How to Find and Produce Your Inner Voice by Ryan Fox

I stopped keeping track at 110; a completely abstract number, yet definitive moment where I realized that finding my dulcet, bratsche doppelgänger would take some time. Trying so many instruments certainly inspired some feelings of “oops,” but when I finally did find my viola “d’amore,” I knew my efforts weren’t wasted.

My 1902 Muschietti viola holds me accountable to my extensive search, and refuses to let me make excuses for my playing. Taking so much time away from my daily scales regiment to find an instrument really impacted my playing—but to allow my technique to take a step back in order to see a once-obfuscated world of potential is a decision I don’t regret.

Many people urged me to settle after about a year spent allegedly spinning my wheels. I feel this would have been an enormous mistake having already dedicated so much time to finding what I knew was out there . . . and I would urge anyone who reads this, if ever in my shoes, to realize that one can be successful despite years of being a viola vagabond. Richard Young of the Vermeer Quartet expressed the feeling that “he couldn’t even walk onstage with the rest of his quartet” as their instruments were probably twenty times the price of his.  He chose, however, to take twenty years of searching over a compromise—and is quite content from what I could gather.

Of course, I hope that if you are searching, that your search won’t lead to as many frequent flyer miles as mine. I would also implore you to consider my advice, as there is absolutely no reason you would want to learn some of these things firsthand. 

First of all, have a definitive amount of money actually set aside. The promises of patrons can be quite capricious, leaving you in a situation where money could, for once, have bought love.  Don’t let that one go unrequited.

I then will strongly suggest that you don’t by any means assume—for any reason at all—that anything you know or think you know about the qualities of and characteristics of instruments applies to violas in any way shape or form. Even other violas. Even among the same makers.

During an orchestra rehearsal at Rice, I heard the concertmaster of that particular cycle demonstrate a passage to the first violins. Her brilliant technique and wonderful touch were transmogrified into music somewhere inside a violin made by Pierre Pacherel. It was, to my ears, empyrean. Being at the threshold of creative possibilities on my old and faithful viola, I decided I would find an alto by this guy, and then continue to better myself.  I found one—but it was just wrong for me in every way. Shallow in tone and murky in response, and it resonated neither my soul nor any other nearby instruments.  A stark contrast to Peter Slowik’s sage viola-judging triumvirate of terms, 1.deep, 2.clear, and 3.ringy! I then learned to not be star struck, as million-dollar Bergonzis and Amatis were quite objectively inferior to the plethora of modern instruments available at prices one can actually count to in one’s lifetime.

So thrilled with the modern makers, I tried a number of violas by Peter Greiner and Sam Zygmuntowicz, eventually commissioning one from Sam. Unfortunately I wasn’t the only one who had a case of “never meet your heroes,” and I still have to wait about three years until it is completed.

By this time however, I had fallen into a state of disrepair both musically and mentally. I would advise others to watch out for this, as it really is something totally avoidable. It is good to have the highest expectations of a tool that sings the glorious sounds, but the line between idealistic and having no idea what is going on can be easily crossed. Rather than seeing the qualities of instruments that I’d been trying, I only could see (hear) the things not present. I even came back to the beloved instrument that I was loaned in my undergraduate years, which was to me a perfect balance of what I wanted and could do without . . . only I played it years later and hated it! This made me see that I had lost all objective decision making skills. After a long, hard look (listen) at what my true desires were, I learned to play instruments rather than impose my style of playing on them. Back on track, eschewing once-serious thoughts of quitting playing, I gave it a final hurrah. $40,000 short of actually owning a Storioni, my sponsor backed out, and I was faced with realism again—but now with the knowledge to find something that would not be a compromise, but a companion I could work with. I found my viola, and just doing so came with such a lesson of its own. I had gone from soloing with orchestras to being incapable of playing excerpts from Mozart Symphony No. 35 at a middle-school level of acceptability. But my search unearthed levels of determination and forced me to persevere through conditions and feelings I thought I never could, and these experiences when applied to my practicing now left me with no barriers but myself. Now, in a week, I can do what previously would take two months. The viola is a part of the equation, but the experience is of at least equal consequence.

I will end this dissertation-of-a-blog by saying that a viola you buy is both a physical instrument of its own beauty and also an instrument that translates your talent, passion, and hours of work into sound. If either side of that dichotomy is treated with nonchalance or flippancy, the imbalance will lead to frustration. I do not even care if all the red-eye flights took a couple years off my life, because a life lived knowing that I didn’t do everything in my power to pursue such a desire as my love of music and performing just wouldn’t be one I could ever have satisfaction in.  After all, music truly is the egregious and the melodramatic and deserves to be pursued with equal conviction.

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