The Viola Lesson

I strolled toward the double glass doors, deliberately kicking at a large spiky chestnut pod as I went. It skidded across the concrete and sent three more spike-balls rolling before toppling over the edge of the ramp. Gazing upward through the branches, which were camouflaged by green and brown splotched clumps of large, tear-drop–shaped leaves, I could see bits of crisp blue autumn sky. I repositioned the strap of my viola case on my shoulder. It’s too bad I can’t stay out here to enjoy the weather. At that thought, I slowed my walk. Why am I nervous? I’m more prepared for my lesson this week than I have been in a long time. The set of doors now loomed ahead of me, and I tugged one of them open, making my way up to the second floor of the building. I knew there was no reason for me to be nervous, but the butterflies flitting around in my stomach didn’t seem to care.

As I approached Dr. Sternberg’s office, his door came clearly into view—I always enjoyed looking at it. The dark wood could barely be seen beneath the dozens of cartoons pasted all over it. There was even a picture of Dr. Sternberg himself, with a carrot protruding from his mouth, and a sign below asking, “Do you know this man?” I smiled and could feel my anxiety floating away. Poking my head through the door, I spotted him working at his computer. Dr. Sternberg was in his mid-thirties, with dark hair and a beard he had just started growing over the summer. He looked up and smiled a greeting, motioning for me to come in. “So how are you doing, Miss Marie?”

“I’m fine,” I replied, closing the door and looking for a spot to set my case. The chair where I normally put it was stacked with papers, and there were orchestra parts, folders, CDs, and violin and viola music scores scattered in piles all over the floor. “How are you?”

“Good,” he said, before guiltily apologizing for the mess. We go through this exact conversation at the start of every lesson, I thought, smiling inwardly. I pushed some of the piles out of the way and laid my case down in the cleared spot. If he feels bad about this mess, then he should see my room—at least his stuff is in piles.

I unzipped my case and began getting my viola out. After clamping the shoulder rest in place and tightening and rosining my bow, I put my music stand in the middle of the room. Dr. Sternberg got up from his desk and came over to see what I had brought. Picking up the music and looking through it, he asked, “What’s on the agenda today—should we work on an etude, or did we do one last week?”

“We did work on one last week,” I began, “but after I played it, we got distracted talking about something else…”

“Imagine that…” he grinned.

I returned the grin and continued, “…and you forgot to give me something new to work on.”

“OK,” he said, scratching his beard and leafing through my etude book. “How about if we skip etudes for this lesson. I’ll put today’s date on this…” he scribbled 11/6 at the top of one page, “…and we’ll do it next week. Is that okay?”

“Sure,”I replied, not bothering to hide the note of happiness in my voice. Not etudes! Yes! This means we get to work on the fun stuff.

“Let’s dive right into the Vanhal then,” he suggested, walking over to his desk.

Nodding, I took a deep breath, prepared myself, and began playing the first movement of the concerto. After the first page I looked up to see if he wanted me to go on. He held up his hand, and I stopped.

“I just can’t figure out what’s going on with your bow hold,” he said. “I couldn’t do what you’re doing if someone held a gun to my head.” Oh, that, I thought. Is it still not right? We had been trying to figure out what my bow hand was doing for weeks but hadn’t been able. Somehow I was managing to keep my first, second, and fourth fingers curved on the bow, while the third finger would straighten itself out.

“Let me start by asking you some questions,” Dr. Sternberg continued. “Is your thumb losing its curve underneath the bow?” He illustrated what he meant on his bow. After trying it for myself, I told him I didn’t think so.

“Well then, do you feel like you are trying to push down with your third finger?” I tried that, too, but it didn’t feel like what I had been doing. He kept on asking me questions, and having me try different things until he suddenly had another idea.

“Try thinking of it as holding the bow with the tips of your fingers.” It worked! “Now play the beginning of the piece again.” I did what he asked and could tell he was getting excited. “What do you think?” he questioned.

“I think it’s better.”

“So do I—your hand looks much looser and more elegant.”

A little later in the same lesson, Dr. Sternberg switched the focus from bow to tone. We were working on a section with some relatively high notes when he asked, “Can you get a really big tone way up there? I don’t think you can do it—not the poor little sister of the violin. It’s just not possible, is it?”

“Yes it is,” I retorted. I could see the humor in his eyes and knew he was trying to get me worked up about it.

“Prove me wrong then,” came his playful challenge.

I put my viola on my shoulder and played, pulling my bow even closer to the bridge. I could feel the vibrations of the string in my bow hand, almost as if it was my hand touching the strings, not the bow. The sound spilled from my viola, rich and pure.

“Good! And you intuitively moved your bow closer to the fingerboard as you shifted back down. That was much better. You’ve practiced more this week, haven’t you?”

I nodded. He noticed a difference! The week before, I had gotten very little practice in, and this last week I had been trying to make up for lost time. It’s amazing what a difference three hours of practice can make.

While I was thinking, I took my viola down from my shoulder. It was then, however, that I realized my hair was caught in the shoulder rest. “You’re really getting ‘attached’ to your viola, aren’t you?” Dr. Sternberg teased.

“Yep,” I agreed, laughing as I tried to untangle it.

After my lesson was over, I walked up to the glass doors again and stepped out through them into the sunlight. The sky was still the same vibrant blue, and the chestnut seed pods still littered the concrete ramp. But there was a new lightness to my step, and a bubble of happiness inside me which felt ready to burst. It was wonderful seeing the progress I was making with Dr. Sternberg’s help. For the past few years, I had wanted so badly to play the viola as well as I could, and being able to see that I really was getting better made me feel light enough to float up among the clounds. I wonder if it works this way all the time? Would knowing I did my best at something, even if others could have done it better, make me feel this way in other areas, too?

Suddenly, I remembered something Dr. Sternberg had told me before. He said he had seen lots of students try to excel at too many things. It usually resulted in them being unable to do their best at anything. So, my thoughts continued, I should pick one thing to do my very best at, and then work hard in the other areas with the time and energy I have left. A smile of understanding slowly spread across my face. Through my lessons, Dr. Sternberg had taught me many things about playing the viola, but what I had just begun to understand was, perhaps, of even greater importance. I realized now that this truth, more than any technique, would allow me to reach my goal of playing the viola to the best of my ability. Sighing happily, I tilted my head upward, breathed in the refreshing fall air, and with a well-aimed departing kick sent half a dozen more spike-balls shooting off the ramp.

This essay was honored with the 2003 Frodo’s Notebook Essay Award in the annual Central Pennsylvania Scholastic Writing Awards.