Tag Archives: viola

Viola Joke

Main Text:

“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.

Viola Joke

Main Text:

“Why does a viola make for better firewood than a violin? Because it burns longer.”

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 typically woodwinds, brass, and percussionists who tell it to him, not strings.

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.

This particular joke is identifying the differences between the violin and the viola. While they look relatively similar, a standard violin has the strings E, A, D, G, and a viola has the strings A, D, G, C. In addition to having a lower string, the viola is slightly larger than the violin, which is why it has a warmer sound and deeper register. The joke is explaining that both instruments are worthless (and should be used as firewood) but because the viola is physically larger, at least it’ll take longer to burn.

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