Got a ghetto viola, and more piano stuff

I may or may not have mentioned this previously but I’d have to go back a page to see, and I don’t feel like it. Anyhow, I got a seriously ghetto 5-string viola that I am currently in love with. I call it my little chola because it knows the world thinks it looks trashy and it doesn’t care because it thinks it looks hot:

Smaller, lighter, much more comfy

Smaller, lighter, much more comfy

Narrow lower bout

Narrow lower bout

Decent wood

Decent wood

It’s a cheapie Chinese trade fiddle that I got off of eBay because I finally got sick of struggling and being completely unable to get anything accomplished. Despite my constant sense as a pianist when I pick this thing up that someone amputated my left arm and three fingers off my right hand, I still seem unable to stop messing with it, so I just sort of bowed to the inevitable. It’s from Song Tieling, the Emperor of VSOs — I bought it in the white and had to sent to Don Rickert, who seems to have become my official luthier, who sort of disassembled what he got and put it back together as an actual viola. These things tend to be composed of decent pieces of wood that are stuck together in the shape of something vaguely resembling a viola, and he pops them apart, tunes them up (regraduates the belly, reprofiles the fingerboard, etc.), and reassembles the bits into actual instruments. Apparently, it took him quite some time to pop the belly and the fingerboard since Song doesn’t use hide glue and instead uses what Rickert called “surplus adhesive from the Chinese air force.” It’s good wood though, so thankfully their fiddles can be put to rights by an adventurous, creative luthier. If anyone’s interested in trying one, I’d recommend not getting a finished one from Song, though. Get one in the white that can be redeemed.

Major advantages:

  1. The narrow lower bout means that I can use a violin shoulder rest (a Bonmusica), which fits my quite narrow shoulders like a glove. You know how people are always saying, “Don’t clamp down on the instrument — just let the weight of your head hold it in place!” With the wrong chin and shoulder setup, you can’t do that — but I can do that now.
  2. The chin rest is so comfortable it feels like it’s not even there.
  3. The E string (not my favorite string; I can’t handle that noise for more than a second) means I can play more scales without shifting.
  4. The geared pegs mean I can tune it in about six seconds, and even tune it while bowing.
  5. The weight! It weighs almost nothing, I’m serious. It’s glorious. Part of that may be the hollow scroll, which I love.

Major disadvantages:

  1. Other string players think it’s trashy looking.
  2. I’m concerned about finding a luthier who won’t spit on it, and it does need a better bridge, to be honest.

Between the lighter weight, the shorter string length, and the narrow lower bout enabling me to use a shoulder rest that works, I am able to play for periods of time I would never have been able to manage with Stevie the 16″ viola (you can see the relative sizes in the top picture above). I cannot overstate that enough: I could do almost nothing on Stevie. I couldn’t even play a C Major scale twice without feeling like I was going to die. If I played for more than about two minutes and finally cried uncle and put the thing down, I would stand there stiff and sore and have to sort of readjust myself to having dropped that weight.

With the chola, I play for 15 minutes at a time — and I could go longer — and the second I take it off my shoulder and put it down, it’s as if it was never there. I really still can’t get over it. It’s like taking ankle weights off. It’s amazing.

And because of this, I can stand there with a stable, comfortable instrument on my shoulder that isn’t sliding all over the place or making my neck seize up and making my arm throb, and actually work on problems. I can close my eyes, focus on a relaxed scroll hand, and gently “drop” my fingers into place exactly as my old viola teacher instructed me to, on the pads and not the tips. I can reach a high-3 without getting disoriented, both because I’m not straining for it and because the lesser weight allows me to relax while playing. I can do a scale over and over and over and over slowly and with patience, enjoyment, and satisfaction because I don’t have a finite (and very short) amount of time to work on something before I have to put the thing down. Because of this, my intonation — and my desire to work on it — has improved enormously after one damned weekend. I even have the beginnings of a controllable, comfortable vibrato on my first finger, exactly as you’re supposed to do it — loosen and then rock the first knuckle back once per bow, then twice per bow, then three times, etc.

Actually, I should talk about that process since most of the people who give vibrato advice online have been doing it since they were tiny kids and hence can’t really recall how they learned it. As an adult beginner, I can probably better explain what’s going on and where any confusion lies. (For starters, you NEEEEEEEED a good, comfortable, and stable chin and shoulder rest setup or else it’s not going to happen, along with a very relaxed hand. They are steps zero and one on the path to vibrato.)

I just can’t say how happy I am with this thing. Even having that blasted E string there is nice because it moves the strings I’m really interested in back a bit so they are easier to see. šŸ™‚

Regarding piano stuff, after finishing an album’s worth of music, I immediately got sidetracked into writing piano variations on themes from “Rodelinda,” and so I’ve been doing that instead of really working on recording my stuff. I’ve got three variations on the opener to “Pompe vane di morte” so far in swing, jazz, and schmaltz styles. (We’ll call that swing, jazz, and romantic styles.)

So yes, been busy and thanks to now having an axe that I can actually cope with, I will be busier.

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