In 1973, Elton John was recording an album and was being bothered by comedian Groucho Marx at a dinner party of sorts. Apparently not the wittiest person when it came to thinking of snappy comebacks, his only defense during the course of the night was to say, “Don’t shoot me, I’m only the piano player,” which ended up being the title of the album he recorded. This album was a deliberate homage to 1950’s music (among others) and featured such songs as “Daniel,” “Crocodile Rock,” and “Have Mercy On The Criminal .” One of the more entertaining songs that did not make the album became a b-side and has the revealing title “Skyline Pigeon.” I’m not sure why that is so funny to me, but it is rather entertaining to me for some odd reason. Of course, I am slightly better equipped than the legendary pianist for witty conversation, and I do not happen to be either legendary or a pianist, so I suppose my comment in similar circumstances would be “Don’t shoot me, I’m only the viola player.”
From my youth (I started playing the viola when I was eleven ), I have been a violist, and have had to carry my violas with me to church as well as on many of my travels (including several trips to South America). I have found, pleasingly, that carrying a musical instrument with you when traveling is a conversation starter. It is one of those talismans that helps to reveal the character of the people one is talking with. Some people like to brag about their musical knowledge and show off that they know I am carrying a violin. Of course, I use that failed attempt at showing off as a way of gently but insistently responding that I’m not carrying a violin at all, but rather a viola. Most of them give me a look of some puzzlement and ask what the difference is between a violin and a viola, or speculate as to the differences themselves, which starts at least a short conversation about musical instruments and why I play such an obscure one. Alternatively, some people make jokes about my viola case instead being a tommy gun case, as if I were in some real-life version of El Mariachi , with me as a slightly less handsome and hopefully slightly less threatening person than the killer from the movie. Alas, my viola case does have a viola inside of it, and I have not sworn violence to any of the people who have wronged me over the course of my eventful life.
Despite the fact that I am not a particularly violent person by nature, it is intriguing how often being a violist has been the occasion for conflict. One experience stands out in particular. As a sophomore in high school, my orchestra went on a trip to the Smokey Mountain Music Festival in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and we had a joyous time (where I learned, however badly, to ice skate) and a successful one, winning our division of the festival competition (which, to be fair, only included two string orchestras in our class) to boot. However, not all was enjoyable. Both on the way to and from the festival, probably because our school district was not interested in spendy  hotels, we stayed at a very downscale hotel in Marietta, Georgia, where our presence on the return trip ended up causing some turmoil with local ruffians of an unsavory sort and involved some fighting and the presence of police officers (I was thankfully not involved in the fighting and didn’t have to meet any of the officers myself, but not all of my fellow orchestra members were so fortunate). Instead of being a peaceful Saturday night, our trip ended up resembling another one of Mr. Elton John’s songs, “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting,” which is not something I look forward to in my life.
I am puzzled, greatly, as to why orchestras would be the subject of violence at all. Some people have used my rather passionate and intense musicianship as a sign of a generally passionate nature (which it is), and in response have often tried to make fun of the manliness of playing a string instrument. Others have been more impressed. When I went to the Feast of Tabernacles twice in a row in South America, a young lady there commented that when playing the viola I showed a particularly stronger aspect of my personality than my usually timid demeanor. I took this to mean that my use of music as an outlet for passion and aggression (along with sports and writing) has allowed me to live a peaceful life without carrying the burden of my intense feelings inside of me without them having any chance of escape, but in a way that showed strength and power that was nonetheless unthreatening to others. We all need safe outlets for our feelings, and channeling that drive for mastery which can easily be used to hurt instead to encourage and create seems to me to be a more effective way of dealing with matters than the usual alternatives that people seek after. Music and writing have allowed me to entertain, to amuse, to serve, and to allow me to express the reality that I am a person who feels deeply without succumbing to the violence and cruelty that have often marked my life. I suppose as long as I live I will need some sort of outlet for what I feel, as I imagine that will always be an issue of considerable importance given the life I live.
 See, for example:
 Spendy is Cascadian slang for “expensive,” a term I have picked up from my neighbors in Oregon and Southern Washington.