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.
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.”
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.