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"How can you tell when a violist is playing out of tune? .... The bow is moving. "
September 2, 2008 7:56 AM   Subscribe

Why are viola players always the butt of the joke in the orchestra? Some viola jokes. Are you still laughing now?
posted by fearfulsymmetry (65 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Why are viola players always the butt of the joke in the orchestra?
(One) literal answer to this is because, in school orchestras, less-talented string players are often steered into the viola section because the inner part writing in a lot of classical-period music is kind of filler and having it badly played does less damage to the overall effect than the more-exposed outer parts would.
Another answer is that every instrument or voice is frequently the butt of the joke.
Anyway, here's Hindemith's Trauermusik, the pilgrims' march movement of Harold in Italy, and a not-too-fantastic recording of a fine piece, Rochberg's viola sonata.
posted by Wolfdog at 8:10 AM on September 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


It's not just violas.

What do you never hear said at a gig?
"Hey, is that the trombone player's Ferrari parked outside?"
posted by illiad at 8:36 AM on September 2, 2008


Do check out Mikael Marin - a kick-ass viola-player from Sweden...
posted by hoskala at 8:36 AM on September 2, 2008


That compendium of viola jokes was a bright spot on a very bleary Tuesday. Thanks.
posted by Ber at 8:40 AM on September 2, 2008


I wound up playing the viola because I rode the bus to school and didn't want to wrestle with a cello or bass viol everyday and all the violins had been taken. I rather enjoyed the instrument, especially after I began to think of it as a tenor cello rather than as a violin with a glandular problem. And it can be very expressive in its own quiet, subdued way...
posted by jim in austin at 8:42 AM on September 2, 2008


What's the difference between an oboe and a bassoon?

A bassoon burns longer.
posted by ericbop at 8:45 AM on September 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


What are violas best used for?

Lighting bassoon fires.

Uh, or something. Anyway, I played the viola, never the violin, and loved it!
posted by TheNewWazoo at 8:49 AM on September 2, 2008


That MIT viola joke page is ancient, the counter goes back to 1997 and my 2002 self seems to recall the page dating back even earlier.
posted by bobo123 at 8:54 AM on September 2, 2008


Ah, memories. I love the music jokes.

"Would the musicians and the drummer please take the stage!"
posted by Dark Messiah at 8:58 AM on September 2, 2008


How do you know when the drum riser is level?

The drummer drools out of both sides of his mouth.
posted by echo target at 9:02 AM on September 2, 2008


I was steered to the viola because I was tall for my age (still am!) and have long hands... so I guess they figured I'd have a fighting chance of playing it well.
posted by scody at 9:08 AM on September 2, 2008


I say "Meh" to the haters. Violas are pure downtuned splendor. Violins, in the best of hands, are as sensually pleasing as the feeling of scraping a popsicle stick against ones teeth.
posted by bunnytricks at 9:09 AM on September 2, 2008


Q: What do you call that guy who hangs out with the band?

A: The drummer!

Which suggests that violists are the drummers of the orchestra?
posted by Forktine at 9:09 AM on September 2, 2008


Q: What's the difference between a bass player and a large pizza?

A: A large pizza can feed a family of four.
posted by eriko at 9:11 AM on September 2, 2008 [10 favorites]


Which suggests that violists are the drummers of the orchestra?

And somehow, the triangle player snickers to himself. "They haven't noticed me yet."
posted by Dark Messiah at 9:14 AM on September 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


Back in school I was usually 1st chair violin, and I made my share of viola jokes.

I really wanted to like the instrument for its mellow range, but nobody could play the damn thing. To be fair, it seemed they always got the least amount of attention from instructors, and weren't really given much motivation. I always figured having that weird clef isolated them a bit more in terms of instruction.
posted by Foosnark at 9:15 AM on September 2, 2008


Someone has a axe viola to grind.
posted by spamguy at 9:20 AM on September 2, 2008


A bassoon burns longer.

Why?

It is still in the case.
posted by YoBananaBoy at 9:22 AM on September 2, 2008


If you can't hack it in an orchestra, they give you two sticks to play drums. If you can't get it together as a drummer, they take away one stick and let you be a conductor.
posted by Scoo at 9:38 AM on September 2, 2008


That page of viola jokes is one of the very first things I remember from the internet.
posted by shadow vector at 9:38 AM on September 2, 2008


Mary Ramsey (sound) viola
posted by hortense at 10:10 AM on September 2, 2008


Tous Les Matins du Monde - the story of the viola. (heavenly, sacred, delicious)

I don't get the jokes :-)
posted by Surfurrus at 10:15 AM on September 2, 2008


Oh no, not the instrument jokes! My high school had a symphonic band but not an orchestra, so substitue oboe for viola and you have four years of my life. Between my ogre of a band teacher and my tendency to pass out during important solos at important competitions, my short career as an oboist was pretty traumatic. When the band discovered oboe jokes, it only added fuel to the fire (haw haw burning oboe!).

I still have nightmares that it's Festival and I've got only one reed, which is about six months old, cracked, out of tune, and gunked with layers of Lip Smacker.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:17 AM on September 2, 2008


Its a singer who's outside and can't find the key and doesn't know when to come in. I know its old but and its common to mix up the punch lines in musician jokes, but come on.
posted by mexican at 10:19 AM on September 2, 2008


Some violas come with their own jokes.
posted by mds35 at 10:29 AM on September 2, 2008


They may be ancient, but I for one hadn't seen the jokes before, so thanks, fearfulsymmetry.

Hindemith's Sonata for Viola & Piano Op. 11/4 is one of my favourite pieces of music. On a different note altogether, I also love John Cale's viola in Venus in Furs...
posted by misteraitch at 10:37 AM on September 2, 2008


Actually, alto clef is just old fashioned, not weird. It is the original clef, and is movable. Wherever the indent is, that is where Middle C is, and it is legal to move it anywhere.

This was great fun in my college music theory class, when the rookie teacher said we could do our scale exam in any clef we wished.

For some reason, she always specified clef after that. I wonder how long it took her to grade my exam. I did mark the half steps...
posted by QIbHom at 10:40 AM on September 2, 2008 [4 favorites]


Not coming from the traditional academic/orchestral background, I learned all of these jokes (and dozens more) with the banjo, accordion, or bagpipes substituted in for the viola.
- What's the definition of perfect pitch? Tossing a banjo out the window and having it hit an accordion.
- What's the difference between a banjo and a vacuum cleaner? You don't have to plug the banjo in for it to suck.
- Why do bagpipers walk when they play? To get away from the sound.
posted by The White Hat at 10:41 AM on September 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


At least people kind of know what a Viola is. Try playing the Baritone Horn.
posted by genefinder at 10:45 AM on September 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Ouch! One 13-year viola veteran here, and yeah, these jokes were the bread and butter of the rest of the orchestra I played with.

Anyone who wants to see an awesome viola piece, though, needs to check out Berlioz' Harold in Italy.
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 10:45 AM on September 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


The oboe is indeed the viola of the wind band. Here's one that stuck with me, an advanced, working musician's variant on the 'skid marks' joke:

What's the difference between a dead skunk on the side of the road and a dead Oboist on the side of the road?

The skunk was on his way to a gig.
posted by ulotrichous at 10:52 AM on September 2, 2008


I used to play violin at school. I wasn't good enough to get into the County Youth Orchestra, though (getting in was a Really Big Deal). One day my violin teacher walks in with a bigger case. 'What's that?' I asked. 'It's your ticket into the Youth Orchestra,' he said, and from that day on I was a viola player.

I was still crap, but at the back of the viola section I was able to be crap in the County Youth Orchestra!

And yes, we got the jokes, all the time - especially me, from the brass section behind me that could see whenever I was missing out the notes, which was approximately half of them at times.

I don't play now but I still love the sound of them (played well, by others...)
posted by dowcrag at 11:15 AM on September 2, 2008


So the viol is the left field of the orchestra?

I learn something new here everyday.
posted by rokusan at 11:31 AM on September 2, 2008


The best/worst viola joke I know: Why is a violist like a terrorist?

They both fuck up bowings.

(read it aloud if you don't get it)
(I'm very sorry)

posted by Johnny Assay at 11:37 AM on September 2, 2008 [5 favorites]


How do you get a violist to play a passage pianissimo tremolando?
Mark it "solo."


-Zing!
posted by originalname37 at 12:07 PM on September 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


I played viola (purty good, too!) for years, from elementary school into high school. They have such a rich, beautiful sound. Interestingly enough, I was taught and mentored by an oboist. Ah, the full picture of my loserdom becomes painfully clear now.
posted by Heretic at 12:57 PM on September 2, 2008


I never knew about viola jokes until I dated a violist. She loved them (and was perfectly happy to acknowledge that most violists are failed violinists). Thanks for the post!
posted by languagehat at 1:14 PM on September 2, 2008


Flautists all do crystal meth, and all electric piano players are ungenerous lovers.
posted by Uppity Pigeon #2 at 1:16 PM on September 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Also, that Primrose piece is fantastic. Heifetz did an amazing rendition for the violin that is one of my favorite things.
posted by Uppity Pigeon #2 at 1:31 PM on September 2, 2008


Flutists blow it sideways.
posted by Pax at 1:31 PM on September 2, 2008


I failed to find a community orchestra last time I looked for one. Of course, the fact that I contacted people with an email that offered "mediocre violist for mediocre orchestra" probably didn't help any.
posted by norm at 1:42 PM on September 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


How do you make a drummer's car more aerodynamic?
Take the pizza delivery sign off the roof.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:59 PM on September 2, 2008


A drummer wanted to branch out with a new instrument, telling the music shop owner "I want this red trumpet and that white accordian".

The shop owner replied "yes, I can sell you the fire extinguisher, but the radiator has to stay.
posted by Shave at 2:33 PM on September 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


What's the difference between a drummer and a drum machine?

You only have to punch the information into the drum machine once.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 2:38 PM on September 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


I always thought it was "How are a viola and a violin different? They aren't, violinists' heads are just bigger."

Played the piano, never sat anywhere near an orchestra.
posted by Hactar at 2:40 PM on September 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


And here's one for all musicians:

What do strippers do to their a**holes before they go to work?

They drop them off at band practice.
posted by ga$money at 3:14 PM on September 2, 2008


Ha! I love this thread. I never thought instrument jokes could be so funny. (Sorry, never played an instrument. What's the joke about those?)
posted by artifarce at 3:22 PM on September 2, 2008


I was lucky to be a violist. Over 9 years of school, my first music teacher was a violist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, my second majored in viola with a minor in cello, my third was a violist, the fourth I can't remember, but the fifth was a violist as well.

So we got some really meaty parts to play. It was great!
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 3:35 PM on September 2, 2008


(Sorry, never played an instrument. What's the joke about those?)

Drummers. Pay attention!
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 3:36 PM on September 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Have you heard the one about how the french horn player sleeps with his wife?
posted by BrnP84 at 4:03 PM on September 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Mommy, when I grow up, I want to be a drummer"
"Johnny, you can't do both!"
posted by _dario at 4:11 PM on September 2, 2008


Have you heard the one about how the french horn player sleeps with his wife?
Good god, not chiuso, I hope.
posted by Wolfdog at 4:15 PM on September 2, 2008


What do you call a drummer whose girlfriend just broke up with him?
Homeless.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:46 PM on September 2, 2008


What's the difference between a cow and an orchestra?

The cow has horns at the front and the asshole's at the back.
posted by Wolof at 5:24 PM on September 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


Forward to about minute 4.

Ahh musician jokes. Gotta love them. Never B Sharp; Sometimes B Flat; Always B Natural.
posted by ilsa at 5:25 PM on September 2, 2008


Another high school oboe player here. Metroid Baby, I feel for you with the reed nightmares. When I got to college, the oboe sounded too refined, so I took up the krumhorn.

The oboe: It's an ill wind that nobody blows no good.

Caveat: that link is the musical version of a Rick Roll
posted by Araucaria at 10:53 PM on September 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


I also play viola - and I congratulate Johnny Assay for coming up with a viola joke I hadn't heard!

Interesting set of youtube links - didn't like the first one at all (her intonation isn't great). I love the way Vengerov sounds on viola but find him completely unwatchable. You can tell how much Primrose rocks, even though the recording is dodgy, and even though he once wrote that women shouldn't play the viola.
posted by altolinguistic at 7:45 AM on September 3, 2008


man, what a terrible sounding instrument. the violins whiney, always slightly out of tune cousin. I've always been told that the size and shape of the viola makes it impossible to tune perfectly, and certainly those sharp sounds are pretty useless except for creating tenstion and filling out a larger ensemble.

also, how do you get a guitarist to play softer?
put sheet music in front of him.
posted by es_de_bah at 6:49 PM on September 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


the violins whiney

Clearly you have never heard one played well. A well-played viola is a thing of mellow beauty, and is in fact the instrument that comes closest to replicating the timbre of the human voice.

I've always been told that the size and shape of the viola makes it impossible to tune perfectly

You have always been told wrong. Quite spectacularly so.

and certainly those sharp sounds are pretty useless except for creating tenstion and filling out a larger ensemble.

See my first comment.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 9:18 PM on September 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


man, what a terrible sounding instrument.

Why do you say that? Because of the playing in the youtube links or because of some past experience you've had? If you don't like it, fine, but if you're going to say it sounds terrible you had better give some damn good reasons.

I've always been told that the size and shape of the viola makes it impossible to tune perfectly

This is why you shouldn't just believe what you're told.
posted by altolinguistic at 6:59 AM on September 4, 2008


I've always been told that the size and shape of the viola makes it impossible to tune perfectly

You're onto something here, but it looks like the story has grown a few extra legs. You might be thinking about how the lower register of the viola means that if you were to try to build one with violin proportions, it would be an almost-unplayable 21 inches long (for comparison, violins are around 14, and violas range from 16 to 19). Thus, violas are usually disproportionately thick, or otherwise funnily shaped (my one teacher had one that looked like a clover) to improve their ability to project sound. It's not that the viola is impossible! It's just more of an art than a science.

This is the part where you all make jokes about my 19-inch instrument.
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 8:17 PM on September 4, 2008


I was still crap, but at the back of the viola section I was able to be crap in the County Youth Orchestra!
There was a BACK to your viola section?

I played viola for 7 or 8 years, put it in its case the week before I left for college, and never looked back.
posted by knile at 12:50 PM on September 5, 2008


in fact the instrument that comes closest to replicating the timbre of the human voice.

Yeah, so they say. And they say it about the 'cello and the clarinet and the alto flute as well. Standard issue justification for various instruments' existence.

There are a lot of human voices, with a huge range of timbral characteristics. There is no "timbre of the human voice" as such. Ergo, there is no instrument that "comes closest" to it.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:51 AM on September 7, 2008


I should add that they say that about hundreds of other instruments in other cultures too.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:51 AM on September 7, 2008


To add, you might mean the "tessitura" or "range" of the human voice; in that case, the 'cello really does have dibs on the claim to cover the human vocal range most fully of all the orchestral instruments. But the viola (tuned an octave higher exactly) is close, a little lacking in the bass/baritone range.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:04 AM on September 7, 2008


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