Why do I play the viola?

I originally played the violin. I remember being in a violin lesson one day and my teacher suggested I switch to viola. For a long time, I always thought that it was a polite way of saying that I sucked at violin. When I would play in youth orchestra I always felt I was getting the short end of the stick, so to speak. The violins would get all the nice melodies and challenging parts and I was stuck with offbeats and other boring accompaniment figures. I felt like I was a failure at music and no one had the courage to say it to my face. 

But then I had a major epiphany. I can’t really pinpoint how or when it happened, but I remember just falling in love with the viola and being incredibly thankful I made the switch. I embraced the somewhat boring and unchallenging orchestral parts. I embraced viola repertoire.  I embraced being unique. It was such a relief not to be a violinist anymore, I could be myself. 

It’s only times where I get thrown in competitions wiith violinists, cellists, and pretty much any other instrument where I sometimes still resent playing the viola. Violin, piano, flute, and even cello repertoire to an extent is written so the soloist can really show off his or her technical ability. It has a way of “sounding amazing” to both musicians and non-musicians. Inherently, these instruments have a natural advantage due to the repertoire that is available to them. 

Viola, on the other hand, is not traditionally a solo instrument and still isn’t frankly. I think there’s still a stigma about violists that exists even to this present day. We are the failed violinists. The viola exists solely to make bad violinists feel better about themselves. This is not true, but I get the impression that a lot of people, even close friends of mine, feel that way and don’t always give me the respect I deserve. It is an awful stigma and I feel that every time I go up to perform I am saying to the audience “Hey, look at me. I’m not an idiot.” But of course I end up reinforcing the negative stigma about violists when I play with poor intonation and technique. With this in mind, there really isn’t a lot of great viola repertoire that exists that really compares to anything a violinist would play. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love a lot of viola pieces, but they just don’t compare and no non-violist wants to hear it. 

I’ve never really won a competition against non-violists before. The ones I have I either won by default or because I was clearly the oldest/most advanced player in the competition (though that does not always work to my advantage). A lot of this does have to do with the lack of good viola repertoire appropriate for competition. There is a huge gap in viola repertoire for the romantic period, which is what wins competitions. Yes there are a lot of modern composers nowadays striving to fill in the gap of viola repertoire, but this does not constitute “standard repertoire”. Modern music can also be hard to sell in a competition setting. For example, Hindemith Der Schwanendreher is in theory a perfect competition piece, but it’s super difficult to pull off as a lot of people don’t have an understanding or appreciation of Hindemith the way I do. 

Now I know you’re thinking, “It’s not all about competitions” or “don’t get wrapped up in compeitions” or something along those lines. That’s true but I still can’t help that I have a desire to win a competition of some description, even if it’s just at my school or other local one. The fact that violists are so disadvantaged and stigmatized in competitions motivates me to try harder. It’s almost like my way of telling the world, “Hey! Violists are musicians too!” Just because I play an instrument that not a lot of people appreciate doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate it and share my love and passion for the viola. It would mean so much more to me to win a competition than any violinist or pianist who seemingly effortlessly wins everything they enter. I don’t want to sound cocky, but I believe I have what it takes to win a competition. The only thing holding me back of course is my poor intonation and technique. If I brought my technique up to a higher level while maintaining the level of musicality, I could beat any technique robot any day. That is, of course, easier said than done. 

At the end of the day, music shouldn’t really be about proving yourself or competitions. It is increasingly difficult to remember that as I am pursuing music as a career and I am nearing the end of an undergraduate degree. Pretty soon I will be competing in the ultimate competition — orchestral auditions. The stakes are much higher. If I don’t get some scholarship or cash prize, Though it might be disappointing in the moment, I can live with that. But if I don’t succeed in an orchestral audition, that’s another year without a job. There’s only so many auditions you can take before you have to admit to yourself that you’re not cut out for music and you go fill out an application at Starbucks. It’s not a joke, but a sad reality that there are more high level musicians than there are positions in symphony orchestras. Because I am approaching a point in my career where it’s literally all about competition and being the best, it’s hard to remember to appreciate music as an art form and means to express emotions.

When I look back and ask myself “Why do I play the viola?”, I play the viola because I love it. I love the rich tone and the unique colour of the instrument. It’s ultimately not about how many other people also like the viola and its repertoire, it’s about me liking it. I also used to play violin, piano, and flute. Maybe if I had pursued one of those instruments I’d have more success in competitions or more people would “like” me. But ultimately, the passion and desire to succeed that I have for viola merely didn’t exist for me on violin, piano or flute. I’m not going to choose an instrument for shallow reasons such as other people might like it more. At the end of the day, it’s my instrument and my career. I’m the one who has to put in the many hours of practice and I couldn’t be happier putting those hours in on the viola. Whenever I get wrapped up in the nonsense of competitions I remind myself of why I love playing the viola in the first place and I would never go back and choose a different instrument. 

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