Violinist playing viola

December 12, 2011 at 09:04 PM · I just played viola in the local symphony for the Nutcracker with the ballet company.

Not only did my arm nearly fall off but I was horrified at how badly and out of tune I played! When I was at my musical peak some years ago,as a violin music performance major, I never allowed myself to play out of tune especially in a concert. No bad note came from my instrument that anybody would hear or really notice (even when i did a little viola in college and was just learning it then). I mean, that happened to the other guy who didn't practice or wasn't a good player, (ie high school or people not as serious in music as i was).

Granted, I've only touched the viola a few times during the last 6 months due to lack of time but mostly resources. (I'm not a full time musician and work part of the year on contract where there's no orchestral opportunities.) I have lost a lot of technique on the violin as well for letting years go by without the kind of practice needed to keep it up. (Reason for this is lack of ambition/drive after about age 20 and extreme major depression from 'black' and 'white' thinking that "if- I- don't -play -as- well -at- age 15 -when -I'm -in- my 30's -i'm -a -lost -cause," "if I can't play well, i wont play at all," etc., It's sad but it's what i'm really battling against and hopefully with determination, get through what I probably need to learn from!)

So what happens is I get so depressed over this, I literally stop being able to play, or function. Yes, literally. My brain shuts down, rehearsals or concerts, doesn't matter. I freeze up. it's a disastrous loop that's been going on for years that i haven't been able to gain any victory over! I'm so miserably depressed over this last concert and it's like the clincher becasue I feel like quitting all together.

But music was the thing I knew, only thing and it was like if i'm not good at that anymore, what's the point? I will not be or become a mediocre player even if I only do it for fun!

Yet the thing that is a vital ingredient and what I had done like second nature years before, I'm lucky to do a few times a month: practice.

Not sure how to get out of THIS mess now. I really botched the concert to where people noticed and said stuff to me (esp. viola section)

Given how i play both violin and viola now, I'm sure no one would believe me that i soloed with my high school orchestra (which was known for being quite good) on the Bruch violin concerto mvt 1.

Has anyone been through this kind of situation? Anyone can relate? How did you work through it?

Replies (21)

January 23, 2012 at 08:55 PM · Rebecca, this will need some thought...

All I can suggest off the cuff is to gently retrace the steps which brought you to love the music and the viola: memories, recordings, early pieces etc.

Take up the instrument, and pretend to start again, slowly: you should soon find how much you have not in fact lost, and be able to piece your playing together again. Try not to set any goals in advance, but just retrace the path you trod, and maybe replace the less good bits.

Start very small then let your playing grow without rushing it.

Try Irish balads with no vibrato but with a gentle, caressing bow; try dance movements more slowly than usual but with detatched, pearly strokes.

In other words, try to recover the sheer pleasure of holding, stroking, and sending small, smiling tones out of this maddening instrument. Cajole it into singing for you...

Best I can do for now!


January 23, 2012 at 09:21 PM · Rebecca,

I can relate to your situation. I stopped playing the violin for about 5 years in my twenties when it became clear that I had little time to practice and I was not going to be a great violinist. But I did pick it back up.

Even if you don't have the technique of a great violinist, you do have a voice - everyone does. You do have something to say. That was the idea that got me playing again.

There are a number of books that I found really inspirational and reminders that you can improve. And improvement is possible even if you are an adult with limited time. But you do have to be organized.

Some inspirational books:

"Art and Fear-Observations on the perils and rewards of artmaking". My takeaway on this book is that the better you get, the better your standards get. And you are never as good as your standards. But if you keep things up you could be great. Most people quit, don't be one of them!

"Practicing for Artistic Success" Burton Kaplan. This book provides a simple blueprint for how to improve.

If you can find people to play chamber music with that can be a great way to find inspiration. You also need performance opportunities. Play for friends, or have them come over and help critique your playing. Critique their playing too.

Performing at church can be good but it's never been great for me. What's always bugged me about playing at church are the times when I had an off day and someone came up and said "I can see that the Lord is working through your music. It's so wonderful!" It's all very well meaning and all, but I never could get excited about that. But that's just me.

Alexander Technique is great for improving, and you don't have to do anything except go to the lessons and think about it. If you've never taken Alexander Technique it sounds like a bunch of nonsense. But it's not, and it can help a lot with making your playing much more efficient and free.

It may also be of comfort to you that professional violinists have difficulty finding time to practice. Someone like Josh Bell is traveling 200 days out of the year, and he has appearances, teaches, conducts. Where does he find the time to practice? It's not like he's got as much time to practice as when he was a student either.

Best regards,


January 23, 2012 at 10:05 PM · There are probably a number of us who can identify with your situation. I've been struggling to balance my 'official' career (English prof.) with my 'unofficial' vocation--violist/violinist--for decades now. About a year ago I faced an additional challenge--serious left-shoulder pain/debility (I thought) from not-practicing but over-playing inattentively. {Turns out it's another issue, genetic not careless, but the pain, the debility, and the problem for my playing continue to be real).

I've learned that I had to make CHOICES (some would call them compromises: I prefer 'choices.) I like to eat, have a house, car, dogs, books, instruments, and such, so I have to have a job. I'm not (now) good enough to be a professional violist, so I don't think I'll quit my teaching (which, I admit, I also love--two-timing is always tricky, be it with people or 'other.)

Now I rise an hour earlier in the mornings (that's 4:30) to put in some careful warmup and practice on one instrument or the other. I allow myself another hour near the end of the day; more, if my students' papers or my colleagues' political machinations are making me crazy. I've improved quite a bit in the last 8 months. I'm not going to get back where I was, and that's ok. As Terry says, I have a voice and I'm letting it sound as often and as beautifully as it can. Oddly, I love my music more than I did when it was my career (for about 10 years, some decades ago) because I choose it now, every day, as a choice of how I spend my time, energy, and all that.

It's not easy practicing consistently even for short periods when you have another job, but, if you want to be in touch with your musical self, it's necessary.

I've taken a lesson in order to get some outside help with my technique; that was a boost and encouragement that I didn't expect to be so energizing.

Regret is pernicious and poisonous. Be who you are now, do what you do now, and look forward. All the best.

January 23, 2012 at 10:41 PM · Rebecca, nowhere in your post do I hear you say that you love to play. It sounds like you are continuing only because it's what you sometimes do (and not so long ago, did very well.) Hard question: do you still love it? Does anything about violin or viola make you happy?

If not, and if you have other ways of making a living, maybe it's time to bag it, even if just for a year or so to see if this is what you really want.

On the other hand, if your distress is coming from feeling like you are failing at the most important thing in your life, it's a completely different kettle of fish. Can you find even half an hour a day to practice? It may not sound like much, but it is a huge improvement over never, or rarely. Do you have people you could play chamber music with just for fun? A Celtic group, if that is your thing? Something where performance isn't the goal in any case. Did you have a chance to actually practice The Nutcracker, or just hope you could wing it this time? Taking a job like this but not having time to practice until you're bulletproof on the music just reinforces your anxieties.

Finally, if you are feeling this way about other facets of your life, is there any chance you have slipped into a depression?

January 24, 2012 at 04:39 PM · One other thing: if your time is this limited, trying to keep both violin and viola skills up to par is difficult. If you are mainly a violinist, how much warning do you have before a viola gig? Enough to put down the violin and give the viola the attention it needs? By playing both, you're spreading yourself thin.

January 25, 2012 at 01:22 PM · I looked at your bio, and wonder if you are again regreting that life didn't pan out the way you anticipated when you were an eager music-child, and are second-guessing your choices. Sometimes, best is best, but since you were annoyed & embarrassed at yourself for playing viola poorly recently, that feeling is something you have to put aside. Your future course is something you need to think about more. Life does get in the way, but you can make time if you work at it and really want to. Steal 15 minutes anywhere you can to add up practice time. It isn't as easy to practice now as when you are a (supported) child. I would guess Missoula isn't exactly a place where playing jobs land in people's laps. Are you in any position to go where there might be more opportunities (but also more competition)? I do feel bad for your angst and depressive thoughts, but maybe they are a door for you. Sue

June 19, 2012 at 02:34 AM · I wish you luck with this; sounds to me like the hardest part for you is you have very high standards which you should be commended for; as someone who recently was quite disappointed in a performance (though I've played for quite a bit shorter time than you) I can only tell you what others told me - don't be so hard on yourself and keep working - I'm trying to follow that advice as difficult as it sometimes is -

I wanted to ask anyone reading this a question in regard to the playing of both violin and viola since you raised it - is it a good idea to play both at the same time? I'm worried that concentrating more on violin now will adversely affect my viola playing - should I be worried about that? if anyone has an opinion I'd appreciate it - or if I should start a new thread I will do that -

in any case, again, much luck - I have a feeling you will be back on track sooner than you think - I hope for me as well!

June 19, 2012 at 02:55 AM · IMO you should schedule more time to learn viola. If you are already booked near or to the max with violin duties, it's probably not a good time to take on another instrument. On the other hand, if you have some spare time, you will most likely find the viola addicting and extremely helpful to your violin playing.

June 19, 2012 at 11:00 AM · I agree with what some people said above about spreading yourself too thin trying to play both instruments. I was trying to do that for a while but with limited practice time I decided I needed to concentrate on violin only, for now at least.

Do you have any moderate, achievable goals that would help you get back into practicing? I found that performing in low-stress situations like at church or at a local Farmers' Market motivated me to take my instrument out every day.

Another technique that, surprisingly, has helped me stay motivated to practice even with limited time is "Don't Break the Chain". It doesn't require anything fancy, I just like to check things off lists.

Finally, forgive me if I'm overstepping, but it sounds from your post as if perfectionism is really getting you down. There are a number of writers who take on this topic, one of my favorites is Hillary Rettig:

Her emphasis is on writers, but her attitude and approach work for all kinds of underproductivity.

June 19, 2012 at 01:05 PM · I agree with Emily and Karen that you mght be wise to question whether continuing with viola is necessarily the most appropriate thing to do at present, while simultaneously maintaining your violin playing at the best possible level. The demands of switching back and forth between the two may at present strain your expectations of yourself.

June 19, 2012 at 02:24 PM · Hi Rebecca,

Lots of great advice above, I can only commend some great ideas for people who feel they are truly losing their drive to play. But is that seriously you?

Let's not mess about here. Unfortunately I think a giant sized kick in the backside is due here, Aussie style. (Yes I've had plenty, ouch). You were being paid to play Nutcracker and by your own admission you've only picked up your instrument a few times in the last 6 months. What were you thinking? Did you suppose that you knew it off by heart well enough to 'wing it?' I'd be practicing panic stricken underwater at 2am just to ensure I was able to play reasonably, never mind perfect! Your situation did not happen by mistake. Oh yes, I'm familiar with perfectionism, it is definitely a 'black and white' kind of devil that only allows you two choices. All or nothing. But as others are telling you, you do have more choices than that, you are in charge of you, so save your tears for situations that you can't control and make some firm decisions now. So what happened? A million and one distractions called life. We all have work/life balancing acts that at times aren't easy, things that can take us away from our chosen paths (often called children). Our priorities end up being clear choices.

Don't get me wrong here, I know it seems harsh but the softly-softly approach might not be the right thing for you right now. You gave yourself no chance to play at the level you expect from yourself, and that you know you can produce. Think of the blood, sweat and tears you have given over the years to achieve your amazing abilities and talent, qualities that I, and no doubt many others, would happily give both legs for. Your lifetime of musical experiences that will no doubt have developed in you your definite tastes and styles of preference. You have also experienced appreciation and, most importantly, acknowledgement from the musical community over time. You say music has been your soul? Take this one on the rump, find your sense of humour, disregard the naysayers, put this one down to experience, and as they say, 'Go get 'em, Rex.'

June 19, 2012 at 06:18 PM · Tough talk from Millie!!

You will probably want to give me ten kicks up the you know what when I tell you this true story.

Many years ago when I was a delinquent viola player (that's the only sort there are) I got a call to do a performance in a theatre in some God forsaken hole in the Midlands. At the time I was living in beautiful Wales, so I set off in plenty of time. Unfortunately after about 40 miles I realised that my car was getting brake failure so I had to turn round and return home (fast roads where brakes are not needed much) to pinch my then wife's car.

So I belt back up to (I think it was Wolverhampton) to the theatre (this was about 100 miles maybe a bit more).

Of course by this time when I arrived I was late having lost about an hour. I crept into the pit and sat down on the empty seat next to a young lady viola player. (I was about 30 minutes late). I realised I was sight reading and had no idea what we were playing. After a page or two I wispered to her, what is this music?

"Nutcracker" came the reply. Well, I thought, this is damned difficult stuff.

In the interval the pricipal viola said to me, "you are supposed to be sitting up here with me" but I said "under the circumstances carry on, I'm fine here."

So really, to be fair, the Cracknutter is a difficult piece to sightread.

It was a difficult and bad day - and I got a b******** from my (ex) wife later for nicking her car ...

To be honest, although I've played plenty of ballet musak, It's something I don't miss.

June 19, 2012 at 07:45 PM · Rebecca, I hope I'm not overstepping, but this seems like a problem far more akin to health than anything else. I seriously doubt you could try harder, and I doubt it would be good for you to do so. I say this as a person who has TRIED always in everything, to excess. A family member has serious black and white thinking. As far as I know the only way to truly overcome this is through something called dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Although it was designed for Borderline Personality Disorder, It is used effectively for depression and anxiety now. This doesn't mean I think you are crazy. I had depression due to being very physically ill since childhood, and getting progressively worse, which It will always do. I'm happy now. I'm ill, but the violin saved me, and Zoloft has been very effective too, oh! my service dog really helps. You probably don't need these things, but hey pets are great for depression. You need support and not criticism. Go to a doctor. These feelings can be caused by simple things such as low vitamin D, sleep apnea, fatigue, something missing in the diet, clinical depression etc. Persecuting yourself is actually a symptom, and DBT is an active therapy rather than years of analyzing one;s life. UCK! I hope you are better or find the problem, learn to relax, and re-locate your passion. I don't think a viola or anything else is worth enduring constant emotional ANGUISH, and judging yourself and accepting criticism for this from people who can;t comprehend why you feel these things can make things worse. This can be overcome.

June 20, 2012 at 03:19 AM · Poor Peter, having to sightread Cracknutter after a sh***y start to the day. I don't envy you that. But I would still even like to be able to play it.

Like Mikel, I did initially consider this to be perhaps a situation involving depression. But after reading carefully, I think not. Depression usually encompasses more everyday struggles, like not getting out of bed, not wanting to talk to friends, avoiding all the things one used to like doing. No, this seems more of a struggle with time management and preferences. Losing your mojo for life, Rebecca, is one thing. Allowing yourself to lose it for playing violin is completely different.

My 'tough talk' isn't because I don't understand. It's because I do, actually. Black and white perfectionist thinking is all about oneself and control. Strong values that often relate to high achievers are a bit of a vicious circle. Often enough I've been the victim of my own 'all or nothing, do or die' thinking which really boils down to an inflexible attitude, leading one to believe that in the end there's 'no other way' and often blaming others for situations you may find yourself in. Usually, if one has become a really well practised perfectionist, there are other casualties along the way such as family and friends that often find you are 'all too much' to bear and just avoid getting in your way. Therefore, unchecked and unchastened, your vicious circle continues.

That's not to say you are completely like me Rebecca. I just saw a few too many similarities in your thought processes that you were kind enough to share. I've been sat on my backside by some good friends a couple of times, and without them I wouldn't have realised. Take some time for a serious chat with yourself, even if it means nicking off for the weekend, and work out what's really important to you. But don't let yourself off the hook. This isn't the time for self pity. It's the time for self evaluation.

June 20, 2012 at 07:11 PM · Rebecca, a purely practical point: intonation!

Going from violin to viola, the left hand has to open up backwards as if playing lots of flats (you can't grow a longer 4th finger overnight, and it must stay curved, to ensure a decent vibrato.)

Also, the fingers must hold the string more firmly. The whole balance of the left hand changes: the viola neck is thicker, and so it may have to rest nearer the tip of the thumb.

Unless you have the hands of an Oistrakh or a Perlman, you can't just take up a viola as if it were just a larger violin!

June 23, 2012 at 11:49 AM · At another level, we often carry childhood facility into adolescence for a time, but we, and Life, get a bit more complicated, and our talents get smothered or pushed to one side.

But they have not gone for good; they just need patient, thorough, and above all, concious re-awakening and nourishment.

On a practical level, if we are right-handed, our left hand does amazingly little, most of the time: it needs to be re-trained, like someone undergoing physiotherapy. Re-discovering forgotten reflexes will take time; adapting them to the viola also.

Personally, I have to "re-tune" my hands as I switch back and forth from violin to viola (but not in the same concert!)(See the above post.)

June 23, 2012 at 12:08 PM · Maybe the answer is to not play the viola ... (wink)

June 23, 2012 at 12:24 PM · Thank you, Peter, you're a great help!

June 23, 2012 at 01:53 PM · I can tie in with Millie's 'tough love' approach and with Adrian's post of 20 June. When I was a teenager, I tried forsaking violin for viola and did not find it easy. I eventually got used to it, but still preferred the violin and, when I resumed string playing a long time later, made a point of taking up the violin without viola playing.

As Adrian says: unless you have hands like Perlman or Oistrakh, "you can't just take up a viola as if it were just a larger violin". IMO, one should take up one OR the other instrument and stick to it (only). I appreciate that other members will disagree with this view and are entitled to alternative opinions, but I'm contributing my $0.02 worth and I sure do feel better now I've said my piece on this topic!

June 23, 2012 at 04:53 PM · Lots of people even with small hands play both violin and viola and even in the same concert.

I used to do both professionally but now I'm an amateur I prefer the violin so that's what I play. I traded in my viola.

June 23, 2012 at 07:57 PM · One additional comment from personal experience; Noting that my viola intonation was poor, I tried getting as close to a violin in size as possible. A good strong 15 or 15 1/2" instrument seemed like a solution but proved to be the opposite....What worked for me was to play on a 16" viola however, to develop an almost schizoid and totally new hand position..In addition to the obvious bow stroke necessities, a true viola hand/wrist arrangement yielded a different kinesthesia and sight of the ol' alto clef just throws my posture into this new mode....For a while, before a viola gig, I'd buzz thru the Wohlfahrt Foundation Studies to embed the "new" hand position...You might give it a try.

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