Love and Respect

My viola mother, Karen Tuttle -- who strode through the lobby of Juilliard as an octogenarian clad proudly in her full-length neon pink mohair jacket, who smacked students soundly on their butts in master classes, who taught me how to scream like a baby again, who leapt randomly out of her chair to push me in the chest while I was playing during lessons to knock me over as a test of my balance -- taught me to cherish my relationship with my viola and to treat it with love and respect. I miss my dear Ms. Tuts.

"Masumi! Stop abusing your viola and play with more deliciousness!" Tuttle would often reprimand me for playing thoughtlessly. It is hard to reconcile the fantasy of what your instrument means to you versus its reality as an inanimate object. It is both a tool and a partner. I suppose that my relationship with my instrument is a reflection of my relationships with those around me. I try to remember but often forget to be mindfully present in my approach. It's just too easy to function distractedly.

Your viola is an inherently mercurial partner. It responds to you, your finicky bow hair, the weather, the room you're in, and surprises you... in ways both good and bad. So often we are trying to master the instrument technically, but this strict regimen makes it easy to forget that it is a wonderfully organic object. Violas have naturally sensual curves, are made of wood that breathes, and are designed to fit in harmony with your body. Kinky stuff, huh?

The past few months have been an anomaly with twelve violas coming out of the woodwork (haha?) at me from every angle. I imagine this is what speed dating might be like. 'Hey stranger, what's your name? What's your sign? Do you like to dance?' Sometimes a viola someone plays with ease can become your own private nightmare...

I found myself getting excited about prospects I hadn't even yet played-fantasizing about finding my match. My friend Aaron Boyd, who plays violin in the Escher Quartet, and I send each other photos of instrumental eye candy. We fawn over things like rich flaming of the wood, healthy amounts of buttery varnish, elegant corners, statuesque scrolls.

There were several cases where potential viola photos promised beautiful sound, and yet it was hard to imagine the issues that reality brought along with them. I feel, with admitted foolhardiness, that I can somewhat guess what a viola might sound like when I hold it in my hands. The weight, proportions, wood choice, thickness of varnish and arching of the plates speak to me. However, there are so many internal factors that can be surprising and, as with people, time reveals so much.

It's been an exciting time with so many violas on the scene. There's one viola that sounds particularly promising, but I won't mention it now for fear of jinxing it. My fingers are crossed. I feel the electricity in the air! Cue tremolos -- I actually think I might be getting somewhere now.

To be continued... !