Art on Four Strings

By
When I was eleven years old, I shifted worlds. Not in the literal sense, of course, since I remained firmly grounded in our usual three dimensions. The shifting came from within- moving to a new state with no ties to me at all, leaving the comfortable confines of Lawrence Township for the Forest Hills School District of Cincinnati, Ohio. The changes didn’t stop there, either. I shifted arts. I left the comfortable but all-too-common world of piano music for the exciting, alien realm of art on four strings- A, D, G, and C; if you were wondering. I became a violist.

The viola, though well-known in its own right, is the most underrated string instrument of the orchestra. Everyone knows a violin, if only for that great artist of the Science of Deduction who dwelt at 221b Baker Street. Most people can identify a cello by its size, and the bass reached fame through jazz. Violas, on the other hand, are ignored by most. I chose this enigmatic instrument through sheer accident, and I am truly a better person and musician because of it. However, when my family returned to Indiana, I was faced with a terrible dilemma- Westfield schools have no orchestra. Angered but not defeated, I made the acquaintance of an instructor who agreed to give me private lessons. “With schools losing funding, strings are the first to go…we don’t play on the football field so well!” she told me. “I must preserve the future!” Even though we’ll never know if Julia Keller-Welter succeeds in her task, her efforts are certainly appreciated by the students she endeavors to guide through the world of music.

With an average height and cheery, laid-back demeanor, Julia is the embodiment of a violist. Her hair is short and black, shot with faint threads of silver that accentuate her individuality, and her exuberant personality tinges each lesson or recital with excitement. She doesn’t shy away from challenges- in fact, she pushed me into playing a Telemann concerto for an audition. You may think that sounds fine, but the piece was an allegro movement with about ten lines of notes written in treble clef. For those unfamiliar with the viola, I shall enlighten- Violists play in the alto clef, in which middle C is located on the third line of the staff. Violinists play in the treble clef, in which middle C is below the bottom line of the staff.
This leads to an obvious conclusion: Violists weren’t meant to play high notes. (neither were most violinists, but that’s more of an opinion, isn’t it?) The playing of these notes required me to leave the comfortable normal range of my playing and enter the zone at which human hearing can only last a limited amount of time. I didn’t want to play it, but Julia insisted, and I was actually able to play without squeaking (read: perform a miracle). She knows the minds of her students well enough to engage them in a conversation about funerals or politics, and then turn around and zap them with a Telemann concerto from violist hell. It was she, too, who brought me into the Covenant Symphony at her church. There are only three violists- Julia, myself, and a really nice but somewhat absentminded woman named Barb, and we all travel to rehearsals together. Every other Thursday, I join in the “topic-less conversation”, which could lead from a discussion about the latest movie soundtracks to the Lord of the Rings to what we think is wrong with Britney Spears. The floor is opened to all viewpoints, and many topics are debated with everyone keeping an open mind. Julia has strong and often totally correct opinions on life, and she’s not afraid to tell people the truth when they really need it. It’s a quality all violists hope to eventually gain.

Her musical career began as a young child, when she picked the viola as her first instrument. Why, you may ask, did she choose the enigmatic, shadowed viola? “My sister played cello, the violin squeaked, and I passed out each time I blew into a flute! Hence…the viola!!” She played in school, inspired by her music directors to work hard and develop her talents. Eventually, Julia added the violin to her list of instruments, though she still favors the viola as the better medium. “Better is a relative term…the viola is best at what it does and the violin is best at what it does. But, all things being equal, I favor the viola of course!” Her career eventually led to teaching, and now she plays in the Carmel Symphony Orchestra. I don’t think of her as a Carmel denizen, however, because apparently the CSO isn’t considered worthy of a music hall located in Carmel, and they are welcomed by Westfield High School’s auditorium. The most memorable moment of her career came when she received a “full-ride scholarship to Indiana University in 1975!” Now, Julia teaches viola, violin, and piano. Her students range in age and skill level from the beginner to the almost-too-good-to-be-taught.

To Julia, the best composer was Mozart. “He wrote above everyone’s level and insisted that they come up to him! He thought singers should sound like angels and strings should sound like heaven!” Under her tutelage, I can aspire to eventually reaching a heavenly tone, but American Idol has taught us all that there are many, many singers who will never sound like angels. I suppose half is better than none. Perfection, indeed, is impossible. Every career has its humorous times brought on by mistakes. Julia’s funniest memory is the fact that “I play small solos occasionally at very quiet times, though they’re not really a part of the music.” However, despite this “I much prefer the orchestra! I get too nervous playing solo!”

Other musicians look down on violists; or even strings in general, because of the fact that band music has so dominated popular culture. With the rise of jazz in the 1920s, big bands became the only representation of contemporary instrumental music, and even though perceptions have changed, the mere fact of an orchestra “void” in our school shows that old mentalities die hard. It is the mission of all string players, passed down to me by Julia, to preserve our art on four strings for the generations ahead. “Strings should stay in the mainstream!” she says. “Every (contemporary) composer I know has used strings or the sound that strings make recorded on a keyboard. Strings add texture and glue to a piece.”

One of Julia’s most appreciated efforts on my behalf is her fight to start an orchestra at WHS or WMS. At one of our lessons, she told me that “I called and offered to teach for free. For free! And they didn’t believe me.” We both agree that Westfield needs an orchestra to balance out the brass. Of course, every musician has a slight ego, but strings are the best. Why? “String players usually start at a younger age with their instruments. String players can play when they have respiratory illnesses like colds or flu, but "blowers" can't blow with illness! String players must both hear and find the note. Piano players and woodwinds play a key and there is the note (usually flat in the woodwinds' case since they can't hear to tune the instrument). Brass players must hear and find the note but they also depend on their embouchure and valves. What makes the strings section best? We are large teams...50 violins, 20 violas, 20 celli, 10 bass. Bands are individuals playing together- there are usually only 2 oboes, 4 flutes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 trombones, 1 tuba, 4 french horns and 4 trumpets. Also, (no offense to band students) WE PRACTICE!!!!!
Though some would call us crazy, violists are unique, talented, dedicated, and loyal to other violists. No symphony is complete without us, and at the end of the day, we put aside our egos and loyalties to create art as one. After all, as Julia once told me, "We all speak the same language. We have fun 'playing'". That is what brings us together, after all, and with the help of my instructor I have begun to create my own art on four strings.





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