A Tribute to Bill Viola

by Eliot Fisk

Bill Viola, always “Mr. Viola” to me! changed my life. Few people I have ever met had a more profound influence on me than this unlikely son of South Philadelphia, grandson of immigrants and self made man.

We first heard Bill’s name when, one hot July summer day I was trying out a guitar in the Philadelphia Classical Guitar Store then owned by Sid Locker. I was about to turn 12 years old and had just come back from 10 months living in Sweden where I had attended a Swedish elementary school. The initial loneliness of that year, when I had not yet learned the language but had soon read all the 50 books in English we had brought over with us, had driven me to the guitar. My parents saw that this had become a serious interest, which is how we had ended up in Sid’s store trying out guitars.

Hearing me play, both Sid and his at the time, marvelous Scottish repairman, Thomas Robertson (who later bought the store from Sid) said to my parents: “Get that boy to Bill Viola!. He’s the only one in town who can help him!”

A short time later, my father and I were sitting in Bill’s living room, and Bill was listening to me play. I was used to receiving nice compliments for my playing, but this man was completely different. He listened to everything I had with an unreadable deadpan. He then sorted my entire pile of sheet music into two categories: that which was acceptable and that which was not. At the end of that process there remained two published editions, both by Segovia, that were deemed worthy: the transcription of the “La Frescobalda” Variations of Frescobaldi and the famous edition of 20 selected Studies by Fernando Sor.

With a sigh expressing the complete hopelessness of the situation Bill said, “Well, I think I can help the boy!” I remember lamenting my fate to one of the daughters of our neighbors out in Lansdowne and telling her that maybe I should just quit! She advised patience and perseverance.

Thus began an amazing odyssey during which in two years of weekly lessons (excepting only the summer months when I was away at Kinhaven Music Camp in the foothills of Vermont) Bill took me through almost the entire Segovia repertoire. I became accustomed to listening to Segovia’s records and, like Bill, to taking down the changes by ear from the recordings. (No YouTube videos back then! Just the Voice of God coming through the huge speakers in my parents’ living room!)

In the two years I studied with Bill in Philadelphia (before we moved away and lessons became only sporadically possible) I cannot remember him ever giving me a compliment! The best I could get out of him was: “Alright, what’s next?”

I kept trying to prove to him that I was worth something. I upped my practice time from 2 hours to 3 1/2 hours on school days, 5 hours a day on weekends, driving myself like a slave driver. Once when I told that to Bill he said (almost touched by my devotion) “You don’t have to do that!” I think he was completely unaware of how intimidating he was. He was just trying to get the job done and never lost that focus.

Bill had me make a complete list of all of my pieces. At the end of each lesson, armed with his inimitable Bic pen, he would peruse the list with a critical eye and put the next lesson’s date next to 5 pieces he wanted to hear the next time: could be the Fandanguillo by Turina; Study in thirds by Sor; Courante form Cello Suite 3 by Bach; Etude 1 by Villa- Lobos; Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Tarrega… I never knew what he would ask for! And I always trembled before hand over whether whatever he had decided he needed to hear was ready.

BIll did not take kindly to me learning more of a piece than he had assigned. I could never resist going on further but would try to pretend that I hadn’t because it used to annoy him. Very often, especially when I played something for him for the first time, he would interrupt, his voice descending downward: “Naw, naw. naw!” And once again (now shaking his head in disbelief!): “No, no no! It don’t go like that!” Then he would play it perfectly just as he thought it should be.

But he always told me: “If you prepare well, you won’t be nervous, and you will play well too.” And he was right about that too.

Bill’s perfectionism and orderly method, born of that engineer’s mind he had, were a model to me all my life. Years afterwards when I would play in Philadelphia, he would come backstage and give me a big smile and a hug: “You play very well.” (That same deadpan voice with the South Philly accent. Nothing more. Not ever!)

Fortunately, a few years back a few of us Philadelphia old-timers went out to Bill’s house once again for a visit.

And of course, he could not have been more warm and loving. Age had slowed him but that same inimitable character was shining out of him all the same. We took video and photos on that occasion. On that visit and more than once (!) Bill gave me that great ear- to- ear, toothy smile of his and said, “I love you!”

I love you too, Bill…forever!