Now that I am again playing the viola after a hiatus of almost six years, old feelings are flooding back. Despite my academic accomplishments, which are after all not nothing, I stand in awe of even journeyman professional musicians, and for the members of the great string quartets -- the Juilliard, the Guarneri, the Emerson, the Boromeo -- I have something approaching reverence.
For mediocre amateurs like myself, the most important thing, as I have observed on this blog before, is not making a beautiful sound or even playing in tune, nice as those accomplishments are, but simply counting. This is especially important for a violist, who is quite often consigned to playing what is best described as filler. I am now working on two Mozart viola quintets as the second violist with an amateur quartet that has consented to have me play with them several times. Now, even in a Mozart viola quintet -- and Mozart loved the viola -- the second viola part is mostly pretty boring. There are a number of eight measure rests and lots of measures filled with repeated eighth notes -- sewing machine music, as it is sometimes called. But being Mozart, Mozart tosses in some really tricky bits, which I pray I will not screw up when it comes time to join the quartet. In the Adagio of K516, for example, there are some passages in which the second viola is playing syncopated sixteenth notes and even syncopated thirty-second notes. I find it almost impossible to practice those passages in the absence of the rest of the musicians. I mean, who can hear syncopated sixteenth notes in his head?
There is a great old story about Albert Einstein -- perhaps apocryphal -- who was apparently a mediocre amateur violinist. According to the story, he was playing quartets one evening at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study and managed to get totally lost. One of his fellow musicians said, in exasperation, "Albert, Albert, count! One, two, three four! Count, Albert!" This to the greatest mathematical physicist who has ever lived.
Tomorrow evening, I play K516. Keep your fingers crossed.