My local public secondary school happened to be a specialist music school. New students could sign up to learn an instrument from one of the teachers; for no cost. Of course, every Year 7 wanted to learn the saxophone, of which the school had about five. About 50 of my peers signed up for saxophone. The saxophone teacher herded us into a room and told us the bad news; the good news being that our parents could buy a saxophone for a cool $800. My parents didn’t see the good news.

Mum dragged her grant-aunt’s viola from the cupboard, and marched me to the office of Geoff Conrau, string teacher extraordinaire (Geoff is also an amazing magician, and a pyrotechnician). I was not happy about being relegated from saxophone wailing glory. Bloody hell, it wasn’t even a violin! But Geoff is a skilled teacher, and I came to love the humble viola, along with its own tradition of viola jokes.

The viola, compared to the violin, warms the heart with its timbre, which is quite close to the human voice in pitch and tone. The slightly larger and fuller body of the viola gives it a fuller sound and its C-string is a joy to play. Composers like Dvorak, Mozart and Britten were all viola players, like the Australia composer/player Brett Dean and John Cale of the Velvet Underground.

As a half-decent viola player, I played in lots of orchestra and string ensembles over my high school years. Over time, the viola affected my personality, and I’ve reflected on this many times as I became involved in various movements and organisations (youth, Christian, political). The viola is now a symbol of how I operate in movements and organisations.

The viola supports others

The viola, particularly in a string ensemble, sits (literally often) between the violin and the cello. It provides the ‘centre’ to the music, the middle fiddle, without which the cellos succumb to growls and the violins to screechiness. When it stops playing, you realise it was there.

I’m not saying that I naturally support others, but playing the viola taught me the essential part of the supporter. In churches, community groups and movements, the charismatic leader gets the glory, but without those who play other parts, they’d sound hollow.

It’s nice to be anonymous sometimes

For the out and out extravert, anonymity would be a curse, but the viola has shown me the joys of anonymity. In an orchestra, a viola has a chance to shine, but much of the time it is providing atmosphere and (as above) the ‘centre’ of the music. The viola player is not ‘on’ all the time. We are even, mercifully, obscured between violins and cellos, and behind the conductor.

In contrast, the violinist is always on – as an observer, it felt like they could never relax. They are often carrying the melody and the bulk of the sound. I could sit back sometimes and scrape back and forth on the one string while the violins exercised their tortuous brilliance.

Put me in a community, church or movement, and I love to have my voice heard (see below) as much as the next person and feel that sense of belonging that comes with recognition. But I also love to sit back and watch someone else rise up to take the lead.

Yuri Bashmet - Viola Legend

Yuri Bashmet – Viola Legend

It has its own beautiful voice; just listen

The viola’s sound is deeply affecting but, to the untrained ear unused to picking its sound, is often unheard or ignored. Because its pitch is moderate, it does not stand out among the powerful cellos and piercing violins. You need to listen to a viola solo, and then its voice shines through when listening in an ensemble, and you wonder how you missed it.

Here is the Guardian newspaper singing its praises:

The viola is the plangent heart of the string section. A modest instrument, it tends to cede glamour and virtuosity to the showier violin and cello. But that is deceptive: in a string quartet, the viola holds the music’s centre, often moving it through the most complex of harmonies, or expressing its most melancholy moods.The viola is the plangent heart of the string section. A modest instrument, it tends to cede glamour and virtuosity to the showier violin and cello.

This definitely applies to me, particularly early on as I worked out my distinctive voice, and realised it wasn’t overpowering and didn’t shout ‘look at me’ like the cello. The viola has helped me to look out for the voice of others whose pitch and tone don’t seem suited to the podium.

Work with what you’re given

The last lesson I want to talk about is: working with what you’ve been given. I mean this in a leadership or membership sense. I didn’t like the idea of learning an instrument whose very existence I doubted. But it grew on me, and as I spent time with it, I grew to love it.

The models of community leadership and membership that we have are pretty impoverished. When you look at the theory of leadership, there are many models, but when we see those that are lauded and applauded…well, it’s pretty clear that the ideal is charismatic, extraverted and articulate. So it’s easy to feel inadequate. When you do, just remember the viola.