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Pauline Lerner

Violinist seduced by a viola

November 11, 2010 at 4:02 AM

"I'd like you to take a look at a violin and viola I've got."

The call was from a friend who likes to pick things up at second hand stores, hoping that they might be worth something and that they can repaired readily.

"Sure," I said.  "When can you bring them over?"  I was excited. 

I was even more excited when I saw the instruments.  The viola, especially, was beautiful.  I loved the grain of the wood and the varnish.  It was relatively light in weight with a gentle curve to the back, resembling my violin.  I looked it over and could not find any serious flaws.  It needed new strings and a new bridge, and if I were to play it, a new tailpiece with four fine tuning screws.


From My friend's viola


From My friend's viola


From My friend's viola


I picked up the viola and played it for about 30 seconds, mainly scales.

"I want it," I said.

"You can't have it," he responded.

I knew that my luthier should look at both instruments, but I kept them on loan so that I could play them for a while.  I especially liked the viola.  One string was nearly worn out, and I broke another one while trying to tune it.  Even with only two strings, it sounded beautiful to me.  I spent a lot of time playing it before taking it to the shop.

At the luthier's, I watched with some trepidation while one of the professionals looked at it.

"It was probably made in the 1950s," she said in response to my first question.  I asked her how she could tell.  She explained that the varnish was relatively even throughout, with no evidence of antiquing.  She also said that the light yellow color of the rims was characteristic of violins and violas made at that time.

I watched her run one fingertip along the edges where one piece of wood was glued to another, feeling for cracks or separations.  Her verdict was very good.  It only needed gluing in one small spot.  I know that even a small glue job should be done by a professional, or the instrument can develop new stresses that may eventually destroy it.  When I knew that the viola was in almost perfect health, I was thrilled.  I had her write down the cost of the repairs and replacement parts and told her to keep the instrument on hold until I consulted with my friend about the cost.  I also asked her the rental cost for a reasonably good beginner viola, and I was pleasantly surprised by her response.  I called my friend about having his viola repaired.  He gave the go-ahead, and the viola was on its way.

When I went with my friend to pick up his repaired viola, I tried out his viola and several rental violas.  My friend is not a musician, but he has built a few stringed instruments and he is an avid listener to many kinds of music.  We discussed each viola after I played it, and we heard similar qualities in each one.  I selected one of the viola rentals as just a bit better suited to me than his viola.  The one I chose sounded a little tinny to me, so I had the strings changed from Heliocores to Pirastro Tonicas, and the viola sounded immensely better.  I felt the kind of excitement that only a new instrument could bring.

End of prelude. 

To be continued.


From Janis Cortese
Posted on November 11, 2010 at 9:16 PM

Go to IMSLP and download a bunch of Haendel operas -- get the Big Four (Tamerlano, Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda, and Partenope), and have a crack at all the Senesino arias.  If that doesn't get you addicted to a viola in record time, nothing will.  :-)  You can play them on a violin, too -- but the increased size of a viola and the resonance of the C string will put a dark, baritone-like belt under them that is like a mouthful of Irish coffee on a cold night.

If that doesn't do it, play Journey.  :-)  Journey on a viola is like crack and chocolate!

From Susan Young
Posted on November 11, 2010 at 11:55 PM

So now you really have my curiosity up.  Thanks!  Our area is big on Folk and Bluegrass fiddle music.  My husband is learning the guitar and suggested I learn the violin which I happily agreed to.  I always wanted to play the cello though.  I love the deeper tones.  A violin is more social - it's easier to take places, it's easier to join in folk jams and it accompanies the guitar easier (although I did show my husband several videos of James Taylor and Yo Yo Ma to try to win him over to my side).  In the end, I can buy a good violin for a fraction of what I would have to spend on a decent cello so I am learning the violin instead.  I can always learn the cello in the future.  But I always wondered if a viola wouldn't be a better compromise?  Would I enjoy the deeper tones more?  Is it still as flexible and social as the violin?  I've really been wondering.......

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on November 12, 2010 at 4:21 AM

Janis, thank you for the suggestions.  I will try them.

Susan, I have played both violin and viola in jam sessions with several guitarists.  People can hear my viola, but not my violin, over a bunch of guitars.  Of course, playing with a guitarist one on one would be different.  I recommend that you try the viola.  It's just as easy to carry around as a violin, but you may prefer the deeper, warmer tone of the viola.  I was surprised at how different the violin and the viola sound.

I hope that some more violists will come out of the closet now.

From Ann Marie Cordial
Posted on November 12, 2010 at 1:38 PM

I think I broke my violin instructors heart when I tried the viola and told him I liked it better.  For some reason, the Alto clef comes easy to me, whereas I struggle with the Treble clef.

I consider myself a violist who likes to play the violin.

---Ann Marie

From Charlie Gibbs
Posted on November 12, 2010 at 6:30 PM

Oooh, the temptation...  While waiting for a bit of work on my violin I picked up a viola that was handy and gave it a try.  That C string was amazing.  And since I have two violin-playing friends and my wife plays cello, all we need to play string quartets is for one of us to play viola.  Ah, those twin demons of time and money... plus learning alto clef...

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on November 12, 2010 at 6:38 PM

She's hooked.  Another violinist gives in to the lure of the dark side.

From Janis Cortese
Posted on November 12, 2010 at 6:52 PM

Alto clef's easy, Charlie.  It's just an abbreviated grand staff.

From Mendy Smith
Posted on November 13, 2010 at 2:00 AM

 Welcome to the Dark Side!  The Cing is the lure :)  

The few times I play my fiddle, I always end up gravitating back to my viola to get that melted dark chocolate kind of sound.  

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on November 15, 2010 at 2:56 PM

I love playing on the dark side.  It's not just the C string, though.  In fact, the C string puzzled me at first because it was sort of hoarse and husky.  Someone suggested that I use more bow pressure, and that helped a lot.  Now I'm trying to play more on the C string to break it in and get a more rounded tone.  I've been playing mostly on the two middle strings, and I can tell that they sound better and are more responsive because of it.  Even when you play the same notes on the viola and the violin, they sound different -- more mellow, resonant, and dark on the viola.  I like the analogy to dark chocolate.  I'm constantly surprised at how different the two instruments sound.  A few inches can make a really big difference.

Now for learning to read the alto clef.  It's not that easy, especially since I've been reading treble clef for almost as long as I've been reading words.  I got a book by Whistler, the scale book guy, which my luthier recommended.  It is written for violinists learning to play viola.  Whistler gives advice on reading alto clef:  Add 2 flats and then pretend that you're playing the appropriate violin string but in the third position.  I'm still confused.  He also explains some of the differences in technique which the violinist-turned-violist must learn and gives exercises for learning them.  I've noticed that my fingers have to be placed much farther apart (or so it seems) on the viola than on the violin.  Whistler's book begins with exercises for playing double stops with the fourth finger on one string and the open string above it.  Ouch!  I've been avoiding the fourth finger.  Whistler then gives exercises in fingered octaves.  I see that I must get serious about learning the viola.  No problem.  I love it. 

I've discovered a classical violist who really makes the viola sing as a solo instrument.  He is Yuri Batshem, and you can hear him here.

I thank everyone for your advice and encouragement.

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