Question: How much does equipment matter for strings? ($$$)
Answer: Hi there! Your friendly neighborhood violist here is full of opinions on this -- which first of all, this is definitely an opinion and it will differ depending on who you ask!
When it comes to strings, the value of the instrument is determined generally by two different factors. The first factor is the overall sound of the instrument as well as the value and quality of the material the instrument is constructed from. The second factor pertains to the reputation of the luthier who constructed the instrument. For example, the value of a violin made by Antonio Stradivarius will be worth far more than an equally beautiful sounding violin made by a contemporary maker (don’t @ me Stradivarius stans, this is a fact). Likewise, a 100-year-old viola by an unknown maker (naming no instruments performed on by the violist writing this), will be worth much less than an instrument from the same era by a known maker.
In general, a decent quality beginning student violin or viola will likely run you anywhere from $400 - $1000, while a cello will likely cost around $800 - $1500. However, professional quality instruments usually start at $10,000 and go up from there.
In general, the quality of your equipment will definitely impact the quality of your playing. Last time I upgraded my viola, which was my sophomore year of college, the difference was astounding. When I had to upgrade my student quality bow during my freshman year (even though I did place in a concerto competition using it!) because certain techniques such as spicatto, as well as my tone were suffering. The switch was dramatic, and my sound and tone exponentially changed, as well as the ease in my playing.
In summation, yes -- it does matter to play on a good quality instrument and bow. However, as I’ve definitely hinted at, look for an instrument and bow that speak to you and create the sound you want. Yes, there are advantages to playing on an instrument with a reputation, but it is likely that this will only be possible if you are able to apply to perform on an instrument through an instrument bank or are sponsored by a foundation.
Question: What Makes a Great Violist in a Chamber Music Setting?
Answer: Hi there! Your friendly neighborhood violist LOVES to geek out about chamber music!
The number one thing that makes a great musician in chamber in general, is showing up to every rehearsal prepared. Pre-rehearsal preparation means studying the score and being familiar with all the parts, preparing your part to the level where you could stand up on stage and perform it solo, and understanding your instrument’s role in each section of the piece. Also, like, bring a pencil.
Now for the viola-specific stuff! As a violist in chamber music settings, we often end up playing a support role, but when our part shines, it really needs to project and be brought out. The orchestration definitely changes the way our part fits in -- the role of a violist in a string quartet is different than in a viola/harp/flute trio. Blending as a violist is extremely important, we absolutely need to match the sound and intonation of our counterparts.
The rule of thumb when it comes to tuning and blending is to fit within the bass sound, and in certain groups, we’re that bass! A few summers back, I played one of the Reger trios for flute, violin, and viola at a festival with Metropolitan Opera flautist, Stephanie Mortimore -- no pressure or anything! In this group, who was the bass? This girl. This was the first time where I really had to embrace my inner cellist in a chamber music setting. This allowed for so much freedom when it came to projecting my sound, as the violin and flute had to fit in with my sound. However, blending with a wind instrument also brought it’s own challenges when it came to intonation as the timbre of winds and strings differ so much. All in all, one of the most challenging and fulfilling chamber experiences of my life!
Now, with all this blending talk, it’s also important to remember that violas are difficult, tricky little instruments that take a lot of extra love when it comes to projecting. Whether you’re playing that lovely solo in the Brahms G major quintet, the opening to the Smetana quartet, or just a lovely line within Souvenir de Florence, you need to practice switching quickly from that blended sound to a projecting soloistic sound that will cut through the violins and cello and be able to sit on top.
So, for the cliff notes version of all this, a great violist shows up prepared with knowledge of the score, knowledge of your part, the ability to blend or project when needed, and also general flexibility! As a chamber musician, you are in a partnership with your colleagues, and it’s important to show up flexible and amenable to the ideas of others, as well as coming in with ideas of your own to contribute. Happy viola-ing!