Everything begins somewhere: this site began with a simple, borrowed design; my life in New York City began with an email asking advice from a composer I had only met twice before; and my formal musical training began with a quarter-sized viola.
I was nine years old and in the 4th grade when one day my classmates and I were ushered out of our classroom, down the halls, out of the grade school and through the junior high section of the building, and up a short flight of rickety wooden stairs into a room with folding chairs and music stands arrayed around a little podium situated in front of a dusty, green chalkboard. Racks of instruments lined all of one wall and half of another so that upon entering the room one walked a gauntlet of cellos and basses. A row of mismatched filing cabinets – some black, others greenish-gray – covered the back wall. And in the the far corner, behind an ugly beige stereo cabinet squatted a teacher’s-style desk piled high with scores and other papers. The Orchestra Room, a room I would get to know well over the next nine years.
We sat in the chairs around the podium, and were introduced to a be-flanneled man with red hair and a red beard: Mr. D—–, the orchestra teacher. Over the next 40 minutes, the orchestra teacher explained to us about the different stringed instruments while several high school students demonstrated the sounds that each instrument makes. At the end of the demonstrations, it was explained that if we joined the orchestra, we would be excused from our weekly spelling unit. I was sold. (A few years later, despite having missed out on all those spelling units, I would win a tri-county spelling competition.)
I brought home the forms to my parents that night, and explained that I wanted to play the cello. They wouldn’t hear of it. The cello was too big. And I’d have to carry it to school every week on the school bus, and it was bound to get broken. Of course, none of us wanted me to play the violin – that horrid, screechy torture device! The bass was right out – if a cello was too big, the bass was ludicrous! Which left me with the viola. The instrument that nobody wants to play, but are forced to when they’re not good enough to play the violin.
It wasn’t long, though, and I was in love with the instrument. We learned one string at a time, pizzicato – the upper strings holding our instruments “guitar style”. When practicing at home, I ignored all admonishments to the contrary and sawed away with the bow with the result that I had far better tone than any of my orchestra-mates when we finally were allowed to take the bows out of our instrument cases.
Although I practiced rarely, and then not what was assigned me to practice, I got to be very good. With the exception of a brief period prior to seating auditions at the start of my freshman year of high school, I was always the principal violist. First chair. My sophomore year, I auditioned for the All-District Orchestra and was seated fifth. Whatever the ensemble played, I barely remember. Probably the Academic Festival Overture – one of the rotating audition pieces – and a few other unexciting pieces of dreck. I vastly preferred singing in the District (and All-State) Jazz and Concert Choirs, which had infinitely more exciting repertoire. That year, though, at least earned me the honor of being placed in the All-District Orchestra a year before I should have been allowed in.
My senior year of high school, because of some ridiculous bit of administrative idiocy, I was blocked from the All-State Jazz Choir (it had been been decided that although the highest-placed tenor from each district was automatically guaranteed a seating in the State ensemble, no tenor would attend from our district that year). I was ineligible for the State Concert Choir because I had decided to be in the District Orchestra that year instead of the Choir. I was also technically ineligible for the State Orchestra because I hadn’t placed high enough (fifth chair) to advance. Fortunately, calls were made on my behalf and strings were pulled: I was allowed to audition for the State Orchestra.
The main audition piece in rotation this year was the snore-worthy Ruslan and Ludmilla; but so, too, was Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. Joy of unmitigated joys! I placed in fifth chair – five chairs higher than the principal violist from my district.
My favorite piece from the concert, however much I enjoyed the Stravinsky, was a work by Alan Hovhannes: And God Created Great Whales. Never before had I been exposed to aleatoric music, or music that used pre-recorded sounds! I was transported by the sheer novelty of it. That piece, in fact, was an influence on my own writing of a few years later.
Toward the end of my high school career, it was decided that I would attend Illinois State University. For a few months, I strongly considered an Accounting major and a Viola Performance minor. In the end (I still don’t know when the switch came about), I auditioned as a Vocal Performance major with an interest in continuing my viola studies. I still auditioned for the string faculty and they liked what they heard. But I realized how much daily work I would have to put in to preparing for orchestra rehearsals and my weekly viola lessons, and I knew my own propensity for laziness. So, I refrained from pursuing further viola instruction.
Over the next four years, I would intermittently take my instrument out and play a few old tunes. But my technique had dissipated. And the magic was mostly gone: I had become a vocalist, and a composer – I no longer had time for rebuilding calluses and muscle memory long faded.
Although I no longer play, I still carry my viola with me from apartment to apartment. It currently lives in my closet with a regularly-replenished Damp-It for company so that its body doesn’t dry out and warp.
Will I ever play again? Sadly, probably not. But happily, my time as a violist has given me a much greater proficiency in writing for strings. So, those years leave a legacy of more difficult string writing, and infinitely more interesting viola parts!