August 20, 2012

Why I Learned to Play the Viola

Seth Godin opines that if you're feeling stuck, your problem may not be that you can't find the answer. Rather, you should consider asking a different question.

The only picture I could find of me playing the viola, with the band
Aromatic in Atlanta, 1999.
One day during orchestra practice in high school, our music teacher, Mr. Walker, announced that someone had donated a viola to the school. He asked if anyone was interested in learning to play it. Immediately, my hand shot up.

At that point, I had been playing the violin for ten years. I wasn't great, but I wasn't awful either. I was third-chair second violin in our school orchestra, right above the kids who were just learning to play and below the ones who had been playing about as long as I had but were more dedicated about practicing.

For some people, the orchestra system of ranked chairs may be motivating: you can aspire to move up the ranks by getting better than the people ahead of you. I never felt that way. For me, playing the violin was about making music, not competing for accolades. Why would I want to spend all my free time practicing in hopes of knocking Won Woo out of his position as concertmaster? He was doing a great job and I had no desire to replace him. When Mr. Walker held up that viola, I saw my chance to get out of the violin rat race altogether. There were no other violas in our orchestra at that time. I would be the only one, contributing something unique to the overall sound.

With the viola, I had to learn a new set of strings and the alto clef. My violin teacher made me start over re-learning songs I'd learned when I was six years old. But I didn't mind because I was doing something different and learning new things. I was filling a hole in the score that I hadn't even known was there.

Some people are motivated by the desire to compete and win in a crowded field. But some of us are motivated by finding the problem no one else has even tried to solve and, by turning our attention to it, make the whole orchestra sound a little more complete.

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