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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 vs Viola

Instruments: How similar / different are they?

From Susan Young
Posted November 12, 2010 at 05:22 PM

This topic is getting started on a blog but I thought I would move it here.  I am learning the violin but love the much deeper tones of the cello.   However, I am learning the violin because it's more social, easier to take around, can jump into jam sessions easier and it's easier to find music to accompany the guitar.  I was wondering if a viola might be a better compromise for me?  But I have some questions........

Do you play the viola exactly the same as you play the violin?  Same sheet music?  Same hand positions?  Since i am learning the violin, if I switch to a viola, can I still use the same books and videos that I have been following?  I do not yet own my own instrument (renting) so now is the time to decide if a change is in order!

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on November 12, 2010 at 05:45 PM

You don't use the same sheet music.  Most viola music is written in alto clef rather than treble.  This makes it harder to play along on that collection of Christmas carols someone has xeroxed.  A lot of the basic technique transfers over, and if you are just beginning, the differences won't be so apparent- things like bow speed and weight, width of vibrato, that kind of thing.  Finger spacing is wider, depending on the size of viola you have.  (As you may or may not know, there's no standard size for violas.  You buy them by the inch, anywhere from 15" to about 17" for the length of the back.  A violin is about 14".) 

From Peter Charles
Posted on November 12, 2010 at 06:26 PM

Don't play the viola unless you want to become a manic depressive.

From Timothy Hobbs
Posted on November 12, 2010 at 06:49 PM

Yes, but violins cause anxiety, OCD, PTSD, bedwetting, and stage fright.

And they can make girls cry.

From bill platt
Posted on November 12, 2010 at 07:18 PM

The viola is exactly the same as a violin only it is larger and completely different. There, that cleared it up.

Music that is written for the viola in symphonies is alto clef, but of course if you can read g clef you can play it fine. Just that you have lower notes that fall off the staff, that's all.

Viola is more physically demanding (and potentially injurious) for little women, and yet there are loads and loads of little women playing viola. I guess women like challenges.

There is even a "vertical viola" which is played like a cello. Robert Spear would probably be happy to make one for you--he is an expert in them.

From bill platt
Posted on November 12, 2010 at 07:18 PM

The viola is exactly the same as a violin only it is larger and completely different. There, that cleared it up.

Music that is written for the viola in symphonies is alto clef, but of course if you can read g clef you can play it fine. Just that you have lower notes that fall off the staff, that's all.

Viola is more physically demanding (and potentially injurious) for little women, and yet there are loads and loads of little women playing viola. I guess women like challenges.

There is even a "vertical viola" which is played like a cello. Robert Spear would probably be happy to make one for you--he is an expert in them.

From Peter Charles
Posted on November 12, 2010 at 07:28 PM

I've just heard an echo ...

"Yes, but violins cause anxiety, OCD, PTSD, bedwetting, and stage fright.

And they can make girls cry."

No, that's violas!!!

From Ann Marie Cordial
Posted on November 12, 2010 at 08:44 PM

Are you a hopeless romantic?  Violas are seductive, and when you play them, they tend to feel as though they've come alive and they purr against your skin.  Violas are the bridge between the violin and the cello.  While two of the strings on a viola are the same as a violin, the other two tend to have rich, deep voices like warm chocolate. 

I play the violin as well.  I'm just pointing out a difference that I notice.

--Ann Marie

From Peter Charles
Posted on November 12, 2010 at 08:54 PM

I always thought there were THREE strings the same as the violin A,D,G?

Maybe I'vealways been playing it incorrectly in all those orchestras.

I do like chocolate but I never liked the viola.

From LUIS CLAUDIO MANFIO
Posted on November 12, 2010 at 09:19 PM

I am a viola maker and I need more and more violists!!!

www.manfio.com

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on November 12, 2010 at 09:30 PM

OCD and bedwetting are definitely violin things.  PTSD and stage fright are what make violinists into violists.

From LUIS CLAUDIO MANFIO
Posted on November 12, 2010 at 09:51 PM

It is allways good remembering that some guys played - and play both: David Oistrack, Pinchas Zukerman, Slomo Mintz, Michael Tree, Toby Appel, and many many more.

Many violinists would not feel well playing fortissimo side by side with violists like Zukerman or this fantastic young viola player that is David Aaron-Carpenter...

www.manfio.com

From Susan Young
Posted on November 13, 2010 at 12:15 AM

Lets see, I definitely have OCD,  I don't bedwet, I certainly do not suffer from stage fright and I'm not a manic depressive so it sounds like I need to stick with the violin!  But I love the deeper, mellower sounds.  Hmmmm..... may I need to play one tomorrow and see what it's like!

Luis - I would love to try your violas but I live a little far from Brazil :-(

From Janis Cortese
Posted on November 13, 2010 at 12:18 AM

" ... violins cause anxiety, OCD, PTSD, bedwetting, and stage fright."

They only cause PTSD if the entire first violin section is on an open E at the same time.  :-)

From Christopher Payne
Posted on November 13, 2010 at 01:01 AM

 Not really a big deal switching between them. Some might tell you it's entirely different but really it's no different to an alto sax player playing a tenor sax. 

Your fingers will reach for the same intervals albeit with more of a stretch. You don't have to get the biggest viola anyway. Reading is more of a challenge but not such a big deal. It would have been better if we had transposing clefs like wind players do but oh well... If you are not reading then no problem.  Bowing is slightly different but nothing you can't get used to in ten minutes! No reason why you cannot play both or even get a 5 string violin!

From Trevor Jennings
Posted on November 13, 2010 at 02:01 AM

I think a 5-string viola (with the E) is likely to be more effective than a 5-string violin (with the low C), because the viola would already have a good bass response which I imagine would be difficult to build into the smaller 5-string violin.  (That's really mostly guess-work on my part so informed comment from a luthier who works in this particular area would be appreciated.)

At orchestra this week someone mentioned the principal viola of one of the British orchestras (sorry, I didn't catch his name) who has a 5-string viola (with the high E) that was specially made for him and is unusual in that it has an asymmetric shape – in what manner I don't know – and apparently has a magnificent tone.

From Ron Kovach
Posted on November 13, 2010 at 04:57 AM

 You could always get a Bellafina chin cello. They don't have quite the sonority of a regular cello, but I'll be darned if they're not a ton of fun. The look of astonishment on some people's faces when they hear such low notes bellowing out of something the size of a viola, is easily worth the meager price and then some.

From elise stanley
Posted on November 13, 2010 at 06:28 AM

L: OCD and bedwetting are definitely violin things.  PTSD and stage fright are what make violinists into violists.

LOL - and many a true word were said in jest!

People who play both?  Major cases of schizophrenia.  Interesting that it seems far fewer play violin (or viola) and cello. 

Whats this chin cello?  I'd like to try that...

From Trevor Jennings
Posted on November 13, 2010 at 03:16 PM

Elise, google "Bellafina chin cello" – there's a lot out there.  From what I can make out it is essentially an "octave viola", a viola with internal modifications and provided with special strings to drop it down an octave.  This must be similar to octave violins, which have been around for quite a while.  A friend of mine, an excellent Irish fiddler and a qualified luthier, made an octave violin as an experiment from some old wreck of a fiddle that wasn't really fit for much, added the special octave strings and played it occasionally at sessions,  giving a noticeable depth and "presence" to the music.

From Peter Charles
Posted on November 13, 2010 at 03:54 PM

There is usually no poblem with playing both instruments even in the same concert. I used to play both at times, but now I opt for the best option and only play the violin, which is much more enjoyable.

From Trevor Jennings
Posted on November 13, 2010 at 04:18 PM

 If anyone does go down the chin cello route they mustn't expect to be able to play all of the cello repertoire "as is" on the chin cello (octave viola).  For instance, passages written specifically to take advantage of the cellist's thumb position technique may prove to be very difficult or even impossible to play on a chin-held instrument without a considerable re-write (the last movement  of Kodaly's opus 8 comes to mind).

Going back a few posts, though, a well-made 5-string viola would be nice for Bach's 6th solo cello suite, which was written for a 5-stringer.

From Marsha Weaver
Posted on November 14, 2010 at 02:30 PM

Someone mentioned that a viola measures between 15 and 17".  I tried a lovely 14" that my luthier has, and it's totally manageable -- even with small hands!  They come even smaller, but I'm not sure how much sound quality would be sacrificed.

From Ann Marie Cordial
Posted on November 15, 2010 at 01:20 PM

Where would you buy a chin cello?

From Trevor Jennings
Posted on November 15, 2010 at 02:16 PM

Ann,  if you google "chin cello" you'll come up with a useful listing, and there are blogs and retailers in there.  Look out for a Korean composer by the name of Unsuk Chin, who, I kid you not, has written a cello concerto (a BBC commission), presumably for the real cello and not the chin cello!

From Ron Kovach
Posted on November 17, 2010 at 10:28 PM

lmgtfy.com/  lol

I think more luthiers should try their hand at making their version of this thing. Manfio, what say you?

From LUIS CLAUDIO MANFIO
Posted on November 18, 2010 at 10:16 AM

Is the chin cello the same instrument known as "viola da spalla", here played  bySigiswald Kuijken (a violinist)  -  here playing Bach:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFZ0HHMIMn0

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=081JUQ7f6Yo

I love it! But there are already some specialized guys making this instrument...   and I just sold 2 of my remaining violas to players of the Gewandhaus and I am violaless now, have to make some more till enterering in a different project!

www.manfio.com

From LUIS CLAUDIO MANFIO
Posted on November 18, 2010 at 10:20 AM

And here a discussion about the viola da spalla in another forum:

http://www.maestronet.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=319507&st=0

From Trevor Jennings
Posted on November 18, 2010 at 10:36 AM

I wonder if it could be played a la cello,  resting on the thighs when you're sitting.  I'd love to try one.  In the YouTube videos the articulation with the baroque bow and gut strings was a joy.    

From Peter Charles
Posted on November 18, 2010 at 11:28 AM

I listened to those clips and all I can say is - "What a dreadful noise!!"

From Ann Marie Cordial
Posted on November 18, 2010 at 02:12 PM

I have some questions -

How would you carry that instrument?  Do they make special cases for it? 

Also, the neck strap looks like it might hurt.  How does it attach to the instrument?

---Ann Marie

From Ron Kovach
Posted on November 18, 2010 at 07:03 PM

 Bellafina's ChinCello =/ viola da spalla. Similar, yes. Identical, definitely not.

From Trevor Jennings
Posted on November 18, 2010 at 07:09 PM

Anne, well, I'm sure someone would make a special case for it if you asked them nicely, but it's possible that a case for one of the smaller sizes of a child's cello might fit.   The straps looked a bit ad hoc-ish and appear to be wedged, at one end, between the fingerboard and the belly and, at the other, between the tailpiece and the belly.  The more I think about it the more I am inclined to believe that the instrument was originally intended to be played upright like a cello or tenor viol, in which case the fingering used would be more cellistic – perhaps not all the time, though.

I also wonder if there was a 5-string version (with a top E) that Bach would have had in mind when he wrote his 6th cello suite.

From John Pierce
Posted on November 19, 2010 at 01:32 AM

I'm late to this party, but since no one else has said it, I feel obliged...

What's the difference between a violin and a viola?

 

A viola burns longer.

 

Nothing personal...

Ilya Gringolts

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