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The Magic of the...Viola?

I love a wind instrument.  It feels so personal, mainly because the breath is so integral. We inhale, we send air through the instrument, and we can’t play a phrase longer than we can breathe.  It feels so organic, and so intimate.  I coached a college wind sectional this morning, and loved- just loved- the earnestness that the kids brought to the table.  Wind players struggle, and sweat, and grunt.  It is hard to translate the air that your body needs into musical phrases, especially complex, deeply felt phrases that reflect a viewpoint far removed from college students in southern Michigan.  Our goal always is to transcend the instrument, and the physical process of playing, and make beautiful music through it, and with it.

Rehearsing the Bartok Viola Concerto tonight, I was reminded that playing a string instrument is so different.   On the one hand, it is much more removed from the body - when air leaves the equation it is completely possible for a person to play without singing, and without making vocal phrases, and to treat the whole thing as a technical exercise instead of a musical one.  On the other hand, though, there is so much simplicity to the bow on the string, and to the fingers’ placement on the fingerboard.  It is a purer exercise than playing a wind instrument, and I say this as one who would rather sit through a student oboe recital than a professional string quartet concert ANY DAY OF THE WEEK. 

When a professional soloist comes to play with us, they play the piece through once, facing out into the hall to learn our acoustics, and we are focused on putting the (usually) familiar piece together quickly to save time for the Symphony, whatever it is.  But this week, with one of our own principals soloing, the vibe is different.  I’ve never played the Bartok Viola Concerto before; it is unfamiliar to many of us, and we are focused on Gabe and eager to make his job easier.  On his part, he faced in toward us for the whole rehearsal (I do that too, when I solo - it feels so much more interactive to rehearse looking at the orchestra!) so we could really see and hear him well.  And I am left with a new appreciation of the art of string playing. 

Of course it is extremely physical.  The player’s whole body is involved in making a beautiful sound - the bow arm utilizes an infinite variety of gestures, directions, and pressures, and the left hand sits at an uncomfortable angle yet whips agilely through fingerings and forms vibrato with a fluidity which is no less intimate for being created with the hand instead of the air. 

The musical downside of a wind instrument is keys.  Anyone can learn to arrange their fingers over the buttons and move them fast.  It’s easy - you don’t have to feel it.  The pitches on a string instrument are created by choices that the player makes.  How much to stretch, how much to slide, where to place a given note among infinite possibilities.  It’s so organic, and so difficult, at a high level, anyway, and extremely impressive.  And lastly, BECAUSE the phrasing is not dictated by the breath, it is that much more impressive when Gabe makes music that breathes,  and flows, and communicates. 

There’s something so romantic about a string instrument - the vibrant, alive wood, the sense of history, the purity of the process, and, not least, the fact that you can play it without making your face all scrunched up and red.  No one makes artistic movies about oboists, because no oboist’s physical mien could stand up to close scrutiny on a big screen.  And I get it.  More tonight than usually. 

I don’t regret my choice, but occasionally I see the magic of someone else’s - and I love that.  Thank you, Gabe, for tonight’s happy insight!


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