What Kids Can Do
2 Sep 2011
Inside the Classics

I’ve mentioned before that youth orchestras are nearly always short of violists. Yeah, yeah, go ahead and insert the viola joke of your choice here, but the truth is that string players tend to start studying their instruments at a very young age – 4 or 5 is about average – and the viola just doesn’t fit that model too well. It’s a bulky, awkward instrument, even sized down for young kids, and since violin and viola are played nearly the same way, you might as well start on violin, and switch later, once the basics are firmly entrenched. Most of us make that switch as teenagers or even later, so ensembles made up of younger kids often have a problem filling out the section.

The dearth of young violists is always, always an issue at Greenwood, the summer music camp where I teach and coach chamber music every August. (Yep, I just got back. Camp was great, thanks for asking. Hmm? Oh. Yeah, there was a hurricane. That part was less great.) We tend to deal with it by hiring a lot of counselors who play the viola, or who play violin but know how to read alto clef and operate a viola if we give them one. But we’re also always on the lookout for campers who express even the remotest interest in viola, and we’ll toss those unsuspecting kids into a viola role with no hesitation.

This year, we zeroed in on a newcomer to the camp. A smart, sweet, unassuming 13-year-old with curly black hair and some serious violin chops. Name of Jasper. Way back last winter, when Jasper auditioned for our camp director, somebody mentioned that he’d been playing some viola at school lately. No one from our camp actually heard him play one, but the mere suggestion was good enough for us to ask the kid during his placement audition on the second day of the session whether he wanted to play viola in a string quartet.

Jasper, who was clearly not expecting this question, balked. “I don’t actually have a viola,” he said quietly. Oh, we have one you could use, we assured him. He narrowed his eyes a bit, probably wondering whether this was part of his audition, and said, “Um, yeah, I guess that’d be fine. I still get to play violin, right?”

So it was settled. Jasper would become a part-time violist for the week, and a few hours later, I wound up as the coach of his quartet. I picked out a great little Intermezzo from Mendelssohn’s Opus 13, prepped the parts with matching bowings, and headed for our first rehearsal on Monday morning.

Jasper arrived carrying his violin. Apparently, he’d mixed up which of his quartets was which, and one of the counselors had the viola we’d promised him in any case. Once we sorted that out and got the viola to the proper cabin, I put his Mendelssohn part in front of him, and watched his face go instantly ashen. I guessed correctly what the problem was.

“Jasper,” I asked gently. “do you read alto clef?”

“Um… I did,” he said softly. “A little bit,” he said. “Six months ago,” he mumbled.

This was not the first time I’d dealt with this situation – viola and violin might be similar instruments to play, but the clefs we read our music in are entirely different, and the viola is the only instrument in the orchestra that uses alto as our primary clef. Even most professional violinists barely read it. So I reassured Jasper that I wasn’t expecting him to be able to sight-read the part, told him to do his best for this first rehearsal, and set up a time to give him a private lesson that afternoon.

In my own head, though, I was now worried. The Mendelssohn I had picked for this group isn’t exactly a beginner’s piece, and there were two specific parts during which Jasper wouldn’t be able to hide if the worst happened and he turned out to be truly unable to master the part by the end of the week. The first danger spot comes just after the opening segment of the Intermezzo, when the violist must begin a fast-moving fugue in a brand new tempo entirely on his own.

If you can’t see the audio player, click here…

Assuming I could help Jasper navigate through that minefield, there was an even more crucial moment awaiting him at the very end of the movement. After a restatement of the original themes, the whole group stops dead for a moment, then begins a slow accelerando that will continue to the very last bar of the piece. The forward motion is driven almost entirely by the viola and cello, and the viola has some very tricky notes to play as it’s going on.

If you can’t see the audio player, click here…

That afternoon, I spent an hour giving Jasper fingerings for almost every note in the piece, pointing out tricky accidentals, quizzing him on how he would find certain notes in certain positions, and generally trying to be reassuring. He was clearly a quick study and seemed to be picking things up well, but some of the more exposed passages were stressing him out. As I got up to go at the end of the lesson, he said nervously, “So, if it turns out I can’t do this, is there someone else who can step in and play it?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “I can. But that won’t be necessary, trust me. A lot of us started playing viola here exactly the same way you are, and none of us died.”

He looked at me dubiously. “You started viola this way?”

“When I was 11. They asked me if I could read alto clef. I didn’t know what that was, so I said yes. Next thing I knew, I had a viola part I couldn’t read. I guessed at the notes all week, and they had to rewrite my part into treble clef just before the concert when they found out. So you’re already doing better than I did.” I gave him what I hoped was a reassuring smile. It was probably just creepy.

As things turned out, though, Jasper was an even quicker study than I’d hoped. By the next morning, he knew more than half the notes in his part, and two days later, he knew them all. (Well, almost.) He also adapted quickly to the changes I’d asked him to make in his violin bow arm to give him more leverage against the bulky viola. Far from being the weak link in the quartet, he was contributing fully, and arrived every morning able to do something he hadn’t been able to do the day before.

At the Saturday night concert, as Jasper’s group walked out from the wings and got ready to perform, I turned to fellow coach (and part-time violist) Kensho Watanabe and said, “I can’t remember ever being this nervous for a piece I’m not playing.” Jasper nailed his first big moment, starting the fugue at a good steady clip and hitting the notes dead center. As the fugue continued, he leaned into his stand to turn a page, put his bow back to the string, and then flinched hard.

From where I was sitting, I could see right over his shoulder, and immediately realized that he had turned two pages instead of one. I stopped breathing. Jasper had about three seconds before his next big entrance, and I prayed that he had it memorized and would take a stab. But instead, he reached back towards the stand. It took all the will power I had not to yell out, “NO! Just play! Fix it later!”

But then, in what looked like a single motion, he managed to flip the extra page back to where it belonged, kick his bow back into position, and hit his entrance right on time. I exhaled so hard that Kensho, who had been watching this all unfold with the cool amusement of a coach who knows that this group is not his responsibility, almost started laughing.

After that, the closing accelerando was an afterthought. The group nailed the tricky rhythmic passage in the last few bars, Jasper handled his role like a pro, and the audience gave them one of the biggest ovations of the night. I caught up with the group after the concert was over, and told them that it was unquestionably the best I’d heard them play all week. I gave Jasper an extra thumbs-up and thanked him for all the hard work he’d put in. He smiled, and then said, “Uh, did you happen to notice…?”

“Oh, I saw it,” I said. “Nice recovery. You can ask Kensho how close I was to a heart attack watching you try to flip it back.”

Jasper smirked. “Pretty good, though, right?”

“Yeah. Pretty darn good.”

Then he walked away towards his friends, towards the glorious spread of late-night nachos and pop that awaited them in the dining hall. Just one more kid, effortlessly reminding me why I love what I do.

<October 2019>

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