My Viola’s First Sunday Funday: Observations and Questions for Future Sessions

On Sunday I decided it was time to take my Viola to the sessions; Waxy O’Connor’s, The Flying Duck and The Ben Nevis.  My tune knowledge on the fiddle is still very limited therefore working out unknown tunes down the octave or shifting to play them at pitch or playing tunes I know on the fiddle without accidentally forgetting that I was holding a Viola all at speed (especially in the Duck and the Ben) caused me some apprehension, even before I left the flat! I didn’t have any preconceptions about what the Viola ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be playing; I merely wanted to see what felt right, musically explore and to try and determine if different tune types lent themselves for the Viola to be used in different ways.

I started at Waxy’s as this tends to be a more relaxed tune and Grainne Brady, who I play with regularly, was leading the session so automatically I felt less pressure/expectation.  For a little while I just listened, maybe plucking quietly to see if I could figure out the tunes.  Eventually I began to play along with a tune I recognised and that I play confidently on the fiddle, Sporting Paddy. I was amazed at how easy this felt under my fingers even though I had never played it on the Viola before.  I had thought that I learnt tunes by listening and my hands remembered the finger/tactile pattern but this made me think otherwise as I could play Sporting Paddy with ease even though the finger patterns were different.  Therefore this lead me to think that as long as I know the tune my brain will adapt my fingers.   There were many fiddle players at this session, all of varying ability which allowed me to start picking out harmonies and bass lines instead of playing the tune.  At one point Grainne played a tune that we play together in The Routes Quartet and it was nice to relax for a second and play freely!

I then moved onto The Flying Duck session and took my fiddle out instead of my Viola.  I felt like I was cheating a little bit, going back to familiar territory, but the pub was busy and loud making it very difficult to hear the other players.  Furthermore the tune was extremely fast and already had a huge texture of instruments; 2 Accordions, 2 Guitars, 4 Fiddles, 1 Flute, 1 Cello and Bohran, leaving little musical room (I felt) for my Viola’s first session outing however, I think with a little more time, I’ll be able to join in when the session is how it was in The Duck.

Once I moved to the Ben Nevis I got my Viola out again.  The pub and tune was incredibly busy but I managed to get a seat between a second guitar and a banjo.  I knew a lot of the tunes played and being sat next to a loud guitar allowed me to quietly test out a tune before joining in on the second or third time round.  As I grew in confidence with this I noticed that bringing the Viola in and out of the melody line actually had a distinct impact on the sound of the session and doing this altered the texture quite a lot, as opposed to just playing the all of the time like fiddles/’tune instruments’ have a tendency to do.  This was the same with any harmonies I played or counter melodies.  Equally, on tune transitions it was nice to begin with the Viola playing, then bring it out, then bring it back in with a counter melody and then harmony and eventually back to the tune.  I began to mess around with these textures; not playing, playing tune at pitch, playing tune down the octave, counter melodies, bass lines and chords.

I also took the Viola along to the Lismore Bar Session last night.  Here there was a good balance of tune/accompaniment instruments and it was easy to hear what was happening.  I took the same approach that I had ended up with in the Ben Nevis and to the same effect.  There were several positive comments on the Viola’s sound; Andrew Waite observed that, ‘It’s taking space in the session that no other instrument is currently occupying and it sounds good, especially the harmonies.’  A smaller group of us moved to the Oran Mor to continue the tune, a Bouzouki player and fiddler players that are keen on old time tunes.  In this line up the Viola played a much more prominent role, more bass lines and chords.  Even at one point I started a chordal rhythmic riff in 4/4 in G minor which prompted others to improvise over the top which later developed into a tune.

The past few days at has made me think around the following questions; Is the Viola just a tune instrument?  Can it successfully occupy a space of tune and accompaniment? Could it hold the tune on its own if there were no other tune players present?  What instrument would accompany best, Banjo? Guitar? I found the Viola’s sound could easily get lost alongside the guitar, especially with the tune in the lower register but alongside the Banjo and Bouzouki the timbre difference allowed the Viola tune to come through more.  I didn’t really get onto noticing a difference within tune types but I will endeavour to do so in the future.  I will continue to take my Viola to sessions with a clearer view of general questions I’d like to explore and with a hope of generating more focused questions as my confidence builds.

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