Obsessing About Obsessions
Evanston RoundTable, Aug. 5, 2020
Almost anything people do can become the object of obsessive devotion and fanatic attention to detail, especially hobbies. Wikipedia lists hundreds, from drink mixing to lock picking (indoors) and trainspotting to topiary (outdoors). The best known include wine (acquiring and consuming), coins and stamps (collecting and displaying), sports (playing and watching) and music (collecting and performing).
I can speak to the last as I play viola, one of the most challenging instruments. The viola has a beautiful, rich tone but is famously difficult because (among other problems) there’s no standard size, as there is for most other instruments. It is played five notes, a fifth, below the violin, so ideally it should be a fifth larger, which would put it at some 17 inches in body length. But that would be difficult to play: few people have the arm length to hold up an instrument that size for long. So modern makers compromise by designing violas that measure anywhere from 14½ to 16½ inches. Usually there’s a tradeoff—the bigger the instrument the bigger the sound, but also the greater the discomfort playing it.
As I got older and less agile I had to sell my larger violas for something more comfortable. For years I obsessed about finding the “right” instrument—small enough to play comfortably but large enough to generate a dark and resonant “viola tone.” I must have tried hundreds before finally acquiring a fine custom-made viola a few years ago, at a comfy 15½ inches. Then I obsessed about the right strings (there are dozens of brands, each with different sound qualities), the most comfortable shoulder and chin rest and the best rosin. Almost as critical as finding the right instrument was finding the right bow to “match” the instrument.
Then there was the “grip,” the optimal bow hold. Nowadays just about everyone teaches the “Franco-Belgian” hold, with flexible, rounded fingers. But a century ago great Russian violinists like Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein used the so-called “Russian hold,” in which the fingers were held straight and pointed down. If it was good enough for Heifetz, I reasoned, why not me?
So of course I started to obsess about bow holds. Fortunately I knew someone who could provide needed perspective. Roger Chase, the fabulous British violist, has lived in Chicago on and off for years, teaching at Roosevelt University and subbing with the Chicago Symphony.
Though Roger has gone back to live in his native London, he still occasionally returns to Chicago. So I corralled him the last time he was in town to ask him about bow holds: which do you use when?
“Ah,” he said in his delightful Oxbridge accent, “that’s a story unto itself.” And he proceeded to tell me about his teacher, Bernard Shore.
Shore was a promising violist who suffered a hideous injury during World War I when a grenade exploded in his right hand. As he was being wheeled into surgery, he told the surgeon, “I want you to save every eighth of an inch you can.”
He came out of it, Roger told me, with severe damage to two fingers. Bow holds of any sort—Franco-Belgian or Russian or you name it—were a challenge. Nevertheless he went on to become a great teacher and performer.
I think of Roger and Bernard when I begin to fixate on bow holds—or anything else. The important thing is to play, not to obsess.
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