Welcome to Violinist.com! Log in, or join the community!
Violinist.com
Facebook Twitter Google+ Email Newsletter

Books

Violinist.com Interviews: Vol. 1

Our exclusive, one-on-one interviews with 27 of today's best-known violinists, including Hilary Hahn, Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang, David Garrett, Anne Akiko Meyers, Maxim Vengerov, and others.


Violin or viola

Instruments: Choosing one of them

From Andre Peggion
Posted June 26, 2008 at 05:27 PM

I´m studying violin this last 5 years, from the very beggining. Since I have only two hours in a day to pratice, my development is slow.
These days I have been playing a 16"1/2 viola and apreciate it a lot. More sound and seems to be confortable to play.
My question is: viola is easier to learn, comparing to violin?

From Jerry Agin
Posted on June 26, 2008 at 06:07 PM
I bought a viola after I had been playing violin for ten years. I'm glad I did it because it makes me better able to fill in where I'm needed, particularly in playing string quartets.

I'd have to say there are two things that make the viola more difficult. The first is the size of the instrument. The notes are a little farther apart on the fingerboard, which makes quite a stretch for small hands like mine. (On the other hand, stretching for the viola makes notes on the violin seem easier to reach.) And you have to work a little harder with the right hand to get a good tone.

The other obstacle is that darn alto clef! If you're just starting out, it doesn't matter which clef you learn. But if, like most people, you're already used to reading treble clef, the alto clef can be quite a challenge. And if you switch back and forth between instruments, it can be extra confusing.

All in all, I'm very glad to be a "switch hitter". But there are obstacles I've had to overcome on the way.

Jerry

From Tom Holzman
Posted on June 26, 2008 at 06:32 PM
I am not a violist, but I do know some. The big advantage is that you are always in demand. Orchs and chamber groups always need you. While the previous post alluded to technique and alto clef issues as downsides, there is another one to consider. If you really like pre-20th century music, you will find little for solo viola compared to violin. And, most of what there is for ensemble playing from that period, except for some later Mozart, is not all that interesting. While those early composers tended to prefer playing viola to violin (e.g., Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak), they wrote little of interest for viola, either solo or ensemble work. Hindemith was really the first violist to write a great deal for viola.
From Nigel Keay
Posted on June 26, 2008 at 07:03 PM
To say that Beethoven wrote little of interest for the viola is a bit ridiculous isn't it?. Beethoven's string quartets are extremely satisfying to play as a violist. Difficult and rewarding at the same time, exhilarating and inspiring to be part of such music. There's even an occasional tune.... :)

I'd say it takes about 12 months to get used to the alto clef if switching over from the violin. It's true that there's lots of interesting repertoire starting in the 20th century. The greater finger span arguably forces one to be more inventive with fingerings to keep the hand in a comfortable position.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on June 26, 2008 at 07:26 PM
Nigel - I am not a violist and am willing to defer to your point that some of Beethoven's Quartets have interesting viola parts. However, I would rather have his violin concerto, violin sonatas, violin parts in his piano trios and in his quartets than the viola parts. Perhaps I made my point a little too starkly, but there is simply a lot more out there for violin, particularly solo material, that is more interesting, IMHO.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 27, 2008 at 01:14 AM
I started playing the viola seriously almost 2 years ago, at age 40, after having started with the violin as a child and played the violin in college and afterwards. I had picked up a viola briefly before I took a break for 8 years from all instruments when I had my two kids.

I agree that there is more solo repertoire for the violin, but at the beginning of my viola experience I didn't really mind because, honestly, I didn't want to play solo repertoire anyway. I liked the inner ensemble voices. I wanted to be the harmony, the glue that holds it all together. My teacher, who also plays both instruments and is principal 2nd violin of the professional orchestra she plays in, understood that impulse.

Then, a surprising thing happened to me with the viola. I still like the inner voices and all that when I play in an orchestra, but I think I got in touch with my inner soloist only when I started to play the viola. I learned some of the Bach cello suites on viola, fiddle tunes, and arranged some other pieces that I had known and liked on the violin. I've played these in church and at the farmers' market as a soloist, and actually enjoyed the experience--something I never did when I was a violin student. As a violin student I was an anxious bundle of nerves whenever I tried to play solo.

So I don't know. I wouldn't say viola is easier to learn than violin, but when I play it, it sounds better. It has a confidence and a grounding that the violin never had in my hands.

Depending on the level of playing, I'm not convinced that violists are always more in demand than violinists. I've been playing violin I in my community orchestra for the past three concerts because they needed violin I's more than they needed violas. Violin II tends to be well-covered, but people who are willing and able to put in the practice time to learn the more difficult violin I part are also in demand.

From Hannah Wright
Posted on June 27, 2008 at 03:22 AM
which ever instrument fits your body shape---for some people viola, though bigger, is easier to play on than the violin. As for repetoire, though, I think that the violinist has a more difficult and rich selection.

I must admit---I think I'm really a violist at heart. I love playing it. After playing a viola for a few minutes I pick up my violin and it sounds itchy and itty-bitty and stratchy and very awkward (and out of tune! I love the viola's spacing for some strange reason).
But the violin has the repetoire and the soprano voice that I think would be irreplaceable.

From putch panis
Posted on June 27, 2008 at 03:37 AM
Hmm... i wonder if I can play the viola. I'm just in 1st position of the violin and do not really like to go higher on the scale. How about going lower? I'd take up the cello if it wasn't so expensive and difficult to carry around.
From Mendy Smith
Posted on June 27, 2008 at 06:05 AM
Avoiding going into higher positions is not what viola playing is about. Granted, I love the sound of the viola's open strings more so than the violin's, but the higher positions on viola provide a different 'colour' to the tone.
From Sue Bechler
Posted on June 27, 2008 at 02:46 PM
In my experience,kids who choose the viola over the violin are often more adamant about their choice. There really does seem to be a viola "temperament", too. Some years ago, Victor, then a 4th grader, tap-danced into my doorway, did a Jimmy-Cagney style bow, and cried,"The viola or nothing!" Pretty convinced; though that was not exactly the common viola temperament, he had one ever after. Sue
From LUIS CLAUDIO MANFIO
Posted on June 27, 2008 at 10:50 PM
Well, I'm suspect because I'm mostly a viola maker now.... I love the sound.

At a professional level the viola is as difficult to play as the violin, the repertoire asked to enter a good orchestra is quite tought...

By the way, my friend Andrès Lepage has just made a site about my making, with tutorials, photos, sound samples, here:

www.manfio.com

From michelle lassiter
Posted on June 28, 2008 at 10:51 AM
Mmm, well fifteen years ago I couldn't choose between the violin or viola, so I let my mom choose for me (I was 8 and prone to such decision making). It's a decision I'm still struggling with today and it's hard for me to say I don't play viola anymore (though I'll take gigs that come my way).

My experiences:
I found Alto clef easy to acclimate to. I devised a transpositional system that had me playing viola parts to Der Meistersinger and the second Hungarian Rhapsody almost instantly upon making the switch for orchestra. Unfortunately, my system makes sense to no one I explain it to.

I, personally, can't play violin immediately after playing viola because I find myself squeezing because of the size difference. My hand also felt stretched out and needed time to achieve stasis before going back to violin or else I'd feel floppy, like a balloon that had been blown up, had its air let out, and hadn't quite shrunk back to its original size. Unfortunately the back and forth really hindered my development on violin. Now that I've been viola-free for about a year, I've finally made real development again. If you think you want to do both, you should consider this. There's another violinist at my university who switch-hits, so to speak, and he doesn't seem to have the same problems I did.

Playing above 7th/8th(?) position on viola is extremely cumbersome and not at all like shifting in that register on violin. I'm trying to remember the point that this happens for me, and I remember the viola solo in Ma Mere l'Oye being awkward not just shift-wise, but physically getting around in that register. It's for this reason I'd say that viola is a bit more difficult than violin; it's not harder because the notes are further apart, but because of the size of the instrument itself. Another difficulty is that it can be harder to produce a good tone on a viola and rapid passages require more precision to be heard clearly.

I wouldn't say viola is substantially more difficult than the violin, but its only real advantage for being easier is in large ensembles that play a lot of pre-romantic works (yes, Haydn viola parts are fun, but they aren't particularly difficult). There's an advantage to playing both, if you can swing it (as in being able to fill any 3 out of 4 chairs in a quartet at a moment's notice ), but you and anyone else should choose more based on the repertoire you enjoy (not all violin transcriptions sound as great on viola, mind you) and which one feels physically right to you than on which is arbitrarily easier.

From Andre Peggion
Posted on June 29, 2008 at 12:00 PM
Thanks for all yours answers.
Two weeks with that chinese viola and I´m in love. Sorry, my violin will stay in his case for a time.
Goods vibes from Brazil, in a cool Saturday night.
Thanks again.

From Jerry Agin:
“Two things that make the viola more difficult: the size of the instrument and that darn alto clef.”
It may sounds strange but after two weeks playing the two instruments, I do not consider the viola large, but the violin too smal.

From Nigel Keay:
“I'd say it takes about 12 months to get used to the alto clef if switching over from the violin.”
It may be something like reading (or speaking) a different language: it sounds strange in the beggining but after a period of adjustment a person can get used to it.

From Karen Allendoerfer:
“I wouldn't say viola is easier to learn than violin, but when I play it, it sounds better. It has a confidence and a grounding that the violin never had in my hands.”
I agree with you: viola has a more deep sound, something more close to human voice. Violin sometimes sounds too sharp, acute.
Violin is the main instrument on a orchestra, sounds wonderfully on the right hands, put the deepest emotions on musical notes ... but today, as a student, I prefer the amazing sound of viola. As a listener both instruments please me a lot.

From Hannah Wright:
“Which ever instrument fits your body shape---for some people viola, though bigger, is easier to play on than the violin. As for repetoire, though, I think that the violinist has a more difficult and rich selection.”
Hannah, after been struggling over these years searching for a shoulder and chin rest thats fits me with the violin, the viola, using a Kun and a central Wittner, acommodated more confortable.
I´m in search of enjoyment. I love classic music since my first years and decided to study violin after only one hour with a guitar in my hands. Today I bless God for that solely hour !!!
About the repertory there is a lot to go on. Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, maybe Beethoven, Paganini in a distant future ... who knows. My actual music is the best repertory I ever had.

From Luis Claudio Manfio
“Well, I'm suspect because I'm mostly a viola maker now.... I love the sound.”
And what a viola maker !!! One of these days I would like to see one of them personally, since we are almost neighbor. As people says in Italian language, a vero capolavoro !!!

From Michelle Lassiter:
“I found Alto clef easy to acclimate to. I devised a transpositional system that had me playing viola parts to Der Meistersinger and the second Hungarian Rhapsody almost instantly upon making the switch for orchestra. Unfortunately, my system makes sense to no one I explain it to.”
Please, I would like to know your system to transpose from treble (sol) to alto (do) clef. My enginner side became curious about your method.
“Playing above 7th/8th(?) position on viola is extremely cumbersome and not at all like shifting in that register on violin.”
Don´t worry about this. I´m in the lower positions, wich seems more easy to locate in a viola than in a violin. Perhaps because the distance between one note to another is bigger.
“not all violin transcriptions sound as great on viola”
Since the melody is good let´s play it ...

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 29, 2008 at 12:15 PM
“not all violin transcriptions sound as great on viola”

Some sound better ;-)

But actually, the cello repertoire might be a better place to look in many cases for viola transcriptions. Or the horn repertoire. On Monday I'm going to be starting to learn a piece by Schumann (Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70) that was originally a horn piece, but according to my teacher is now regularly played and performed on the viola.

There's also a set of nice duets by Mozart that were originally written for horns, but they're very nice too as violin/viola duets.

From Andre Peggion
Posted on June 30, 2008 at 02:59 AM
"The cello repertoire might be a better place to look in many cases for viola transcriptions. Or the horn repertoire."
"There's also a set of nice duets by Mozart that were originally written for horns, but they're very nice too as violin/viola duets."

Karen,
Could indicated some begginner duet for violin/viola, please?
My teacher plays as 1st violin in a orchestra. He had already told me that he do not know the viola repertoire. So I will need some help about this.
Tonight I saw a quartet from Brahms: piano, violin, cello and viola. Very pleasant. The difference between the violin and viola was very clear: violin -> left hand very closed, going up and down along the positions; viola -> hand open and playing mainly in lower positions. I sat in the first row, so it sounded like a private lesson for me.

From Nigel Keay
Posted on June 30, 2008 at 08:45 AM
viola -> hand open and playing mainly in lower positions

I read recently somewhere that the output of a viola is 7db lower than that of violin or cello. In the quartet repertoire violists will try to stay in the lowest position possible to maximise resonance through greatest string length. They might feel freer to use higher positions in orchestral repertoire where the possibilty of alternative fingering exists.

From LUIS CLAUDIO MANFIO
Posted on June 30, 2008 at 11:29 AM
Hi André! Come to visit me! My house/workshop is on Planalto Paulista, near Clube Sirio and Sao Judas subway Station. Ciao!