Updated: Sep 26, 2022
When I first picked the viola to play, I wasn’t aware of how unknown and underappreciated it was to the rest of society. I would occasionally get asked, “What is a viola? Is it like the violin?” Other times, I’d get questions from other orchestra members wondering why I chose a “boring” instrument. The fact that fellow musicians would ask that type of question puzzled me. I was always under the assumption that everyone had a good impression of the viola. After all, I only started playing it because I found it appealing. After several years of my peers voicing their opinions regarding the viola, I realized that many don’t understand the amount of amazing potential the viola has.
The violin always gets put on a pedestal with solos and specialty pieces, while violas rarely get the spotlight. Most non-musicians probably don’t even know about the existence of the viola, which is upsetting to say the least. If they do, many have low expectations of the instrument and don’t take it seriously. Why is that the case?
Well, the viola’s role in an orchestra or chamber group is very hazy compared to the other instruments. Until recently, I rarely saw pieces that put the spotlight on the viola section (Ms. Chen does a great job making violas shine). Each instrument has its own unique presence and sound; however, for violas, it’s not as obvious compared to other string instruments. Violins take up half of the group and produce a recognizable high pitched sound, cellos are big and bold, and basses tower over everyone else with their incredibly deep register. Violas blend into the violin section from afar because there is no prominent distinction between the two instruments. Furthermore, the viola section frequently plays accompaniment parts similar to that of the second violins, meaning it rarely gets melodies and a unique section in non-contemporary styles of music. As a consequence, one who has no musical background might make a bold assumption that the viola section is part of the second violin section. I know my non-musician parents took an excruciating amount of time to spot me during my first performances, seeing as I blended right into the seconds in the back. Because of this, those who know what a viola is think that it's boring and insignificant when it is most definitely not!
Along with cellos and basses, violas are the backbone of the orchestra essentially funneling the sound of the melody. Without an accompaniment part, the tone of the piece falls flat and is uninspiring like a lone singer singing acapella (sorry choir). The viola has a register that is somewhat sandwiched in between the violin and cello, allowing the viola to produce a diverse array of tones with the rest of the orchestra. Additionally, the pieces are thrilling and a delight to play at times, such as the repertoire featured in the Pops concert—a concert in May that features many popular contemporary songs. There are some outstanding arrangements for violas to play and, in conjunction with the special lower register, they sound awesome!
In orchestra, certain sections have competitions amongst themselves because each individual is determined to be the best. For example, a glaring issue that violins have been experiencing is the inferiority complex of the second violin section. This expectation destroys violinists’ self-esteem and causes unnecessary competition and conflict among themselves. While their battles rage on, violists usually don’t have a full-blown war with each other and mock the violins as they hilariously attempt to conquer each other. Since the viola section is designed to be small, a strong family-like community develops, and no one feels the need to compete. Throughout my middle school and high school years as a viola, I have never felt the desire to feel inferior among my peers. I’d chill out with my pleasant viola friends in a fun, stress-free environment while the violins would sweat nervously over if they did “good enough” to surpass others. This magical viola section bond is very similar across all orchestras as well. Symphony
Orchestra’s viola section is a great example of how strong of a bond the viola section can develop. They have a willingness to help each other, plan social events together, and even plan matching outfits at a concert!
Recently, violists have been gaining more spotlight in orchestras and solo pieces, such as the “Fugue for String Orchestra” being played by Concert Orchestra in the 2022 Fall String Concert. However, it’s still an instrument that is not widely known and appreciated compared to other instruments. Remember that every single instrument of an orchestra, symphony or chamber group is equally important and cannot be overpowered by each other.
Next time you recognize a viola or a violist, please acknowledge their existence, and appreciate the effort that they put into their instrument!