Helen Campbell, a native of the New York metropolitan area, lives in Germany and teaches for the European branch of the University of Maryland. She has published two novels, one of which, Turnip Blues, was a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover Award. A former musician, she studied violin and viola in Philadelphia, and performed professionally for many years.
The following work is copyright © 2013. All rights reserved. No distribution or reprinting in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author.
For Miriam Hartman
Years before he thrilled his fans destroying his guitars, Jimi Hendrix was a geek. A single fact confirms this: he played the viola. Biographers either know nothing about it, or deem this detail an embarrassment. We do know he'd started in fourth grade and played in his public school orchestra. Thereafter, the record is silent, until, as a teen, he acquired a broken five-dollar guitar. His legend got started from that point. Or so his biographers insist.
But backtracking, why the viola? Nine-year-old boys don't request such an untrendy instrument—and someone like Jimi would certainly ask for a sax or the trumpet. What happened that day in his music class had to be simply the luck of the draw; Jimi, most likely, was stuck at the back of the line behind dozens of boys, and got handed the last unclaimed instrument case. He'd probably hoisted it sullenly home—taking care to avoid the assemblage of punks on his corner—and waited to open it up. But something about the viola apparently grabbed him that instant—most likely the fact he could strum it in transverse position, guitar-style, the same as he'd done with a broom. It turned out he liked the viola. And this is a part of his legend that begs recognition.
I, too, was a geek, but my route to the instrument wasn't as quirky as Jimi's. It fitted, moreover, the usual pattern: the passable violin student, who, fretting she won't find an orchestral job, makes a switch to the larger and heavier viola. The move, on its face, makes good sense; she's certain she'll outshine most others who play it, and triple her earning potential. Great idea, says her violin teacher, his hand raised in high-five position. You'll never regret your decision.
But she does--when she first hears the following:
a) What's the difference between a viola and a dog? A dog knows when to stop scratching.
b) Why do viola players keep their cases on their car dashboards? So they can park in handicapped spaces.
c) Why are violins smaller than violas? They’re not: violists’ heads are just smaller.
d) What is a viola? A coffin with the dead person on the outside.
To better assess if these jokes are a thigh-thumping hoot, the reader might need a few facts—for instance, that string players have their own castes. The structure is fluid enough to permit interchangeable Brahmins, with violin, cello, or double bass claiming that status. These instruments each mount a persuasive case based on what they provide. In symphony orchestras, violins furnish the melody; celli, the heartbeat; and basses, the harmonic bedrock. Violas have no such significant function. Their primary role is “supportive”, which means that they fill in or double the harmony. Their seating arrangement confirms this accessory role: they’re squeezed between celli on one side, and woodwinds, the other, and play with their instruments facing away from the audience. As such, they are almost inaudible—except during waltzes, when playing the pah-pah that follows the oomp.
It’s hard for this group to maintain self-respect. They know their orchestral colleagues perceive them as failed violinists and musical surplus. The instrument has few defenders, and even composers malign it. Wagner once wrote, “the viola is commonly…played by infirm violinists, or by decrepit players of wind instruments who happen to have been acquainted with a string instrument once upon a time”. Hence, these musicians are prone to self-loathing and partial to scotch.
Yet few people fathom the technical challenges facing violists. The instrument breaks you. Its very construction is flawed from the standpoint of physics: the lengths of the instrument's strings are too long for its soundbox, producing a thin, nasal tone in the instrument's upper registers, and a muffled, bumpy sound in its lower ones. Its weight and proportions defy human handling, and worse, it subverts any effort to force one clear note from its bowels. Violists, in short, wrestle wolverines. It isn’t surprising the names of the instrument's most famous players reflect all the grappling and choking required to play it: Trampler, Tertis, Fuchs, Bashmet.
And wielding this stubborn contraption is hard on the body. Soft-tissue injuries—in joints, nerves, and tendons—result from the player's repetitive motions and kyphotic posture while playing. Kind-hearted violin makers have tried redesigning the instrument ergonometrically—but no one is anxious to buy one. These modern “violas” are shaped like amoebas, provoking convulsions of laughter from other musicians. Violists would rather remain as they are, walking wounded, than bear more derision.
So what do I tell those who tell me viola jokes? It’s tempting to punch them, or show them my wrist brace and x-rays, or ask them why bagpipes and theremins and bassoons are spared the abuse people gleefully heap on violas.
But I don’t. Instead, I tell them about Jimi. Hendrix? Played the viola? they reflexively snort. Get the Fuck out!
Yet it’s true. And Jimi knew something that took me a long time to learn: that taming this instrument calls for tenacity, sureness, and—most of all--joints of titanium. He wisely moved on to a less brutal ax that crowds loved. But no one who’s actually played the viola would mock those who do. Jimi would surely defend us.