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Hot Takes: You should have played the viola

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If you had asked me a few months ago what my advice to my younger self would be, it probably would be something along the lines of: “Develop a better work ethic and sleep schedule, so you don’t pull all-nighters for every paper you have to write … You’ll have to write a lot of papers …”

While I would still like to tell that to my younger self (as well as to let her know NOT to do that embarrassing thing on yearbook signing day at the end of seventh grade), there is one piece of advice that now supersedes that comparatively insignificant guidance.

There was a moment in the beginning of my sixth grade year where all of the students in orchestra held the different string instruments they wanted to play to see what they would choose and determine what size instrument they’d need. At this moment, four-inches-shorter Kiara was vacillating between the violin and the viola. She held the viola, then the violin. If, at this moment, present-day Kiara had swooped in in a time machine and told not-as-smart-as-she-thought Kiara that she really should’ve played the viola instead of the violin, present-day Kiara would be much better off.

Why did shorter, less-smart Kiara pick the violin and unknowingly sabotage herself? It was, sadly, just laziness and a desire to be the center of attention. As a child, little Kiara had learned a tiny bit of piano. Not a helpful amount, but enough to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and read treble clef. This knowledge of treble clef tugged at the laziness hidden in sixth-grade Kiara, and as a result, learning alto clef — the clef that violas and a handful of other instruments used — was not appealing when she already knew one clef. Four-foot-eleven Kiara thought that she was being smart and saving herself work, but she was wrong. She wasn’t as good at treble clef as she thought, and learning alto clef would have been harder for maybe the first two weeks before it was just as easy as treble clef.

But alas, not-so-good-at-decision-making Kiara also wanted to be the center of attention. She did make the right choice in order to pursue her goals in the short term (anyone who has played in a string orchestra knows that in nine pieces out of 10, the viola parts are boring, to put it lightly), but small Kiara was only looking inside the orchestra. Outside the orchestra, playing the viola is way cooler. Everyone plays violin. There were two or three times as many violins as violas in her school orchestra at any given point in time. Preteen Kiara didn’t understand the inverse relationship between coolness and rarity, and there was no way she could foresee what would happen when she came to Stanford. The “everyone plays violin” rule seems like it’s twice as true here. Had please-fix-your-hair Kiara chosen the viola, she wouldn’t even have to be that good at it, she’d still have a skill that fewer people at Stanford have. Kiara today is more or less okay at violin, but when everyone plays violin, that doesn’t matter. Being more or less okay at viola, on the other hand, would allow middle school Kiara to reach her goals better in the long term.

Of course, this is in part because the viola in particular is suited to achieve the goal that childhood Kiara had. The viola is one of, if not the best instrument. It already beats most instruments on account of it being a stringed one. String instruments have a certain elegance and grace that other instruments don’t. From the unique shape to the wood construction to the careful craftsmanship, they’re just beautiful. They’re works of art that make more art. It’s truly wonderful.

Within string instruments, viola is the best because it strikes the perfect balance between pitch and convenience. People say that instruments that are closer in pitch to the human voice are more “beautiful,” and I must say that at times the violin can get a bit … squeaky. The viola, in comparison to the violin, removes the highest pitched string on one end, and tacks on a lower pitched one to the other end, removing the squeakiness. This does not mean that the viola can’t play high notes, however. Part of the magic of string instruments is the strings themselves; they allow for such a wide range of pitch, so you really aren’t missing that much on the high end, plus you get more notes on the low end.

The viola beats the cello and the string bass mostly because of convenience. I’ve seen people try to lug a massive cello everywhere and it seems so inconvenient. Just multiply that inconvenience by two or three and you get the inconvenience of moving a string bass. Even a large viola, on the other hand, is close to the size of a violin, making it easier to carry around and show off your rad viola skills.

So, you tell your your younger self to play the viola. Great, you’re now the coolest cat on campus. There is only one potential hiccup: If everyone plays the viola, then it is no longer special. Thankfully, composers have clearly thought of this. Orchestral music is written for the violins to have most of the melodies, meaning that there must be more of them in order to emphasize those sounds. Therefore, there is a soft limit on the number of violas in a single orchestra. As a result, not everyone can play the viola. If there is too much demand for this wonderful instrument, there will surely be some sort of selection mechanism, making the viola that much more exclusive, and magnifying the effects I already discussed. This is unfortunate if you are unable to play the viola, but in that case you can get a similar effect with cello, just with more inconvenience.

So, now if time travel is ever invented, I can tell my younger self why she should play the viola. You can too, because a random Grind writer said so.

 

Contact Kiara Harding at kiluha ‘at’ stanford.edu.