Violinist to violist

June 19, 2012 at 02:03 PM · As we all know, most violists start on violin. Consequently there is almost always a period of transition where you're going from being a violinist to a violist, and often a period where you play both at once, and must identify yourself as either just a violinist, or a violinist and violist. My question is: when do you become a violist? When do you stop feeling like a violinist posing as a violist?

Some possible ideas I came up with...

- When you play a 15"-16" instrument, as opposed to a 14"

- When you can read alto clef fairly well

- When you read alto clef as well as treble

- When you play viola in an ensemble

- When you play important viola rep (like the cello suites)

When do you think the line between violinist and violist is crossed? Is it a mental shift? An emotional one? Or is it just as simple as being able to read a different clef?

In short, when do you go from being "a violinist who plays the viola" to "a violist"? There are obviously no right or wrong answers to this one, I was just curious what other people thought...


June 19, 2012 at 02:43 PM · These are some some things helped make my mental switch from bring a violinist that plays viola to a VIOLIST :)!!!!!

1. When you are always disappointed by the small sound that you get from you violin.

2. When the C string becomes more pleasant to you ear than the E string.

3. When you're offended by violist jokes.

4. When you decide the sound of the viola is worth losing the violin repertoire.

5. When you really understand that the violin and the viola are played VERY differently.

Those are just a few from me...

June 19, 2012 at 02:46 PM · I had a number of "violin moments" when I first started playing the viola and when I acutely felt that I was just visiting.

So my criterion that I had arrived was, when I was playing the violin and had a "viola moment"--that is, forgot I was playing the violin and read the music as if it were in alto clef and tried to play it that way. For me, it happened about a year into viola playing, when I wasn't playing a lot of violin simultaneously.

June 19, 2012 at 03:06 PM · once you touch one. icky.... beware (those things are addictive)

June 20, 2012 at 01:48 AM · From just a technical standpoint, I think there are two main things that one has to "get" when playing the viola. One is knowing that the bow moves slower and playing into the string more. The other is playing with a slower, more "wiggly" vibrato. Of course, it also helps to be able to read alto clef, but those are the main things that help to create a viola sound. A lot of violinists who play viola don't have as good a feel for those things on the viola as violists do.

More on the musical side, one has to really fall in love with the C string, and in sharing bass lines with the cello in string quartet and orchestra. One has to hear/feel the nobility in the viola sound.

June 20, 2012 at 02:18 AM · I'd say once you start arguing with friends that the Bach cello suites are in fact viola suites you have crossed over.

June 20, 2012 at 10:49 AM · Emily - your question is much too profoundly metaphysical for a mere mortal like me to attempt to easily answer. The best I can suggest is that you are violist when you start taking umbrage at viola jokes.

June 20, 2012 at 11:06 AM · When you play both the violin and the viola equally at first, then slowly, insidiously, you realize you have not picked up your violin for WEEKS, and.....that you have not missed playing the violin.

When the people you play with have no idea that you can play the violin or have ever played the violin.

----Ann Marie

June 20, 2012 at 11:15 AM · Tom, no, not quite. I think you've "arrived" as a violist when you starting writing viola jokes.

June 20, 2012 at 12:25 PM · I note here mention of "switching over"; my question is does anyone here still play both and is there a downside to this - I'm thinking mostly of bow movement; will playing both make it more difficult for bow control on the viola; or for getting speed in violin bowing; or is there no difference? If someone is still playing both as opposed to "switching over" I'd appreciate any insight - thanks.

June 20, 2012 at 02:17 PM · I'm an authentic viola player who teaches, and plays, both. In fact I have earned more money as a violinist, but with amateur friends I usually play viola.

Practising the viola strengthens my left hand and develops my vibrato, while the violin maintains a more subtle bow-stroke.

After practising an hour on one, I always give the other ten minutes (the same music, transposed).

But if I have a concert on one, I try to avoid playing the other on the same day.

But I feel one is a "real" violist when one seeks a really separate identity from the violin: the tone not just deeper but denser; fast passages urgent rather than brilliant. If violin tone is like sky-blue silk, viola tone is like deep red velvet..

June 20, 2012 at 09:40 PM · an analogy.

When one first learns a foreign language, it's all translation: you think in the original language, then make the necessary adjustments of vocab. syntax, pronunciation....till one day, you wake up *thinking* in the new language, or discover you were dreaming in it.

When you play the viola that way, you are a violist.

June 20, 2012 at 11:58 PM · A. You're a "real" violist when you know and tell more viola (and violin) jokes than any of your violinist friends.

B. You know you have arrived when you have been playing violin, then pick up the viola and immediately think, "Ahhhhh. Home again."

June 21, 2012 at 12:15 AM · You know when you are a real violist when:

1) you know more viola jokes than your violin friends

2) you pick up a violin think "who can possibly play something so small?".

3) reading alto clef is like reading English (or native language)

4) you tune your open C string with the cellists

5) you find the website and subscribe to the viola list

6) you start thinking that fingered octaves on violin is a piece of cake.

June 21, 2012 at 12:40 AM · I'd like to call myself a violist. I'm pretty experienced, and happen to be going to school for the viola. Alto clef, no big deal. 15, 16 viola, no problem. Though I do still play my violin.

The only problem, most people in my hometown have no clue as to what a viola is, so I get tired of explaining myself when I refer to myself as a violist. So sometimes, to save time, I just call myself a violinist. Hopefully, I will one day be able to call myself a violist all the time!

June 21, 2012 at 11:48 AM · Emma - time to change locations.

June 21, 2012 at 12:22 PM · Emma, I have the same problem in France!

If I say "je joue du violon et de l'alto" people assume I mean the alto saxophone, so have to say "violon-alto". When they ask "what's that?" or "do you play it the other way up?" I reply that it is like a violin but with a more beautiful tone,(which, on good days, is true!)

June 21, 2012 at 12:36 PM · Beautiful tone? Why is a viola solo like peeing in your pants? Both are very quiet and very embarrassing.

My best friend is a violist. He knows ALL the viola jokes.

Cheers Carlo

June 21, 2012 at 01:16 PM · Here's another question...

If you're crossing the line between being "a violinist who plays viola" and "a violist", do you believe it's necessary to have some of your love for the violin diminish? Or is there room to love both equally and not feel like an imposter on either one?

June 21, 2012 at 01:50 PM · Emily - another metaphysical question. I am sure the answer must be yes.

June 21, 2012 at 01:52 PM · That fingered octaves on violin vs viola comment is right on the money.

I would add:

When you stop trying to apply violin bow technique to viola. I swear if I hear one more person say 'torque' and 'viola' in the same sentence I'm gonna smack a __. In short, when your tone on viola no longer sounds scratchy, emaciated and stupid.

When you can follow ANYONE, be it conductor or other players, no matter what they throw your way. Whatever happens, you stick to them like glue.

And when you have learned to truly listen, hear, AND adjust; intonation, articulation, bow speed, phrasing, vibrato speed/width, etc.

Violinists may sometimes have these traits, but usually only if they've spent an enormous amount of time as a second violinist.

June 21, 2012 at 05:52 PM · Not only is it possible, but I would say that playing the viola increased my affection for the violin. It made my musical life on both instruments much richer.

June 21, 2012 at 06:40 PM · Emily, it's like having a second (or third) child. You love the first one even more.

June 21, 2012 at 06:47 PM · My goodness, we violists are such wonderful people! (And so modest!)

June 22, 2012 at 12:37 PM · I have an irrational fondness for discussions like these that have no real answers. lol Thanks all for your thoughts!!

June 25, 2012 at 08:42 AM · Emily, I was reminded of an earlier post.

I take it you have move up (or on), from a 14" viola: how's it going, comfort-wise?

June 25, 2012 at 08:52 AM · "I'd say once you start arguing with friends that the Bach cello suites are in fact viola suites you have crossed over."

But it does not alter the fact that they sound so much better on the cello. (I used to play nearly all of the suites on the viola, but could never make that much sense of them. But on the cello they work). (It's a bit like prefering the Pag caprices on violin, and not on viola, and not on the double bass!)

P S As a viola player I never minded the viola jokes, and in fact used to tell them myself. I did however alter one to someone else. You know, the one where a man is being shown around a brain bank in the year 2050 and the surgeon shows him a brain in a glass case that belonged to a famous author, priced at $500 - and then one from a famous architect at $700. Then a special brain which cost $20,000 The guy asks, "why so expensive suddenly?" The surgeon answers "oh, well, this one has never been used, it belonged to a conductor ..."

June 25, 2012 at 10:17 AM · Emily, I like your second question! I played viola for many years and thought I'd never go back to violin again. Now I have; not only do I love both, but playing one makes me love the other more (not cynically, but because each brings out the different but wonderful qualities of the other by contrast and accord.

June 25, 2012 at 01:12 PM · marjory

I'm not so much saying it's the players, but more the nature of the instrument, which Bach wrote them for after all.

The nature of the cello is such that it is capeable of (in my view) the right sound, where the viola as an instrument fails miserably.

June 25, 2012 at 01:27 PM · @ Adrian - my rental period for my current instrument is up at the beginning of July, and I'm using the opportunity to switch to a 15". The 14" is becoming more and more cramped the more I work with it. And I've worked a lot on tension and consciousness the past six months, and hopefully that will help make the transition easier. I'm glad I started with the 14", it was a great introduction to the instrument and helped me to avoid frustration while learning a new clef, but it's definitely time to move on so I can start working with more "viola-y" colors. Let's hope I can make the leap.

For anyone interested, a couple blogs on the topic are forthcoming, so keep an eye out if you're into that kind of thing.

June 25, 2012 at 02:19 PM · You know that you are really a violist when you prefer to practice the Bach Sonatas and Partitas on the viola, even though they are easier to play on the violin.

You know that you are really a violist when you feel as if you are missing out on something when playing the first violin part in chamber music or in orchestra.

I switch back and forth from viola to violin all the time. I would not give up either instrument. Life is just too short.

June 25, 2012 at 02:22 PM · It all sounds to me like a lot of violists want reassurance ... (wink)

June 25, 2012 at 09:41 PM · You know, Peter, that argument would work better with any other composer than JSB, who so frequently recycled his pieces from one instrument/set of instruments to another that to say he wrote something for one instrument is not to say he wrote it in stone for that instrument.

It's true the cellist has thumb position, which, like a capo on guitar, makes certain things easier, but otherwise, I don't think I would agree with you, which hurts neither of us, far as I can see.

June 26, 2012 at 11:10 AM · I say I'm a violist who occasionally plays violin. I don't really like to because it gives me hand and wrist cramps :(

If I get asked what a viola is, I tell people it's like a baby cello - that feels more accurate to me.

June 26, 2012 at 01:00 PM · At least to me, the answer to the OP's initial question is that the process of becoming a violist becomes complete when you stop playing the violin.

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