Years before he thrilled his fans destroying
guitars, Jimi Hendrix was a geek. A single
fact confirms this: he played the viola. Biographers
either know nothing about it, or dismiss
it as an embarrassing detail. We do know that
he started in fourth grade and played in his
public-school orchestra. Thereafter, the record
is silent until his teen years, when he acquired
a broken five-dollar guitar. At that point, a
legend was born. Or so his biographers insist.
But let's backtrack: why the viola?
Nine-year-old boys don't request such an
untrendy instrument - and someone like
Jimi would certainly have asked for a sax or
a trumpet. What happened that day in his
music class had to be simply the luck of the
draw. Jimi, most likely, was stuck at the back
of the line behind dozens of boys and got
handed the last unclaimed instrument case.
He probably toted it sullenly home - taking care to avoid the assemblage of punks
on the corner - and waited to open it up.
But something about the viola apparently
grabbed him in that instant - most likely
the fact that he could strum it in transverse
position, guitar-style, as he'd done with
a broom. It turned out that he liked the
viola. And this part of his legend begs for
I too was a geek, but my route to the
instrument wasn't as quirky as Jimi's. In fact,
it fit the usual pattern. I was a passable violin
student, who, fretting that I wouldn't find an
orchestral job, made a switch to the larger and
heavier viola. The move, on its face, made
good sense: I was certain I'd outshine most
other viola players and triple my earning
potential. Great idea, said my violin teacher,
his hand raised in high-five position. You'll
never regret your decision.
But I did when I first heard the viola jokes.
To better assess if these jokes are a thighthumping
hoot, the reader might need a few
facts - for instance, that the string-playing world has castes. In symphonic music, violins
furnish the melody; cellos, the heartbeat; and
basses, the harmonic bedrock. Violas have no
such significant function. Their primary role
is "supportive," which means they fill in or
double the harmony. Their seating arrangement
confirms this accessory role: they're
squeezed between cellos on one side and
woodwinds on the other, and play with their
instruments facing away from the audience,
rendering them almost inaudible - except
during waltzes, when they play the pah-pah
that follows the oom.
It's hard for this group to maintain self respect.
We know our orchestral colleagues
perceive us as failed violinists and musical
surplus. Our instrument has few defenders,
and even composers malign it. Wagner once
wrote, "The viola is commonly . . . played by
infirm violinists, or by decrepit players of
wind instruments who happen to have been
acquainted with a string instrument once
upon a time." Hence, violists are prone to
self-loathing and partial to Scotch.
Yet few people fathom the technical challenges
facing violists. The instrument breaks
you. From the standpoint of physics, its very
construction is flawed: the viola's strings are
too long for its sound box, producing a thin,
nasal tone in its upper registers and a muffled,
bumpy sound in its lower ones. Its weight
and proportions defy human handling, and
worse, it subverts any effort to force a clear
note from its bowels. Violists, in short, wrestle
wolverines. It isn't surprising that the names
of the instrument's most famous players
reflect the grappling and choking required to
play it: Trampler, Tertis, Fuchs, Bashmet.
And wielding this stubborn contraption
is hard on the body. Soft-tissue injuries - in
joints, nerves and tendons - result from
the player's repetitive motions and kyphotic
playing posture. Kindhearted instrument
makers have tried redesigning the viola
ergonomically - but no one is anxious to buy
one. These modern "violas" are shaped like
amoebas, provoking convulsions of laughter
from other musicians. Violists would rather remain as they are, walking wounded, than
suffer more ill-treatment.
So what do I tell those who tell me viola
jokes? It's tempting to punch them, or show
them my wrist brace and X-rays, or ask them
why bagpipes and theremins and bassoons
are spared the abuse people gleefully heap on
But I don't. Instead, I tell them about Jimi.
"Hendrix? Played the viola?" they reflexively
snort. "Get the hell out!"
Yet it's true. And Jimi knew something
that took me a long time to learn: taming
this instrument calls for tenacity, sureness
and - most of all - joints of titanium. He
wisely moved on to a less brutal, more beloved
ax. But no one who's actually played the viola
would mock those who do. Jimi would surely