Written by Jonah Sirota
Published: March 4, 2015 at 3:23 PM [UTC]
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the violin, I did, but it was never truly at home in my hands, its sound never truly my own. Perhaps you have had a similar experience? If so, it really doesn’t hurt to give the viola a shot. As the T-shirt says,
But how? If you’re a violinist, and can get access to a viola to play, it’s simple enough to pick it up and start making sound. But is it really the same as a violin? What do those of us who play the viola have to do differently from violinists to sound (and feel) great on the instrument? Over the next few entries, I will be exploring what it means to play the viola, in a series I’m calling “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Playing the Viola* (*but were afraid to ask).” We’ll cover the gamut, from clef-reading to setup, from sound production to keeping your body happy and healthy. Violinists may find useful advice that they can bring back to their “instrument of origin,” and I hope that even seasoned violists may find something helpful and new to integrate into their playing. Of course I’m also excited to know what works for you--I look forward to learning from you in the comments.
For today, let’s begin at the beginning. What do you do when approaching the viola for the first time?
Let’s talk a bit about the physical set-up of your viola. Although this is a controversial topic with opinions as varied as there are different players, certain things seem to resonate for me again and again. You are an individual, with your own characteristics. Luckily, the viola doesn’t have standard sizing, which is actually kind of a wonderful thing! Your height, the width and strength of your back and shoulders, the length of your arms, fingers, and neck--each of these has profound implications on what size and setup of a viola might be ideal for you. To have a positive first experience on the instrument, it is important to start out playing on an instrument that fits your body well.
This is not rocket science, but it can be tricky at times to know what to look for when the instrument is already going to feel somewhat foreign to begin with. My advice? Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Find a teacher, or a good luthier or dealer experienced with fitting instruments. You are looking for someone who understands that different bodies will have different needs. While there are strong ideologies out there, they can easily become a trap. What’s best for one player may not be for another. (For example: if you have a relatively short neck and a jaw that interfaces well with your chinrest, you may find it freeing to play the viola without a shoulder rest, opting instead to use only a small pad under the instrument for grip. However, this setup may be disastrous for someone with a longer neck, who will need some support under the instrument if they are not going to either grip the neck too hard with the left hand or the let instrument drop to an angle not fit for healthy sound production.)
Variables in viola that really make a difference in the physical experience of playing the instrument include instrument body length, string length, instrument weight, neck width, and body width. Some of these can be interrelated, but usually it is possible to find violas where the characteristics of the instrument are pleasantly independent from one another. So, for example, if you are of smaller build, with narrow shoulders and relatively short arms and fingers, you can look for an instrument with a short string length, lighter weight, and a narrow neck, but one that may still have a decent body length allowing some depth of sound on the low end of the instrument. Likewise a medium-build player with long fingers and large finger pads might prefer an instrument that is not too big in body length, but that has a longer string length and a wider neck. It is tempting to think that the bigger the instrument, the deeper and richer the sound, and there are certainly examples of this being true, but there are also amazingly rich-sounding smaller instruments out there. In the long term it will not be a worthwhile endeavor to play on an instrument that is too big for your body. The viola takes more muscle to play, and you don’t want to overstrain your shoulders and neck and cause injury…
Once you have an appropriately sized instrument, you’ll need to think about how to hold it. Just like on the violin, the top surface of the instrument should stay parallel to the floor (like a tabletop). However, because the contact point of the viola is further away from the body than it is on the violin, violists have to be more careful about the angle at which the instrument meets the shoulder and neck. If the viola heads straight out over the left shoulder (in a style that can seem quite amenable to sound projection and is often successful on the violin), it will be nearly impossible to maintain or “track” a good contact point all the way to the tip of the bow. This is especially a concern for those violists with shorter arms. The ideal is to have the viola “leave” the body at a 45-degree angle from the torso, and to have the bow arm also at about a 45-degree angle (this symmetry in both arms is not a coincidence, we’ll talk more about that in a later installment!). Watch a really great viola performance, such as this video of Tabea Zimmerman performing the Penderecki Concerto:
...and you’ll see how much the performer prioritizes maintaining the integrity of that arrangement. This allows the contact point to always have a consistent focus, and (as we will discuss next time) the contact point is where all the magic happens!
To complete the setup on your viola, don’t forget to think about the right chinrest—remember that these can be swapped out on an instrument—and, if needed, a shoulder-rest that fits you well. I talked about how to position the instrument before talking about these items because you want the chinrest and shoulder-rest to fit your playing position, instead of the other way around! Bring a teacher or friend you trust to your string shop and try out different chinrest and shoulder-rest combinations. A good shop will be glad to help you try different options. (Don’t feel guilty about using their time this way--you will likely be buying something, and if you have a good experience, you are more likely to return to the shop.) Many violists feel that they need extra padding on the lower edge of their shoulder rest to support the gap between instrument and torso. You have likely seen players with extra sponges or cushions attached to their shoulder rest with a rubber band. Don’t be afraid to look at an option like that, if it helps you position the instrument well. Also, some violists like the Bonmusica shoulder rest because it is very customizable (you can actually shape the rest with your hands), but plenty just go with the old-school Kun, or other similar options.
Congratulations, you should now have a viola set-up and ready to play. So, now what? You’ll just have to keep reading! Next time: The String, Your “Road” to Great Sound
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I noted one claim that I see quite often: "Just like on the violin, the top surface of the instrument should stay parallel to the floor (like a tabletop)."
When watching well-regarded violinists and violists I have found that this is simply not true. The violin may be parallel to the floor (or nearly so) along its long axis but the short axis is tilted toward the player's chest. Therefore it is not like a tabletop, and not even close. And frankly the long axis very often is tilted down too.
I support my counter-claim by directing the reader to YouTube and looking at videos of Heifetz, Hahn, Mutter, Oistrakh, Jansen, Bashmet, and Primrose. Sometimes the angle of the short axis against the floor is as much as 45 degrees.
Here is an example of decidedly non-table-top (but still very beautiful and compelling) viola playing:
But really, my biggest beef with the viola is the silly alto clef. It's one seventh down, right? Why can't they just make it a damned octave and be done with it, that way anyone could read it straight off (including -- gasp -- amateurs). "Oh but the clef is so critical to the character of the viola, etc. etc." Yeah, yeah, B.S. With modern software it should be nothing to make new editions. Y'all have to use treble clef for the high stuff anyway, with an octave-down clef you could just use 8va markings. Everyone wins.
Writing for the viola using treble and octave treble (below) makes it so that one has to notate the notes for the C string using excessive numbers of ledger lines, or use octave treble (below) for only the C string. That doesn't help with the readability.
I teach my junior high school orchestra classes how to read all the different clefs for each instrument. Once they understand how the clef symbol indicates the reference pitch for the staff, it's simply a mechanical process to figure out all the other notes.
If one learns different languages by translating every word, you will never master a new language; you will still dream in your first language and be hesitant in expression. A violinist who changes teams needs to think of this experience like driving a car versus riding a bicycle, both of which are about getting from point A to point B.
I enjoy languages and can't stop studying new ones. Believe it or not, learning Portuguese when you know Spanish is more difficult than learning Japanese when you know Spanish. With Japanese to Spanish, you don't get confused by common reference points. (Buri, please confirm.)
In the end, I count my blessings as either violinist or violist. Think of the mighty cello, which requires you to know three clefs to play the basic concert repertoire!
Also, it is worth noting that Zlata Brouwer's excellent videos on this site deal to some extent with how violinists and others can best approach the viola. So, between Zlata's and Jonah's posts, those contemplating a voyage to the "dark" side will be well-prepared.
I once saw a pro violist whose SR was so elaborate and large, it looked like a box girder bridge under there.
Gene, mechanically it just makes sense to tilt, that's my view. If you go too far you do lose the gravitational advantage in bowing. At 45 degrees you have lost only about 30% of that though.
Which leads to another question: might one try playing the viola upright in their lap, like old time fiddlers sometimes did? I've never heard of it but intend to try it.
Alto clef is no weirder than treble clef!! It's what you are used to, I suppose. I will say that reading treble clef down an octave is a nightmare for me, because notes that are spaces in one octave will be lines in the next. Way more trouble than it's worth... If you imagine the alto clef sitting smack dab in between treble and bass (the E and G top lines of the alto staff are the bottom two lines of treble, and the F and A bottom lines of the alto staff are the top two of bass) it makes more sense. I'll get into both of these topics in future posts!
Laurie, we have a wide variety! But my favorite are oatmeal chocolate chip...
I agree the long axis of the violin should be close to horizontal. I'm actually pretty good at keeping it there. I see kids drooping their violins and sure enough, their bows wander over the fingerboard too. We have to use gravity to our advantage whenever possible.
By the way, thanks for being a champion of modern composers. Your musicality and technical mastery are well suited to this task.
Francesca, playing the viola upright might work, but good luck finding a teacher who will help you with it that way. I think you do what we all do, tinker around with SR and CR until you can manage it for at least a little while and then re-evaluate.
As for learning alto clef, many people make too big a thing of it. Sure it's confusing at first, especially after a lifetime of reading treble clef. But give it some time. As someone else said, start with the open strings as a reference, then gradually fill things in. After a couple of weeks you'll be reading it well enough to play, and after a few months you'll be able to switch clefs quickly, even in the middle of a piece.
Try to find a real viola teacher, not a violinist who's trying to switch-hit. When I started viola, my violin teacher flatly refused to have anything to do with it. I now have a teacher who plays viola in a large orchestra, and my lessons are specifically tailored to the instrument.
My teacher is after me to keep the viola up, level with the floor. She also cautions me about tilting it too much, explaining that - especially on the higher strings - it doesn't let gravity assist the weight of the bow. You do need to dig into the strings a bit more to get a good sound, but it's kind of fun - and you're not as likely to crush a note as you are on a violin.
I still play violin - it takes a bit of adjustment to the lighter bow pressure and closer note spacing, but I can usually adapt in a few minutes. When I take my fiddle to bluegrass jams, I sometimes bring along my viola, especially on the nights when I go directly from my viola lesson to the jam. When I start sawing away on that C string, it turns a lot of heads. And it's fun to seduce people by handing them the viola and getting them to draw the bow across that C string. "Come to the dark side..."
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