Viola community comes together to learn and celebrate

In the second annual Viola Jamboree, violists from all over the area gathered for a day of collaboration and development

More stories from Hillary Smith


Photo by Amanda Thao

While violas and violins are similar, violas are larger and have a deeper, more mellow sound than violins.

Violas are often called the “ugly ducklings” of musical instruments, behind which lies a historic explanation.

Molly Gebrian, assistant professor of viola at UW-Eau Claire, said until the 20th century, viola parts were not often included in pieces, and when they were, the viola was usually assigned to amateur or elderly players with lesser musical skills. The simultaneous underrepresentation and poor portrayal of the violin-like instrument has made it the brunt of jokes to this day.

Gebrian challenged the stereotype with the second annual Viola Jamboree, an all-day event on Feb. 18 in Haas Fine Arts Center and Schofield Auditorium, where roughly 120 viola players gathered to learn and perform together.

Participants came from across Minnesota and Wisconsin and were of all ages and levels, ranging from middle schoolers to college students, along with a few non-student players. Gebrian said when she was in college, she attended a similar event each year and wanted to bring something like it to the area.

“I want violas to feel a sense of community,” Gebrian said. “We often feel left out and ignored, and I want violas to see there’s a ton of us, and we’re awesome.”

Gebrian said she hoped the event would inspire viola players to dream of playing at a higher level, if they so chose. Fostering that inspiration was Sam Bergman, a member of the Minnesota Orchestra since 2000; as the guest artist, Bergman also led a masterclass.

Playing with and seeing professionals at work was one thing Reed Hoffmann, a first-year student studying political science and music at Eau Claire, said he gained from the viola day. Hoffmann has been playing viola since third grade and said he has first-hand experience with violas being overlooked.

“Viola is the lesser known string instrument,” Hoffmann said, “so it’s really nice to get a large group of people … all playing together. It’s a unique experience, getting to play with that many other violas, that you don’t normally get.”

Another part of the day was the world premiere of a piece called “Winter Awakening” by composer-in-residence, Michael Kimber. Kimber worked with students on the piece, whose hours of practice culminated with the song being played at the concert, in the climax of the jamboree.

Starting at 4:30 p.m. in Schofield Auditorium, Bergman and Gebrian performed solos and a duet for the crowd of students, parents and other attendees. Each age group played one or more pieces, ending with all 120-something players joining on stage (and spilling over into the aisles) to play the song for the first time.

Studies show music has positive developmental effects on children. Performing or listening to music can reduce anxiety and improve health. However, Brianna Havlovick, a seventh grader at Horace Mann Middle School in Wausau, said she was just happy to be there.

“There’s just something unique about the viola,” Havlovick said. “I can express myself … in a new way.”

Havlovick has been playing for two years and said she enjoyed watching performances from players of all levels as well as hearing professionals offer critique.

Gebrian said she plans to continue the event in coming years, hopefully growing along the way and drawing even more violas together.