By Leah Hollingsworth | From the November-December 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
“I envision a world where people can really do both—play violin and viola professionally and equally,” shares Zoë Martin-Doike, who balances a career playing both violin and viola. “There’s this idea that ‘I’m going to play the viola because I can’t make it on the violin,’ but honestly as a violist, you should expect the same things of yourself as a violinist. There are so many incredible viola players who really do that. We can do everything a violinist can do—and more—because we have the C string. It opens up a whole new world, and there are so many roles that are possible.”
Martin-Doike began playing violin at age five and viola soon after, around age seven or eight, and played viola in a lot of chamber groups and in orchestra. She learned the alto clef young and has pursued both instruments more or less equally her whole life. Around the age of ten, Martin-Doike decided she wanted to pursue music professionally and worked really hard, which led to her acceptance to study at Curtis on violin.
She immediately began taking viola lessons as well with Steven Tenenbom—her first time actually taking lessons on the viola and studying the solo repertoire. She “fell in love” with it and played viola as often as possible and as needed in chamber groups and orchestra, but joined the Aizuri Quartet as a violinist. The Aizuris were accepted into the Quartet Program at Curtis, and while playing with them, she took an audition for the Philadelphia Orchestra sub list on viola—and won a spot. She also took and won an audition with Opera Philadelphia on viola, so she was consistently playing and performing on both instruments. She eventually left the Aizuri Quartet and pursued a double degree in violin and viola at Indiana University, and then during the week of graduation, she won a spot playing in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra on viola.
“My personal philosophy is that the viola and violin are extremely similar, and I believe that all violists should train as a violinist. I really bristle when people say things like ‘the viola can’t do that’ or ‘a violist doesn’t need to do that.’ Why should there be a different standard as a violist? I think that my rigorous training on violin has obviously helped my viola playing, especially in terms of left-hand dexterity,” she says. “Of course, the viola has key differences, especially in terms of sound production. I’d like to think that playing the viola has helped my violin playing in finding more depth and a more generous sound, and helped me to find more colors on the violin.”
Violinist and violist Julianne Lee concurs. “Learning the viola helped my violin playing so much. I noticed that right way. I was more aware of sound production, bow distribution, bow weight, and everything on the right side. Then I was able to apply that in my violin playing. The bow speed is slower on the viola, and when you use that approach on the violin, it helps you feel like your sound has more core, and you get more colors on the violin.” Lee also began the violin at age five and added the viola when she was in college (also at Curtis). “I was at Curtis in my second year, and there were school catalogs lying around in the lobby, and I saw a program called ‘Viola for Violinists,’ so I immediately walked over to the registrar’s office and asked about it. They told me I could take viola lessons from Joseph de Pasquale if I wanted, so right away I walked down to the instrument library where you could try instruments, chose a viola, and walked over to the music library and checked out some music—the Bach Cello Suites in alto clef. And I just started reading them. I knew them by ear, but I couldn’t read the clef at all. Then I had my first lesson, and I was just so fortunate because at that time de Pasquale did not have a very busy studio, and he offered me full-time viola lessons. It was a lot to manage, doing both.
“I had to spend the most time just learning the notes because I couldn’t read the clef. But I loved it from day one.” In the end, Curtis offered her a diploma on viola as well as on violin, and she continued both at the New England Conservatory, where she studied with Kim Kashkashian and Donald Weilerstein. Even after winning a job in the Boston Symphony Orchestra on violin, Lee “looked for every opportunity to play the viola. I never ever had the feeling of wanting to stop playing the viola.” Now the pendulum will shift again for her, as Lee has recently been named the next violist of the acclaimed Dover Quartet. Luckily, she already has an engagement playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in the fall—no small beans.
“I was always a person who was good at multiple things—I’m kind of a learning junkie,” Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu jokes. “I started the viola because I loved chamber music so much, and I wanted to figure out how to have a career in chamber music. And I realized that I could play in more groups if I also played viola… I became a very popular summer festival person. People are always mixing and matching programs, and being someone who can play both meant I could play more concerts.”
Wu has a lot to say about how learning the viola impacted her understanding of each voice in a chamber group and of the inner voices in particular. “Learning the viola was an incredible perspective for me, and I feel like I am a much better and kinder [first] violinist because I understand what is happening,” Wu says. “As a violinist, I want to enable violists to play well. The role of the violist is a difficult one—it’s the viola that holds the group together—and so many people don’t realize that . . . I want to be a violinist that can follow a violist when it’s appropriate. When I play the violin, I don’t want to be the kind of violinist that I would hate playing with as a violist.” Likewise, she continues, “if a violist doesn’t play the violin, he or she will never understand how annoying it is to be a leader and have a violist who is not following—you will be the best viola colleague ever if you know how that really feels as a violinist.”
Martin-Doike shares similar feelings about chamber music. “I think it’s much harder to play inner voices because you can’t get away with not really conceiving the full chords—you have to understand your role within a chord. And in playing a counter melody or harmony, you have to have your own identity but also fit seamlessly into the identity of the person who is playing the main line… I think it takes a lifetime to develop that and also a deep desire to embody both leadership and support.”
For Wu, the benefit of playing both is often being able to do both within the same context—like at a summer music festival or within one concert program. Whereas Lee and Martin-Doike have both had distinct jobs on each instrument and have always found a way to continue the other, Wu’s personality is leading toward a slightly different path.
“I felt like I was getting a lot of great viola opportunities—really flattering parts on viola—but the leftovers on the violin because of the other personnel [at a festival], and that became a strange chemistry for me. I felt like people didn’t know if I could play the violin parts because I was never getting the opportunities to play them. So eventually, I felt like viola got in the way of my violin playing. It became a block for me.”
Wu also speaks of the difficulties of traveling with both instruments—the trauma and stress of getting oneself and a large suitcase and two instruments in and out of rental cars and airports all summer long and the anxiety of flying with two instruments. So about two years ago, Wu decided to take an official step back from the viola. “I love organizing concerts. I’m very good at artistic planning, and I love that even more than the viola life—and there’s not time for everything.” But she is quick to add, “I think maybe it takes a greater person to be a violist. Endlessly supporting and not caring about the credit or sharing your individual [musical] thoughts—these are all the things that violinists take for granted. Your instrument has to match your personality in the end. I’m just more of a violinist.”
“I think everyone’s journey to the viola is different,” Martin-Doike reflects. “I know some people switch and feel like the viola is their voice. I love the viola and I love playing at the Met on viola, and I love playing all the repertoire—symphonic, chamber, and solo rep—on viola, but I also love the violin.” All three players agree that playing both instruments provides an incredible glimpse into not only the mechanics of sound production but also into one’s own personality and ultimately the role of the instrument within a larger group. Lee says, “I think that for violinists, if they could have a chamber group and play the viola, that would be a really nice way to complement their violin playing and also feel less overwhelmed than the way I did it, full-time on both… You have to know what your voice is but also be able to keep an open mind. In the end, it’s all music, just different roles, and you want to be open to where life takes you.”
Martin-Doike concurs. “We love to put people in boxes… but it’s a wonderful thing in life to have variety, and I hope there can be more space for that in the music world moving forward.”