Printer-friendly version
Mendy Smith

Identity Crisis

March 1, 2010 at 2:31 AM

I am a violist.   I have always been a violist.  I grew up reading alto clef and only started reading treble and bass clefs later in my musical life.  (I dabbled around with cello whilst living in Malaysia.)  I never played violin - until recently.

After moving to Houston, I found myself involved in a plethera of musical groups, from the traditional community orchestra and various chamber ensembles, to the not-so-traditional groups.  I play in a pit orchestra for the Houston Bar Association's musical production Night Court (a yearly charity event) and the Fab40 (a group that reproduces Beatles songs).  Surprisingly, there have been times when there was a shortage of violin players in the smaller chamber groups and not-so-traditional groups.  So, I figured, why not buy a violin?  It's just like a viola, but smaller, right??? 

So, my friend and I went violin shopping.  I was quickly proven wrong in my assumption that the violin was just a little viola.  First and foremost, all the strings are shifted to the left, a challenge that had me playing on the wrong string half the time at first. The smallness in size posed different challenges.  The bridge is much closer to my nose, requiring adjustments to my bowing, and the relative placement of fingers are much closer together.  For weeks, I was playing everything wide - very wide.  Only after many-o-hours of practice did I consider myself competent enough to even think of playing violin in a performance setting.

This coming week, I'll be performing both violin & viola with the Houston Bar Association.  We are doing a 20th anniversary show, and a good portion of the regular pit orchestra cannot make it.  So us strings are picking up brass and woodwind parts for one number to fill in for th emissing instruments.  The contra-bass is playing the tuba part, the cello - bassoon, my viola friend - Bb clarinet, and me and one other violinist - 1st and 2nd flute.

While I no longer struggle with what string to play on, and am capable of playing in tune in ordinary circumstances, this particular piece (a western medley), is causing me some troubles.  While 3 flats may be easy to play on viola, it is a bear on violin. I'm struggling with fingerings.  Should I take advantage of my "stretch" ability I learned from years playing viola to simply play the Ab to G with a simple stretch or not?  I'm finding myself a bit lost on the fingerboard in higher positions, especially on the eing. 

While this has been a fun diversion, I was happy at the end of the day to revert back to alto clef and an instrument with a cing. 

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 1, 2010 at 2:24 PM

 So interesting, this violist's perspective! I've never even picked up a viola much less played one. I'm just too attached to the tinier sibling. : )


From Ann Marie Cordial
Posted on March 1, 2010 at 5:05 PM

I am also a violist trying to learn the violin.  Everything I play is too sharp.  I feel that I have to more one finger out ot the way to put the other one down.  I find myself going down the G string thinking,'Where is it..........where is the deep tone..." before I realize the violin is not supposed to sound deep.

Sometimes, my violin lessons are very frustrating, and I leave wondering if I should continue with the violin.

When I put my viola back under my chin, it is a relief for me to feel those big ribs - I find the size comforting, the tone comforting...and I don't feel like a total idiot because I can actually find the notes I'm trying to find.

--Ann Marie

From Roland Garrison
Posted on March 1, 2010 at 9:57 PM

Well, I'm glad that others struggle to find the right note too!
I'm a fiddler, not a violist or violinist, but I do have big fingers that struggle with how close the fingers need to be.

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on March 2, 2010 at 6:05 AM

Thanks for the blog, Mendy.  I've been thinking about renting a viola, just to make sure that I don't fall in love with the viola more than I have with the violin before I invest more money in a violin.  But now I'm convinced that with the little time and many commitments I have, I should stay monogamous.

Posted on March 3, 2010 at 4:42 AM

Ah yes, there is just somehing about the viola that is entrancing...also there is always work  available.  I have no problem adapting to the viola from the violin.. My problem lies when I go back to the fiddle; it has now become so darn tiny

nopity.gif No Pity image by TGrosjeannopity.gif No Pity image by TGrosjean

From Giles Wade
Posted on March 3, 2010 at 12:38 PM

I play both, although I must admit I haven't touched the viola in a while......

Another difference is bow pressure.  On the violin you can press much harder.  It's particularly noticeable when comparing the G string of the violin with the C string of the viola.  So just transcribing a piece for violin to viola may mean doing diferent bowings.

And some violin fingerings really don't work on the viola - you might be able to stretch, but then vibrato might get compromised.  So quite often you need to adopt different fingerings on the viola.

That's how I reached the conclusion that they really are very different instruments - when it comes to "how to play", the principles may be the same, but the practice is very different.


This entry 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