when to transition from violin to viola

July 13, 2015 at 09:16 PM · Greetings!

I am looking for feedback concerning my interest to play Viola. I am not only unsure if I should wait to play viola but also I don't know if I'm playing on the correct sized instrument. I am a petite person with small hands. My neck to base of fingers measures 25” with a yardstick.

A little background: I'm an adult re-learner. I played violin when I was a child, but stopped and more recently started playing again. I joined a local community orchestra and have been very happy with my progress and overall improvement in intonation. I enjoyed the technical challenges of Dancla air varie and currently working through Kayser book with the hopes of gaining more consistency with shifting. I've begun to learn 3 octave scales too.

When I started my violin lessons I rented a full size violin, but found it really hard to reach some notes. My palm also would 'drift' in a sense – I would end up in 2nd position all the time, not purposely. After 3 months my teacher told me about lady violins. The 7/8 size has been perfect for me.

I jumped on the opportunity to play viola when a friend lent me her daughter's 14” viola to try this summer. I was surprised at how easy it is to play the viola and learn the clef. It took 90min to learn the easier major keys and start site reading through Wolfhart book 1. Actually, the whole experience was pretty anticlimatic. However, I am interested in experiencing the Viola section in the orchestra as the viola role is different then violin.

When I stretch my arm and hold my violin my hand/fingers wrap around the scroll comfortably. The 14 viola is like a bulky violin so I can wrap my fingers around the scroll as well, with a half inch more space then my violin. I tried a 15 in a rental shop and my fingers went half way around the scroll. When I look at websites, they list me playing on either a 14 or 15. In theory, the best sized instrument for me would probably be a 14.5.

My concerns lie in that I don't want my intonation to be effected tremendously on the violin especially since I'm still learning and my goal is to be able to play violin pretty decently. (Which in my mind is like someone that has played through college). On the other hand, I won't know if I like viola more or less then violin if I don't take it more seriously and practice/play in the orchestra. Therefore I need an appropriate sized instrument.

Your thoughts are appreciated. Thank you !

Replies (38)

July 13, 2015 at 09:41 PM · I play both.

I think the fingers should get right round the scroll. The problem is the combination of wider-spaced notes, plus a more extended arm, plus the need to hold the strings more firmly.This strains the tendons like "tennis elbow".

If you are on a "voyage of discovery", maybe you can find a viola with the same body and string lengths as your violin, but with a wider, deeper body. If you want it to appreciate the differences more, your idea of a 14-1/2 is perhaps best.

Try "googling "small viola", or "ergonomical viola". Good luck, it's well worth the trouble!

When going from violin to viola, I keep a similar curve to my 4th finger: the other three bend back out of the way. I organise my shifts by semitones, like a guitarist, and sometimes borrw 'cello fingerings.

July 14, 2015 at 02:29 PM · My teacher, Winifred Copperwheat was a petite lady with small hands. She played a Richardson (i.e., Tertis model). She kept her left thumb horizontal, i.e., playing and teaching Dounis method.

July 14, 2015 at 05:39 PM · I can't do a horizontal thumb, but if you can, you may be able spread your fingers a bit like 'cellist, with the base line of the fingers more parallel to the strings?

July 14, 2015 at 05:53 PM · Not to be recommended (horizontal thumb) as it causes a lot of tension in the left hand. OK if violas only play the odd note ... (wink)

July 15, 2015 at 03:53 AM · I have been interested in playing viola for a few years and just recently bought one. I haven't had much experience to speak from first person, but here's what might be helpful: 1) the general skills for playing violin transfer to viola, and you'll find that your mind compartmentalizes the rest. I have no trouble playing in tune switching between instruments. The funny thing I discovered is that I find it difficult to bow the violin with my viola bow even though the sizes aren't that different. I'm used to viola string spacing with my viola bow and violin spacing with my violin bow. 2) When I was searching for a viola, I found that there was so much variation in the different dimensions that it was important to try out a particular viola of a certain size for awhile and see how comfortable it was. Not all violas of the same size give the same amount of comfort. 3) This is based on observation, not experience: playing both viola and violin increases your opportunities. You might be able to play viola in an orchestra whose level is higher than that of an orchestra in which you'd be accepted on violin. One interesting exercise for me is to choose a piece of orchestral music I like, find it on IMSLP, and compare the violin and viola parts. But one take-away from reading books about the Guarneri SQ is that the viola parts require the same level of skill as the violin parts.

I don't have any fixed goals regarding the viola--I chose to study it because I love the sound. I'm open to whatever opportunities arise. In fact, I recently learned that there are a few violists in my Scottish Fiddlers group!

July 15, 2015 at 07:50 AM · Loving the sound is the right path!


Switching back and forth from violin to viola, I use two separate sets of reflexes, (in both hands). On the other hand, my intonation is disturbed if I try a viola just a litte different from my own.

July 16, 2015 at 12:07 AM · You get used to the difference in playing the two instruments after a relatively short time. No reason to wait to start viola.

July 17, 2015 at 08:51 PM · I find it useful to have exactly the same warm-up routine on both instruments. This, in particular for open strings, where once can instantly feel the difference in bowing.

For your left hand, one quick and very effective practice (I call "calibrating") is to shift using octave double-stop from 1st position on the middle 2 strings (E on violin, A on viola) adding one semi-tone at the time....

...and back from 8th position, again expanding the interval with one semitone at a time. Glissando during this shifting exercise is fine.

July 18, 2015 at 12:46 AM · no.

August 1, 2015 at 10:28 PM · Thank you all.

I've been looking around for student instrument options in the 400 range. 14.5 isn't a standard size. I'm at a loss because the size difference between a 14 and 15 feels huge.

Is it advisable to go with comfort and play on the small instrument. Or learn how to play in a more extended position on the bigger instrument.

My goals with playing again is simply to continue to learn and play in the community orchestra.

August 2, 2015 at 01:01 AM · I am a violist. You present a major problem that all violists face: size of the instrument. The sound of the viola is partly dependent on its size. A small instrument generally doesn't have the oomph it needs. Actually almost any instrument less than a 20" viola is physically too small a sounding box for the pitch range it is supposed to cover; and an instrument that size is absolutely unwieldy - except perhaps in the hands of a giant or of tiny little Lilian Fuchs! (I don't know how she played a huge instrument so magnificently with her very diminutive size.) That being aside, the viola also causes all sorts of physical problems in the players - the left elbow having to bend so far under the body of the instrument that wrist, shoulder, neck, and spinal problems can beset the violist later in life. In order to make the sounding box bigger we have seen changes in the size and shape of the viola, e.g., Tertis model with larger lower bouts , and the lopsided Pellegrina Viola Tenore of David Ravinius, or the Oktave Geige of Johann Reiter strung with viola strings. All of these offer the larger sounding box, and therefore better sound, but they still are way too big for your hands. Many older violists are looking to downsize because of problems caused by playing on a large instrument for too many years. Many modern luthiers are trying to accommodate this by trying to get a true big viola "sound" in smaller instruments. Some are doing a pretty good job, but it's still hit and miss. With violins being a more standard size and shape, it is easier to find a good instrument than it is with violas, which really have no "standard" despite thousands of 16" and 16+" Strad copies out there. All I can say is look, listen, and try out every viola you see. One of them may be right for you. Good luck!

August 2, 2015 at 01:09 AM · As an addendum to the above: I picked up a wonderful(!!!) Richard Blois 16-1/2" viola (that is a little too big for me--I usually play 16") from a second violinist in the Houston Symphony SPECIFICALLY because he felt his intonation on violin (his main instrument) was suffering from playing on this 16-1/2" instrument. So there is definite validity to your question about intonation suffering when switching back and forth from one to the other.

August 2, 2015 at 10:59 AM · It's switching back and forth which causes problems. We need two distinct sets of reflexes, in both hands.

August 2, 2015 at 08:52 PM · Try googling "small violas," or "ergonomical violas".

Edit: sorry, I aleady said that.

August 2, 2015 at 09:08 PM · Luis Manfio makes excellent small violas. He posts here sometimes.

August 5, 2015 at 12:25 PM · Indeed, with a warm but "forward" tone.

He follows René Morel in keeping the same string length, whatever the body length; but as his superb violas are hand-made, I'm sure he could adapt to a smaller person's narrower hands.

August 24, 2015 at 07:19 PM · Hello Folks, I thought I would give an update:

While on vacation I saw a Eastman VA100 15" Viola for a reasonable price on Craigslist so I picked it up and brought it home with me on the plane.

The instrument has surpassed all my expectations. It looks great, smells wonderful and sounds fantastic. I put a set of medium tension Pro-Arte strings on it because I wanted a softer sound. The sound is wonderfully smooth. I really love it!

The sad part.

I've been playing for a few weeks everyday to adjust to the size, but its proven to be too big for my hands to play.

I'll continue to keep my eye out for a random odd sized violas out there, but realistically, its probably not in an affordable price range. I've pretty much given up on my viola hobby. Which isn't so horrible in that I can 100% devote my time to getting better at playing violin. Its just that I really love the viola sound.

In any case, If you or someone you know is interested in the instrument contact me for price and details. I have no problem mailing it.

Thank You

August 25, 2015 at 10:02 AM · Sad.

Kimberly, I have "petite" viola colleagues with narrow palms who adopt a very mobile left hand (except for double stops or some arpeggios).

Quite different from violin technique.

Try comparing U-toob examples of say, Itzhak Perlman and Kyung-Wha Chung. or any female violist (the young ones usually use violas much to big for their own good..)

One other thing. I have set up my chinrests and shoulder rests to give a 30° tilt on the violin, but a 45° tilt to the viola so that I can do a decent vibrato with my pinky on the C-string. This does mean a near-vertical bow on the viola A, where I prefer bow speed to bow pressure, anyway.

August 25, 2015 at 03:39 PM · The question was "when to transition from violin to viola?"

I was 40 when I got my first viola. Our community orchestra was performing the Verdi Requiem that has one movement with no violins - so all violinists who had violas were asked to play that movement. I was at the stage where I had to translate alto clef from reading treble clef on violin (on which I was CM of our local orchestra for about 20 years).

Advance 30 years - by that time, I had probably performed on viola about 7 times and had less than 100 hours total time on the instrument. I still had to give some thought to "clef translation." I did not touch the viola for close to 10 more years,

So we advance 10 years to a few months ago - then at age 80 I got my viola out (it was still pretty much in tune) and read through the 3 movements of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante (I had played the slow movement before with violinist and pianist, but never attempted the outer movements). It went so well that I brought viola to my next piano-trio practice and we played the SC and Mozart's clarinet trio, with violin playing clarinet part.

Since then, with violists on vacation, I've played viola the past 2 months in our chamber orchestra rehearsals. I really love it. I was principal 2nd for about 3 years in this orchestra, but my right arm started giving me trouble a year ago and I find it easier to control a viola bow (even on violin).

I play a 16" viola. I have long arms (the end of the scroll reaches the junction of my wrist and hand) and large hands. I use a very low chinrest, so that the height of my viola under my chin is the same as the height of my violin. I do not use a shoulder rest (especially with viola).

So, I say: get a viola when you find a good deal on one, and learn to play it to some level - so you can switch when it is better for you and all around you.

But beware because viola sizes and styles are so different:

Beware of violas that are scaled like over-size violins - their necks may be too thick (in any dimension) and a potential disaster to hand health. Another tricky area is the curvature at the base of the neck where it joins the instrument body.

Viola sound is very sensitive to string selection and the bow chosen - so choose carefully and get good advice wherever you can find it.

The right time to switch - for me it looks like 80!


February 28, 2017 at 10:03 PM · Kimberly, how did your Viola experiment develop further?

"Switching back and forth from violin to viola, I use two separate sets of reflexes, (in both hands)." Adrian, so you wouldn't believe it's a major problem to learn both? Even if one's violin "reflexes" are not very highly developed yet?

At the moment I have a 15,3" / 39 cm Viola on loan. I still want to stick with the Violin as my main instrument, but I really love the lower register and the "grunting" of the Viola and would be very happy to keep it as a supplement. Maybe the ranking would change one day if I had the chance to play in a chamber group or in orchestra.

Surprisingly, I dont find it too difficult especially for the left hand to switch from the Violin to the Viola, even at the very beginning. (Well, it's a rather small instrument...) But switching back to the Violin is much more a challenge, and it usually takes me some 15 minutes to re-adapt to the smaller spacings of the Violin - quite annoying, but with your words in mind I am confident that even my reflexes will improve.

Andrew, you wrote that Viola sound would be very sensitive to the bow chosen - I only had to try one single bow yet. I thought that I quite liked it, but I have issues with tone modulation, mainly concerning volume. It's easy to produce a strong tone, but almost impossible to play soft and slightly gut still with projection. I thought it was rather me or the Viola, but now I'll try some more bows.

Another problem seems to be the relatively broad fingerboard. My main left-hand issue is when playing down scales it's tricky to hit the next string with the pinky. (My hands are not too large.) Guess this would be much easier with a narrower fingerboard - but would this cause any disadvantage I haven't thought about yet?

March 1, 2017 at 02:22 PM · Get a violin, buy a C string and put the violin A string in place of E, D in A, G in D and finally the C in G place.

Viola is a lot bigger than violin, in order to get a "viola" effect. But if you want to have a good time with it, before you find a good small 14" instrument, you may try to just change the violin strings.



you can find a very small viola, at a reasonable price.

March 1, 2017 at 03:12 PM · I think you will be unhappy if you follow Andre's advice. A viola needs a larger air volume than a violin. I bought a 14-inch 5-string violin/viola some years ago and found it just could not provide the sound the C string needed -(I was hoping to be able to play violin or viola on the same instrument - not a good idea either.)

I go back to what I wrote in response to this thread in 2015 but with an additional 2 years experience playing viola in weekly orchestra sessions and in a String Serenade ensemble. I am fortunate to have long arms and large hands so I find a 16-inch viola requires the same finger placement and separation in 3rd position as violin in 1st position. and viola 1st position requires the same relationship of finger separation to elbow opening angle as the violin (figure that one out). Since I am also a cellist I have had long experience with the sensation relating finger separation to elbow angle on three instruments (now).

I would advise a small violinist person to avoid a 15" viola. I would think it would be neither here nor there in terms of finger placement in relation to their violin experience. A 14" one should work better if one can be found with sufficient air volume.

A shorter viola needs to be deeper than a violin. It is also possible to enhance the air resonance by putting about 3/8" scotch tape around the f-holes to effectively create a longer nozzle for the air that moves from inside to outside the viola body - this can improve the sound of lower tones coming from the C string. I use such a nozzle enhancement on my 16" viola. Other improvements I have found can be caused by a different bow and even a different rosin. I recently found that using a certain cello rosin improves my viola's C string sound quite a lot.

I have not been completely happy with the C string of my current viola - but last week I got lucky. I purchased a bow on ebay that was listed (and stamped) as a "C. BAZIN" with nickel fittings. I knew I was taking a chance and of course it was not really made by that well-known French maker, but for the $350 I paid it is far better on my viola than any of the 3 other viola bows I have (that are now priced at 2X [W. Seifert], 3x [Coda Classic] and 5x [ARCUS Concerto] what I paid for it]). I am now happy with my C string sound.

March 1, 2017 at 03:51 PM · Andre's advice is only for kids who are too small for a full-sized viola and do not have access to a true fractional for odd reason. Depending on the violin used, they can sound okay (especially 4/4 strung as a viola) and sometimes 3/4. 1/2 and under will likely sound like a dirt bag.

March 1, 2017 at 05:07 PM · Nuuska - I gave it some serious thought back then but ultimately decided it wasn't worth the investment to pursure an odd sized viola.

While on vacation, I purchased a 15" Eastman VL200 Viola on craig's list and brought it home with me on the plane. I bargined the price down to 280. I couldn't pass up the opportunity for a a good student instrument.

I really love the sound of it but its just too big for me to play comfortably. Once in a while I get it out and play through some music for the fun of it or sometimes with my son, who is learning viola currently, but overall I am not using it much. I do not regret bying it at all dispite the low usage.

As much as I like the viola better, I have made peace with my own size limitations and happily play in the violin section of my community orchestra.

Andre - I am aware of that 'trick'. I have done just that on a 1/2 violin for my son to learn on.

March 1, 2017 at 07:01 PM · Kimberly, thanks for sharing. And the violin still is gorgeous, so you don't have to be too sad... ;-)

Andre, as I told you I don't have any problems with the 39cm, so it really doesn't have to be smaller.

Andrew, concerning a quinton I had the same experience. It just doesn't have the same power in the C string, and also the rest of it is - well, violin...

As I am just at the beginning, I'll also try some bigger instruments, at least something around 42-42,5cm. Maybe switching back to the violin will be easier when the difference is more obvious.

March 1, 2017 at 07:01 PM · double post

March 1, 2017 at 08:15 PM · I wouldn't strain yourself.

March 1, 2017 at 08:48 PM · The viola will not harm your violin intonation. On the contrary, if your experience is like mine, your violin intonation will improve.

However, if you want to experience something different in orchestra -- a "middle part" -- why not just sit in the second violins? Frankly your other option is the cello which is fingered differently and more ergonomic. Andrew Victor can tell you all about that.

March 1, 2017 at 11:39 PM · Nuuska, I intended to give some tips to Kimberly from my small and non professional experience with violins and violas and did not notice your text just above mine. Sorry ...

To me the most comfortable viola size is a 42 cm body length.

Viola is a fantastic instrument, with a deep sound. If you have opportunity try it with guts strings, not varnished but plain ones (A and D). Some good labels are Chorda and Aquila. With them you will feel the real sound of viola.

March 2, 2017 at 10:28 PM · Andre - no problem, I didn't want to lecture you. (My fault, resuscitating an old thread...) I'll go for guts and give them a try as soon as I've decided for a Viola! Wanted to do this on my violin just out of curiosity, but then I decided not to because I just love it as it is and I didn't want to spoil anything.

Ella - how do I know where the strain begins...? (Is it okay as long as I'm feeling comfortable?) I switched to a slightly bigger (40,5cm) instrument and although my arm is more extended now and the fingering distances are increased, it still feels more ergonomic because of the narrower fingerboard.

Paul - I haven't played in orchestra yet. My performance experience converges to some piano solo and chamber music "when I was young", with strings I'm a late starter. I'd like to get to a level that enables me to chamber music. Orchestra also might be fine, but I'm not sure yet. At the moment I could not decide the which I liked more, Violin or Viola, all I know is that I'm not that 1st Violin kind of guy, I rather prefer sitting in the middle of harmonics. Maybe the Viola would offer more opportunities to play in an ensemble, because it's more rare and sought after, but I'd never want to give up the violin, even if it's just for my private joy and recreation. So your personal experience gives me hope and encourages me just to give it some time...

March 3, 2017 at 04:19 AM · The conventional, easy answer is that players of small stature should not play viola, Which does not explain Lillian Fuchs or Tertis or a number of small people who do manage to play viola well. If you play a large viola the same way you play violin you will eventually have physical problems. Modify the left hand technique; use the third position instead of first as your home base. Avoid all stretches; shift more often instead. Use the 1/2 positions and enharmonic fingering more often. Perhaps use a version of cello fingering; a major third between first and fourth finger instead of a perfect fourth. Measure the string length of any viola you are considering buying. That measurement is as important as the body length. Don't use anything smaller than 15 1/2 inch. Most pros use 16 " for the full C -string sound. jq

March 3, 2017 at 04:44 AM · Joel, that's something I can't work with... Thx!

March 3, 2017 at 02:11 PM · Oops!

March 3, 2017 at 02:20 PM · My very tubby viola has a body length of 15.75" but a string length of only 14", typical of many 15" violas. Inspired by the Lyra-Viola of Gasparo de Salo in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, it has only two corners, a recessed button, and almost no middle bouts. The C-string is deep and warm, if less incisive than on a long viola, but a tunsten-wound C helps the response.

It was made by Bernard Sabatier, Paris, but Anne Cole makes similar models in the U.S.

March 3, 2017 at 08:32 PM · If you can play comfortably without pain or strain, you're okay.

March 4, 2017 at 09:55 PM · With a cheesy feeling I went to my violin lesson this afternoon. First lesson since almost one month (me and my teacher both had been abroad part of that period), and I was really sceptical what my excursions into the Viola might have done to my intonation. At least, I had better memories of my pitch a few weeks ago, than it felt now. And I also wasn't too confident about my bowing technique (especially in p and pp) we had worked on so hard the months before...

After maybe halftime my teacher asked me, "What have you done to your intonation, by the way?" I felt trapped and confessed to him, apologizing that I had done something without talking it over before. His unexpected reaction? "No, no! It became much better! It seems as you made progress in using your ears!"

Hurray! So, from next week on I'll show up with two cases and take combined Violin/Viola lessons...

March 7, 2017 at 12:55 AM · I appeal to the aggregate experience/wisdom here: I own a viola built by Coit Roscoe Hoechst, Pgh PA (1936). I've only found one other by that gentleman online. The instrument measures 17.5 inches and is really a monster to play, but sounds wonderful once I make friends with it again (lapsed music ed major). Is anyone here familiar with the maker? The instrument was made for my dad, who played for many years w/Dr. Hoechst, in quartets in the Pgh area.

All the guidance on avoiding injury is wonderful - never had any of that data when I was in school (early '70s) - or least not that my teacher imparted to me!

March 7, 2017 at 01:10 AM · Are you okay now? Is it a strain to play?

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