Remaking a Partnership!


My violins and violas are the ones that generally get the most use... those are the instruments that I will be usually called upon to play in ensembles and orchestras. So, those guys are always in a steady rotation in my hands and I'm playing them quite often... plus, after nearly 4 decades of playing those instruments, it is sort of second nature!

My Viola d'amore on the other hand (haha...), is a more recent instrument that I've only been playing for the last 15 years. Well... I guess that fifteen years is sort of a long time, but the real problem is that is such an old and unusual instrument that it rarely used in concert programmes! Partly due to the obscure music, partly due to the soft intimate sound of the instrument, and partly due to lack players and instruments!

It is an instrument that I really enjoy playing... but like most things, if there isn't a pressing concert coming up to make me get my arse in gear and practice, I will tend to get distracted by other things! Which means that this poor guy gets locked up in the case for weeks and months on end!

So, the viola d'amore is closer to a class of stringed instruments known as the gamba family of instruments (much like the double bass). The violin family of instruments (violin, viola and cello) become the dominant forms of the stringed/bowed instruments due to their stronger and better projecting sound which made for a better fit in the growing sizes of concert spaces. The gamba family in contrast has a more transparent texture in sound which makes it very well suited for smaller spaces, but they struggle a lot in the larger venues.

Much of this led to the gamba family (and the viola d'amore) being phased out of common usage over the Baroque era (18th century). They might appear briefly in later periods as interesting novelties... but rarely more than that.

My particular viola d'amore is a nice modern reconstruction of an old Baroque instrument by a Dutch maker. The original instrument had a string stop length that was closer to a violin... but I asked for a scaled up version that has a string stop length that is closer to the larger viola. This gives the instrument more resonating volume in the body, which gives it a slightly firmer tone and much more depth of sound in the bass registers. Of course, it is larger... which makes it a touch more difficult to get around, but that is what I'm paid to do!


I have a concert coming up on this instrument... which means that I do actually need to pull it out and practice it a bit. This isn't something that I generally need to do on the violin or viola... I can generally sight-read fast enough, or maybe I will just need to look at a couple of passages.

However, the viola d'amore is seven playing strings (and another 7 resonating strings) of pure awkwardness! It requires a different bow contact, touch and speed to the violin family... you tend to use more speed and less weight, otherwise you will find that the shallower bridge angles for the strings will have you playing many extra strings that you didn't want sounding! So, that often takes a day to have my brain, hands and instincts rewire themselves!

Plus, when an instrument hasn't been played for a little bit... it tends to "close up" in sound. I'm not sure how much of that is the player, and how much is the actual physical instrument... but without the constant vibrations of the sound running through the instrument, it always feels like a person feels when they have just woken up from a long sleep. Everything is just a little slower to sound..., given that I know that that is going to be the case for this instrument (and me...), I have to get to work on waking up both player and instrument a bit further in advance than I would normally do for the violin/viola. Normally, I try to give myself a lead up of a few weeks... going slowly each day to prevent frustration! However, this time... circumstances meant that I only have a few days. Ah well... you do what you have to!

Thankfully, the piece that I have to play isn't too difficult, and I have played it quite a few times before... so, no crazy surprises! Except that there is this really stupidly crazy awkward passage that I still haven't found a really acceptable solution for... other than going full bravado for a few seconds and hoping the audience won't focus too much on the chaos!

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