Whenever you tell a classical music joke, chances are it's the viola and the violist that end up as the punchline of the orchestra. Viola jokes cross borders and languages, websites are devoted to the tradition and books written. Pity the poor viola and the poor violist, the target of classical jest. 

The viola, for those not in the know, sits between the violins and the cellos in the orchestra. It’s right in between in range as well. It’s a bit like an overgrown violin. Maybe because it doesn’t get a lot of limelight, and perhaps because, historically, it was a place where lesser violinists took their musical craft, it has become the butt of orchestra jokes.

Now you might think that violists would take this personally. But oddly, many violists have come to embrace the viola joke. The famous violist Yuri Bashmet even wrote the foreword to a Russian collection of jokes. So we thought we’d ask some Canadian violists to share their favourite viola jokes with CBC Classical.


Eric Nowlin is assistant principal viola of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and member of the New Orford String Quartet. He said he loves viola jokes and sent us this zinger:

Q: Why is the viola called Bratsche in German?

A: That is the noise it makes when you step on it.


Keith Hamm is principal viola of the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra. He’s also one of CBC Radio 2's Next! artists for 2013, so you'll hear more from him next spring. Here’s his viola joke entry:

Q: What’s the only thing a violinist can do better than a violist?

A: Play the viola.


Tanya Kalmanovitch is a native of Fort McMurray, Alta. She’s an active chamber musician and teaches at the New England Conservatory in Boston. Her viola joke is long, but read on. It’s one of our favourites.

The principal violist arrives on opening night for the opera company's run of Salome. He comes across the personnel manager in a frenzy. The conductor has suddenly died, and they need another conductor. The violist — let's call him Tom — realizes that this is his shining hour.

"It would be my great honour to step in as conductor tonight," says Tom. "You see, conducting has been my secret passion for over 20 years. I've studied this score extensively, and indeed every score this orchestra has ever played. Give me a chance, you won't regret it."

"All right, Tom. You're on," sighs the personnel manager.

Well, the opening night is a great success. Tom conducts with extraordinary finesse, expertise and emotion. He gets a prolonged standing ovation. The orchestra members gather around him to shake his hand and pat him on the back. No one had any idea he could do such a thing!

So well received is he, in fact, that he’s kept on for the entire run. It's thrilling for him, but it’s hard work. So when the run is over, and the first day of rehearsals for the next production rolls around, he's relieved.

Arriving at the rehearsal room that first day, he takes his seat. He nods at his stand partner, the assistant principal violist

The assistant principal glares at him and says, "And where the hell have you been for the past six weeks?!"


James Ehnes provides our next one. While not solely a violist, I think it’s fair to include him in this list because Ehnes has recorded so many times on the viola. He told me that this was a particular favourite of his teacher's at Juilliard, Sally Thomas.

Q: What do you call 1,000 violists buried up to their necks in sand?

A: Not enough sand.


James Legge provides a bit of balance with this last joke. Legge is principal violist with the Saskatoon Symphony.

Q: What's the difference between the violin and the viola?

A: There's no difference. Violins just look smaller because violinists' heads are so much bigger.


There you have it. Five violists with five jokes. What’s your favourite? I’ll throw this one into the mix:

The principal violist of the Moose Jaw Symphony stumbles upon a magic lamp one day. He rubs it and out pops a genie. The genie grants the violist three wishes. His first wish is to be a better violist. And poof, he’s principal violist of the Chicago Symphony.

Excited by this, he wishes to be an even better violist and poof, he’s principal violist of the Berlin Philharmonic. Not satisfied, he asks to be the best violist on the planet. And poof, he’s placed at the back of the second violins of the Moose Jaw Symphony.


Listen: James Ehnes performs with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra

Watch our videos from the 2010 Banff International String Quartet Competition


posted by Matthew McFarlane on Nov 26, 2012