A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Still twinkling

Davis Concert Hall is packed.  Next to me, my two ten-year-olds settle themselves into plush seats.  Lizzy wiggles.  Her legs dangle.  She lets the seat fold her up like a fetus, then unfolds it again.  Molly peruses the program -- thick, shiny, color-printed.  Her brow furrows slightly over the long lists of musicians as she parses the multi-syllabic ethnicities of America.  The house lights dim, and the stage brightens, highlighting a tidy array of black and white, skirts and trousers, gleaming curved wood and resting bows. The seat reserved for the concertmaster – the principal player of the first violin section -- waits, portentous.  The podium is as yet lacking the dash and verve of its black-tailed conductor. 
In the anticipatory hush, a lone figure scuttles out, thoroughly un-conductor-like, from stage left.   There is no way for a tardy performer to cross this expectant and unforgiving expanse unobtrusively, but he tries.  He scoots into his seat, which is tucked away at the back, right of center. 
Nine hundred people giggle at the late violist.
Q: What do you call someone who hangs around with musicians?  A: A viola player. 
Giggling at violists is a long and revered orchestral tradition. The instruments themselves are awkwardly large for their shoulder-held position, acoustically too small for the deeper tones they carry, and utterly unfamiliar to the general public.  Those who take up the viola are relegated to reading the obscure alto clef, playing mid-range harmony, and sitting behind the bulky cellos.  As such, they are often suspected of being a pack of underachievers – perhaps failed violinists who snuck into the orchestra for the free cocktails and Brie appetizers.  They are the odd ducks and the orphaned cousins.
Or should I say… we? 
I played the viola from age eight to fourteen – long enough to demonstrate no particular innate talent, but not long enough to gain mastery through brute determination.  As such, I’ve spent three decades assuming that the viola didn’t make much of a dent in either my musical knowledge or the clay of my character.  But is my violist nature something that could ever be obscured by the dust on my battered black instrument case?
Q: Why don't violists play hide and seek?  A: Because no one will look for them.
The stage lights in Davis brighten a bit more, and the concertmaster appears.  He leads the tuning – an effort that seems more ceremonial than indispensable – with flourish and aplomb.  Lizzy leans toward me to whisper: “He sits at the front because he’s the best, right?” 
Lizzy is often anxious about who is the best.  When string lessons were first offered last year at University Park Elementary, Lizzy took up the violin. 
“Yes”, I tell her.  She jiggles her legs some more, nodding.
Lizzy’s twin is more likely to compete with herself than to compete with others.  She is he kind of kid who wants to create a science fair project that no child has ever created before, and select a birthday party theme for which no company has ever dreamed of printing napkins.  She is not jiggling.
At my own elementary school, budding violinists and cellists abounded, and at least three kids were drawn to the impressive upright bass.  But no eight-year-old wanted to be a violist – except for me.  The orchestra teacher seemed perplexed, albeit willing to accommodate my peculiar choice.  Lacking any actual small violas in the school’s limited collection, she restrung a three-quarter-size violin.  The tone was poor, but not as terrible as it would have been if she’d tried to do the same thing with one of the half-size instruments the other kids were playing.  “It’s a good thing you have long arms,” she remarked, assessing my scrawny frame.  It was true; sweaters invariably crawled up my wrists, leaving gaps of pale skin and blue veins.  I was perfectly suited to apelike brachiating on the monkey-bars – and to the viola. 
The conductor takes his stand with satisfying pomp and emotionality.  He, like the principal violinist, receives applause just for existing.
Q: How do you tell when a violist is out of tune?  A: The bow is moving. 
A college friend of mine knew dozens of viola jokes, all of which made himself the butt of his own intensely nerdy humor. I didn’t fully understand the context for this until I met his equally musically talented but much more self-consciously-cool identical twin. The viola can be a state of mind.
I chose the viola for reasons that were obvious, and reasons that were not.  My dad played the cello.  My big sister played the violin, and although I admired her, years of being accidentally called “Sarah” had made me wary.  The viola lacked the high E string of the violin.  Having listened to Sarah’s efforts, I saw that as a plus.  The bass seemed both too unwieldly and too attention-grabbing.  That kind of difference – the class-clown kind of difference -- was merely another kind of sameness.  I was differently different.  I was a seemingly innocuous eight-year-old who occupied a mental island all my own.  I was a violist.
The music swells around us, well balanced.  Lizzy is now avidly watching to see whether any of the violinists mix up their bow strokes.  She is the arbiter of synchronicity. 
Molly has put aside the program and is leaning back in her seat.  I have no idea what she is thinking. 
All through third and fourth grade, my odd instrument set me apart only in that nobody could share my music stand.  My version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” sounded precisely as bad as everybody else’s. We played “Lightly Row” and “Christmas Songs I” and “Israeli Songs” and “Americana”.  We played our fourth fingers painfully flat and our F-naturals erroneously sharp.  We played slurs as staccato and staccato as slurs.  We let our wrists slump, let our bows slip miles from the bridge, and got hopelessly lost on the sixteenth notes.  With the exception of two small virtuosos, Hannah and Atara, we were unequivocally dreadful -- violins, cellos, basses, and lone viola alike.
Q: What is the range of a viola?  A: About thirty feet, if you kick it hard enough.
In fifth grade, though, I found myself with a stand-partner: a boy named Ray with a sweetly unassuming manner.   Ray went to a different elementary school, but he and I ended up sharing a stand for four years.  We were cautiously friends, across the treacherous divide of gender.  My partnership with Ray was not due to any increased interest in the viola among the diminutive local population, but rather the result of an unearned promotion.  The All District Orchestra was primarily comprised of sixth graders.  The precocious young Hannahs and Ataras were invited to join -- and so, it seemed, were Ray and I.  Because, talent or no talent, real orchestras need violas.
Q: How do you get two viola players to play in tune? A: Shoot one of them.
Brahms’s German Requiem is a complex piece of music for an orchestra and choir to tackle in Fairbanks, Alaska.  I will not be surprised if there are a few flubs, a few squawks, a few off-key notes.  I also know that, barring someone outright dropping their instrument, I probably won’t notice.  I never learned to tune my own instrument by ear alone.
If I was out of my league playing with slightly older kids from five different elementary schools, I was even more misplaced the following year when I was tapped to join the elementary section of the Long Island String Festival.  The combined population of Nassau and Suffolk Counties in 1984 was 2.6 million people.  From this population base, the directors of the event were able to pull children of astonishing experience and talent – pigtailed starlets and freckled prodigies with shiny instruments and proudly hovering parents.  They were also able to scrape up a few violists. 
I did my grade-school best to practice the music in advance.  I stared in confusion at different keys.  I tapped my foot to different time signatures, got lost, and started over.   Playing repetitive rest-laced harmony, I wondered what the songs actually sounded like.   
I showed up, quaking slightly, for our single day of rehearsal.  It was easy to identify the violists; we were the awkward little bunch who didn’t recognize a soul – not from private lessons, or recitals, or invitations to entertain foreign dignitaries.  Out grubby instrument cases bore rental codes etched by public elementary schools.
Even when tested among my mediocre peers, I merited only the ninth seat out of eleven.  I knew that this made me, officially, the third-worst musician in the room, but I was glad to be at the back, safely hidden. At the ripe old age of eleven, I was one of the oldest people present, and my long right arm would no doubt flail away on the upbow when I should have been on the down. 
As our conductor led us into the first piece – as, at the wave of her hands, the music poured from beneath the deft little fingers of the doe-eyed people around me – she started crying.  I’m not talking about a slight glint in her eye; these were full-on mascara-smearing tears.  “It’s so beautiful” she wept.  “You’re all so little… and it’s so beautiful!”
This, of course, was totally weird and embarrassing.  For one thing, adults weren’t ever supposed to cry, and for another, who the heck cries because something is lovely?  But even as the tears of the conductor were horrifying, so too were they magical – so magical that I remember them, thirty-three years later, with a strange luminosity.  Perhaps I hadn’t known, prior to the sixth grade, that beauty could be so intense that it could overflow -- but I learned it that day.  I saw artistry running in rivulets down the face of a stranger.  And, although I did not deserve it, I was part of that exquisite joy.  I was part of the music.
At about 80 minutes, his German Requiem is the longest piece of music Brahms ever wrote.  Toward the end of the concert, Lizzy is half asleep in her overlarge seat.  I glance over at Molly.  Her head is not nodding, but she mouths, “How much longer?”  I grin, and indicate that it won’t be long now.  Molly nods, phlegmatic.  Molly can wait.  Molly is not one to demand excessive attention.  Molly is, as of the inception of her orchestral instruction last year, a violist.
Q: Why are viola jokes so short?  A: So violinists can understand them.
Spurred by a properly parental instinct to encourage my kids, I took my viola out of hibernation last year.  I tightened the loose pegs, tuned it up with the crutch of a digital tuner, and sat down to share Molly’s music -- in the alto clef.  I played.  My fingers fumbled, remembered, fumbled again.  As I sawed my way through “Happy Birthday” and “Country Dance” I felt duty falling by the wayside and happiness overtaking me.  Not tear-soaked joy, no – but perhaps the shadow of the memory of it.
Violists don’t get many solos, but they are nonetheless in the thick of things.  The heart of things.  They are the subtle undertones, the harmony, the fabric of the music.  They do not soar, they do not trill, and they do not boom.  You may not have noticed them, but that’s okay.  They are part of the music.