Violinist trying Viola

December 20, 2009 at 09:17 PM ·

Does playing the viola enhance violin playing for a pro violinist or mess things up?

Replies (37)

December 21, 2009 at 09:13 AM ·


There are a number of things a violinist learns by playing viola:

1. Things that you could get away with on the violin with the bow no longer work...a solid point of contact, well-regulated bow speed, and bow angle are that much more critical. Ever try to play a big note on the C string without making sure your bow is parallel to the bridge?

2. You can't cheat and tighten up on the left hand anymore. Relax and open that hand up, or those whole steps are going to punish you. You have to shift farther too!

3. Playing the inner voices of any work teaches you tons about the application of all that theory to playing your instrument. It's much harder to deal with intonation and rhythm when you have to support a melodic line, and you're being pulled in two directions (i.e., sharp violins and flat cellos).

December 21, 2009 at 04:08 PM ·

My guess is that learning viola is to some extent like learning a new language.  For a while, until you clearly separate your violin and viola playing from each other, you will have some minor problems.  However, there is no reason it shoulld hurt your violin playing in the long run.  Lots of professionals play both very well, and it is certainly an advantage to be able to play it.

December 22, 2009 at 10:01 PM ·

 It will totally enhance your playing in the long run.  Short term drawbacks include clef confusion and you'll play out of tune when switching back to the violin due to stretching your hand too much.  But it's worth it.  Learning the viola will help you to master the sound on your violin.

December 23, 2009 at 12:32 PM ·

Oistrack, Menuhin, Zukerman and many other top violinists were - and are - viola players too.

And that's good for viola makers too!!!

December 23, 2009 at 02:21 PM ·

To Manfio's point I would only add that many of the great composers who were string players -- e.g., Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Hindemith, Dvorak -- were violists in preference to violinists.  Unfortunately, most of them wrote more for violin than viola.

December 23, 2009 at 03:18 PM ·

Finger spacing on viola should not be a problem.  It can be thought of as an extension of the "principle"applicable in violin playing too: "The further your hand is from your face, the further apart your fingers hit the strings."

Another was to look at it is that there is a relationship between left arm angles and finger spacing.

I think one of the difficulties violinsts just beginning the viola may have with finger spacing is that they try to relate it to note position on the staff.

Then too, there is the pain, when you are no longer young! (Let's hear it for 14" violas!)

Sight reading alto clef like a pro, that can be confusing if you start viola at a more advanced age, like I did.


December 23, 2009 at 07:51 PM ·

I can only speak as a violist who has just recently started playing around on violin.  For me, violin is much easier, the finger spacing isn't as much of a stretch, shifts are easier (smaller upper bouts), vibrato is easier without having the arm so extended, and it is so easy to get a big sound out of the violin.  My problem has been remembering that all the strings are shifted to the left :) 

December 23, 2009 at 08:13 PM ·


just to add to Manfio`s point, I believe it wa s actually mandatory to learn viola during Oistrakhs time in Moscow.  It was interesting that in Indiviisle By Four,  the three violinists in the Guarneri had to decide who was going to play viola!  I couldn`t imagine such a situation when I attended music college. Times changed.



December 23, 2009 at 08:35 PM ·

To add to Buri's point, a story told to me by the members of the Shanghai Quartet:

The Quartet some years ago lost its violist.  They found that it was easier to find a compatible violinist than a violist.  So, with five weeks to go before a recording date, the second violinist, who had never before played viola, decided that he would become the quartet's violist.  He was able in those five weeks to learn it well enough so that they made their recording date.  I wish I were that good!


December 18, 2015 at 12:28 AM · I think viola would be a challenging, interesting and fun subject for violinists to dive into. I think that the power of the C string enables a greater range for harmony and a whole new world of music. I think violas are very exceptional and valued and they have their own unique characteristics.

December 18, 2015 at 12:46 AM · Currently, I have no plans to take up the viola (of course, one must never say "never"!), but one thing that would concern me were I to take the step is learning the alto clef - as Andrew pointed out (he and I are more less of the same generation). The problem will be that I have been very acquainted with the cello tenor clef for most of my life, and the positions of the two clefs on the stave differ by but a single line. Having said that, my cello teacher was a professional cellist and violist in symphony orchestras, so it can be done.

As to the size of viola, were I to get one, I think I'd let myself be guided by the very experienced people in my local violin dealer when making a choice.

December 18, 2015 at 09:38 AM · I play both, though I started on viola.

The viola needs a very tonic left hand, while the violin needs a finer bow stroke.

Size? To avoid tendon damage, type "ergonomical viola" in gGoogle. The whole problem is the extended left arm coupled with greater strength required in the little finger. Viola Elbow assured!

December 18, 2015 at 12:54 PM · I have recently bought a 14 inch viola. I have always loved the viola sound but I cannot handle the larger sizes so I decided to go with the 14 inch. I cannot say I am enjoying it very much. It takes a great deal more effort to coax a sound from the viola then it does from the violin. The strings are only the factory strings so it may improve when fitted with Tonica 3/4 size viola strings.

Actually the C string is not too bad ; it is the G, D and A which do not sound very nice. I could fit Tonica 4/4 violin strings here and see what it sounds like.

The action also need to be lowered a bit as it is giving my left hand a real workout. If I still do not like this viola after making some changes then I may just string it up as a violin and keep it as a spare. I have always wondered what a 14 inch viola would sound like when strung as a violin ?

December 18, 2015 at 04:34 PM · I would use 4/4 violin Tonicas for G,D,&A. Higher tension will cramp the wood's vibrations.

December 18, 2015 at 05:08 PM · I think that if you strung a 14" viola as a violin, I think that the low register will have an unusally deep sound and the high register will probably sound a little thick and a little too mellow and dark.

December 18, 2015 at 05:54 PM · I just bought a viola a couple of weeks ago. It's a bit like warming up in the on-deck circle with a lead donut on your bat. When you get into the batter's box your bat feels like a feather. If I play my viola for 15-20 minutes, and then take up the violin again, it feels like a toy, super easy to hold up, etc. But does it and will it improve my playing? I don't know.

December 18, 2015 at 11:03 PM · Paul : yes, I have noticed that too. I now love playing my violin as it is so light and easy. Perhaps we should all practise the viola for one day per week !

December 20, 2015 at 07:39 PM · To respond to the OP's first question: There have been several interviews on of professional violinists who say playing viola helps violin. I haven't kept track of who or why. Pinchas Zuckerman is the most famous violinist I can think of who plays both instruments professionally. That said, I have noticed that most of the current violin superstars do not appear to play viola.

Disclosure: I am nowhere near a professional level violinist. I did recently buy a viola and enjoy it more than the violin. It DOES help my violin playing, maybe not for the reasons mentioned in the interviews. Mainly, I do not have the viola parts for the violin music I play and have had to stretch my music theory knowlege and various violin skills in order to play it on the viola in its original key.

December 20, 2015 at 09:16 PM · Violas are slightly bigger than violins. They are tuned a little bit lower and require a slightly different playing technique. The viola is held in the same manner as a violin so that's how they are related.

December 22, 2015 at 07:06 AM · Violinists are slightly smaller than viola-ists. They are a bit lower to the ground and require a slightly different diet. They can be held in the same manner by their loved ones so that's how they are related.

December 22, 2015 at 02:15 PM · dear Rambo, I've told you before, let me try again: I find the photo attached to your account appalling and it actually spoils my pleasure of reading discussion threads on this website. this may sound exaggerated to you but it is the truth. could you please use a more neutral photo or get rid of the photo altogether? you are the only account on this website where I have this problem so I don't think it is just me.

December 22, 2015 at 03:15 PM · Oh brother....

December 22, 2015 at 04:25 PM · The only appropriate response to an atheist volley!


December 22, 2015 at 05:31 PM · I don't mean to intrude on this rather scientific and intelligent discussion you two are having, but could we please not quibble like children on a violin forum?

I also kind of find it weird that Rambo has an actual Rambo picture, but I just laugh it off with the knowledge that he can't possibly look like that.

Right? :D

We have too much of this "thread turns into a fight" sort of thing on these forums.

As a result, next person who starts one of these is getting reported to Laurie by yours truly, as we really shouldn't forget our manners when trying to ask for something in a polite manner.

@Seraphim: Please stop making the fire worse, it's bad enough without your humorous "attacks" on it! :D

December 22, 2015 at 06:17 PM · Jeesh, next thing you know, we'll have to go back to the original topic: VIOLAS!

We're between a rock and a hard place here folks: off topic ranting or discussing the dark sheep of the viol family...

December 22, 2015 at 06:29 PM · I've already flagged some of these posts so I don't know what Laurie will do next.

December 22, 2015 at 07:41 PM · I'll just say that I never knew that Jean meant "God has been gracious", so Rambo's post was both a response in kind, as well as being educational in its own unique way.

December 22, 2015 at 07:56 PM · I like the extra weight of a viola - it lets me really dig in. When playing violin I have to be careful to maintain a light touch so I don't crush notes. I did get tennis elbow in my left arm a few times when I first took up viola, but there are exercises that are effective at keeping it under control.

Alto clef was a bit of a stretch of the mind. I picked a few reference points and worked relative to them at first. In a couple of weeks I was starting to read it acceptably, and in two months or so I was fairly fluent. Now it's almost as much of an effort to shift back to treble clef. And then there are those high viola passages where I have to shift back and forth between the two clefs. But it all comes with practice - it's not as bad as you might think.

As for diet, I have to be careful - especially at this time of year - to not wind up looking like a cello.

December 22, 2015 at 08:12 PM · @Charlie: If you don't like being feather light on a violin (I hate it, personally, and love Guarneri models), just get thicker strings!

Esp for the E, replacing it with a nice fat gut E will let you dig in without getting all that extra hiss to the sound. :)

December 22, 2015 at 09:11 PM · But even a heavyweight E isn't going to match up to a viola A.

Just saying....

December 22, 2015 at 11:06 PM · @Seraphim: ALL LIES! The thickest appropriate gauge for a violin E according to historical sources is 0.8 mm (16 Pirastro gauge), and is what I will be putting on my instrument ASAP.

You were saying something about thicker viola A's or something? :D

December 22, 2015 at 11:15 PM · And......the thickest viola A string would be?????

Your Honor, I rest my case.

Court dismissed!

December 22, 2015 at 11:42 PM · What? How is the violin turned into a cello? It doesn't even have the pitch range of the cello (maybe I'm wrong).

December 23, 2015 at 03:33 AM · @Rambo: LOL!

@Seraphim: I thought we were comparing synthetic viola A's to anything violin related, naturally... :)

December 25, 2015 at 12:43 AM · To add to nobody's point - a story told to me by a member of the Shanghaid Quartet:

This quartet some years ago lost its violist. They finally found finally him under the couch cushions but he disappeared again - probably behind the refigerator (which no one moved for fear of freezing off their fingertip callouses). They found it was easier for a camel to go to heaven than to find a violist, so they killed a camel (already terribly ill) and taught the camel keeper to play viola. He was able in five weeks to learn it well enough so that they made their first (and last) recording date. I wish I were that good! And that's why everybody should use a Spiracore Tungsten C.

December 26, 2015 at 05:51 PM · A.O,I wouldn't tell Laurie about Rambo as you will both get banned, one for using a pseudonym, the other feror using initials...

December 26, 2015 at 07:05 PM ·

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

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