Can violinists be more like violists?
Garrison Keillor described the people who come from his hometown of Lake Wobegon as humble and attentive to others. They avoid center stage and never want the spotlight on them. His mid-western neighbors are the violists of the world. They aren’t the flashy, pretentious violinists.
The audience laughed because they all knew exactly what he meant. Violinists are not seen as humble, supportive musicians. Violinists are always front and center.
I love Keillor’s description, but I want to say one thing in defense of violinists. We are not born entitled and privileged musicians. We are spoiled. We have always been given the lion’s share of the melody in symphonic works. The vast majority of concertos and ‘show’ pieces written for strings are written for the violin. In every musical ensemble, we are always put closest to the audience.
I think that because violinists rarely experience life outside of this role is one of the reasons that many have a hard time finding a place for their music after lessons end.
Learning to play ‘beside’ someone is an important skill. For instance, learning to adapt to a singer requires strong listening skills. Unless you are playing in the classical genre, there is very little notation available that will guide an accompanying violinist. We have to learn to do this on our own.
Fortunately, the skills are not technically difficult. They simply come through experience. A violinist with nothing more a D-scale and a good ear, can play alongside a singer on a thousand songs and sound amazing.
Like learning conversation skills, you have to intuit when to quietly listen, when to give musical ‘uh-huh’s’ and ‘tell me more’ signals. And you learn to find that space in the conversation where you share your own musical thoughts, but in a gentle, reserved, mid-western manner.
People become good conversationalists by having lots of conversations. Violinists become good collaborators by playing with lots of musicians.
The job for teachers and parents is to create lots of opportunities for collaboration so the next generation of violinists doesn’t miss out on a world of music.