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Jim Hastings

Violas and Bullfrogs

July 12, 2013 at 12:40 PM

Treating the viola like dirt? Not at my place.

For one thing, I've never owned or even rented a viola. In fact, I don't recall ever handling one. And I don't read the C clef fluently, although I'm familiar with it from reading orchestral scores -- a pursuit I picked up in my teens.

I love the sound of a viola -- always have. Probably my main barrier to playing one, besides sub-par C-clef fluency, is having three older fiddles already and spending about 3 hours a day playing them -- 1 hour per fiddle. On the 1869 and 1883 instruments, the stiff versions of Pirastro's Eudoxa or Oliv (Olive) D and G strings bring out a viola tone in the contralto range -- especially on the 1869 instrument. So l get a partial viola "fix" by working a good dose of sul G tones into the daily warm-up.

The viola is also one of several instruments I associate with animal or bird life. Flutes remind me of birds. Oboes remind me of kittens. Bassoons remind me of cows. And violas remind me of -- bullfrogs. That's right -- just like the ones I heard in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan as a kid. No -- that's not a viola joke!

The only remaining barrier is hand size -- maybe. While I don't have quite the problem another writer described -- puny paws and diminutive digits -- still, my hand size, M (medium), is toward the lower end of the range: S-M-L-XL-XXL. I can vibrate with the 4th finger sul G on the violin in 1st position and can play 10ths. But to stretch the left hand any farther than this? You ladies, who generally have smaller hands than we fellows have: How do you manage it? How is it that so many of you take to the viola so well?

Maybe, if I just plunged in and tried it myself, it might not be as tough as I thought. For now, though, I'll just sit back and enjoy the music -- and be thankful that there are others, whether ladies or fellows, who give time and talent and effort to play this seductive instrument.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on July 17, 2013 at 7:31 AM
I am a long time violinist who has been seduced by a viola. I've written about my experiences in a blog called "Violinist Seduced by a Viola" at I love the sound of the viola -- deep, rich, and strong, sort of like dark chocolate. I really don’t think it sounds like a bullfrog. I suppose that you could make it sound like a bullfrog by abusing it and playing the lowest string, C, and using the bow entirely incorrectly. pressing it down very hard and stopping intermittently, but I shudder to even think about it. When I first read your statement that you think that violas sound like bullfrogs, I thought that this must be another prejudicial viola joke. Now I believe that you didn’t write it as a bad joke, but I still can’t agree with you.

My hands are long and slender. I wear men’s size large gloves, even though they are too wide. I could not possibly play a tenth on the fiddle. I’ve tried it and can’t even come close.

The first time that I played a really good viola, I was hooked, and just had to have one for myself. I do, and my life has been tremendously enriched by it.

From Jim Hastings
Posted on July 17, 2013 at 2:48 PM
Pauline, thanks for your feedback. And thank you for pointing me to your blog -- I enjoyed reading it. The Schubert clip is delightful.

About playing on the lowest string, the C string: Yes, I see I should have stressed this point. It's here, in the sub-violin range, that the instrument sounds to me a little like a bullfrog in some passages -- not on long, sustained tones but on short, incisive rhythmic figures, where the player stops the bow intermittently.

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