Violas and Bullfrogs

Treating the viola like dirt? Not at my place.

For one thing, I’ve never owned or even rented a viola. In fact, I don’t recall ever handling one. And I don’t read the C clef fluently, although I’m familiar with it from reading orchestral scores — a pursuit I picked up in my teens.

I love the sound of a viola — always have. Probably my main barrier to playing one, besides sub-par C-clef fluency, is that I already have three older fiddles and spend about 3 hours a day playing them — 1 hour per fiddle.

On the 1869 and 1883 instruments, the stiff versions of Pirastro’s Eudoxa or Oliv (Olive) D and G strings bring out a viola tone in the contralto range — especially on the 1869 instrument. The Tomastik Infeld Red composite-core D and G also bring out this effect. So I get a partial viola “fix” by working a good dose of sul G tones into the daily warm-up.

The viola is also one of several instruments I associate with animal or bird life. Flutes remind me of birds. Oboes remind me of kittens. Bassoons remind me of cows. And violas remind me of — bullfrogs. That’s right — just like the ones I heard in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan as a kid.

No — that’s not a viola joke! To my sense, you get the bullfrog sound on the lowest string, the C string. Here, in the sub-violin range, the instrument sounds to me a little like a bullfrog in some passages — not on long, sustained tones but on short, incisive rhythmic figures, where the player stops the bow intermittently.

My only remaining viola barrier is hand size — maybe. While I don’t have quite the problem another member described — “puny paws” and “diminutive digits” — still, my hand size, M (medium), is toward the lower end of the range: S-M-L-XL-XXL. I can vibrate with the 4th finger sul G on the violin in 1st position and can play 10ths. But to stretch the left hand still more? I can’t quite fathom it.

So, you ladies, who generally have smaller hands than guys have: How do you manage it? How is it that so many of you take to the viola so well?

Maybe, if I just plunged in and tried it myself, it might not be as tough as I thought. For now, though, I’ll just sit back and enjoy the music — and be thankful for those of you who give time and talent and effort to play this appealing instrument.


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