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Noah is a violist!

It wasn’t like he had begged for a viola. I play both violin and viola and he had expressed no spontaneous interest in taking up the viola. But I’d heard about the magnificent little Sabatier instruments and so I planted a seed with him. I said “Maybe someday you’ll want to play the viola too.” He’s the biggest for his age of my four kids, though that’s not saying much. And while he’s never expressed any concerns about it, I had always had at the back of my mind the knowledge that he’s growing up in the shadow of a precocious older sister who is learning the violin and piano as well. We also live in a tiny rural community with very limited group class opportunities but with a thriving community string orchestra which is in desperate need of violas.

He was beginning to outgrow his 1/8th size violin and it looked like yet again he’d be growing into a hand-me down instrument from his sister. He was about to begin a romp through Book 3 and was interested in really focusing on sight-reading and orchestral skills. It seemed like a good time to introduce a new instrument and a new clef and a new role in ensemble-playing. I mentioned the possibility again and he was enthusiastic. I’m sure most of it had to do with the simple business of growing into a new instrument, but whatever the reason he was keen on a viola.

And so I sent my mom off to an institute to meet an instrument I had located and priced out from the Sound Post in Toronto. I told her to buy it on my behalf if she thought it was wonderful. I was at another institute, and I actually called to locate her and give her my number in case she wasn’t sure about the purchase. But she didn’t call me back. It turned out this was because she was sure — it was a simply amazing instrument.

The viola is an asymmetrical viola from luthier Bernard Sabatier in Paris France. It is the same size as a 1/4-size violin and has a rich C-string tone. We arrived back from our institute to the news that the viola was on its way. It was driving back across the prairies with some friends of ours. Noah couldn’t wait! He asked me to start some alto clef reading work with him. He counted down the days. He wanted to cancel his piano lesson in case it came while we were there! Finally it arrived. Wow! It is at least as wonderful as we’d expected.

It has a much bigger, more mature sound than his 1/8th size violin. And it’s a viola in spirit, timbre and tone, all the way to the bottom of the C-string. Noah was entranced by its wacky shape and by the sound he could get from it almost immediately. He began playing through a lot of his violin repertoire. I’d told him that except for 2 pieces all of Books 1 & 2 viola were the same as the violin books, so he should start there, just a fifth down. He knew what I meant, but his perfect pitch kept getting in the way. He’d want to start playing “Allegro” and shift to 4th position to find the high A, then realize that this was his viola so he didn’t have to reach for the high notes. So he’d dig around on the lower strings for a lower A and then try to start 2 octaves down only to realize that this wasn’t quite right either. Then he’d remember the “fifth down” rule and intellectually figure it out. I could tell his ear just didn’t have a blueprint of “Allegro” in D major. I’ll be buying some Suzuki Viola CDs, but I was intrigued to see how his mind and ear were competing to be in charge.

Almost immediately he loved his viola best. He talked about quitting violin. I explained that he would want to keep up violin to play in groups, but that the instruments would be the same size, so switching back and forth would be easy as his ear learned to adjust. He played it many times a day. He learned “French Folk Song” on Day 2 and “Bohemian Folk Song” on Day 4. He polished up “Martini Gavotte” in short order and forged ahead into the Book 3 “Bach Minuet”. He picked up the viola to demonstrate any time anyone stopped by our house. People are intrigued by its “melted” look, and he enjoys the attention.

The technical transition is going well. Noah has a very intuitive physical sense, and with some encouragement to “really work for the tone” was able to get a big robust sound right from the start. He has a few technical issues (a ‘tippy-toes’ bowhand, for instance) that were being addressed anyway, but which now have more reason to be treated seriously. “You can’t get away with that on the viola,” I say. “You really need to be able to sink your arm weight into the string through those middle fingers. It’s even more important with these big low strings.” And of course he’s more motivated to do so. He’s finding the Kreisler highway easily, probably aided by the universal tendency to slip a bit towards the fingerboard when moving to a bigger instrument. Intonation is a little unreliable on fourth fingers and he needs some encouragement to use all of his (much longer) bow. But all in all the transition seems scarcely more challenging than that of moving to a larger-sized violin.

He’s got the knack of starting a fifth lower, but his darn aural memory still likes to reassert itself from time to time a Da Capos, where he’ll often suddenly modulate from C major to G major, for instance. Funny, that.

He’s only been practising his violin every other day and very briefly at that. That’s fine. His 1/4-size violin isn’t available yet, but should be soon, so probably the less switching back and forth from the 1/8th the better. So far he’s loving the change and enjoying the attention he’s getting.







3 responses to “Noah is a violist!”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    “The viola is an asymmetrical viola from luthier Bernard Sabatier in Paris France”

    These “ugly” instruments are made in a chinese factory owned by scott cao and sold in the “white” to sabatier and warnished by his apprentices
    It’s more a piece of wood than a real musical instrument

  2. Miranda Avatar

    Well, yes. Of course they’re factory produced “in the white”. You don’t get a completely hand-made instrument for under $1000. They factory work is done overseas to Sabatier’s specifications. So what? Have you heard them? We have shown Noah’s instrument to viola teachers from all over North America and none of them has ever heard tone that rich from such a small instrument. I’m currently shopping for a half-sized viola for Noah. There are no Sabatiers currently available in Canada, and we haven’t yet found a half that measures up to his 1/4 Sabatier. What makes you say they’re not a real musical instrument? Sounds like you have a bit of a chip on your shoulder.


  3. The Chengs Avatar

    Ah… just came across this “ancient” blog entry of yours thru suzukichat. Very interesting read! 😉

    I was just suggesting to my elder son that he consider taking up viola in the near future. It was for practicality reasons – as I thought there’d be greater opportunities if he auditions as a viola player for high-school orchestras compared to as a violinist, since good violinists are aplenty. Furthermore, his violin teacher is an accomplished viola orchestral player.

    Duh, the boy rejected it outright, saying he would only want to learn it in school (he can read alto clef), and not take it seriously, and would rather take the cello. *hah* not quite the response I’d expected!

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