Published in The Alliance Review November 6, 2006
Stringed instruments have a way of putting me in my place, and violins are the worst.
I’m playing violin in the Carnation City Players’ production of “Once Upon A Mattress” this month. Theater music is always daunting. I join a pianist and company of actors and technicians who have been practicing the show for weeks, and I scramble to learn, in a week, the music and where my part fits into the scenes while working during the day and trying to have enough home life to feel rested.
These difficulties are compounded by the style of the music. Most of the year I play traditional Celtic and early American music, which rarely visit the places on the violin encountered in theater music. Theater music differs mainly in its range and its keys. Theater music uses keys I never encounter in folk music, such as G flat, which has six flats. The violin is tuned, from low to high, G-D-A-E, and the keys favored by the average violinist are those that have zero to three flats or sharps. Any more than that, and fingering in the extreme keys becomes quite challenging, “extreme” being listed in my 1947 book of musical terms, predating by more than a half century the sporting events that feature people too dumb to know when something is perilous. The key of G flat is a half step below G, which violinists absolutely love. That’s also one of the best keys for Celtic music because it employs open ringing strings, creating bagpipe-style drones. Because vocalists can sing just as easily in G flat or G, I often wonder why composers of musicals torture us string players with G flat. Put it in G! Can a half step make that much difference to a talented singer?
Theater composers also love high positions for violinists. Positions allow the violinist to play high notes that are out of reach in the first position, they can eliminate difficult string crossings, and they can make playing in flat keys easier. A higher position on the violin involves moving the hand up the neck, closer to the body of the instrument, away from first position, where the hand has the scroll and base of the neck (called the frog — I don’t know why) to guide it. The player places the first finger where other fingers are placed in first position: third position puts the first finger on the note that is played by the third finger in first position, fourth position places the first finger on the fourth finger’s spot, and fifth puts it in the place of the third finger in third position. The violin has no frets to guide the fingers, as do the mandolin and guitar, so the player learns to place the fingers by feel of the hand on the violin. Shifting to higher positions requires regular practice, both to make smooth transitions up and down and because the fingers are closer together in the higher positions. The player must learn the feel of the notes, the distance of fingers from each other, for each position.
I like the challenge of positions, but because Celtic music rarely uses higher positions and because theater work rolls around once a year or once every two years, I am rusty on their use, and I must limber up my fingers, studying bizarre extreme keys and ascents to the upper heights of the fingerboard.
Delving into those extremes, I practiced the music at home before the first rehearsal with the other musicians on Oct. 28, which wasn’t so bad. We stopped when we were confused, guided by the talented and patient J. Kim Lewis, musical director for the show. But then we practiced with the company the next day. That’s when I felt like an idiot. With the company, we must follow the singing, be prepared to play when we hear spoken cues, and keep up with changes in tempo, key signature (from one extreme flat key to another) and time signature. Although I’ve played for many shows and I know that I always feel lost and incompetent at the start, I can’t help feeling that way each time. But somehow we work it out, and by the start of the show, we (mostly) know what we’re doing.
So what keeps me playing a challenging instrument that keeps putting me in my place? Other musicians understand the joy that one feels when playing music, and non-musicians can best understand this way: you hear a song on the stereo and it so enchants you that you want to get inside it. Being a nonmusician, the closest you can come is to turn up the volume, really loud. A musician doesn’t need to turn up the volume. He is part of the music. And that makes all those frustrations and challenges worth it.