“What’s the difference between the first and last stand of the viola section? About half a bar.”
Background: The informant who told me the joke is a man in his early 20s. He grew up in childhood in Southern California and now attends school at the New England Conservatory of music. He is currently earning a bachelor’s degree in viola performance.
Context: The informant says these jokes mostly come up in orchestral contexts and are typically told by people who play other instruments in a well-meaning but mocking manner. Of course, there are exceptions to that rule, as shown between me and the informant, who told viola jokes back and forth for a while despite both playing it as an instrument. He recalls a particular conductor who, when waiting or stalling for time, would prompt the entire orchestra for good jokes (the majority of which, of course, were directed at the viola section). When asked why violas are such a popular target for humor, the informant speculated that it’s just an awkward instrument, and that violist have a history of being worse than violinists. My informant finds viola jokes funny, yet somewhat annoying because they’re such an overused format amongst musicians. He cannot recall where he learned this particular joke from the first time around, but it’s been retold on many occasions across several different orchestras he’s played in.
Thoughts: I would agree with the informant’s assertion that violists are more awkward—though not universally true, the types of personalities that gravitate towards playing viola tend to be more laid back and less competitive in comparison to violinists. In addition, the viola covers a lower range, and in classical music, is often given background parts where the cello or violins will get the melody. As a result, the standard musical repertoire tends to be less challenging.
The actual nature of the joke is rooted in music terminology—the first stand, seating-wise, is considered to be the leaders of the section, and they are located in the first row, directly in front of the conductor. In comparison, the back row will be further away and behind, usually directly in front of the winds and brass. A bar, or a measure, marks phrases in a piece, and each one has the same number of notes as the time signature. Essentially, this joke is saying that the back stand does not play in time with the front one, and this is evidence that violists are bad musicians.