Sparking joy: a viola to cherish

This is my official post, about a single cherished object, for The Cherished Blogfest.

Family Portrait
Family Portrait

While I was decluttering in preparation for the move, people told me about “that book.” You know, the one on the best-seller list. Only keep things that “spark joy.” This process is supposed to be liberating, focusing your mind on what’s most important. Sounds great.

But then, there’s my violin: the violin that spent years in the back of various closets, from Princeton to Palo Alto to Pasadena. I was asked, more than once, “are you ever going to play that thing again? Why don’t you get rid of it?”

This was not an unreasonable question. I was in graduate school, getting my PhD in neuroscience. Perhaps more relevant, the violin did not spark joy. I’d had bad experiences in college—a failed audition for the university orchestra, followed by a flood of shame about both the failure and my emotional response to it. In my mind, I had not only failed, but had been so lacking in resilience, that I’d let it crush my spirit. Maybe decluttering the violin would have been the sane, humane, thing to do.

Instead, years later, I found myself living alone in my own apartment after breaking off an engagement. The violin re-emerged in the move and this time, it sparked something different: hope. I took it to a repair shop where it was restored to playing condition. I bought it a new, high-quality case. And I started taking lessons again. I found a group to play in that didn’t require auditions. And the joy was back. Not just like that. There may have been a spark somewhere, but it took serious effort to rekindle the joy. That joy lasted me through my postdoc up to the birth of my two children. But the violin went back into the closet when they were babies and toddlers.

When I started playing again most recently, I decided to try something new: the viola. A viola is a lot like a violin, but larger, tuned a fifth lower, and with a richer, darker sound. When I picked up a viola for the first time, it was both an old friend and a fresh start: no baggage, no failure and shame. Nothing to lose.

Playing the viola at the Farmers' Market
Playing the viola at the Farmers’ Market

Early on in my viola “career,” I had another unsuccessful audition for an orchestra. But this time I chalked it up to experience, and found another group to play in. I met people and formed a string quartet. I made new opportunities for myself. And then, through playing the viola, I was led back to the violin, now feeling comfortable on both instruments and able to switch back and forth between them as needed.

So, which do I cherish more? I’d rather not have to decide. If I hadn’t kept that violin, I probably would never have bothered again. I am grateful that I didn’t declutter it. But since I have to pick just one, I’ve chosen the viola. It helped me find my voice, and rekindle the joy for good.

Playing my viola in Boston's Symphony Hall, with the Onstage at Symphony program for adult amateurs
Playing my viola in Boston’s Symphony Hall, with the Onstage at Symphony program for adult amateurs

17 thoughts on “Sparking joy: a viola to cherish”

  1. Hi, I have read more than one of your blogs on I adult learner on violin about 5 years ago. This year I try viola and enjoy it. I might do ensemble in next few months and I will play the viola part. I search some “viola stories” on and found your post. I enjoy reading your story. Thank you for keep posting. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I started my blog on way back in 2006. Then a few years ago I decided I wanted to branch out and write other things so I started this blog. I am starting to work as a full-time teacher this year so I am going to have less time for blogging than I have in the past! I also have less time for practicing the viola 😦 But I am looking forward to orchestra season starting again!


    2. And good luck with playing viola in ensemble. When I made the switch I started in an orchestra where the repertoire was a bit easier. It took me about a year and a half to be fully fluent in alto clef, but it is worth it to be able to play both instruments, especially for chamber music!


      1. Thanks a lot 🙂
        Another good thing after read some of your posts, I checked Patricia McCarty cello suites album and love it!
        I heard others’ and end up only like only some of the movements. But with Patricia McCarty I love almost all of them.
        I start to explore some wohlfahrt for viola and try suite#1. (Actually I love #4 prelude and #6 prelude, but they’re too difficult.)

        Best wishes for your music journey and your job too 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! As I’ve gotten older and become a parent and teacher myself, I’ve become more skeptical about the ability of adults to set up situations to teach life lessons to kids. The positive, resilient events described in this post–taking the violin out of the closet, playing again, starting the viola, etc.–didn’t even start until I was 28 years old and living on my own. I think life gives most of us plenty of opportunities to experience failure without going out and looking for or creating them. On the other hand, I agree that parents have a role in supporting their kids through failure and helping them to put it in perspective.


  2. This is a story that had so many points where it could have ended sadly but it ended happy instead. Thank you for sharing it with us as part of the cherished blogfest. I have yet to de-clutter, having chosen to move things around with me for 50-60 years. I’m glad you chose to keep the violin and to let your music take you on a journey.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I really enjoyed your tale of the violin becoming the viola—it’s almost like a coming of age story, where you were the violin in your early years, then became the viola after living more life…the sound resonating the “richer and deeper” experiences of failure, redemption, parenthood, and new-found courage, born of trying something unfamiliar later in life. Thanks for sharing it! And thanks for visiting my #Cherished blog, as well as my other blog on teaching English Language Learners.
    Keep writing, and I’m glad we found one another! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The ranks of violists consist of plenty of violinists who switched. But there are also quite a few people who start on viola, especially nowadays. It’s becoming more of a solo instrument in its own right and modern composers are writing more repertoire for it than existed in the past. There is a stereotype of a “viola personality” that is more understated, less flashy, more laid back, literally less “high strung” than that of violin players. I have found that to be broadly true: violists are a wonderful bunch!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. “I’d had bad experiences in college—a failed audition for the university orchestra, followed by a flood of shame about both the failure and my emotional response to it. In my mind, I had not only failed, but had been so lacking in resilience, that I’d let it crush my spirit.”

    This is a lovely post. Also, because the words I’ve quoted from your post in these comments are profound. So many of us can identify, in some way, with your ‘violin experience’. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I really loved the post and the pictures as well. I am always excited to learn an instrument, but I hardly get time from my hectic urban lifestyle juggling between professional and personal commitments. If I ever get a chance I would love to learn how to play piano. I am good at drums already, I keep tapping the beats at whatever things comes my way. Thank you for participating and keep in touch. 🙂 and yes keep playing viola, the world is with you on that.

    Liked by 2 people

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