Tag Archives: orchestra

A Viola Joke


My informant, AW, is my 15-year-old brother. He has played violin since he was four, and played in many youth orchestras throughout his life. In many orchestras, the violists are considered the black sheep of the group and many jokes are made at their expense, especially by violinists, their rivals. This piece was collected during an informal interview at home when I asked my brother about rituals or practices within orchestras. I refer to myself as SW in the text.


Main Text:

AW: “Violists are the worst, scum of the earth.”

SW: “Know any good viola jokes?”

AW: “Did you hear about the violist who played in tune? Yeah me neither.”


Informant analysis:

SW: “Do violists participate in making viola jokes, or are they supposed to be annoyed by viola jokes?”

AW: “In general… the general consensus is that… well ok there can be both. If you’re a cool violist, you participate. If you are… a violist, you get annoyed by it… They’re kinda like the middle child of the entire orchestra. Violin section is the younger child who gets everything they want and deserve. Or not deserve – everything they want and don’t deserve, and gets away with everything. Cellists are the older brothers that have to take up the entire… like the older sibling that have to take up the entire like… weight of the orchestra. And then violists are… there, I guess.”

SW: “But how do you learn you’re supposed to make fun of violists?”

AW: “Um… by… honestly by seeing other people make fun of violists. Nobody really actually thinks that violas are bad, they just are, because everyone says they are.”



Viola jokes are one of the most common types of humor to spread around orchestras, especially youth orchestras. My brother and I are both violinists, so we have a special love of viola jokes since we are the ones who are supposed to “hate” our sworn rivals, the violists. Many violists started as violinists, and they are generally seen as “less good” violinists. The joke itself works on this principle – while violinists are expected to always be in tune, no one can ever find a violist who plays in tune. The entire orchestra will recognize viola jokes as a common musician humor format, and it often turns into a round of rapid fire viola jokes to see who has the best one. As AW stated, it is less about anybody thinking people who play viola are actually bad musicians. More likely, it is because the viola is an awkward instrument that never gets the melody, and is therefore an easy target.


“In our orchestra at our school, we have a tradition that has been past down since . . . I’m not even sure when. But for the three whole years I’ve been in orchestra we’ve always done this tradition. It’s something called Jiggle-o and we do it before concerts. It’s something kinda weird and funny, but it might be hard to explain in words. So what we do is, first we privately gather in a circle by ourselves in some room. Then, one person starts off the process by saying ‘Jiggle-o, jig-jiggle-o,’ and then everyone says the phrase together again, ‘Jiggle-o, jig-jiggle-o.’ Then, the person who started it yells someone else’s name in the group in this way, ‘Hey _____!’ So for example, ‘Hey Jenny!’ And then the person responds with ‘Hey what?!’ So the whole sequence goes like, ‘Hey Jenny!’ ‘Hey what?!’ ‘Hey Jenny!’ ‘Hey what, hey what?!’ ‘Show us how to jiggle-o!’ Then everyone shouts together, ‘Show us how to jiggle-o!’ Then the person, in this case Jenny, yells, ‘My hands are high, my feet are low, and this is how I jiggle-o!’ As she says this, she will perform some dance move, usually something goofy or funny or crazy. Then everyone watches, and shouts together, ‘Her hands are high, her feet are low, and this is how she jiggle-o’s!’ And then they all perform the dance move together. And so on, then Jenny will start the whole process over and call on somebody else, until everyone has had a chance to perform a dance move. I don’t know if I explained it well . . . but yeah this is our little tradition thing before concerts that we do. It’s just a lot of fun and goofiness.”

My informant was unsure as to where this ritual/game came from originally. Probably one of the orchestra members brought it in from somewhere else, perhaps from a team-bonding activity from a sport. She said that it just helps the members of the orchestra to loosen up before concerts as people may become stressed or nervous. Doing fun little things like this help them to laugh together and relieve stress before going onto the stage. Also, she believes that it helps their teamwork, since jiggle-o requires teamwork and synchronization, and members of the orchestra bond as they act silly together and laugh together.

This seems like a cute and funny activity to do, something that allows people to get close to one another as they show their crazy sides. It was strange to me that the name of this game is jiggle-o, which is pronounced the same way as gigolo. When my informant first told me of the ritual, I was a bit confused and surprised, because I thought she was talking about a gigolo, which is a male prostitute. I’m not sure if these are connected, but maybe the activity had some Freudian roots, as they are showing each other how they “jiggle-o.” Nevertheless, it seems like an interesting and effective team-bonding activity, one that can help them loosen up before big concerts. Perhaps I will use it for an icebreaker game or when goofing off with friends.


Orchestra Joke: Percussionist

Q: How can you tell that a percussionist is at your door?

A: The knocking speeds up.

My informant says this joke is so widespread that she’s heard it multiple times, and she thinks she first learned it in elementary school in a children’s orchestra she was in. The stereotype in orchestras is that percussionists can’t keep beat and are constantly speeding up. This joke is an example of blason populaire—the joke relies on the stereotype that brass players have difficulty staying on beat. The joke also promotes group identity within an orchestra, since it would need to be explained to someone who isn’t part of an orchestra. It’s interesting that my informant first learned this joke in a children’s orchestra, where it was probably likely that most players were often off beat. Even though most elementary schoolers have trouble staying on beat, the percussionist stereotype was so widespread in orchestra culture that members repeated the joke to each other even when it wasn’t necessarily true in their own experiences.

Orchestra Joke: Oboes

Q: How do you get two oboes to play in tune?

A: Shoot one.

My informant told me that this joke is so widespread that she’s heard it multiple times, and she thinks she first learned it in elementary school in a children’s orchestra she was in. Oboes are notoriously difficult to play in tune, so the implication in this joke is that it is impossible for two oboes to play in the same key. As an oboe performance major, my informant says that this stereotype has some truth to it–it can take a few tries to play notes correctly.

This joke is an example of blason populaire. It would need to be explained to someone who isn’t part of an orchestra, since the joke relies on the stereotype that oboes never play in tune.

Orchestra Joke: Violist

“There was a violist in a community orchestra, and one day he meets a genie who says he’ll grant three wishes. So the violist wishes to double his musical skills. And the next day, he wakes up and he’s a lot better, obviously, so he goes and reauditions and he gets first chair in his orchestra. So he goes to the genie and wishes to double his skills again, and when he wakes up he’s a lot better so he goes and auditions for a better orchestra, and he gets first chair violist, so he’s like, ‘awesome.’ He has one more wish, he says he wants to double his musical skills again, and um, the next day he wakes up—no. wait, yeah, the next day he wakes up and he’s first chair violinist in his community orchestra.”

My informant first learned this joke from another orchestra member in high school. She said that everyone in orchestra makes fun of violas. The stereotype was that violas were just the bad violinists. If an orchestra needed violas, the last chair violinists would switch to viola. She also told me that historically, composers used to neglect violas, so “the violinists would be playing these sixteenth notes, and the violas would just basically keep the beat.”

The implication is that the violists are so far beneath violinists in skill that even after doubling his musical skill three times, the violist is only good enough to be the last chair violinist in the orchestra he started out in. This joke is an example of blason populaire—the joke relies on the stereotype that violists have the least musical skill in an orchestra. The joke also promotes group identity within an orchestra, since it would need to be explained to someone who isn’t part of an orchestra