For the past few months, I’ve been playing in a small chamber orchestra that rehearses in a teeny little town near the French border called Collex. It’s a forty-minute drive from where I live, which for Switzerland is quite a trek. Tonight we have a concert in the village’s community center. You’re probably wondering what instrument I play. Well, I’ll give you a hint. It is the butt of an obscene number of jokes in the musical world, and it’s not the oboe.
Viola joke #1
What’s the difference between a coffin and a viola case?
Answer: With the coffin, the dead person is on the inside.
The great thing about the viola is that you can join almost any amateur orchestra without even having to prove that you know how to play. They’re that desperate for bodies. I enjoy playing in amateur orchestras, mostly because rehearsals are such a fascinating character study. In this orchestra, for example, the second clarinetist always comes rushing in late, carrying a bike helmet. The two oboists are dating. One of the first violins always brings pound cake for the break – I think his wife makes it on Saturday mornings. The first bassoonist always drinks hot tea and wears his shirt buttoned all the way up. He has a special little tray he attaches to his stand that holds extra reeds and a pencil case. Engineer!!!
Viola Joke #2
How is lightning like a violist’s fingers?
Answer: Neither one strikes in the same place twice.
In the orchestra I played with before this one, the timpanist always wore the same light blue suit and skinny tie. And the conductor always yelled at him because he had a hard time coming in at the right moment. That’s killer for a timpanist. The second-chair violist was dating the principal cellist – I hear they’ve since gotten married – but I couldn’t help noticing that he spent a lot of time making eye contact with the attractive blond violist sitting behind him. She has since married one of the French horn players. One of the trumpet players always had a model train magazine propped on his stand. The principal violist was a federal judge who took his job as section leader very seriously. He literally jumped out of his chair when playing accented notes, making sure the rest of us knew what we should be doing. Another violist had trouble controlling his head, which bobbed up and down rhythmically as he played fast passages. It was mesmerizing if you happened to be sitting behind him. Yet another violist came to rehearsals looking like she’d just come off a street corner somewhere (she wore the shortest skirts and highest heels I think I’ve ever seen) – wait a second. Most of the strange personalities in the orchestra seem to be in the viola section…
Viola joke #3
You see a violist and a conductor crossing the street ahead of you. Who do you hit first?
Answer: The conductor, of course. Business before pleasure.
One of my current fellow violists is a physicist from the University of Minnesota who’s doing a sabbatical at CERN, running experiments on the Large Hadron Collider. His French is pretty non-existent, so I chat with him a lot during the breaks. I told him that we’d spent a 6-month sabbatical in Geneva when I was little, and then again in 1982 for a month, during which my Dad participated in some experiments at CERN.
A few rehearsals later, he told me that his office mate at CERN had worked with Dad. Apparently there had been some major piece of equipment that they desperately needed for the experiment, but they couldn’t get it through customs. Somehow, Dad managed to pull the right strings and get it through. “He was an amazing guy,” the office mate reported.
When we were in Geneva, I was only seven years old. Even if Dad had talked about the issue at home, it wouldn’t have registered. But hearing about it now, so many years later, I realize there was so much about Dad that I didn’t know, so many incredible things he’d done that went unsung. To me, he was just Dad, and I took it all for granted. Today he would be celebrating his 79th birthday.
What an exceptional gift this story was for me. The world is so wonderfully small, isn’t it? And violists are some of its best citizens.