Viola for violinists?

December 6, 2008 at 04:39 PM ·


Some of my friends and I are talking about doing the Trout Quintet next semester, and I was hoping the play the viola.  Unfortunately, I've never really played the viola before (I played the Accolay concerto on it for a friend in high school and never touched it again).  I was wondering how long it might take me to be able to play well enought to pull off the Trout (perhaps on a smaller viola, if necessary) so that they can find somebody else if that would be more appropriate.  I can already read the viola clef, though admittedly not very well. 

Also, will playing the viola cause problems for my violin technique? I know many violinists do this, but at this point in my education even the slightest confusion feels like it could be a disaster...

Replies (26)

December 6, 2008 at 06:38 PM ·

With the caveat that I have not tried viola, so I do not know anything first-hand, I offer the following.  First, one of the better conservatories in my area offers a one semester course to teach violinists to play viola.  Second, the violist in the Shanghai quartet was originally the violin 2.  When his predecessor left, the quartet found that it was easier to find another violinist they liked than a violist.  So, with five weeks left to go before a recording date, the violin 2 switched to viola, the quartet hired another violin 2, and the recording date went fine.  In short, it cannot be that difficult, and from what people tell me, playing both is not that confusing once you are comfortable on each one.  Plus, playing both gives you more options.

December 6, 2008 at 07:15 PM ·

I suppose you could say the differences are relatively small, even subtle, but crucial. I play and teach both in my private studio, but have many years in PS teaching the whole family, and dealing with a variety of fractional instruments as well, so I have lots of practice adjusting quickly from instrument to instrument. I am happier with a viola that is not violin-sized. I sometimes teach on a 14" student viola, and find switching right from that to a full-size violin a harder adjustment than from my 15.5 viola. With a big viola, you might find you play with the scroll down just a little. Mostly you need to pay attention to contact point, and to bow speed for any length note, but especially for medium and fast bowing. I wouldn't downplay the difficulty the way the previous writer did, but I wouldn't want to discourage you from trying by making out that it's a huge project, either. And surely it varies a lot from person to person. Sue

December 7, 2008 at 12:08 AM ·

A teacher of mine played both, and I asked him basically the same thing. Yes, it's different, but the same ideas apply. Bow speeds and such arfe obviously changed due to differences in string length and tension. Of course, knowing how to play the violin gives you all the tools to play viola, but they are used slightly differently. You certainly will have to practice specifically on the viola to be good at it, but the adjustment can be made. Sorry I can't say how quickly.

December 7, 2008 at 12:56 AM ·

 I'm actually learning viola right now, trying to minor in it while continuing my violin major.  The amount of technique difference will depend partly on how large an instrument you play. I'm using a 16", which is quite an step from the 15" one I was messing around with last year. Here are some of my observations so far:

- With the added weight and length of a full size viola, you have to be even more aware of tension and posture to prevent injury/discomfort; just be aware that your left arm especially might get tired more quickly than on violin, and don't twist/lift your shoulders around to compensate for this extra weight.

- I find I have to be much more conscious of the relationship between weight and speed in my bow arm to produce a consistent sound. Using too much bow tends to create a surfacy, less resonant sound.

- Obviously, intonation is an issue. I recommend practicing 3 octave scales to learn your way around the fingerboard. Also, beware of squeezing too much with your left hand thumb. You need to account for the larger neck in comparison to violin

Overall, I find that so far playing viola has actually helped improve my violin technique. To be honest, a lot of stuff is just plain harder to do on viola because of the awkward size. You may find that mastering things on viola makes them seem even easier on violin.

December 7, 2008 at 01:22 AM ·

Thanks for the responses.  Basically the impression I'm getting is it should be doable as long as I'm willing to work for it.  Is that right?

I also was aware that many of the great violists in chamber music were actually violinists at the start of their carrer (like Tree...) which is part of why my initial instinct was that it shouldn't be impossible.  I was simply concerned that I wasn't taking the viola seriously enough or subconciously looking down on violists and would end up creating a problem for my friends. 

Also, I was sort of thinking playing the viola may make me aware of tension in my playing and help me fix that, but that's not as frightening as creating more problems so I didn't ask.  Thanks for sharing your experience. 

December 7, 2008 at 01:01 PM ·

Many of the great violinists are/were also great violists, e.g., Menuhin, Oistrakh, Zukerman.

December 7, 2008 at 02:01 PM ·

I've been learning the viola a little over 2 years after starting on violin as a kid.  I've found it quite similar to Ruth Kufler's comments above.  But I found I needed a 15.5", not a 16".  The 16" was too big and caused enough tension that back and neck pain that I thought I'd seen the last of, came back.

Learning to read alto clef has made me more flexible in reading music generally.  I always hated leger lines and 8va and now I seem to be able to take them more in stride after having dealt with alto clef.  I seem to have learned to think better in relative intervals.

Also, paradoxically, playing the viola seems to have helped me develop a better attitude about performance.  While there is more literature for the violin, I found the repertoire overwhelming.  I seem to have been able to find nice discrete performable pieces on the viola somewhat more easily.  And I still like the way I sound on solo viola better than the way I sound on solo violin.  I feel like my playing on viola has more substance and more confidence.  It never makes me cringe--the way my violin playing sometimes does :(

But lately I've been translating some of that substance and confidence back to the violin and I'm happier with the way I sound there too.

December 7, 2008 at 02:58 PM ·

HI Joseph,
I suggest: TRY IT!!! You will feel yourself if it works or it doesn't.
Another suggestion: I read that you like Palestrina, Bach and others. So practise Bach Cello Suites. This is wonderful music, as you surely know, and having played it all , you will know exactly, how difficult it is, playing the viola. (I did so too once and successfully). I guess, you will love it. The Trout isn't too difficult...
Carry on!

December 7, 2008 at 03:17 PM ·

I play the violin and the cello, perhaps about equally well (although I've played the violin 10 years longer [ 70 yrs, vs. 60]). I've only played the viola for about 70 hours, incuding 7 performances, the first at about age 40. So whatever I have learned about playing viola, I pretty much forget by the next time I have to do it. My viola is a 16-inch model, which is now too big for me because of arthritis in my left hand, so I recently acquired a 5-string violin, which might let me play either violin or viola parts.

For me, the hardest part of playing viola has been transforming my mind to read the music as a violist. The easiest way I found to quickly develop this skill and retain it long enough for the next performance, has been to find the highest number Suzuki viola book I can read with little difficulty (for me that was book 4) and then work my way through the rest of the Suzuki books, at least through Book 7. A reasonable hour's work! The slow movement of the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante is also a good follow up piece. Since I teach violin using the Suzuki violin books, using the viola books of the same series (in their transposed keys) had me actually reading alto clef within an hour, instead of rethinking it as a displaced violin clef.

I find bowing on the viola a bit easier than violin, because it can tolerate a "heavier hand" - kind of halfway between violin and cello (although, of course, with a completely different bow hold than cello bow)

Good luck on this approach.


December 7, 2008 at 06:21 PM ·

I've also been learning the viola on the side.  The main difference I found was in the bowing.  I went ahead purchased an expensive bow when I purchased the viola (advanced student level model) , since I noticed a huge difference between my cheap and good quality violin bows.  However,  recently found I play much better with a very cheap viola bow that I tested - and consequently purchased! (shocker!).  So try out several bows before settling on one.

What is holding me back the most is the c clef.  I can read it...but reading it up to speed is still an issue (so sight-reading is problematic)...and sometimes I goof completely and read it as the g clef.

December 7, 2008 at 06:50 PM ·

Yeah, learning the clef is an on going process for me too. I think it's funny when I do the reverse and read treble clef as alto, haha.

December 7, 2008 at 06:53 PM ·

 I think we should look at how wind players easily double. It shouldn't be any more of a big deal than say a sax player that plays tenor and soprano saxophone without any fuss let alone double on clarinet and maybe flute too! If we had transposing clefs like they do then this would all be much easier but of course that isn't going to happen. Personally I've found that the physical differences are easy to adapt to with reading being a bit less fluent. 

December 8, 2008 at 04:04 AM ·

I'm a violist, and ONLY a violist.  The closest I've come to a violin is my 15" viola.

Your first challenge will be the alto clef, and possibly switching between alto clef and treble clef on viola.  This could cause you some challenges. 

From a physical aspect, your left arm is considerably more extended than on a violin.  Even a single inch makes a huge difference.  When I changed from a 15" to 16" viola, Buri recommended putting a rolled up towel under my left arm.  This helped considerably until I built up my strength in the left arm.  If you plan on being primarily a violinist and not switching to the "dark side", I wouldn't play an instrument larger than a 15.5".  That extra half inch can be brutal.

The vibrato that you use on viola is much wider than what you would normally play on violin.  It is also more challenging since you arm is extended further than normal.  Also regarding left hand, your fingers will be more extended as well (fingered octaves will most likely be your limit unless you have extrondanary large hands).    Do NOT dip the scroll much.  However many violist play with their scroll at level or SLIGHTLY dipped.  The scroll is lifted on the up-shift.  The thicker strings may take a bit more bow action to create a clear tone.  My teacher has always suggested being close the point of creating a scratch, but not quite.  A piano dynamnic is best played as close the the fingerboard as is reasonable for the position and string length. 

As far as how this will affect your violin playing, I have no personal experience.  However I have heard that it can help with the vibrato and fingering 10ths, something unheard of for the most part on viola technique.  It may also help with bowing tone production on violin as well.

December 8, 2008 at 12:37 PM ·

>I think it's funny when I do the reverse and read treble clef as alto, haha.

I think that's when you know you've made some progress towards being a violist--when you have a "viola moment" on the violin rather than vice-versa.

December 8, 2008 at 04:12 PM ·



I may be a bit of an outlier in the sense that my violin is on the small-ish side for a full size (13 13/16" ~= 351mm) but my viola is large-ish compared to most dual-instrument players I know (16 1/2" ~= 419mm; most of them have 16" or less).  (By the way, I consider 16 1/2" a perfectly normal size, but, given the people I run into, I'm beginning to wonder whether there has been a trend toward smaller violas these days.  Anyone know?)  In terms of technique, I don't really have finger confusion as far as intonation is concerned, but that is because I have different reference points: Conveniently enough, a half-step on my violin requires my fingers to be practically right on top of each other, whereas on my viola the fourth finger falls naturally at the full extent of its reach.  I may not be describing it well, but the point is that I have different -- but fixed and easy-to-find -- tactile reference points on my two instruments.  Once I find the reference point, the rest of my hand is naturally about where it needs to be to hit the other notes.  I suspect that if my viola were too close in size to my violin I might become confused.


I point this out since, if you have not yet picked out a viola, you may want to keep the idea of natural reference points in mind.  Of course, whatever instrument you pick must be comfortable for you.


Good Luck!

December 14, 2008 at 09:51 PM ·

Since this is a violin site, I say, hey, lots of people play both violin and viola well, go for it!  However, many hard-core violists would look down on someone who plays viola like a violin.  I was surprised that only one person so far mentioned the difference in vibrato, which is a big deal, IF you want to get that gorgeous viola sound so few can achieve.  However, for a beginning switcher, I think the clef and intonation would be the most difficult, then if you decide to pursue it further you can really work on developing a "proper" viola sound, which will be deeper and more resonant than if you played as a violinist. 

April 29, 2009 at 02:04 PM ·

Joseph -

I am an adult beginner on the violin.  I have been playing for 3 years.  8 months ago, I started viola.  What a difference!  Like the other posters have said, the weight of the viola and its neck size are immediately noticed by a violinist.  For me, going to a 17" viola was particularly challenging.  The notes are spaced way apart (I immediately found every accidental, even when I wasn't looking for them), and the bow is heavier.

I find with my violin, I 'stroke' to get good tone, but with my viola, I sort of have to 'pull' the bow across the string.  Oh, and if you go case shopping, make sure you have your instrument with you.  I learned the hard way that most cases are not built to house a 17" viola.

April 29, 2009 at 02:28 PM ·

Finding a good viola, with a generous dynamic range and a good C string is difficult, more difficult than finding a similar violin, I think.

April 29, 2009 at 02:43 PM ·

Hey there,

Lots of good things said here.  The viola cannot be separated from its repertoire, and its role in the orchestra and chamber music - which admittedly is almost always technically easier.

In all the Beethoven quartets, I can't think of an example where the viola needs to go beyond 3rd position (except perhaps the fugue of 3rd Razumovsky).

If one comes to the viola able to play the Mendelssohn vln concerto passably well, you are pretty well positioned in the left hand to tackle most of the difficulties the viola will present you.

Forget 10th's.  Forget fingered octaves.  No need to worry about those (thank God!!).

While violists are learning a piece like the Telemann Concerto, most violinists are already onto something like Accolay, or some of the Seitz concertos - which technically are harder.

In many ways (and violists don't like to admit this), violinists coming to the viola are at a distinct advantage as they have been challenged more in their repertoire.


April 29, 2009 at 03:01 PM ·

I know that my little friend Cameron whom I mentioned regarding Viola strings LOVES playing the Viola!  Since finances for me have improved I may give a go at the Viola!


April 29, 2009 at 07:32 PM ·

I am a violinist who also doubles on viola. I've been playing viola since 2007 and I think I've been pretty successful so far.

I will agree that, as far as repertoire, "the notes" are less of a challenge than on the violin. I play viola in a chamber group, and I think that this kind of music is far more demanding than orchestral viola parts. Still, I've auditioned for this chamber group on both violin and viola three times in a row already and the viola excerpts have always been "easier" (at least to me) than the violin ones. Mind you, these three times I've been up against "real" violists, and I've gotten the gig every time (auditions include sight reading...), that's why I say I think I've been pretty successsful.

I've read a book co-written by Menuhin (I think) and Primrose called "Violin and Viola". In it, Primrose talks about how he hates violin- viola doublers who play the viola like it is a "big fiddle". I'd say this is good to think about. You don't want to sound like a violinist playing viola (weak sound, poor intonation, etc.). With the viola, you're going to have to work a little harder to get a full sound with a strong core. I haven't really struggled with the bigger distances. What my teacher has always told me is to really let my left hand relax and "open up". 

All that being said, I think the Trout quintet is a pretty serious piece, I wouldn't recommend that you play it witout ever having played viola before, because you need to get used to the viola's role in chamber music. One of the biggest things I've had to learn is how to phrase accompanimental parts, as well as how to switch between playing accompaniment and playing solo, which you will do without a moments notice. Also, you really need to get fluent with the clef. Some people who are beginning to switch over kind of memorize parts, but I would not advice relying entirely on memory because you can always blank out- and then what do?

I love playing viola and I recommend it to any violinist wanting to try something new. If you can produce a really solid sound on the viola, this will actually help your violin technique. All of this is of course in my opinion, take it as you will. Best wishes! 

April 30, 2009 at 04:24 PM ·

Bravo Manuel!  Nicely put.

April 30, 2009 at 07:33 PM ·

I think that Messrs. Manfio, Rose and Tabora have each made important points about the viola -- an instrument that I love to play, btw.

May 1, 2009 at 05:44 AM ·

Hi all, thanks for the input.  I choose to take viola for violin majors rather than chamber music with viola since with the latter everybody would be hurt if I played badly.  The size of the instrument wasn't a problem really (fingered octaves and tenths are perfectly possible) though because I wasn't used to it the first finger did tend to go sharp if I didn't concentrate.  Also as some people have pointed out, sound production is somewhat different.  The very first time I picked it up I was surprised how far away the contact point was from my body!

May 1, 2009 at 01:01 PM ·

Well, the Trout is chamber music though.

May 1, 2009 at 06:27 PM ·

I would encourage all violinists to explore the viola, and not go into panic-mode about the differences. I think all that really matters is having an intelligent approach to posture (so you don't hurt yourself) and keeping a critical ear to tone production. Reading a clef is not an issue, keyboard players have had to read two different clefs since time immaterial.

After all, the difference between a piccolo and a flute, or a soprano to baritone saxophone is far greater than that of a violin and viola, but you don't see anyone in the wind playing community up in arms about these doublers.

It's common and accepted, as playing violin and viola should be. It's why so many big-name artists all play despite any notion of what their "primary instrument" is. Steinhardt even mentions in his first book about the Curtis Institute having a requirement for all violinists to spend a semester in the orchestra on viola! It makes sense...


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