Back in December 2015, I bought my first viola, so I’ve had it about a month. I am not “switching” from the violin to the viola, but rather I just want to expand my capabilities and have access to more chamber music opportunities.
The following are my initial discoveries:
1. My first-position first-finger notes (A, E, B) tend to be a little too sharp. Initially I thought those notes would be flat because they need to be farther from the nut than they are on the violin. But the viola is larger, so it appears that I need to recalibrate my left elbow to set my entire hand position farther out.
2. At the same time, the larger “spread” of the fingers was more stressful than I expected. I’m getting used to it, but you really feel it with double stops and anything that calls for high third and fourth fingers. Initially I could only practice for 10 minutes at a time. Now I can play for maybe half an hour before feeling any fatigue.
3. As a corollary of point No. 2, when fingering an orchestral part (to accompany a Bach keyboard concerto in A major), I found that there is greater need to think about the choice between a high 4 and a low 1 (for example, D#) and more need to finger passages of several notes in half position, etc.
4. The viola is less responsive than the violin. It takes just a little more time for the bow to produce sound. I find therefore that the importance of pre-fingering notes when changing strings (as described by Fischer in his “Scales” book for violin) is much more keenly felt on the viola. I don’t think this is just my instrument, but I can’t be sure until try some other violas. More than likely just my technique.
5. As a violinist, when you go to your highest string (E) you can play with your bow right next to the bridge and draw a good strong tone fairly easily. But it does not work as well on the viola, which does not have a thin wire for its highest string.
6. Alto clef is coming along. Because the strings are the same as the cello, and I’m accustomed to reading my daughter’s cello music, I taught myself to “translate” from bass clef. Middle C is in the middle of the staff. If that were bass clef, that would be a D. So it’s “down one” from bass clef. (The fact that it’s also up an octave is not relevant to me.) I find myself needing to “translate” less and less.
7. After playing the viola for about 15 minutes, the violin feels like a tiny toy instrument. More than that, the thin piece of foam I’m using underneath my violin no longer seems adequate, as if the viola stretched my neck or something. The Kun, however, is still a bit too high. Not sure how to solve this immediately.
My daughter and I are working on the first of the Mozart Duos (G Major). Her intonation on the violin is good enough that I can rely on it to improve my intonation on the viola. I’m also working on a couple of movements from the Bach Cello Suites and the aforementioned orchestral part for the Bach keyboard concerto.
The rest of this entry is about the purchase and setup of my viola.
I bought my instrument sight-unseen. I learned that a trusted friend who is a fine professional violinist was travelling to the Midwest to buy a few cellos for his music school, and I asked him to pick out and purchase a viola for me, something in the $3000-4000 price range. Fortunately he agreed. Using a few of his violas, he “fitted” me to a 16” instrument, and off he went.
The viola is a brand-new Ming-Jiang Zhu “AA” instrument, workshop-made in China in 2015. According to what I have read, the “AA” is fashioned of Chinese maple, a European spruce top, an Aubert bridge, and jujube fittings (pegs, tail piece, button, and chin rest), and Dominant strings. The instrument looks beautiful and it sounds very good to my ear. The low register is nice and rich and chocolatey. The upper register is just a little “pinched” but seems to be opening up some.
My neck is short, and the Guarneri chin rest that came with the viola didn’t fit me well. But I spent Christmas with family in the Detroit area, so I was able to visit the Shar showroom in Ann Arbor, where I tried a range of chin-rests. They were very helpful there. I like going to Shar. Before making the trip, my violin teacher suggested that I include the Wittner among those that I tried, because he has found it to work for many of his viola students. Sure enough, the chin-rest that fit the best at Shar was the Wittner! It’s not as pretty as the jujube chin rest, but until I can get something custom-carved, it will have to do. I don’t use a shoulder rest, only a small piece of foam to protect my sensitive collarbone from the hard edge of the instrument including the chin rest fittings. So far that's okay for me.
As a bonus, while at Shar, I had the wonderful surprise to catch up with an old acquaintance – a fellow of about the same age who works there in their cello department. He is someone that I knew as a teenager – we played in the same community orchestra and I think we may have had one or two pit-orchestra gigs together. That would have been 35+ years ago. He went on to become a fine cellist. Truly, it is a small world.
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