Discovering the Viola: Purchase, Set-up and Initial Discoveries

January 7, 2016, 12:01 PM · Back in December 2015, I bought my first viola, so I’ve had it about a month. I am not “switching” from the violin to the viola, but rather I just want to expand my capabilities and have access to more chamber music opportunities.


The following are my initial discoveries:

1. My first-position first-finger notes (A, E, B) tend to be a little too sharp. Initially I thought those notes would be flat because they need to be farther from the nut than they are on the violin. But the viola is larger, so it appears that I need to recalibrate my left elbow to set my entire hand position farther out.

2. At the same time, the larger “spread” of the fingers was more stressful than I expected. I’m getting used to it, but you really feel it with double stops and anything that calls for high third and fourth fingers. Initially I could only practice for 10 minutes at a time. Now I can play for maybe half an hour before feeling any fatigue.

3. As a corollary of point No. 2, when fingering an orchestral part (to accompany a Bach keyboard concerto in A major), I found that there is greater need to think about the choice between a high 4 and a low 1 (for example, D#) and more need to finger passages of several notes in half position, etc.

4. The viola is less responsive than the violin. It takes just a little more time for the bow to produce sound. I find therefore that the importance of pre-fingering notes when changing strings (as described by Fischer in his “Scales” book for violin) is much more keenly felt on the viola. I don’t think this is just my instrument, but I can’t be sure until try some other violas. More than likely just my technique.

5. As a violinist, when you go to your highest string (E) you can play with your bow right next to the bridge and draw a good strong tone fairly easily. But it does not work as well on the viola, which does not have a thin wire for its highest string.

6. Alto clef is coming along. Because the strings are the same as the cello, and I’m accustomed to reading my daughter’s cello music, I taught myself to “translate” from bass clef. Middle C is in the middle of the staff. If that were bass clef, that would be a D. So it’s “down one” from bass clef. (The fact that it’s also up an octave is not relevant to me.) I find myself needing to “translate” less and less.

7. After playing the viola for about 15 minutes, the violin feels like a tiny toy instrument. More than that, the thin piece of foam I’m using underneath my violin no longer seems adequate, as if the viola stretched my neck or something. The Kun, however, is still a bit too high. Not sure how to solve this immediately.

My daughter and I are working on the first of the Mozart Duos (G Major). Her intonation on the violin is good enough that I can rely on it to improve my intonation on the viola. I’m also working on a couple of movements from the Bach Cello Suites and the aforementioned orchestral part for the Bach keyboard concerto.

The rest of this entry is about the purchase and setup of my viola.

I bought my instrument sight-unseen. I learned that a trusted friend who is a fine professional violinist was travelling to the Midwest to buy a few cellos for his music school, and I asked him to pick out and purchase a viola for me, something in the $3000-4000 price range. Fortunately he agreed. Using a few of his violas, he “fitted” me to a 16” instrument, and off he went.

The viola is a brand-new Ming-Jiang Zhu “AA” instrument, workshop-made in China in 2015. According to what I have read, the “AA” is fashioned of Chinese maple, a European spruce top, an Aubert bridge, and jujube fittings (pegs, tail piece, button, and chin rest), and Dominant strings. The instrument looks beautiful and it sounds very good to my ear. The low register is nice and rich and chocolatey. The upper register is just a little “pinched” but seems to be opening up some.

My neck is short, and the Guarneri chin rest that came with the viola didn’t fit me well. But I spent Christmas with family in the Detroit area, so I was able to visit the Shar showroom in Ann Arbor, where I tried a range of chin-rests. They were very helpful there. I like going to Shar. Before making the trip, my violin teacher suggested that I include the Wittner among those that I tried, because he has found it to work for many of his viola students. Sure enough, the chin-rest that fit the best at Shar was the Wittner! It’s not as pretty as the jujube chin rest, but until I can get something custom-carved, it will have to do. I don’t use a shoulder rest, only a small piece of foam to protect my sensitive collarbone from the hard edge of the instrument including the chin rest fittings. So far that's okay for me.

As a bonus, while at Shar, I had the wonderful surprise to catch up with an old acquaintance – a fellow of about the same age who works there in their cello department. He is someone that I knew as a teenager – we played in the same community orchestra and I think we may have had one or two pit-orchestra gigs together. That would have been 35+ years ago. He went on to become a fine cellist. Truly, it is a small world.

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January 7, 2016 at 09:35 PM · Paul - thanks for sharing your experience of starting viola after learning other string instruments. I am sure most of us will relate to some or all of the revelations you mention. For me, two years in on the viola after playing the violin for many years, I think that while the technique issues have arisen, the alto clef issue is still the biggest one. I learned to play the alto clef by the shortcut of thinking of the notes in terms of their fingerings rather than actually learning the notes themselves. Although I am better at recognizing the notes, I still do not have the facility that doing so gives me on the violin. I suspect others in your position have run into other issues which I hope they will share so that those contemplating the viola after another string instrument can do so with a good sense of where the problems may arise.

January 8, 2016 at 02:48 PM · Tom, thanks for your comment. I also am finding that my alto clef skill is "leveling off" well below where I would like it to be. Part of it is reading the notes, and part of it is finding the notes on the viola, so hopefully the latter will improve and bring along the former. I have been reading treble and bass clefs for 45 years, whereas I have been reading alto clef less than 45 days, so maybe I should give it more of a chance. :)

January 8, 2016 at 06:52 PM · Yes! about the violin feeling like a toy after the viola. Then if you play the violin for a while and go back to the viola, it feels big and clunky again, like driving a truck after a sports car.

I used to accompany my cello-playing son on the B-parts of his method books when he was younger, reading bass clef and playing it an octave up on the viola. Nowadays he's gotten much better and I can't keep up that way. We need to find some real cello-viola or cello-violin duets.

January 8, 2016 at 07:25 PM · Love your observations about the differences (I've played both for a LONG time). You may find you need a little more shoulder support than thin foam on the viola (question of weight, length, and angle) to keep from tensing the shoulder and back.

My big challenge in switching from one immediately to the other is vibrato--a violin-sized/speed vib. doesn't sound good on the lower vla strings). Me, I need more arm on viola.

the way I hold the vla bow is also a bit different, probably to deal with the different response times--I hadn't even realized that till I read your post and played both in quick succession. I also find the whole spread of the left hand is different--not just reaching back w/1 and forward w/4--the whole balance is just slightly more on 2-3.

Since I recently played a recital where I played both instruments, the differences were brought home to me.

Very helpful to read your experience as it focuses mine--and it's interesting in its own right. Hope you continue to enjoy.

January 8, 2016 at 07:47 PM · Many years ago when I was at an orchestra rehearsal the principal violist didn't turn up so the conductor "asked" me, sitting in the first cello desk, to play the viola part on my cello. "Don't worry" he said, "the clefs are about the same", or some such nonsense. Young fool that I was, I was up to the challenge, not wondering for a moment why the other violists couldn't cope without their leader. I soon found out - there was an important solo passage. The treble clef was no problem, but playing the alto clef at sight when I was used to the cello tenor clef and didn't play the viola was a rather different proposition!

Btw, I took Paul's advice on another blog to first post a single character in a reply - the "M" for "Many" in this case - and then edit it to the full text. It works. Otherwise, trying to post a response in a blog becomes a frustrating experience for some technical reason.

January 9, 2016 at 03:27 AM · Would that cellist be Mike Karoub? Small world indeed!

January 14, 2016 at 03:21 AM · as a life-long violist, I have the same but opposite problems when I play violin. The one thing that is the same, is that the violin feels like a little toy and I'm afraid of breaking it.

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