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Home » On the Cover » Bill and Daniel Foster : Two Generations Lead the Viola Section in DC

Bill and Daniel Foster : Two Generations Lead the Viola Section in DC


fosterThe father and son team of Bill and Daniel Foster embody the ideals of what music should be about. Since 1995, Daniel has held the post of principal viola with the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) in Washington, DC. His father Bill, in the orchestra since 1968, plays assistant principal; the torch of musical knowledge and performance tradition passes neatly from one generation to the next.

Sometimes, however, that sharing of ideas can go both ways—and Bill has more than once found himself in the startling position of being the learner.

“In the past I was used to making observations about the music we were playing, that my stand partner had never noticed before,” says Bill. “It was quite a switch when Dan began doing the same thing, pointing out a detail in a piece of music which I’d never consciously noticed in 30 years of playing it. That took me aback at first, and it was certainly fun for him.”

Much-Maligned Viola

Aside from musical observations, the two have also been known to share a good viola joke. For the uninitiated, these are a staple of orchestral humor: the viola, larger cousin of the violin, has traditionally been the subject of comedy among symphony and opera musicians everywhere. Countless after-concert beer sessions have been devoted to swapping viola jokes, which focus variously on the player’s supposed lack of finesse, or the instrument’s supposed lack of grace and subtlety. Example: Q: How do you know when a violist is playing out of tune? A: The bow is moving.

According to both Daniel and Bill, members of Local 161-710 (Washington, DC), the viola joke has a historical context. “The common assumption used to be that viola players were simply failed violinists,” says Daniel. “That may have been true in some cases years ago, but in the last century, the level of viola playing and the amount of repertoire has gone up by leaps and bounds.”

It probably comes as little surprise that violists seem to love viola jokes more than almost anyone else, and the Fosters are no different. “Frankly, the jokes are more accepted nowadays because we’re aware that they are kind of a relic,” Daniel explains. “Much of what their humor was based on is just not the case anymore. So, most of us don’t get offended.” Some viola players, though, still cringe when they hear someone launch into a joke. “That just makes it even funnier,” he adds.

Daniel makes a valid point that a good violist is potentially more employable than a good violinist. Like many violists, he started out on the smaller violin, taking lessons with his father Bill for several years. At first he resisted switching to the viola, because he didn’t want to do the same thing as his father. “But then I became aware quite early that as a violist I’d be much more in demand,” he says. “At summer festivals, on viola I was playing with all the best players and getting experience at a high musical level. I came to realize that the viola was a better fit for me, both in terms of its role and how it fit my personality. It felt more natural.”

He also says he used to see far too many violinists at these festivals struggling with insurmountable competition. “And then there were the 10 or so violists, all having a much better time. You could take half of those violinists and switch them to viola, and they’d be that much farther ahead,” says Daniel. “I feel fortunate to have figured it out at a relatively early age. The technique I had developed on the violin transferred easily to the viola, and it put me at a much higher level from the start.”

When it came to making music a career, Daniel’s start came a bit later. “There were aspects of music that I enjoyed, but I never had a lot of concentration where practice was concerned,” he says. “I really only decided to take music seriously before my senior year of high school.” He also decided that it made more sense to focus on the viola rather than violin, making the permanent switch to viola at Oberlin Conservatory.

Together Again

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bill also changed over from violin to viola a year before studying music at Oberlin. In fact, Oberlin seems to be the launching point for much of the Foster family’s musical talent. Daniel’s brother, now a lawyer, also studied there, as did his mother and grandparents.

Having studied the same instrument at the same school, it might seem natural that father and son would wind up working together. In any other career field, that might be the case—but given the egalitarian nature of an orchestral audition, the odds are highly against it. “It is rather strange that we ended up side by side,” admits Daniel, “but as an orchestral musician, you go where the jobs are.”

When he won the job with the NSO and took his place next to his father on the Kennedy Center stage, it was immediately comfortable for the two to be working together. The Fosters’ shared education naturally implies a similarity of approach to the job, which Daniel says is only reinforced by the fact that father and son know each other so well. “We had none of the typical process of getting familiar with mutual styles of working or communicating. I can’t overestimate how much of a difference that has made. When you work with someone you’ve known for your whole life, you’ve already got that working relationship. It doesn’t need to be established.”

One of the most common questions Bill gets asked is what it’s like taking orders from his son. He has a typically dry response ready and waiting: “I always say that it’s no different from the previous 25 years. But now he gets paid for it!”

More seriously, Bill says father and son have similar ways of thinking about things, which makes for typically smooth sailing in their working life in the NSO. “Plus, we both know our roles. Dan respects that I have been in the orchestra for decades, and he’s very open to any suggestions I might make. But when he prefers things a different way, I understand that he’s the leader, and I stand by his decision.”

“Disagreements? I suppose everyone has them, but ours are on a very low level,” adds Daniel. “And we hardly ever have any sort of large-scale philosophical disagreements in terms of approach, because much of my own approach—in terms of the job, and in terms of music—I picked up from him along the way growing up.”

Extracurricular Activity

Throughout his career with the NSO, Bill has been active in the overall affairs of the organization. He served several terms as chair of the orchestra committee, as well as on the artistic advisory committee. “My father was always involved in serving his community, even in elected office, serving on the school board in Toledo, Ohio, as a member and as chairman for a number of years,” says Bill, recalling the leadership example set by his father. “When I got into the orchestra, I thought I ought to take some responsibility in the workplace.”

Bill is currently chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) Electronic Media Committee, which assists the AFM in negotiating media contracts with orchestra managers across the country. He is also a trustee of the AFM pension fund. “There’s a lot to learn there,” he says. “The pension fund trusteeship started two years ago, and it’s been an interesting and challenging learning curve.”

When asked what he considers his biggest accomplishment over his years of union activity, Bill demurs. “In collective union activity it doesn’t seem appropriate to consider anything a ‘personal accomplishment.’ What I find most gratifying about the NSO’s collective accomplishment is the recognition of the contribution of each musician who has made a career here. We have achieved the most significant seniority pay of any orchestra in the country.” He adds his pleasure that the various committees on which he has served have established a way of working with the NSO management that avoids impasses. “People are amazed when I tell them that we have not had a single grievance here in more than 30 years!”

Daniel, while acknowledging and respecting the work his father does on behalf of his colleagues, doesn’t harbor designs to follow in those footsteps. “Being a principal player, the job demands and responsibilities just don’t allow time for it,” he says. “Also, as a principal, I’m perhaps not as truly representative of the rank and file. But most importantly, my dad has been such a great presence in this orchestra, that those would be very hard shoes to fill. He’d be a tough act to follow.”

Outside of the orchestra, Daniel focuses his energy on teaching and playing chamber music. He is on the faculty of the University of Maryland, and he gives master classes around the country, including at his alma mater, Oberlin. He is also a member of the Dryden Quartet, along with his cousins Nicholas and Yumi Kendall, a member of Local 77 (Philadelphia, PA), and NSO concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef of Local 161-710. Daniel is also is a regular recitalist and soloist with the NSO.

“I’ve always said the great benefit of being in an orchestra is the flexibility to be able to do different things,” says Daniel. “The job allows you those opportunities.” The variety of musical activities keeps your musical mind sharp, according to Daniel—particularly chamber music, which he points to as the reason he went into music in the first place: “You have artistic control, plus interaction with others.”

After nearly 2.5 decades as assistant principal, Bill has plans to move into the viola section. “I decided a few years ago that when the last player of my generation retired, it would be a good time to move down,” he explains. “I could see myself playing in the orchestra beyond the age of 60 or 65, but just not on the first desk.”

He says this is also so he can continue his union activities, and devote even more time to them when needed. “The NSO management has been very generous in giving me time off to attend pension and media meetings, but I feel it would be easier for me to ask for that time off if I weren’t at the front of the section. And I have to say I’m looking forward to the challenge of playing as a section member, rather than as a first-desk player. There are a lot of skills that I haven’t had to use in the last 24 years or so.”

Until then, however, the Fosters continue to work side by side, trading musical ideas and—yes—maybe a few viola jokes.

“Aside from the fact that they’re funny, there’s a reason why people never tire of viola jokes,” Bill declares. “It’s because viola players are such nice people, and such good sports.”