Things bass and viol

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My older son and I were at the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra performance tonight -- an excellent program of music by Russian composers Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, and Mussorgsky -- and we noticed that one of the viola players had an unusually large and asymmetric instrument. The upper left lobe was larger than the upper right (next to the musician's left hand) and the lower right lobe was larger than the lower left (at the musician's chin).

Now a viola is larger than a violin, designed to produce a lower, mellower sound, but not quite as low and mellow as a cello. The strings are thicker, and the notes are farther apart on the strings. The viola is "slower to speak" than its smaller cousin, and there's more instrument to fit between chin and hand. That not every violist is up to the challenge of playing viola may explain the existence of a large repertoire of viola jokes (collected by a violist):

What's the difference between a viola and a trampoline? You take your shoes off to jump on a trampoline.

What's the difference between a viola and an onion?
No one cries when you cut up a viola.

What's the definition of a minor second?
Two violists playing in unison.

Why do violists stand for long periods outside people's houses?
They can't find the key and they don't know when to come in.

What's the difference between a seamstress and a violist?
The seamstress tucks up the frills.

To add injury to insult, violists disproportionately suffer from various repetitive stress injuries related to the awkward ergonomics of the instrument:

Tendinitis is epidemic among violists. Players have even been obliged to leave the profession because of carpal tunnel syndrome, back, shoulder and left arm injuries and related orthopedic issues.

So a violin maker named David Rivinus began looking for a solution:

A violist with chronic back trouble or left hand tendinitis already knows that playing a huge, traditionally shaped instrument is the wrong way to meet sonority demands. But suppose a violin maker starts with an undersized viola that is easy to play but is also characteristically weak sounding... [t]hen stretches it in places that don't interfere with the mechanics of playing.

Rivinus's Pellegrina viola tenore not only provides more surface area for a stronger sound, the asymmetric shape allows the fingerboard to be banked, minimizing the amount of stress on the left arm and wrist due to supination.

Suddenly the stretch to the viola C string in first position is as comfortable as playing the D string in third position. And the relief to the violinist is comparable. This design change alone has now resulted in rescuing the careers of several professional players whose musical working lives were suddenly--and prematurely--over.

The viola also uses a composite instead of ebony, reducing the weight of the instrument and the impact on endangered ebony forests.

Rivinus makes a violin, the Maximilan, that incorporates the same design concepts.

You can buy a Rivinus viola for under 12 grand, but you'll have to get in line: It may take as long as three years to get one. Maybe someday the only thing funny about the viola will be the shape.

PS: The viola jokes remind me of the one about the girl who goes on a date with a french horn player. How was it? her friend asked. "He was nice, but every time he kissed me he tried to put his fist up my skirt."

I told that joke to Jan, the Happy Homemaker, (a french horn player, herself) and Dawn Eden three years ago over a boatload of sushi in Oklahoma City. Jan did not laugh but patiently explained that a french horn player puts his or her hand, not fist, in the bell. Dawn laughed, mainly because, as she pointed out, I was turning red, embarrassed, I suppose, that I may have offended Jan.

Speaking of whom, Dawn underwent a partial thyroidectomy earlier this week which revealed the presence of cancer. The prognosis is good -- the cancer was still encapsulated -- but she'll have to go under the knife once again to have the rest of her thyroid removed and undergo iodine radiation therapy. Please keep her in your prayers.

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Jeff Shaw Author Profile Page said:

Michael. I saw you and Joe at the concert, but my brain didn't kick in. By the time the slow- fired synapses processed, you all were too far away to catch - politely anyway - I could have yelled. My apologies.

My son was studying that strange contraption with his binoculars all night. Now I can catch him up with this information. Thanks for the research.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on February 2, 2008 10:59 PM.

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