Friday, July 22, 2011

The Vocabulary of Music

I’m happy to report that Sebastian no longer looks like a giant playing a toy viola.  We replaced his rented 14 1/2-inch viola yesterday with a full-size, 16-inch beauty of an instrument, a Tanglewood 200 made by Eastman Strings.  It’s all his now, or will be once I write a check for the second half of the total.

I am a string instrument novice, so these milestones are all new to me.  I knew he needed a larger instrument.  I’m ashamed to say that he's needed it for – oh, at least four or five months now?  The trouble was in finding a time we could both go to the studio and have him try out a few different sizes.
Sebastian tries out his new viola and bow.
Sebastian has rented a viola through a local business, String Solutions, since he started playing in the fourth grade.  He has moved up a couple of viola sizes since then, as he’s grown taller (current height is 5 feet 7 1/2 inches), and I knew that eventually we’d purchase a viola, if he decided to stick with it.

Karen Madsen, the owner of String Solutions, had Seb try two different sizes, the 15 1/2 and the 16.  He felt comfortable with the 16, so then we had to choose between the moderately priced specimen and the more expensive model.  He played the same song on both of them, and this led to an interesting discussion about how difficult it is to explain how one instrument sounds compared to another.

"We don’t have the vocabulary words to describe it," Karen said.

She’s right.  As she noted, the cheaper viola had what might be called a brighter, pointed sound, and the more expensive viola had a warmer, deeper sound.  But those words are inadequate in conveying the nuances of tone.  It’s something you have to hear and feel.
A closer look at Sebastian’s new viola and its French-made maple bridge.
Karen also had Sebastian try a couple of different bows.  Again, I am such a novice – I knew nothing about what bows are made of, how professionals still use wooden bows, but amateurs more often use bows made from fiberglass, carbon fiber, or some combination.  I couldn’t help but think of Harry Potter, and how “the wand must choose you.”

The wand – I mean, carbon fiber bow – that chose Sebastian was the more expensive one.  Go figure.  Maybe it has unicorn hair inside it?  He also got a new case with backpack straps and a handy subway handle, which Karen said is called that because people do use it to hang onto the instrument when they’re traveling on a subway.

Once all the costs were totaled, I was wishing we had a subway nearby so Seb could put out his case in the station and play for commuters, as a way of paying for his new instrument.  But what I told him was this: if he wants to pay me back, he can do that by practicing often and playing well. 

I won’t have the words to describe the sounds he’ll make on his new instrument, but I do have a word to describe what I feel when I hear him master a piece: pride.


  1. Beautiful again, Joy! I've loved that Sebastian boy ever since he used to beat me senseless with soda bottles.

    The discussion about how tones sound is analogous to such things as writing style, music style, the tastes of food, describing how a painting seems, how something smells... it takes years to build a suitable vocabulary in any one of those areas, and, even then, it is still inadequate and, at best, subjective. I've always been amazed by people who could write masterfully on those subjects, especially when what they write actually agrees with my perceptions and lets me say, "Yes! That's what it sounds like!"

  2. Thanks, Brendon! Now he can beat you senseless with his expensive carbon fiber bow.

    Yes, I agree with you, and I admire those who have those descriptive skills, particularly because it's not one of my strengths as a writer.