I didn’t know much about the viola when I chose it as my instrument for elementary school orchestra. I just knew I liked the way it sounded.
The deep, soulful tone of the viola has always been much more satisfying to me than the high-pitched shriek of the violin. Not that I don’t appreciate the talent of any musician, regardless of instrument.
Growing up, I learned there were few solo opportunities for a classical viola player.
Our section in the orchestra is like the support staff of the violins. We are immensely important but receive very little recognition. Around my sophomore or junior year of high school I participated in a summer orchestra program at the University of South Carolina. The conductor was also my private viola coach and, because I was first chair in my section, he thought my style of playing would lend a great viola solo to one of our pieces. Other than that, solos for the viola were mostly restricted to auditions for chair placement and acceptance to honors and all-state orchestras.
I love the viola so much, I never cared that my instrument wasn’t as popular as a violin. But when I started performing as country-Americana duo The Crazy Daysies with my sister Rebecca and actually taught myself to fiddle on it, I realized that I felt the need to correct every person who called my instrument a violin. It’s not that I am offended by the mistake.
I realize that, unless a person is a musician, especially a strings player, there isn’t much reason for that person to know the difference between a viola and violin. I think it’s more about showing the music world that the viola can be just as much a shining star as a violin, or any other instrument.
I also realize that if I didn’t take the opportunity to educate people on what I’m actually playing, they may never learn what a viola is. Everyone knows the violin. It’s the lead, the star of the show that will not be quiet until you acknowledge it. The cello is also familiar to most. That’s the instrument you “sit down to play.” Then there’s the upright bass. He’s the cool, smooth beat that carries throughout the melody. But the viola is a mystery. It looks like a violin, but there’s something different.
Just as men’s voices are deeper than women’s due to having longer vocal chords, violas are larger than violins and, therefore, have longer (and heavier) strings, creating the characteristic deep, soulful sound. The size and sound of the viola aren’t so drastically different from the violin that people immediately recognize the difference. It’s also held in the same manner as the violin which contributes to the viola being mistaken for its higher-pitched counterpart.
I’m slightly ashamed to admit that, when I was teaching myself to fiddle, I had a fleeting thought that I could make this new style of playing much easier on myself if I just bought a violin. The finger patterns are the same on a viola and violin; it’s the spacing that’s different. Violins are smaller, so the fingers are placed closer together to produce the notes. The high string on a violin is the ‘E’ string, so for me to hit some of those high notes that are so defining in fiddling, I have to shift my hand up on my high ‘A’ string. This makes it far more difficult, especially since fiddling is a fast style of playing. I figured, why not just play the violin?
Well, because it’s not the viola. Yes, the high fiddle notes are hard to get to at times, even after playing for all these years. If I chose not to do every difficult task life threw my way, I would lead a fairly boring existence. More importantly, the viola may not have an ‘E’ string, but it does have a ‘C’ string. It’s the lowest string on a viola, and in the right songs, it lends a dark, swampy undertone that creates a signature sound for our music. Originality is at the heart of our music and brand, and the viola is an essential element in that formula.
I can still remember sitting on the stage in the elementary school cafeteria, curtains drawn, during orchestra practice. I remember the sweet smell of the wood and rosin that, at the time, was so new to me. My teacher had encouraged me in choosing the viola as opposed to violin, maybe because he really needed some viola players, or maybe because, like me, he genuinely loved the instrument. Either way, throughout my years of school orchestras, honors and all-state competitions and private lessons, not once did I imagine that I would one day be a full time musician, playing fiddle music and performing for venues spread across southern states.
It wasn’t until I started playing again after years of barely touching my instrument that I realized how essential the viola, and the music it produces, are to my existence. I worked in social services for eight years and earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree. Through it all, I enjoyed my work. It was stressful, emotionally taxing and infuriating, but what job isn’t? I felt blessed to love my career.
So in 2013, when the program I had been supervising for a non-profit agency for three years closed, I was reluctant to consider changing fields. I knew I wanted to make more money, but I was so knowledgeable in the field of social services, and I liked that. It felt good to be a “pro” at something. I decided an office job outside my field sounded way too brutal, and after weeks of encouragement from my family, I decided to try out the music scene full time.
My sister had been doing just that for a while as a solo acoustic artist. She and I had started playing some music when we’d get together for wine, and it was so much fun. But I was rusty. After all, I hadn’t practiced steadily for years. I enjoyed playing again so much that I started practicing on my own during free time, and the technique came flooding back. As my skill and precision improved, the sound my sister and I made together did too. I was hooked.
It’s been close to 22 years since the day I first heard the sound of the viola. Today, the sound of the instrument still gives me chills. Not every performance is perfect. But when we have a great show, there is not a more satisfying feeling in the world. I’ve found comfort again in a sound that I missed so much, and confidence as a performer that spills over into every corner of my life.
I loved my job I left behind, but as a musician, I now know what it is to be in love with a career.
(By Jennifer Day Thompson/Feb. 21, 2017)