Some Truth to Those Jokes

October 26, 2007
Some Truth to Those Jokes
Laura Cooke

A string quartet is made up of four kinds of musicians: a good violinist, a person who used to be a good violinist, a person that was never a good violinist and, a person that hates all violinists. Of those four, you can guess who the third is: the violist.
Most string players (apart from, of course, violists) will tell you this joke, because of an everlasting stereotype that violists are lesser musicians (perhaps you have heard the phrase “there is no such thing as a good violist.”) Well, for the most part I am a believer in that tradition, as I am a cellist, who in the string quartet is called, “The one who hates all violinists.” The string quartet joke refers to a first violinist, second violinist, violist and cellist.

People may ponder why musicians say that there is “no such thing as a good violist.” Indeed, we have reached another stereotype in the musical world. Once in a blue moon you could happen upon a talented violist, but it is almost as rare as winning the lottery. I have had the rare chance twice in my life to meet a violist that could actually play viola well. For example, my close friend has an uncle who is known world-wide as a great violist, and another cellist I know, Andres Diaz, has a brother named Roberto who is also an excellent violist. Those needles in the hay stack though, and the majority of violists are, to continue that metaphor, just stalks of hay.
As for the reason cellist dislike violinists and vise versa, it is because of a historic (in the music world at least) feud between them. Many violinists claim that they have better concertos and therefore, a better instrument than cellists. Violists, however, have the worst pieces to play, so instead of harping on one another, the violinist and cellist just leave it at the fact that violists have worse music than both of them, and go of to play the Brahms double for violin and cello.
Some may still be wondering how the violists get dragged into the eternal blood-bath between cellists and violinists. In the vast world of music, few violists entered it a violist. I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen, but it is rare indeed. Many people are drawn to the infamous violin, (although many people don’t actually know that the viola was invented before the violin) and then they either decide that its high frequency notes are not to their ear’s taste (or are tired of the neighborhood dogs coming running every time they practice) or otherwise aren’t good at violin, and use the viola as a fall back.

Violists dislike violins and cellists because of their favorite hobby; viola jokes. For example: What is the difference between a viola and a trampoline? You take your shoes off to jump on a trampoline. Another personal favorite of mine is, “A man is lost in New York, and he walks down an alley and sees a good violist, a bad violist and the Easter bunny. Who does he ask for directions? The bad violist, as the other two are figments of his imagination.” Violists think this treatment cruel and unusual punishment, but there are plenty other music jokes that are worse.

Violists are generally nice people cursed with the misfortune of the instrument they fell in love with, and they have the ability to be as musical as other musicians. They still could learn vibrato, (no matter what jokes you may hear) have the ability to play in multiple positions, could practice hard, read music, and they have to learn a whole different clef with which many others find easiest to read (as middle C is the middle line). In some pieces, like Don Quixote, the principle violist has many difficult solos that in its musical story represent Don Quixote’s side-kick, Sancho Panzo.

Therefore I conclude that violists have essentially brought the jokes and reputations on themselves. They tend to not take music as seriously as other musicians do, allowing the other musicians to surpass them in talent and fame, and have earned the title that we have bestowed upon them. May the jokes forever stand.

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