The Accidental Violist

October 9, 2012, 12:56 PM · I guess it all goes back to a violin-playing friend of ours, under whose influence I got serious about studying classical violin three years ago. My wife, under the same influence, took up the cello, even though she had never played anything before. We've had a lot of fun playing as a trio, and have even played at a couple of weddings.

I knew that the next step (aside from getting involved in an orchestra) was to play string quartets. We have a couple of other violin-playing friends - but who would play the viola? I had a sneaking suspicion that the task would someday fall to me. But I didn't give it much thought - we continued having fun with our Corelli trio sonatas and concerti grossi, along with bits and pieces of Bach, Brahms, and whatever.

About a month ago our violinist friend found out about a local orchestra, and decided that joining would help his musical development. The rest of us left him to it, feeling it was better not to distract him in his new and somewhat intimidating environment.

After a recent rehearsal our friend told us that the orchestra desperately needs a good violist. We met him, along with his violin teacher, at the local Gliga shop, and tried a number of instruments, eventually choosing a viola which he bought - and immediately handed to me with instructions to learn how to play it!

The last couple of days have been surreal. I don't have much trouble getting a decent sound out of the viola, but now I need material. I tried playing the violin part of our familiar Corelli trio sonata (opus 4, no. 12), but it took a lot of shifting to play the part which on violin can be done entirely in first position. Besides, it didn't sound right - I was trying to make the viola sound like a violin, and there is a wrongness to that which made me feel guilty for trying. Transposing the part down an octave wasn't much better - and besides, it made my brain hurt.

Digging through my sheet music, I found an arrangement of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" for string quartet. And there it was - the dreaded alto clef. All I knew was that middle C was on the center line, and that my open D string was the space above. Fortunately, the piece is simple and familiar enough that I was able to stumble through it. But it feels like a foreign language.

One of the people listening to us play commented that the viola gave us a more balanced sound, filling in the gap between the violin on the top and the cello on the bottom. I must have been doing something right at least part of the time, although I don't yet feel confident enough to make the instrument really speak.

Tomorrow night we're going to a concert by our friend's orchestra. His descriptions of the rehearsals and the other players make me think that he'll do fine. Since he's already asked me how long I think it will take to learn to read alto clef, he's probably going to introduce me to them as their future violist... ack!

I've decided that the best thing to do is just (ahem) face the music. I'm looking for simple pieces written in alto clef to build my skill and confidence.

It's amazing, isn't it, how things will sometimes find you even if you're not looking for them. Although I suspected that both viola and orchestral playing might be somewhere in my future, it still comes as a shock to see how suddenly it's all happening.

I have a violin lesson tonight - I wonder what my teacher is going to say about it.


October 9, 2012 at 08:51 PM · Have fun!

Use this... It's in the public domain. It helped me a lot.

October 10, 2012 at 02:57 AM · Viola is addictive. Easy way to learn Alto (or any new clef) is to get some music that you already know. Many of the early Suzuki books are the same for all the instruments.

October 10, 2012 at 12:52 PM · Hello Charlie Gibbs,

Recently I’ve been the same situation. I play in a String Quartet, and the violist came out of quartet.

It's easy found good violinists, but not violists.

So, we have agreed to find a new Violinist, and I changed to viola.

In fact i don't found to much dificulties in the new clef, and i'm learning to fast.

In my opinion, dificulty is play viola with a good loudness, that it's different in violin.

I hope you learn fast and have fun with Viola and the new clef.

October 10, 2012 at 04:47 PM · Wohlfahrt for viola is good for learning alto clef and basic 3rd position too. And it might fit, for you as it did for me, under "music you already know."

October 12, 2012 at 07:41 PM · Thanks, everyone, for your responses. I've downloaded several pieces involving the viola, including a couple of viola versions of violin/cello duets that I already have, and I'm making progress. Those Schradieck etudes should be good, and I like the suggestion of Wohlfahrt - you're right, I'm up to #35 on the violin version so it would indeed qualify as familiar music.

I mentioned the viola to my violin teacher at Tuesday's lesson. She tried playing one once, but has no interest in tackling the alto clef. No problem - I'll still be concentrating on violin, and she has much more to teach me.

Wednesday night was my friend's concert, which consisted primarily of Bizet's L'Arlesienne suites. It was a fairly small venue and we sat right next to the lead cellist, whose technique was amazing. Our friend, sitting with the second violins, did well. It was fun to watch - I've never seen him in a tux before.

After the concert we went up and started talking with orchestra members. Once they found out I played they started converging on me in a way that was almost scary, encouraging me to come and play with them. I feel like Jason hearing the songs of the Sirens, drawing me toward next Wednesday's rehearsal...

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine