Viola Jokes don't discourage us from filling in the harmonies and
living a quiet life in the orchestra pit
"Why is a viola better than a violin?"
"The viola burns longer."
As a viola player myself I've heard hundreds of viola jokes and have
earned the right to retell them ad nauseum. This violist ain't touchy about
viola jokes and I'll even squirt milk out my nose when told a particularly nasty
one I haven’t heard yet.
What I find more frustrating than viola jokes is how many people don't
even know what the viola is! It's bad enough to be ridiculed, but far worse when
no one knows you exist! When prodded with the violin vs. violin joke opener, my
inner music geek is compelled to ramble the viola gospel. "The Viola is the
‘Alto’ voice of the violin family, hence is tuned a perfect fifth below violin."
Blank stares await the real punch line. I need to get out more.
In truth the viola is much like a violin, so much so that many symphony
goers simply think they're just more violins. Visually the technique is
identical to violin playing: held at the left shoulder and bowed up and down,
but with more broad movements as the viola is slightly larger than a violin. A
larger instrument allows for a longer string length and increased body /sound
chamber to allow the low notes to reverberate properly.
Simply put, the viola is like a slightly larger violin who's high E-string
was replaced by a low C-string on the low end. This is pretty much all that
separates violin from the viola. For violists size really does matter.
So what, it's a bigger, lower pitched fiddle? Why the ridicule?
"Why are viola jokes so short?"
"So Violinists can remember them."
The viola is like the quiet middle child: ignored by its parents and
overshadowed by its other, more active and successful siblings. A fate worse
than “playing second fiddle,” viola's role in a symphony or string quartet is to
provide middle harmonies (aka, the leftover scraps of chords no one else wants
to play) and rarely plays the melody, or tune.
"How do you get a violin to sound like a viola?"
"Sit in the back and don't play."
Even visually the viola is neglected. We can hardly see them on stage
tucked between second violins and cellos and facing their instruments away from
the audience. They get less air-time than first violins and cellos and spend the
most time taking breaks from play than any other section of the strings.
This leads to the solo issue. There is not much solo repertoire written
for viola, which has long been viewed as the “strong, silent type.” The lack of
repertoire is most likely due to its mellow, deep tone, which, being less bright
and projecting less than the violin, was believed by composers of the day to be
less suited to virtuoso display. Hence the viola is rarely showcased and has to
resort largely to adaptations of violin and cello repertoire to get any
"How do you get a violin to sound like a viola?"
"Play in the low register with a lot of wrong notes."
A gap between viola and popular acceptance among musicians is the alto
clef. Viola is pretty much the only instrument to use the alto clef and only
violists can read the darn thing, so it keeps many musicians from picking one up
and learning to play.
It’s like the notes are written in a code no one else wants to learn to
decipher. More tragically (and poetically), violists are like a dying out race
whose language is dying with them.
[Cue melancholy violin solo rewritten for viola]
"What is the difference between a violist and a savings bond?"
"Eventually the bond will mature and earn money."
No matter how bleak the plight of the violist may be, the viola is still
an absolute necessity in orchestral and string ensemble playing. You can’t play
a symphony without the viola section. Oh sure, you can draft some third
violinists to play the part, but they can’t play the low notes and get that
throaty viola tone. This is where opportunity knocks and gives the meek violist
an amazing advantage over violinists.
"What do you call a Viola player with half a brain?"
Simply put, it’s a matter of supply and demand. There are gobs of violin
players in the world and a startling shortage of violists. For example, in ten
years of teaching over a hundred violin students I’ve only worked with three
viola students. You don’t have to be a PhD to figure out the best way to get
accepted into a music school or conservatory is to know how to play viola and
read the alto clef.
"What's another name for viola auditions?"
Picture this: There are 25 violin spaces and 5 viola spaces available in a
first year music program. 300 violinists and 2 violists have applied. Do the
math and you can pretty much guarantee those 2 violists will make it in without
much fuss from admissions staff.
“Violinists are a dime a dozen” turns into, “Invite two more viola playing
friends and save up to 50% off your tuition! Call now!” The same speaks for
scholarships available to violists only. They’re rare, but they do exist.
"Classified Ads: Established string quartet seeking two violinists
and a cellist."
Carry this concept forward to getting a position in a group. I had the
privilege of playing at the BC Provincial music festival because a string
quartet was short a viola player. I’m sure I never would have made it into the
group as a violinist as the players were beyond my level, but I was the only gal
around who could read that pesky alto clef!
Symphony auditions don’t even seem as rigid for violists. “You play viola?
You can sit here,” was pretty much the response I received when inquiring with
the Kamloops Symphony. I joined the immense viola section of two other violists
for one concert and managed my way into the first violin section where I stayed
content for the rest of the season.
It is very apparent that there is far less competition involved and
violists do have an edge.
"Did you hear about the violist who played in tune?"
"Neither did I."
I don’t intend to imply that as a violist you can get away with being a
mediocre player. Far from it; you must have a command of the instrument which is
both strong and sensitive at the same time. You must also have a feel for the
instrument, which as legendary violist and conductor of Canada’s National Arts
Council Orchestra, Pinchas Zukerman, explained to me in an interview.
“The bow application is different on the viola,” he said. “A slightly
slower bow application is used on the viola because it's heavier and easier to
Zukerman also said, “Hearing the sonority of the instrument made me want
to play the viola.” And this is where many players are attracted to the viola.
That wonderful, low C-string that reverberates in your bones.
"Why do Violinists switch to Viola?"
"So they can park in handicapped spaces."
I loved the viola before I even knew what it was. It was in my second year
of violin when I bought the score to my favourite piece of music, Brandenburg
Concerto No. 6 by J. S. Bach. Imagine my disappointment when I saw the solo
parts written in a strange, alien clef. My school orchestra director kindly
loaned me a viola and I learned the clef over the weekend so I could scratch out
even the slightest bit of the music. I was hooked on viola from then on.
I've since worked to convince many of my violin students to switch to
viola, citing the many wonderful opportunities mentioned above. It's got to be
done! Viola players are just hard to come by otherwise. In my years teaching
only one viola student learned viola before violin, the rest were violin
transplants. This unforeseen anomaly is perhaps the only case of a violist who
took up violin later.
"What do you call someone who hangs around musicians a lot?"
"A Viola player."
Who knows their reasons behind playing viola, but many amazing and
well-respected musicians have played the viola over the centuries including J.S.
Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Schubert and violin virtuoso Paganini.
Czech composer Dvorák considered becoming a professional violist but instead
pursued composition where he wrote pieces which gave the viola a far more active
Some composers even preferred viola over violin, such as Mozart who was
said to have performed the Principal Viola solo at the premiere of his then
ground-breaking “Sinfonia Concertante.” And some greats had their musical start
on the viola. Jimi Hendrix, perhaps the 20th century’s finest and most
innovative rock- started his musical career at an early age on the viola!
"Why did the violist marry the guitarist?"
Okay, so smashing a flaming Fender is way cooler than playing the viola.
Heck, you may loose a teeny bit of sex appeal and overall charisma when you take
"Why is the violin smaller than the viola?"
"It's an optical illusion. They’re actually the same size and appear
smaller because the violinist’s heads are so much larger."
In the end, it’s not really the life of glamour and fame enjoyed by
violinists. As the showy violinists clambour for a chance in the limelight, the
humbled violists abandon any delusions of glory and accepts their fate with a
healthy mix of zen detachment and humiliation.
Ahh, but inside every viola player is a daring rebel. An individual who
has broken away from the establishment. You see them slogging away in the bowels
of the orchestra, playing their unique middle harmonies with knowing grins on
their smug faces. “We're absolutely essential and we know it.”
Let the violists have the last laugh.
**Rhiannon Schmitt (nee Nachbaur) is an award-winning classical
violinist/fiddler and music teacher who has enjoyed creative writing for years.
Her business, Fiddleheads Violin School & Shop, has won several
distinguished business awards and offers beginner to professional level
instruments, accessories and supplies with exceptional personal service. She has
in stock a rare and stunning 15.5" viola by 2-time Gold Medal VSA maker Ming
Jiang Zhu. http://www.fiddleheads.ca