Re-situating Viola Practice in this Man’s 21st Century through Story-telling and Old-time Fiddle Tunes

i wrote the following ‘paper’ for my applied viola lessons course. my professor makes me write a ‘how i feel about viola’ paper every semester and it turned out rather cute this year. hope you enjoy!

This semester I was given great license to direct my viola studies. It is the last year of my undergraduate education and it is my mission to finish my degree with the viola restored to a place in my life full of love and respect. Fortunately, Dr. Lander is sympathetic to my mission and more or less gave me the reigns, allowing me to focus my repertory studies on Gyula David’s Viola Concerto. This paper will not be about David, however. This paper, over the course of a few short pages, will focus on a fateful evening around a campfire and a hopeful light that burns within.

“What tunes do you know?” Bev May, legendary old-time fiddle player asked me in her sweet Eastern Kentucky accent but a few weeks ago. In preparation for the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth annual meeting that brought me and my viola to Jaybez, Kentucky, I spent months googling old-time fiddle tunes like a smart young technocrat and learned two. As of meeting time, only one and a half remained in my memory. “Well, I know Coal Habor Bend” I responded sheepishly. “Great! Let’s hear it!” I closed my eyes, registering that I, in fact, was about to play for my own folk hero, and got to work. I hit the A section, then the B section and tapered the last note like a classically trained musician often does. Bev and her rhythm guitarist laughed wisely and gently brought me into their world. The seed was planted. With the conventions of old-time fiddling fresh in my mind we jammed for hours and I played in awe of the tradition that was just handed to me. It was one of those moments where I knew I was born to be a Kentuckian. This moment though had a second truth; I was born to be a musician too.

I have spent the greater part of my life playing the viola in systems of classical training. I learned to love, then hate the conventions. I tried my hand at music school but could not reconcile the tight bounds of the ‘music factory’ with my wayward musical soul. The University of Kentucky opened its doors to me immediately thereafter and created a place for me negotiate my relationship with the viola. I am proud to announce that, after so many years, I have the words to call myself; I am a musician. Sure, I have a classical background but that knowledge has given me the tools to bring music into the world that is my own. The years of practicing and sitting in orchestra rehearsal have given me the communication skills to jam with just about anyone anywhere. My private studies have trained me to be able to paint pictures with my sound and start conversations musical and verbal alike.

The stories that have emanated from my viola have sounded very different over the years. After the Hot-Cross Buns period came to a close, standard classical repertoire followed suit. When the thought of another Bach piece brought me to rage, contemporary music crept in and took its place. Finally, in my senior year of undergraduate school, I have the will, and mostly the capacity, to play it all. My heart rejoices now in fiddle music but I find great solace in knowing that the wide-array of repertoire I have slaved over had the very distinct purpose of letting me get to know such a beautiful instrument so intimately and uncovering such a special part of myself.

In my last lesson, Dr. Lander and I talked at length about story-telling. I told her about my night around the campfire and the Bach prelude I played in the talent show right before it. She smiled when I told her how the rowdy children sat entranced under its powerful chords and how I nearly brought a few folks to tears. I told her how I started the performance with my own story of how I came to know that prelude and the story I had constructed with my teacher in high school to give the piece a greater voice. I told the audience that, on that night, my Bach prelude was for the majestic mountains of Kentucky that are hurting from human greed and corporate ignorance. At this point, Dr. Lander stopped me and suggested that in the future I could think about communicating that story through song. I resisted at first like I often do and I appreciate her understanding with that. We spent the rest of our lesson weaving a narrative for the David concerto that only we will ever know. I left the lesson to practice later on putting each word of that story into each and every note. I discovered that I did not think about communicating my story in my Bach prelude that night because I did not realize I knew how. Thinking on all that I know and all that I have done, I can say that next time I will tell my story through song because musical school, campfire jam session and private lessons have shown me how.

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