strung out
my life as an amateur violist

    conversion  |  # j

  I thought you played the viola, Naze!  Get your story straight, guy. 
Oh, wait just a moment longer, my patient guest. We’re almost there... 

In my first couple of years in the PYP, I felt like a Salieri in a roomful of Mozarts.  In Amadeus, Milos Forman absolutely nailed the maddening braid of wonder and envy that a struggling musician experiences in the presence of the truly gifted.  

Classical musicians tend to be relentlessly self-critical.  Partly it’s the way we are taught, but mostly it is because we are painfully aware of our technical and musical flaws.  It makes you kind of nuts and can eat a hole in your confidence.  

But on a cloudy afternoon in September 1983, I was feeling alright.  I was sitting in the dining room of Jacob Avshalomov’s home in the west hills of Portland unpacking my fiddle.  Audition time.  I love the smell of napalm in the morning.  I know I’m not gonna blow him away with Mozart’s Third Violin Concerto.  Hell, he’s heard this thing more times than the graveyard shift at the public radio station.  However, I’ve worked on this piece like a dog and know that it sounds decent.  

Mr. A opens the pocket doors to the study and welcomes me. After some small talk I do my thing.  I’m jamming along, hitting my chords, skimming along the sixteenth notes with a modicum of style, when he stops me just before the spot in the first movement where the cadenza begins.  Well, I had no intention of playing the cadenza (a cadenza is a designated spot in a concerto where the performer gets to light it up ala Jimi Hendrix with their virtuosity), but what’s going on?  

Very diplomatically, the maestro explains that it sounds fine, but I look as if I am playing trapped inside a phone booth.  Ouch.  No, sizewise it seems to him that I’ve literally outgrown the instrument. It was true.  In 1980, shortly after I joined the Prep, I had grown nearly 11 inches in 11 months (!) to my present height of 72 inches.  My arms are kinda long (thanks Dad) and my hands are pretty big.  As I played the violin, my left elbow was nearly touching my ribs.  

Here came the pitch: "I’d like you to consider trying the viola."  

Now if you are a violinist and you’ve got any kind of ego (trust me, most of them have no shortage in this department ;-), this kind of invitation could be interepreted as a slam. Me? -- 1) I couldn’t afford much ego; 2) I had already been messing around with a banged up viola from the college and kinda dug it. I accepted. And just like that I was a member of the viola section.  

Oh, the stereotypes are dreadful.  Violists are mellow, quiet, brooding.  They’re so used to playing harmony that they wouldn't know melody if it whacked them on the head.  That is if you could ever coax them to play above a mezzo piano (that’s pretty quiet) or above first position (the easiest one).  Get out your library cards, pocket protectors, and slide rules, here come the violas!  

And the jokes?  Oy vay!  Enough already.  

Gentle Reader, this is your one assignment from these electronic epistles: Promise me that you will never, from this day forward, confuse a viola with a violin, or worse yet, a viola and a cello. Here’s the deal - a viola is *bigger* than a violin, but you still play it under your chin. The bigger size results in a lower pitch -- in fact a fifth lower (that’s five tones lower) than a violin. Most people find the deep, rich sound the viola produces to be pleasant and soothing. (Much to their credit I might add.)  

The viola does not have a large, famous repertoire.  It is only in the last seventy years or so that composers have really begun to explore the soloistic capabilities of the instrument.  Probably the best known piece featuring a viola is Mozart’s Symphonia Concertante for Violin and Viola.  Need I mention that it is heavenly and that you must give it a try? T here aren’t that many famous violists.  

If you forget everything I’ve just told you, never forget this: a viola is not a cello.  It is a major slam (to you mostly) if you repeatedly ask a violist if he plays the cello or violin when he’s told you on many occasions that it is a vi-o-la (say vee-O-lah).  

Phew! Do you feel better too? (You can forget about the poke in the ribs e-mails. I see this one in my in-basket and I’m hitting the delete key faster than you can say Guisseppe Lucci.)  

Back to the story.  

The viola omens were quite good.  I didn’t happen to own a viola, but the orchestra did. A few days later I stopped by the PYP office, which is located in a section of the humongous Masonic Temple downtown in the Park Blocks.  

Mrs. Frye, the veteran and general manager of the staff, showed me to the vault. It really was an old walk-in vault.  Cool.  I could pick out any of the violas inside.  Well, well, what have we here? The gods were smiling.  I opened up a new rectangular case to find a gorgeous viola with a deep auburn varnish that proudly highlighted the maple woodgrain.  

And it finally registered.  This was the $5000 viola that an admirer of the orchestra (one Sidney Ray Stukelman, bless his soul) had donated not long ago.  And it was all mine (for as long as I played in the PYP)!  Come to Papa


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