Are violists born or made?

June 17, 2017, 4:49 AM · Inspired by the "personality profile of violinists" post, here's another philosophical question to ponder : )

Replies (68)

June 17, 2017, 6:24 AM · I began with violin than changed to viola.
Both instruments, violin and viola, demands a lot of hours of study. Year after year, exercise after exercise ...
Some of the violinist seems to came "ready": Menuhim, Vengerov, etc. Reincarnation of an violinist of the past ? No one knows.
In my case there was 14 years studying viola. Maybe in my next life I will be a "born violist".
Edited: June 17, 2017, 7:01 AM · Started on vln, included vla in jr high (aka middle school) b/c 24 vln 0 vla, vla looked more interesting. Full scholarship to university on vla. Now, 40+/- yrs later I again "include" vln.... but in ensemble only 2nd.
The point: personally, I like being part of the connecting tissue of an ensemble rather than the prominent soloistic line (or the bass). I can play (have done) the tricky technical stuff [love the virtuoso thread, btw] but I don't get as much pleasure from being the solo as from supporting it.
Thus viola rules, w/ 2nd vln a close second.
June 17, 2017, 7:26 AM · I agree absolutely with Marjory: I always enjoyed singing second treble, later tenor, and trying to harmonise "on the fly". On the viola, fast music expresses passion rather than empty brilliance (!) and slow music, well.....
I started viola at 14-1/2 yo. My parents thought I would be in more demand, and I was first aware of its gorgeous tone from my dad's 1933 78rpm of the Sammons/Tertis Concertante.
In fact I have actually earned more money playing violin! The level of professional violists has increased considerably, and I still have far more violin than viola students. But I have set up a 15" viola as a violin to better help my young lady tudents with tiny hands.
June 17, 2017, 8:56 AM · How many professional violists started on the viola rather than the violin? It seems like nearly all of them became quite good violinists before making the switch.
Edited: June 17, 2017, 9:04 AM · Frieda, I think it's hard to start on the viola when you're younger because it's bigger and teeny violas just sound like total crap. Plus, why not start on violin anyway, the basic technique, at least in the beginning on fractional instruments, is the same.

So ... is there a viola gene? And if so, can insurance companies use that genetic information to infer that you're more likely to need physical therapy?

June 17, 2017, 9:06 AM · Adrian wrote, "rather than empty brilliance..."

Oooh that's pickin' a fight LOL.

June 17, 2017, 9:28 AM · To each their own. There are "brilliant" viola works out there.

One doesn't even have to have a big ego to like brilliance in music. I love the fireworks, even in piano works.

In short, I think one can both enjoy the background and the spotlight, and that neither should be deemed inherently superior to the other. Which of course does not mean it is wrong to prefer one or the other, as long as each side is respected for its musical value.

June 17, 2017, 9:40 AM · Is there a viola gene? Yes, it's called the "failed violinist" gene. Just kidding!

Paul, viola-loving people have asked me whether they should start their child on viola. I tell them they'd have a better shot at technical proficiency if they start on violin and then switch. The fractional instrument issue is a good point.

June 17, 2017, 9:48 AM · There are people who start on viola, but it's unpopular to the point that extreme beginners don't have a lot of opportunies to really play with others (e.g Suzuki groups). Ensemble playing doesn't really happen until they've played for about a year or two and can get into a junior-level youth orchestra. Plus, fractional violas (or restrung violins for that matter) are often not recognized and not treated like they're fractional violins or cellos. Futhermore, finding a viola teacher willing to take on a kid-sized violist seems rare.
June 17, 2017, 10:49 AM · Even Primrose agreed ig better to teach viola after basic violin, because apart from issue of bad sound, he felt the difficulty of proper sound production on viola as rather hard to teacb a rank beginner.

I might get yelled at for this, but almost all videos of violists, including professionals, have the same problem, in that they use more bow speed over weight and produce a more violinistic sound (vs the true slow bow and arm weight dark tone of a viola as plauyed by older players sych as Lillian Fuchs, Primrose or Emmanuel Vardi). :D

Edited: June 17, 2017, 2:08 PM · I definitely agree with A. O. that getting a pleasing tone out of a viola (especially C string, I don't think G, D and A are a huge deal) is harder than getting that same kind of sound from a violin. However, there are some people who like to bow hard more than anything else and are more likely to sound better on viola than violin because with viola, that "bowing hard more than anything else" attitude can be a good thing and a necessity with viola.
June 17, 2017, 2:44 PM · I wonder how it is that some of the most famous living violists, such as Lawrence Power, Tabea Zimmermann, Paul Neubauer, and Paul Coletti all started on viola without any violin training, and got to the level of any good player who started on violin. Tabea Zimmermann started at age 3 and started winning local competitions a few years later. It has to be achievable somehow, but is somehow rare. Perhaps it's a cultural thing to do with familiarity and perceived prestige.
Edited: June 17, 2017, 7:19 PM · Maybe they were violists in their previous lives. I can definitely see how you can attain a high playing level on viola without any violin experience, but what concerns me more is what sort of viola they used as a kid. How big was it? It must've been a fractional viola, right?
June 17, 2017, 4:37 PM · Cremonus only blesses certain lucky individuals to play the viola. For it is written, "I only bless certain lucky individuals to play the viola." (Book of Cremonus, 9:23)
June 17, 2017, 8:06 PM · @Ella I am not sure exactly what size their instruments were. Probably fractional, though I heard Lawrence Power was a pretty large child. I am sure they weren't the best sounding instruments, but hey, what 10th size violin sounds like a Stradivarius?
Edited: June 17, 2017, 9:13 PM · Also by the way, a viola former teacher I studied with for a few years gladly took on beginners of all ages, for whom it was their very first instrument. She taught some of them using the Suzuki method, supplemented with reading practice, and had started on viola without violin herself. Those who weren't big enough for a real viola had a restrung fractional violin. It seemed to work out just as well as it has beginning violinists, in my opinion. Though I have seen what you are talking about when it comes to violists lacking facility for whatever reason. In my experience, these tend to struggle with any instrument they have try.
Edited: June 17, 2017, 9:31 PM · I have definitely heard of restrung violins used for kids physically unable to manage a proper viola and I'm perfectly okay with them. I feel that users of fractional violas (or restrung violins) should be respected, treated like fractional violin and cello users and not looked down upon (restrung violins shouldn't be promoted). I don't recall saying anything about people lacking facility, but I realize everyone perceives text differently. Can you clarify?
June 17, 2017, 10:47 PM · I play in two string quartets, playing both violin and viola; I played the viola the most, but in recent months I've been playing violin as much as viola.
June 18, 2017, 8:02 AM · My oldest son is a native violist who started at 12.5 years old. He was able to start on a 15" and is now on a 16.5" at age 15. The only issues he has is folks assuming that he started on violin so must be thoroughly familiar with treble clef, which he still struggles with. He never liked the violin. So yes, I think there is such a thing as a born violist.
June 18, 2017, 8:43 AM · Mostly they are failed violinists, but some may be born violists.
June 18, 2017, 10:15 AM · I disagree with Peter that violists are failed violinists, and I agree with Krista that there are born violists. Plus, there are even some violinists who find out they're more natural on viola once they switch.
Edited: June 18, 2017, 12:51 PM · E.g Peter Schidloff, Pinchas Zukerman...

..both of whom play(ed) the violin with a dense, bright tone.

June 18, 2017, 2:51 PM · They crawl out from under a stone...

Cheers Carlo

June 18, 2017, 7:29 PM · When I started learning, there WERE no 'small' violas, so no one learned viola from scratch if they started when they were small themselves. "Failed violinists" is such an insulting and inaccurate assessment--and so out-of-date, I'm surprised to find it here, even if (I hope?) in jest.

Ultimately, for many of us, it's simply preference--maybe the role we want in ensemble, the location in ensemble even. Violists and 2nd violinists are much better positioned in most standard orchestra setups to hear the entire orchestra (pity the poor enders who get trombones or tympani in their ears, but otherwise...)

I play both viola and violin--with passion and dedication--but I'm a violist first, and will be till physical limitations (some bad teaching back when) make the violin the easier instrument.

Edited: June 19, 2017, 12:58 AM · We have been duly ticked off (and quite rightly) by Marjory. I hope my comments were seen in jest ...

I've just been following a live UK TV programme for six nights called "Cardiff Singer of the World." (No it is not a sewing machine contest ...)

Two orchestras took part, and of all the solo string playing BY FAR the best was from the viola principal of the WNO. Outplayed the fiddlers, the cellists and most others from both orchestras. (In my humble opinion of course ...)

June 19, 2017, 1:51 AM · I know many, many viola jokes. All told to me by violists...

I guess they make up for their lack of talent by having a sense of humour...

Cheers Carlo

Edited: June 19, 2017, 6:07 PM · I started on a violin for about a year - that's all I had access too. Then I got a viola and now my violin never leaves the case.

Viola is a little daunting to new comers because (regardless of what violinists say) the instrument itself is more difficult and in an arcane clef. Sure, the music isn't as fast or showy, but it requires more precision, not less (wider note spacing's), and more vigorous bowing.

Rhythms are typically a little harder because they're part of the 'engine' that keeps the orchestra or ensemble moving. Not to mention you need thick enough skin to deal with the derision of the music community and the fact that you'll only occasionally have the limelight.. I'm not sure who is hated more - the viola, the trombone, or the concert guitarist.

*Edited spelling*

June 19, 2017, 5:29 PM · I wouldn't say viola is harder to play than violin. I wouldn't say wider spacing is easier to deal with than narrower spacing, but I do agree that it's harder to get a big sound out of a viola than a violin (particularly C string) and that dealing with the larger size means more postural precision.
Edited: June 19, 2017, 6:16 PM · I think that it's a recessive gene that allows one to count better and have a heightened sensitivity that facilitates blending with everything that's going on in all the other sections.

First violinists and trumpeters have a dominant gene that turns off both of the prior mentioned traits.

Future genetic modification technologies may change parents' abilities to select for both sex and section.

Now looking at it from a Jungian perspective, firsts would be the narcissistic extroverts and violists the reflective introverts.

Darwin, however might explain the devolpment of the larger viola variant as a result of the competitive pressures to feed on the over ripe melodic fruit that has created the often menacing competition experienced among first violins.

Edited: June 19, 2017, 6:25 PM · Also, alto is a stupid clef. If classical guitarists can read two more extra lines below the clef than violists, why can't we just read three and leave violas in treble, that way I could stop having those c/g/b brain farts at the end of a late rehearsal when I switch back and forth.

Oh, my vote-start with singing and piano then violin. Later, viola would come easier with treble first.
Throw a bass in there somewhere, and that's how I learned.

Edited: June 19, 2017, 6:43 PM · Edward - in the words of a famous violists (I can't remember which right now) - The viola is just a violin with a college education!

Also, classical guitar is my primary instrument. I sometimes wish for alto clef, but then I realize I'm being short sighted and remember I have enough ledger lines to deal with when playing in any position above 5th. It'd be great for first pos, but once you start going up you'd really suffer and end up with the same issue as viola - the dreaded mid-line switch to treble.

I sometimes play in G clef on viola. It feels weird after working in C clef so long. Then again I also sometimes play in F clef (Some hymms bari/tenor lines)and that's a real brain fart.

June 20, 2017, 8:48 AM · @Michael: It was primrose who said that. :D
June 20, 2017, 9:09 AM · "Now looking at it from a Jungian perspective, firsts would be the narcissistic extroverts and violists the reflective introverts."

Edward, so viola soloists are reflective extroverts?
(I suppose narcissic introverts will grumble awy in the back desks and get very bitter...)

June 20, 2017, 11:11 AM · What does Primrose mean by "the viola is a violin with a college education?"
June 20, 2017, 2:02 PM · Adrian: yes;-)
June 20, 2017, 2:08 PM · Ella, violists are well placed to take an interest in the inner workings of a composition. Some of the even enjoy adminstrative tasks as well.
June 21, 2017, 2:01 AM · Edward, I admit it's over 55 years since I read "Psychological Types", but even so, I think I'd remember if the words "narcissistic" and "reflective" had been employed in their categorization.
June 21, 2017, 2:03 AM · Re Octavia's original question, violists are certainly never UNBORN by their playing.
June 21, 2017, 3:06 AM · John, I know, just couldn't think of the others off the top of my head.
June 21, 2017, 6:22 AM · Ella, violists are well placed to take an interest in the inner workings of a composition. Some of the even enjoy adminstrative tasks as well.

And some prop up the local bar and get through ten pints before the concert ...

However, i really do not think you can categorise violists, violinists, or anyone else - they are all as varied as the general population. The only people who sometimes fit in to a category are ....... wait for it ..... conductors!

June 21, 2017, 1:29 PM · My earlier comment was addressed also to the rest of the posters saying one acquired a better technique being someone who switches from violin to viola, rather than beginning with viola.
Edited: July 15, 2017, 6:34 PM · I agree with Peter that musicians are as varied as the general population. I do disagree with Lieschen that a violist is less virtuosic than a violinist. It's just that society isn't that way, which I don't like (that's why I want to primarily study violin and play viola for my own pleasure).
June 22, 2017, 6:27 PM · Richard Strauss Viola parts 1 & 4 are plenty virtuosic for me- (love it them!)
June 22, 2017, 6:30 PM · See, now we're getting into the nature vs. nurture arguments, which lead to the multiple intelligences platitudes- "Jenny/Johnny, you"re plenty smart, just in a 'different' way than the firsts."
June 23, 2017, 4:43 AM · Violists are neither born nor made. They are concocted in laboratories by mad scientists! ;-D

But seriously, it's interesting to note that both Haydn and Mozart, when reading chamber music, preferred to play viola, enjoying being in the middle of the harmony.

Finally I'm reminded of the old saying, defining a string quartet: It's a group made up of one good violinist, one bad violinist, one failed violinist - and someone who hates violinists!

June 23, 2017, 7:59 AM · Advertisement: Established string quartet seeking two violinists and a cellist.....
June 24, 2017, 10:43 AM · (Last comment reported as spam)
June 25, 2017, 5:57 AM · I think it might have been a viola joke, John.
June 25, 2017, 6:27 AM · Are violists born or made? Well, do you know any violists who were not born? All the violists I know were born.
June 25, 2017, 8:13 PM · I think a born violist is someone who starts viola without learning violin. Anyone is born.
June 27, 2017, 2:47 PM · I never said violists were less virtuosic than violinists. I was trying to voice my disagreement with those who thought otherwise. I guess I wasn't clear enough.
June 27, 2017, 4:36 PM · But Michael,BP advertised without paying for it.
June 28, 2017, 1:14 AM · Born or made?

Usually by accident.

June 28, 2017, 6:56 AM · Looooool!!! :D
June 28, 2017, 9:09 PM · In my daughters elementary school they offer Recorder to everyone in 3rd grade and strings or band to those who choose to take music in 4th and 5th. She chose Viola because of the alto voice. She is now in middle school and a committed Violist. Like most things in life, some come to the discipline by choice, others by circumstance. The important thing is that you enjoy it. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Paganini were all quite fond of the Viola, which was also mentioned earlier.
June 29, 2017, 3:42 PM · Dunno about others, but I was definitely made. A friend who was in a local community orchestra dragged me in, thrust a viola into my hands, and said, "Here, learn this - we need more violists." Thus I became Edited: June 29, 2017, 3:46 PM · I was going to say The Accidental Violist in the preceding message, but I became The Website Breaker when I tried to edit out an HTML typo. Sigh...
July 4, 2017, 4:19 AM · William Primrose made one or two (beautiful) recrdings as a violinist; it was Ysaye who encouraged him to play viola, and hearing Lionel Tertis clinched it.

Peter Schidloff turned to the viola to make up the Amadeus Quartet.

July 4, 2017, 9:20 AM · Charlie, what
July 4, 2017, 6:02 PM · There's another violist named Charlie that was a professional violinist first - CSO principal Charles Pickler
July 6, 2017, 12:44 PM · I'm not a Pickler, but I am working on a batch of sauerkraut right now...
July 11, 2017, 2:45 PM · Simple - first remove brain!
Seriously though I think you can tell the difference between a violist and a converted violinist. To take the obvious example - the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante. There's Igor and David Oistrakh - and there's David Oistrakh and Rudolf Barshai. Now THAT'S something else.
July 11, 2017, 7:58 PM · Malcolm - Thank You for that.The Oistrakh-Barshai recording is on YouTube and is certainly marvelous (Oistrakh duo is also on Youtube). I recognized the album cover from the Youtube and sure enough I found a copy of the LP in the remains of my collection that I shelved when i moved here 22 years ago. Apparently it was never converted to CD and even the LP seems to be unavailable online. I found a few other forgotten treasures among my LPs while looking for the O-B SC.

July 14, 2017, 5:45 PM · Onions are neither - They are grown.
July 15, 2017, 6:39 PM · How on Earth can you tell the difference between a native violist and a converted violinist, just by their playing alone?
July 15, 2017, 9:17 PM · A lot of converted violinists initially have a vibrato that is too narrow for viola, in addition to struggling with sound production in the right hand. I have also seen a few converted violinists initially play quite sharp. I couldn't imagine that all of these thugs couldn't be overcome by most people though.
July 15, 2017, 9:32 PM · Well, I get your point, but I think Malcolm was talking converted violinists who already sound and look like violists vs native violists. How on Earth can you tell those apart?
July 17, 2017, 6:55 AM · The flip side, though, is Zuckerman. Although a "converted" violinist, so to speak, he always had a marvelous viola sound. Since the Sinfonia Concertante was mentioned, check out the recording and video with him and Perlman from the Huberman festival in 1981 or thereabouts. Or listen to his recording of Berloiz Harold in Italy. I'm not sure I've ever heard a richer sounding version!

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