Journey to Bottom C

I suppose it was inevitable I’d gravitate to the violas. In case you don’t know, violas are big violins with a lower string, Bottom C. Our music’s written in a weird clef (alto) that almost nobody else uses.

The viola section, as a generalisation, is regarded as the poor relation of an orchestra’s strings. You end up there, it’s alleged, if you’re either an eccentric or a failed violinist. Viola parts are much less exciting, exemplified by playing a long succession of identical notes. So whilst the first violins are pouring out their hearts in a gorgeous melody, we’re playing the ‘paa-paa’ bit of ‘oom-paa-paa’, with our conductor telling us to quieten down because we aren’t really meant to be heard.

You can judge whether I’m eccentric. You’d better ask the members of West Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra whether I’m a failed violinist. My story is that I volunteered to transfer from the fiddle because the violas were depleted.

‘Aha!’ thought I, as we rehearsed the final movement of this term’s symphony (Brahms No.1). ‘A note where the violas can attack!’ Decisive as ever, I dug my bow into my C string, and belted out a loud E. Then I noticed Nick, our conductor, holding up his baton like the sword of Damocles. Instead of being the star of the show, I’d just ruined an orchestral pause. Not only that, but the note was meant to be played quietly. “Oh s**t!” I muttered in a barely audible voice, before Nick, grinning, replied, “nice one, John!”

I have to pay tribute to our superb section leader Amy, who works tirelessly to help us interpret the music and to play consistently as a unit. She’s been a violist (viola player) from birth – not, like me, a trans-violist. It’s very satisfying when our whole section plays the difficult passages well.

And so we played our Spring concert a fortnight ago. Before the symphony we played Mozart’s elegant clarinet concerto and also listened whilst a set of woodwind and lower string instruments played a beautifully haunting Dvorak piece. But it’s the symphonies I love best. Sometimes I’ve felt frightened when the brass instruments, sitting not far behind me, blast out their battle cries. I never thought playing music was a physical activity until I realised, at the end of a performance, that I was sweating just as if I’d been playing football.  


“Father God, please lead us to a church where we’ll fit their needs like a hand into a glove,” we prayed, shortly after moving to Brighouse. And here we are at St John’s Rastrick, where we were welcomed into the Music Group. This group, at the time, consisted of a guitarist and two violinists. As a pianist, Jane’s playing added body to the sound. And what better than a viola to provide depth in what is now a string ensemble! In some of our worship songs, the C string of a viola can add rich tones that express a depth of emotion. I love this song, by Stuart Townend, which we often sing at this time of year,

How deep the Father’s love for us, How vast beyond all measure, That He should give His only Son to make a wretch His treasure.”

I feel it’s absolutely true – me, a wretch who has become a treasure! That’s why I provide my best vibrato to give every note its maximum value. But it’s not just about me. The sum of our music group is so much greater than its component parts, with delicious harmonies or at other times, delightful ‘fun’ playing in our celebration songs. I enjoy so much listening to Pam and Anne’s violins and Kim’s woodwind, doing my best to ‘play off’ them and Jane.

St Paul’s wonderful chapter (1 Corinthians 12) describing people’s different gifts on which church life depends, could be applied to our orchestra or Music Group. He says,

You are Christ’s body—that’s who you are! You must never forget this. Only as you accept your part of that body does your “part” mean anything.”  (vs 27 in ‘The Message’). I want to play my part well in the ‘body of Christ’. Including being a violist!

4 thoughts on “Journey to Bottom C

  1. That’s lovely, John! You two were a ‘God-send’ in the literal meaning of the word! He certainly sent you somewhere where you fitted our needs “like a hand in a glove”. I really enjoy worshipping through music with you too, and hearing the viola coming through as we make music together. Somebody once said that they pray through their music, and I feel that we also do that in our Music Group. As for ‘eccentric’ or ‘failed violinist’… ECCENTRIC John! Definitely eccentric!


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