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Classically Trained: Stringing together a musical life

December 27, 2010|By Bradley Zint
  • Bob Becker, pictured in his Chapman University office, has been with the Pacific Symphony since 1982 as its principal viola player. When not playing with the Costa Mesa-based orchestra, he serves as the string studies director at Chapman's music conservatory in Orange.
Bob Becker, pictured in his Chapman University office,… (Bradley Zint, Daily…)

ORANGE — I've always found the viola to be the most mysterious and misunderstood member of the orchestra. It doesn't have front-and-center showboat status of the violin. Or the slippery slope of sound from a sliding trombone. Or the lyricism of a solo oboe's seemingly endless phrasing.

So when I asked Bob Becker, the principal viola for the Pacific Symphony since 1982, how he chose to play the mystifying viola, he laughed.

"It was actually pretty simple," he said. "Look at my wingspan."

Becker is 6 feet 4.

"You're in the fourth grade and somebody puts a violin in your hands and you kinda wrap around it like Ichabod Crane," he recalled.

So the violin seemed too small. But he said the others — cello and bass — seemed too big to lug around. So it boiled down to the viola, with its larger body and middle-ranged sound.

For Becker, 60, his classical training started in his hometown of Nashville, Tenn. Though the Music City is better known for its country music, a music academy there served him well.

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"We got music theory, ear training, chamber music and everything else, all on Saturday after we did the youth orchestra," Becker said. "And, as they say, one thing led to another and I fell in love with playing quartets and playing the viola."

Becker showed considerable talent and won the principal viola chair for the Nashville Symphony when he was about 17. Eventually he won a full-ride scholarship to study at Juilliard, where he completed his bachelor's and master's degrees.

Remnants of those days — including his degrees and a picture of him with famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, with whom he played at Juilliard — hang in Becker's Chapman University office. He's director of string studies for the private college's music conservatory in Orange.

Becker's other teaching duties include the Viola Workout, an educational retreat he founded in Crested Butte, Colo.

Becker comes from a musical family. Mom was a pianist involved in church music. Grandmother Becker was a church organist.

Becker's father was a music teacher with a choir background. His doctoral robe hangs in his son's office as a nice family reminder, though the younger Becker doesn't exactly envy Dad's studies.

"My father's dissertation was titled 'The Methods of Education of the Choir Boys in the 12th and 13th Century France' … I cannot even conceive of that!"

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