From Violin to Viola

June 16, 2009 at 04:44 PM ·

At an evening's gathering of church band members, our musical director seriously broached the subject of my taking up the viola to complete our string group (we have four violins - me included - and one cello). Eager to help, I readily said yes and bought a viola the following day. Now that the excitement has settled, I wonder how I will fare with this huge new instrument.

Are there violinists here who, for one reason or another, have opted to play the viola instead? Are you happy with the choice or have you found that you love the viola more than the violin? Or is the violin still a better instrument for you?

Replies (23)

June 16, 2009 at 05:14 PM ·

I don't know what your physical build is, but presumably your musical director thinks you'll be fine with a viola. If it feels huge at first don't panic, once you get used to the size of the viola, the violin will probably feel like a toy when you go back to it.

I switched over to viola myself from violin at around age 30 for the same reason, to be able to make up a piano quartet with some friends. 

June 16, 2009 at 06:54 PM ·

I switched over to the viola about 10 years ago.  However, I never really quit playing the violin.  I always jokingly tell people that "the viola is my main instrument but I play the violin when I need to make money."

I love the sound of a viola.  Plus, I think you'll find that playing the viola will make you a better violin player.  The violin will seem easy by comparison after awhile and you'll develop a deeper, richer sound.

June 16, 2009 at 07:08 PM ·

I'm playing both violin and viola now, but I'm seriously thinking of switching to mainly viola for grad school. There are things I love about both instruments, but my gut instinct is to go for viola. I absolutely love the sound, and enjoy the more accompanimental role it usually plays in ensembles. Physically, I'm kind of a small person, but I have long arms and about average size hands. I'm playing on a 16" viola right now, which seems to be a good match. Maybe as I get more comfortable on the instrument I could move up to a 16-1/2" one, but I'm happy with my setup right now.

I would give viola a try and just see what happens. It can really open the door to new opportunities. People are always asking me to play in their chamber groups because there are so few violists around here. I never thought a couple years ago when I first got into viola that I would love it so much, but I really do. And just because you play viola doesn't mean you have to give up violin. Do what you love, but don't be afraid to try new things either.

June 16, 2009 at 08:08 PM ·


I originally wanted to play the viola but had to play the violin instead.  That was 3 years ago.  I have a nice 17 inch viola that I got one year ago that I love.  But, I have also come to love the violin, and I can't ever see myself giving it up.

I contacted a local Symphony to see if I could play with them, and was told that the need for violists was dire, so I will be plugged into a viola slot there.

In my personal experience, the deep tones of the viola exude a magical, dark quality that is alluring and addictive at the same time, leaving you wanting more and more. 

---Ann Marie

June 16, 2009 at 09:01 PM ·

Playing viola is like being drop-dead gorgeous. You will always be asked for "play dates."

The only problem is whether you can keep up the strength for the added exertion required. Oh yes - and whether you can can your mind around the new clef.

The smaller (16" ) violas can sound great - I've had two of them - hope you cn find the optimum strings.


June 17, 2009 at 12:20 AM ·

Switched to viola for pretty much the same reason and never looked back.  Have fun - you're gonna love it.

June 17, 2009 at 12:26 AM ·

Thanks for your replies :-)

I'm a bit small in stature - I'm only 5'1" - and when I'm sitting down and the viola is on my lap I feel like the scroll is level with the top of my head already (or maybe I just feel small - haha). I bought a 16-inch viola and took it to the luthier to be set up properly. I'm also hoping to enroll in a viola extension course at tthe state university so that I'll have a teacher to guide me through the ropes.

Disregarding the size, I have a feeling I'll enjoy the viola more than the violin. I don't know why. Haven't tried it yet. Maybe we will connect deeper :-)

June 17, 2009 at 01:21 AM ·


Welcome to the "Dark Side"!!!!  

I'm 5'2" and play a 16" viola comfortably.  Take it easy at first.  Buri gave me a tip when I went from a 15" to a 16" - take a tea towel, roll it up and put it under your left arm for support while you build up your strength.  It worked well for me.  

June 17, 2009 at 01:27 AM ·


just to clarify Mendy`s ladlylike description. The rolled up tea towel goes in the arm pit.



June 17, 2009 at 03:51 AM ·

Hahaha, I was wondering about that... thanks! But - and I'm sorry to have to ask this - what's a tea towel?

I bought a shoulder rest, because I use a shoulder rest for the violin. Will this help?

June 17, 2009 at 04:05 AM ·


A tea towel is the kind of cloth we use to dry dishes. You can use a small towel equally well.  Notice the importnat difference between this and a shoudler rest or pad.   The support is provided to the body nowhere near the intrument.   It doesn`t support the instrument itslef directly.     The reason behind this ide ais that in order to keep the left upper arm away from the body there is a tendency for viola player s8Because of the extra weight involved) to start using a lot of extra muscle especially tensig up the neck area.  By providing support unde rthe armpit the ecl and shoulder relaxes and the instrument is held up easily for long periods while the cortrect muscles develop as little a sis necessary.



June 17, 2009 at 04:13 AM ·

You will probably be much more comfortable on the viola if you can set it up more like your violin. SInce the viola itself is thicker, this will probably mean a lower chinrest and (if you use one), a lower shoulder rest, maybe none at all.


June 17, 2009 at 11:00 AM ·

I started to play viola as an adult after starting on violin as a child, and I still play both instruments.  The tone and sound of the viola, especially on the lower strings, just makes me happy to listen to it.  I've actually gained more confidence as a solo player on the viola, too. 

With all due respect to Mendy, who is a really good violist, and a full-time violist, I found a 16" viola to be too big (I'm 5'4").  I was renting a 16" for a while and it was too heavy and causing me some back and neck pain.  Maybe the size differential between it and a violin was just too great.  I also tried a 15.5 and 15 when I was renting, and settled on the 15.5 for reasons of richness of sound when I bought my viola a couple of years ago.  Switching back and forth between the two instruments is a bit weird, but it's getting easier the more I do it and get used to it.

June 17, 2009 at 11:57 AM ·

Size is an important thing related to viola playing confort, but not the only one.  Rib height (mainly on the neck joint), weight and string length have quite an influence also, so that, depending of some of these variables  you may find  a 16 1/2 viola more confortable than a  16 inches viola that is heavy, with high ribs and  a long string length, for instance.

June 17, 2009 at 09:49 PM ·

I play both. Height isn't always as much a factor as upper body shape.  Fairly large shoulder structure, or relatively wide shoulder front to back can help w/holding up a viola. I traded in a 16 1/4 old German for a new 15 1/2 Sean Peak after I developed pain running straight down next to my neck. This (and other) violas are cut w/a wide lower bout, increasing the air space. I'm 5'7" and a pinch. Sue 

June 18, 2009 at 02:35 AM ·

Before buying my 16-inch viola, the store owner offered me one that looked just about the size of a violin. I found it a bit weird, and quite pricey, so I settled for the 16-inch. I wonder though if the viola, masquerading as a violin, would have been the better choice.

June 18, 2009 at 04:50 AM ·

Why bother playing the viola if it's just a violin in disguise?

Go for the biggest sound possible.  You won't regret it.

June 18, 2009 at 05:53 AM ·


there isn`t a direct correspondence between bigness of sound and size.



June 18, 2009 at 01:45 PM ·

I think the days of looking at the viola as the instrument for failed violinists are over (and the change of opinion was long overdue). I do a lot of arranging for string groups, and in the conventional ensemble, the viola is an indispensible instrument. Just recall that J.S. Bach, as well as many other composers such as Mozart and Brahms, were good violists. Bach loved sitting in the viola section because he said it was the best place from which to hear all the harmonies.

If your height and arm reach give you pause about playing the larger instrument, there are some options for you. The large alto violin, which is played vertically on a pin, makes it possible for a small player to comfortably hold a much larger instrument. If you don't wish to relearn bow holding and fingering patterns, there are violas made to address the problem. I have a model that makes a 16" viola feel like a 15" viola, and other makers like David Rivinus make ergonomic models.

June 18, 2009 at 01:55 PM ·

As we speak now, I am waiting for my new viola to arrive.  I am so excited!

(And, I never heard about viola being an instrument for failed violinists.)  But that could be because I have only been playing viola a year and violin 3 years.

---Ann Marie

June 18, 2009 at 02:01 PM ·

(And, I never heard about viola being an instrument for failed violinists.)

This was in a bygone era, before the viola "joke". 

June 18, 2009 at 02:21 PM ·

5-string violin!

A couple of years ago when my left-hand viola chops were being decimated by osteoarthritis (turns out it was the statin I was taking that caused most of the problem) I purchased a Calvert 5-string violin from International Violin Co (near Baltimore).

It is a fairly credible instrument (even the C string), especially considering that it only cost $300. Unfortunately, it can be quite a challenge to play a 5-string instrument if you are used to 4-string. You may play it as a violin ignoring the lowest string - or play it as a viola and take advantage of having an E string.

The instrument was not set up well when it arrived - but it is attractive to look at. The viola bridge was much too large and clunky for the instrument, so I modified an old violin bridge I had and that improved the tone a great deal. The tailpiece with its built-in fine tuners seemed too heavy to me, but I found a light-weight (with no fine tuners) replacement at ebay for less than $10. I replaced the tuning pegs with Knilling Planetary pegs (yeah - I know a regular set is one-peg short for a 5-string) and the Pegheds man was nice enough to give me an extra peg for the C string (because I've been such a good customer) - so I don't needd any fine tuners - even for the E string. Helicore sells a 5-string violin set that works quite well on it.

SO - if you think about it, you could probably outfit any violin to be a viola (of sorts) just putting on the appropriate Helicore strings -- (C, G, D, A).

Good luck


June 18, 2009 at 03:21 PM ·

So is there always a shortage of good violists?



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