Variations on “Is That a Violin???”

Variations on “Is That a Violin????”

 by Lara St John

I have noticed, whilst travelling a few million miles hauling a violin, that carrying an oddly shaped case gives random folks a queer impetus to talk to you about what might be inside it.

Some people love to talk about what they do. I, however, to strangers, do not. Once I tell folks my profession, I often get asked about my day job. Also, a large number of people have a grandchild/godson/cousin who plays the violin/guitar/etc., and while I think it’s terrific that their relative is getting a musical education, I don’t necessarily want to hear all about it in an airport.

Others will tell you about themselves … how they took lessons for years. Inevitably and puzzlingly they will also impress upon you just how very bad they were. I once had a conversation with Josh Bell about this, and he is still perplexed when, after concerts, someone always tells him that they played violin once, “but not as good as you”. It made me wonder if people tell Michael Phelps about their waterwings or Annie Liebowitz about their Viewmasters. I have a hard time imagining meeting Nadia Comeneci and regaling her with stories of my cartwheel attempts as a kid, but somehow music seems to be a medium where failure can be a source of pride.

Over the years, I have experimented in how to avoid the situation entirely. At one point I thought the trick might be to look unapproachable, and asked an art student to paint something reptilian and badass on my case. It turned out like this:


33 thoughts on “Variations on “Is That a Violin???”

  1. It’s just as entertaining for violists, because people assume that it’s a violin, until you say “no, it’s a viola” and then we roll our eyes when they ask what a viola is… *sigh*

  2. brilliant Lara! so funny. when people use the hackneyed “is that a machine-gun” I usually reply “no, I’m a pacifist” but that always bombs, pardon the pun.

  3. Thank God I am a composer. If I told people, they would never understand since no one really knows what a composer does anyway. Once, someone asked Henry Mancini if he used a piano when he composed; he replied, “No. I use a pencil.”

  4. After years as a cellist hearing from people: “I bet you wish you played the flute”, i happened upon a situation this year where someone had to carry my cello case for me up a flight of stairs (which i wasn’t thrilled about). I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask some questions.

    “Do you think i have a body in there?” “Do you carry that professionally?”

    “I bet you wish i played the flute.”

  5. On tour with a cellist friend of mine, we got sick of the usual remarks about the instruments including the ..’ Bet you wish you’d played the piccolo’.. line. We found that a 30 second bout of hysterical and I mean HYSTERICAL laughter between the two of us inevitably saw the perpetrator go red with embarrassment then we’d suddenly stop; subito! and walk away. Worked every time.

  6. I enjoyed this post and the photos in particular. Count me guilty of asking “is that a violin” or perhaps more likely “is that a viola” since I am a violist. I suppose my reasons have included wanting to talk to fellow musicians, especially the rare violists found in the wild.

    Sometimes I might want to talk to an attractive woman and the violin question is the opener. The painted case would have probably caught my eye, too, and formed at least one or two questions in my head.

    But now I understand better your need for privacy. In fact I’m often the same way when I travel. The interactions you describe are baffling to some degree, also. I suppose people are reminded of the good times they had with music even if they were bad at it.

  7. Very entertaining. Thanks for sharing your perspective. It is spot on. In Vienna you walk along with your case and people bow to you like a queen… in America they wonder why you bother…

  8. So, as a mother of a violinist, when does this distaste for questions start happening? My daughter has only been playing for eight years but is still quite thrilled when people ask her about her bright red case with a sticker that says “kiss a musician!” I hope she holds onto the excitement to share info about her music for a long time. People are so fascinated and always very kind in their approach. It makes her fell happy and proud. But I’ll keep these comebacks handy in case she grows weary.

  9. Fantastic blog. And thanks for liking my comment on Facbook. It really did happen… and was MUCH better than the dead body comments. When I get those, I tell them it’s my dear departed Aunt. Shuts them up immediately!

  10. I saw someone eyeing my cello case on a subway train, braced myself for the flute remark, then the guy said “bet yer glad you don’t play the piano”. I LOVED it.

    • I thought you were going to say, “…then the guy said, “bet yer glad I didn’t ask you if you’re a flute player” !!!

  11. Also, when ever I see someone “else” {with whom I’d like to strike up a collegial conversation}, I “always” say, “Is that a ‘viola’ ?” ~ Why? Because (a) if it “iz” a viola which they are carrying, they are incredibly flattered that someone recognized that fact (& they feel validated & ‘approve’); (b) if it isn’t a viola, but a violin, violinists are so much more ‘secure’ [read: smug] that they don’t mind saying, “No, it’s a violin”, and then you strike up a good conversation anyway! {:~)

  12. (Sorry, for belaboring the point, but…) I, actually, ‘like’ the comments people make when I’m carrying either my violin or viola; …why? – Because, if you’d ever heard me ‘plaay’ at [sic] my violin or viola, you’d understand that I am soooo flattered that people “think” I am a violinist or violist; …the rest of you “real” musicians; (ach!), just ‘deal-with-it’ !!! {8~))

  13. Pingback: Is that a violin in that violin case? | Classical 101 - WOSU Public Media

  14. Hi Lara! I really enjoy reading your blogposts, you really seem to get around the world a bit! I live in Australia and try to do as much travelling as I can, and everywhere I go, people ask me those same questions – it is tiring alright! I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way. However! As a violinist and teacher in Australia, I’ve come across this fabulous Concerto competition opportunity held in Brisbane, South East Queensland, Australia. The details are at the website below, basically first prize is a violin valued at $20000. As you travel so much, I thought I’d share it with you in case you are aware of any potential competitors! All the best, Erin

  15. Hey Lara,

    Great post. I’m a cellist, sister violinist. Once on a bus in Montreal, we were pulling up to the metro when one old ladies sitting across from us, confidently said to her compatriot. “You know what that is,” pointing at my cello case. “That’s an oboe!”

    Cellists always get asked if we have a body. I often say yes. But then that doesn’t usually end well.

  16. Actual conversation I had in a take-out pizza joint.
    Pizza guy: “Is that a violin in there?”
    Me: “No, it’s a triangle.”
    Pizza Guy: “Oh do you play the triangle then?”
    Me: “I’m learning but it’s very difficult.”
    Pizza Guy: “Is it harder than the violin?”

  17. Hi there. Is there a way to email you? I like your blog and run a violin shop. Would love to speak about the possibility of using your blog in our newsletter and giving you some back-links.

  18. I usually do the “machine gun” comment in reverse. I walk around with a violin case, people ask me what it is, and I say “Ees Kalashnikov” in my most russian-sounded voice, and then when they fail to get the joke go “nah, it’s a violin”. I take perverse pleasure sometimes in walking around in concert clothes pretending I’m a mobster. I’m too small to be very intimidating, though. And the “pretty pretty myoosic” picture nearly killed me, though I find the more predominant stereotype is the small, demure, high-achieving asian girl.

  19. I just had to comment because I have a rather unusual variation on this trope. I only started studying violin relatively recently, and since I attend a college with a good music program, I take lessons from one of the violin students there. It’s the sort of school where your yoga mats line would go over well, and one evening I was walking back to my dorm when a freshman passed and pointed excitedly at my case, asking “Is that a ukelele?!” When I answered that no, it was a violin, she said “Oh.” and walked away as if she hadn’t even noticed I was there…

  20. Hi Lara,
    As you know I’m a winemaker (taking something of a longish sabbatical from the industry…), and the winemaker equivalent is being asked “Oh, you’re a winemaker, so what’s the best wine to drink?” This question is one of the winemaker’s 7 circles of Hell, and it’s about this time I feel I should have the legal right to bludgeon the individual concerned to death, with a blunt instrument. (Yes, I know I beat him to death with a meat mallet Your Honour, but he did ask ‘that’ question…”).

    However, my usual response is something along the lines of “Do you prefer quantity or quality? If the former, then you really can’t go past a ‘goon bag’* of cheap crap at $12.99 for 4 litres. If the latter, and money is no object, then Penfolds ‘Grange’ is for you (recommend ’71 Vintage, at ~$1100/bottle; if money is REALLY no object then ’51 Vintage a steal at $40000 – $60000/bottle – [NOT a typo]. Why not collect the whole set for about $275000?)”. Not surprisingly, this is usually the end of the conversation. Seriously, how long is a piece of string?….

    *if you’re not sure what a ‘goon bag’ is, Google it…. – generally consumed by students, and empty bag doubles as a comfy pillow when inflated, if you’re sober enough to inflate an empty plastic bag….I (vaguely) remember drinking plenty of this stuff as a student, can’t remember inflating bag though….


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