I followed her to the sanctuary, where people were starting to gather.

Everyone was very friendly, and when they found out I had brought a viola they were positively thrilled, since the orchestra has only one regular violist. I busied myself helping push the piano out of the way, setting up chairs, and unpacking my instrument.

It was when everything was set up and I was waiting for the rehearsal to start that I began to get the nervous jitters. Just what was I doing here anyway? I haven't played in any structured musical organization of this size since my days playing cornet in the high school band 45 years ago. (Jam circles don't count.) I have a total of a week and a half of experience with anything related to the viola, and there I was facing a standful of music I had never seen before, all written in alto clef. And some of the key signatures were brutal.

For a moment everything dissolved into a mass of meaningless black dots on the page. But everyone from the conductor to my fellow violist was encouraging me, and we dove in, starting with portions of Rossini's Semiramide Overture. Sometimes I could find a note here and there, sometimes I'd just quietly fake my way through. Repetition wasn't boring, it was a relief - once I found the right notes I could play them over and over and sound like I knew what I was doing. The last movement of Bizet's L'Arlesienne Suite no. 1 (Le Carillon) gave me similar relief.

At the break I had a chance to unwind a bit and chat with some of the other members. They're human!

We also worked on bits of Bizet's L'Arlesienne Suite no. 2, Mendelssohn's "Ich wollt' meine Liebe", Delibe's "Lakme" (complete with a singer), and Saint-Saens' "Romance for Flute" (which is full of perfectly dreadful key changes).

By the time we finished I was feeling completely wrung out. But at least nobody was moving to throw me out. Actually, it was kind of reassuring to be in the middle of enough instruments that I could be unobtrusive when I wasn't sure of myself. But my buddy who got me into this mess, who was sitting among the second violins, remarked that he was hearing a much better sound out of the viola section, so I must have been doing something right.

And occasionally, despite all the stress, there would come those moments when everyone was playing together well and the music would wash sweetly over us - and I would realize that here I was, sitting in the middle of an orchestra, being part of it all.

Afterwards, my friend and I went to a Chinese restaurant. At the end of the meal the fortune cookies arrived - and mine read: "The longest journey is started by a single step; take it."

I didn't sleep too well last night. Part of it was due to the dreams. I was driving around North Vancouver trying to find the church, and I just couldn't make the lines on the map line up. It must have had something to do with my struggles to make the lines on the alto clef staff line up into something meaningful.

Am I going back next week? You bet! I've now taken that single step. Just think of what I'll be able to do after having the sheet music to practise with.

From Michelle Ippolito
Posted on October 20, 2012 at 5:11 PM
Congratulations on that first step. It all sounds like great fun!
From Sue Buttram
Posted on October 20, 2012 at 6:05 PM
What a great description of the feelings many of us have when faced with very difficult music to sightread. Sounds like you did fine. Congratulations!
From marjory lange
Posted on October 21, 2012 at 12:34 PM
Two thumbs up!

My first orchestra experience on viola was very similar--only I was 13, so new, terrifying experiences were relatively common! as they are to most teenagers trying to figure things out.

My guess is, you'll LOVE viola, not just the instrument, but where it puts you in the sound of the orchestra.

From Barry Nelson
Posted on October 23, 2012 at 12:54 AM
This is inspiring for me, Ive played fiddle for 4 years and have just ordered my first Viola (should be here this week) with the hopes I can get good enough to play with a community orchestra

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