Thursday, August 26, 2010


Meet Viviana Viola. She's a 16-inch Ji, supposedly new (although her interior label is blank, which is a bit disconcerting). She has beautiful tone and projects wonderfully, which would be better news for those in the immediate vicinity if I were a better player. She's not a rental.

You may recall that I planned to meet Charlene at the music store today to pick out a 15-inch rental. What happened?

Well, they were out of rentals, this being rental season. They'll get more in, but in the meantime, I wanted to test out a viola to see if I'd actually want to play one. Tim, the luthier, said he didn't have any upstairs, but went downstairs to look. He didn't have any downstairs, either. "Do you have any violas I can try?" I asked him. He said he had a 16.

Charlene and I looked at each other and shrugged. We didn't even think I'd be able to hold the thing, but heck, we were there. So Tim handed me the 16, and I could hold it fine. (I have long arms for my size, it turns out.) He handed me a bow. I started playing and swooned. I loved the sound of the instrument. Tim and Charlene, watching me, grinned, and began a lively conversation in incomprehensible musician-speak about what a good instrument this is. Tim gets a lot of Chinese instruments in, but this is the best of its type he's ever seen; the balance and resonance and tone and timbre and yada yada yada are all excellent, and furthermore, yada yada. I wasn't paying very close attention to them, because I was happily sounding out tunes (which I could sound out fine even though this instrument's two inches longer than the one I'm used to).

I stopped playing long enough to ask Tim, "So, um, how much would this one cost?"

"That one's eight hundred dollars."

I probably turned an interesting shade of gray. "Oh. Will the amount I've already paid towards the rental count towards that?"

Alas, no. This instrument isn't a rental. But Tim said he would give me a better set of strings, a shoulder rest, and a new bow.

I chewed my lip. I played the viola. I handed the viola over to Charlene and Tim, who fussed over it and praised it and pointed out that no $800 rental instrument would be half this good. "This is a real instrument," Charlene said firmly, handing it back to me. "And look! It comes with the kind of case you like, with backpack straps!"

I hemmed and hawed. I tried to call Gary, but he wasn't home. I played the viola some more and gazed longingly at it when Tim took it away for a moment. "Let's do this," he said. "I'll put better strings on her, and you can take her home overnight and see what you think."

I perked right up. Charlene, beaming, said, "It's so nice to see you happy!" (She's seen more than her share of unhappy Susan.) "You'll have to name her. Have you started thinking about new baby names?"

Charlene had clearly made up her mind, even if I wasn't quite there yet. Or rather, I was, but I was worried about Gary's reaction. And Gary's reaction, when I reached him on the phone as I drove to the gym, indeed involved a fair amount of sputtering. I was thinking of doing what? What the hey? Couldn't I just wait for them to get the rentals in? "It's expensive," I told him, craftily not naming the amount, "but the tone's gorgeous, and I can already more or less play the thing, and Charlene clearly thinks I should go for it."

After swimming, I went back to the music store to pick up my viola, as I was already thinking of her. (She doesn't smell as good as Felicity Fiddle, but that's the only downside.) When I got her home, Gary was immediately impressed by the tone, but said warily, "And how much does this cost?"

"Eight hundred."

"Oh! When you said 'very expensive,' I was imagining three thousand."

That's what I'd been hoping. "And you know," I said -- and I'd really only just thought of this -- "the purchase cost of the violin is $700. This is only a hundred more."

Viewed that way, the viola seems almost reasonable. Eight hundred's still a heckuva lot of money, especially on top of what I've already shelled out for the violin rental, and extra especially because this will never be more than a hobby for me, but, well, I am getting a small inheritance from my mother. I'd planned to put all of it into the emergency medical fund, but I think playing Viviana will be good for my health. Although she certainly is heavier than Felicity, so I foresee some aching neck and shoulder muscles in my future.

But never fear! Today's mail brought my birthday gifts from my sister: a very generous gift certificate to my favorite yarn store and a gift card for a ninety-minute massage at my health club. Yay!

I also got a lovely card from my friend Sherry, our priest who moved to Tucson. I made her socks before she left, and she plans to take them on an upcoming trip to France with her husband. She and Pete are in the process of buying a townhouse; in the meantime, they've been renting a cottage. Sherry's seen a coyote and a bobcat in their yard. I'm jealous! I've seen coyote around here, but never bobcat. Not, I know, that one wants to see a bobcat at very close range, but they're certainly beautiful animals.

Meanwhile, one of Charlene's bands was playing at a local rock club tonight, so Gary and I decided to go. We walked past someone who called out, "Do you need tickets?" He had too many, and gave us two for free. He also directed us to the entrance, which we were having some trouble finding. To get into this place, you walk down an alleyway, past a large sign listing the rules -- which include no weapons and no gang insignia -- and have a paper bracelet put on your wrist by an extremely large bouncer while someone else takes your ticket. Inside, we blinked our way through a cavernous dimness with very few seats. What seats there were, guarded by more bouncers, cost extra.

Gary and I made our way up to the balcony so we could lean against the railing, and talked about whether we'd ever been to a venue like this. We used to go to folk clubs in New York, but they had lots of seating. A former boyfriend and I spent a summer dancing at disco clubs like Limelight (using free passes scored from local boutiques), which featured the same style of bouncer. Another former boyfriend -- who spent some time working as a bouncer himself, come to think of it -- was a roadie for a rock band. He got me into one of their shows and, later, got me backstage, where the headliner politely offered me cocaine (hey, it was the eighties) which I just as politely declined. That occasion was probably the closest I'd come to any setting like this.

Charlene's band, which is really someone else's band, opened. Everything was turned up to eleven. When we could hear Charlene, we were really happy, but she's the best thing in that band by far, and she didn't have nearly enough to do, and she periodically got drowned out by the other instruments.

After the set, I turned to Gary, who was massaging his ears. "Do you want to stay?" I asked him. He couldn't hear me.

No, he didn't want to stay. His ears hurt already. We agreed, somewhat sadly, that we're Just Too Old For This Kind of Thing. So we left, making our way through a much thicker crowd than had been there when we arrived, and drove home, where I practiced playing Viviana.

She's a beauty. The bow Tim lent me is slightly warped, so she'll sound even better with the good one he's ordered: also, she'll be more comfortable when I get the Kun shoulder rest he's expecting. Right now I'm using a bizarre, very strange looking shoulder rest, provenance unknown, that Tim had lying around the shop: it features a worn velvet pad, ornate iron curlicues, and little rubber feet that keep falling off. It's better than nothing, but a Kun will be far superior. I removed my gelrest chinpad from Felicity and put it on Viviana; the pad doesn't fit the chinrest exactly, but still makes the instrument more comfortable to hold. (Does anyone know if I should worry about getting an exact fit? Does the exact fit serve any purpose other than aesthetic?)

Tomorrow I'll go back to the music store, return Felicity -- may she find a loving home elsewhere! -- and buy Viviana. This is a little scary, but also exciting.

She is kinda huge, I have to say. Gary, who's been collecting viola jokes for quite a long time now, has responded with glee to having a viola around, despite the expense. "You could use her as a baseball bat!" he chortled. "Think how much beer she'll hold!"

"Yes, dear. And in a power outage, she'll burn so much longer than Felicity would."

By the way, if anyone knows anything about Ji, please let me know. I found an instrument maker by that name in California, but Viviana's supposedly Chinese.


  1. Congrats on the new viola. Your dearly beloved sounds like a hoot. Most importantly, you had a good day!!! Good for you.

  2. Exciting news. Glad you're enjoying the new sound.

  3. I will not take it amiss that you're forsaking the instrument I've been playing for more than 40 years. No, not at all.

    Seriously, glad you found a sound you love.


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