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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Playing the Viola* (*but were afraid to ask)

Jonah Sirota

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Published: March 4, 2015 at 3:23 PM [UTC]

It’s almost spring, and with a new season comes new opportunities to be more true to ourselves as musicians and as people. If you are a violinist who has ever considered playing the viola, this may be a good time to think about making a switch, or at least becoming more comfortable on the violin’s darker cousin. Like many violists, I started my musical life on the violin, not switching until well into high school. But once I made the switch I knew I had found my instrument. The viola was such a better match for me, expressing what immediately felt to be my own true musical voice. Practicing went from being a chore to an exciting exploration of a side of my personality I had been neglecting.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the violin, I did, but it was never truly at home in my hands, its sound never truly my own. Perhaps you have had a similar experience? If so, it really doesn’t hurt to give the viola a shot. As the T-shirt says,

But how? If you’re a violinist, and can get access to a viola to play, it’s simple enough to pick it up and start making sound. But is it really the same as a violin? What do those of us who play the viola have to do differently from violinists to sound (and feel) great on the instrument? Over the next few entries, I will be exploring what it means to play the viola, in a series I’m calling “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Playing the Viola* (*but were afraid to ask).” We’ll cover the gamut, from clef-reading to setup, from sound production to keeping your body happy and healthy. Violinists may find useful advice that they can bring back to their “instrument of origin,” and I hope that even seasoned violists may find something helpful and new to integrate into their playing. Of course I’m also excited to know what works for you--I look forward to learning from you in the comments.

For today, let’s begin at the beginning. What do you do when approaching the viola for the first time?

Let’s talk a bit about the physical set-up of your viola. Although this is a controversial topic with opinions as varied as there are different players, certain things seem to resonate for me again and again. You are an individual, with your own characteristics. Luckily, the viola doesn’t have standard sizing, which is actually kind of a wonderful thing! Your height, the width and strength of your back and shoulders, the length of your arms, fingers, and neck--each of these has profound implications on what size and setup of a viola might be ideal for you. To have a positive first experience on the instrument, it is important to start out playing on an instrument that fits your body well.

This is not rocket science, but it can be tricky at times to know what to look for when the instrument is already going to feel somewhat foreign to begin with. My advice? Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Find a teacher, or a good luthier or dealer experienced with fitting instruments. You are looking for someone who understands that different bodies will have different needs. While there are strong ideologies out there, they can easily become a trap. What’s best for one player may not be for another. (For example: if you have a relatively short neck and a jaw that interfaces well with your chinrest, you may find it freeing to play the viola without a shoulder rest, opting instead to use only a small pad under the instrument for grip. However, this setup may be disastrous for someone with a longer neck, who will need some support under the instrument if they are not going to either grip the neck too hard with the left hand or the let instrument drop to an angle not fit for healthy sound production.)

Variables in viola that really make a difference in the physical experience of playing the instrument include instrument body length, string length, instrument weight, neck width, and body width. Some of these can be interrelated, but usually it is possible to find violas where the characteristics of the instrument are pleasantly independent from one another. So, for example, if you are of smaller build, with narrow shoulders and relatively short arms and fingers, you can look for an instrument with a short string length, lighter weight, and a narrow neck, but one that may still have a decent body length allowing some depth of sound on the low end of the instrument. Likewise a medium-build player with long fingers and large finger pads might prefer an instrument that is not too big in body length, but that has a longer string length and a wider neck. It is tempting to think that the bigger the instrument, the deeper and richer the sound, and there are certainly examples of this being true, but there are also amazingly rich-sounding smaller instruments out there. In the long term it will not be a worthwhile endeavor to play on an instrument that is too big for your body. The viola takes more muscle to play, and you don’t want to overstrain your shoulders and neck and cause injury…

Once you have an appropriately sized instrument, you’ll need to think about how to hold it. Just like on the violin, the top surface of the instrument should stay parallel to the floor (like a tabletop). However, because the contact point of the viola is further away from the body than it is on the violin, violists have to be more careful about the angle at which the instrument meets the shoulder and neck. If the viola heads straight out over the left shoulder (in a style that can seem quite amenable to sound projection and is often successful on the violin), it will be nearly impossible to maintain or “track” a good contact point all the way to the tip of the bow. This is especially a concern for those violists with shorter arms. The ideal is to have the viola “leave” the body at a 45-degree angle from the torso, and to have the bow arm also at about a 45-degree angle (this symmetry in both arms is not a coincidence, we’ll talk more about that in a later installment!). Watch a really great viola performance, such as this video of Tabea Zimmerman performing the Penderecki Concerto:

...and you’ll see how much the performer prioritizes maintaining the integrity of that arrangement. This allows the contact point to always have a consistent focus, and (as we will discuss next time) the contact point is where all the magic happens!

To complete the setup on your viola, don’t forget to think about the right chinrest—remember that these can be swapped out on an instrument—and, if needed, a shoulder-rest that fits you well. I talked about how to position the instrument before talking about these items because you want the chinrest and shoulder-rest to fit your playing position, instead of the other way around! Bring a teacher or friend you trust to your string shop and try out different chinrest and shoulder-rest combinations. A good shop will be glad to help you try different options. (Don’t feel guilty about using their time this way--you will likely be buying something, and if you have a good experience, you are more likely to return to the shop.) Many violists feel that they need extra padding on the lower edge of their shoulder rest to support the gap between instrument and torso. You have likely seen players with extra sponges or cushions attached to their shoulder rest with a rubber band. Don’t be afraid to look at an option like that, if it helps you position the instrument well. Also, some violists like the Bonmusica shoulder rest because it is very customizable (you can actually shape the rest with your hands), but plenty just go with the old-school Kun, or other similar options.

Congratulations, you should now have a viola set-up and ready to play. So, now what? You’ll just have to keep reading! Next time: The String, Your “Road” to Great Sound

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From Paul Deck
Posted on March 5, 2015 at 5:42 PM
I appreciated this blog because, like many on this site, I'm a violinist but viola-curious.

I noted one claim that I see quite often: "Just like on the violin, the top surface of the instrument should stay parallel to the floor (like a tabletop)."

When watching well-regarded violinists and violists I have found that this is simply not true. The violin may be parallel to the floor (or nearly so) along its long axis but the short axis is tilted toward the player's chest. Therefore it is not like a tabletop, and not even close. And frankly the long axis very often is tilted down too.

I support my counter-claim by directing the reader to YouTube and looking at videos of Heifetz, Hahn, Mutter, Oistrakh, Jansen, Bashmet, and Primrose. Sometimes the angle of the short axis against the floor is as much as 45 degrees.

Here is an example of decidedly non-table-top (but still very beautiful and compelling) viola playing:

But really, my biggest beef with the viola is the silly alto clef. It's one seventh down, right? Why can't they just make it a damned octave and be done with it, that way anyone could read it straight off (including -- gasp -- amateurs). "Oh but the clef is so critical to the character of the viola, etc. etc." Yeah, yeah, B.S. With modern software it should be nothing to make new editions. Y'all have to use treble clef for the high stuff anyway, with an octave-down clef you could just use 8va markings. Everyone wins.

Posted on March 5, 2015 at 6:40 PM
The alto clef suits the range of the instrument. It's more of an orchestration issue than anything.

Writing for the viola using treble and octave treble (below) makes it so that one has to notate the notes for the C string using excessive numbers of ledger lines, or use octave treble (below) for only the C string. That doesn't help with the readability.

I teach my junior high school orchestra classes how to read all the different clefs for each instrument. Once they understand how the clef symbol indicates the reference pitch for the staff, it's simply a mechanical process to figure out all the other notes.

From Paul Deck
Posted on March 5, 2015 at 9:00 PM
A seventh vs an octave really makes a difference in ledger lines? Thats hard to believe.
Posted on March 5, 2015 at 11:09 PM
Violins are also held at 45 degrees out; the bigger issue for viola is the size. If it slopes down too much it will make producing a good strong tone more difficult. The clef is easy - just learn open strings first and you have a good reference point immediately. I have swapped a number of students to viola with very few reading problems.
Posted on March 5, 2015 at 11:18 PM
While someone may be "viola-curious" (which is like going into jail a violinist and coming out of jail a violist...), I found it best to learn the viola as a completely different instrument ~ not as a larger violin with thicker strings.

If one learns different languages by translating every word, you will never master a new language; you will still dream in your first language and be hesitant in expression. A violinist who changes teams needs to think of this experience like driving a car versus riding a bicycle, both of which are about getting from point A to point B.

I enjoy languages and can't stop studying new ones. Believe it or not, learning Portuguese when you know Spanish is more difficult than learning Japanese when you know Spanish. With Japanese to Spanish, you don't get confused by common reference points. (Buri, please confirm.)

In the end, I count my blessings as either violinist or violist. Think of the mighty cello, which requires you to know three clefs to play the basic concert repertoire!

From Tom Holzman
Posted on March 5, 2015 at 11:32 PM
Thanks. This should be a very useful series to anyone wanting to dabble in the viola. As a violinist who does so, I recognize many of the tips. In particular, most of those beginning viola have the urge to get the biggest, most resonant instrument they can find. These is not necessarily a good idea and can be counterproductive.

Also, it is worth noting that Zlata Brouwer's excellent videos on this site deal to some extent with how violinists and others can best approach the viola. So, between Zlata's and Jonah's posts, those contemplating a voyage to the "dark" side will be well-prepared.

From Gene Huang
Posted on March 6, 2015 at 2:33 AM
I would like to explore a bit more the claim Paul noted about the top surface of the instrument staying parallel to the floor, like a table top. I've recently gone out of my way to set up my CR (which is a Kreddle) and SR so that I can tilt the short axis towards the floor as much as possible. I find that the violin tilted as such is more natural for both my left hand and my bow hold. Can the experts out there weigh in on how the tilt of the short axis would affect tone production, comfort, etc? Sorry if this is getting away from the original topic...

From Laurie Niles
Posted on March 6, 2015 at 2:42 AM
Jonah, what kind of cookies?
From Paul Deck
Posted on March 6, 2015 at 4:06 AM
By the way my daughter calls it "thirteen clef" because of the resemblance to 13. She is a cellist though, so its tenor clef in her case. Why cellists do not just use treble clef (for the high stuff) I will never understand either.

I once saw a pro violist whose SR was so elaborate and large, it looked like a box girder bridge under there.

Gene, mechanically it just makes sense to tilt, that's my view. If you go too far you do lose the gravitational advantage in bowing. At 45 degrees you have lost only about 30% of that though.

From Gene Huang
Posted on March 6, 2015 at 6:32 AM
Paul -- That's the way I feel about the tilt. I don't remember how I was taught, and I don't know what they're teaching kids these days. In my own recent experimentation, it seems to make sense.
From Mark Roberts
Posted on March 7, 2015 at 3:31 PM
why is it that when I pick up a viola I loose the ability to count?
From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on March 8, 2015 at 4:16 PM
I just rented a viola yesterday, so good timing! There is a problem with trying to perfectly fit the viola to your body: how does that work in practice? The shop I rented from is a well regarded shop in an area with tons of musicians. But their supply of violas was limited. I wasn't given a choice of instruments (except the first one I was offered was their cheapest student model, which declined). Fitting the instrument to your body is more in line with buying, which one wouldn't do if they were just curious.

Which leads to another question: might one try playing the viola upright in their lap, like old time fiddlers sometimes did? I've never heard of it but intend to try it.

From Jonah Sirota
Posted on March 9, 2015 at 12:42 PM
Paul and Gene, yes I think the "tabletop" thing can be taken too literally. I was mostly referring to the long axis when I said that, and even so, it's an ideal to imagine, less one that will always literally be true. Still, with the angle of the string heading "downhill" from the bridge already, and the bow needing quite crucially to track a consistent contact point, you want to do everything you can (within the constrains of physical comfort) to keep gravity on your side, helping the bow stay where it ought, and not sliding "down the hill," make sense? As for the short axis, tilting the instrument down to provide better access to the low string is possible, but can distort the setup. I would say that's more of a player-specific option. Easier with no shoulder-rest. As I use one, I don't do this very much.

Alto clef is no weirder than treble clef!! It's what you are used to, I suppose. I will say that reading treble clef down an octave is a nightmare for me, because notes that are spaces in one octave will be lines in the next. Way more trouble than it's worth... If you imagine the alto clef sitting smack dab in between treble and bass (the E and G top lines of the alto staff are the bottom two lines of treble, and the F and A bottom lines of the alto staff are the top two of bass) it makes more sense. I'll get into both of these topics in future posts!

Laurie, we have a wide variety! But my favorite are oatmeal chocolate chip...

From Paul Deck
Posted on March 9, 2015 at 3:59 PM
Treble and bass clef make sense together because they cross over at a common note (middle C) that is between the two staves. Your idea of alto clef being "in the middle" of the other two, that's very clever and useful. Thanks for that!

I agree the long axis of the violin should be close to horizontal. I'm actually pretty good at keeping it there. I see kids drooping their violins and sure enough, their bows wander over the fingerboard too. We have to use gravity to our advantage whenever possible.

By the way, thanks for being a champion of modern composers. Your musicality and technical mastery are well suited to this task.

Francesca, playing the viola upright might work, but good luck finding a teacher who will help you with it that way. I think you do what we all do, tinker around with SR and CR until you can manage it for at least a little while and then re-evaluate.

From Charlie Gibbs
Posted on March 10, 2015 at 9:14 PM
I call myself The Accidental Violist because I got dragged into an orchestra which was in serious need of violists. Like some others, my crash course in viola had me first thinking of it as a large violin before I realized that it's best thought of as an entirely different instrument. Playing transposed violin parts just doesn't cut it - you'll never really get into those dark chocolate depths where the viola comes into its own.

As for learning alto clef, many people make too big a thing of it. Sure it's confusing at first, especially after a lifetime of reading treble clef. But give it some time. As someone else said, start with the open strings as a reference, then gradually fill things in. After a couple of weeks you'll be reading it well enough to play, and after a few months you'll be able to switch clefs quickly, even in the middle of a piece.

Try to find a real viola teacher, not a violinist who's trying to switch-hit. When I started viola, my violin teacher flatly refused to have anything to do with it. I now have a teacher who plays viola in a large orchestra, and my lessons are specifically tailored to the instrument.

My teacher is after me to keep the viola up, level with the floor. She also cautions me about tilting it too much, explaining that - especially on the higher strings - it doesn't let gravity assist the weight of the bow. You do need to dig into the strings a bit more to get a good sound, but it's kind of fun - and you're not as likely to crush a note as you are on a violin.

I still play violin - it takes a bit of adjustment to the lighter bow pressure and closer note spacing, but I can usually adapt in a few minutes. When I take my fiddle to bluegrass jams, I sometimes bring along my viola, especially on the nights when I go directly from my viola lesson to the jam. When I start sawing away on that C string, it turns a lot of heads. And it's fun to seduce people by handing them the viola and getting them to draw the bow across that C string. "Come to the dark side..."

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