Intermediate fiddler meets the viola

March 28, 2016 at 10:57 PM · Hi,

I recently aquired a viola almost completely on accident (someone knew I play fiddle and thought it was one). So I'm like, well why not. I even coincidentally found a book called "Fiddling for Viola" at a local shop, which seemed like such a unique thing (I love fiddle tunes, who knew someone had transcribed them!).

So I've been playing around with it lately and LOVE it. I want to pick it up. It's a 15" so it's not physically a huge difference. Any tips for the transition? Any music recommendations for solo viola? For etudes and practicing? I've got pretty large hands and arms, would it be better to trade it in for a 17" or something?

Replies (21)

March 29, 2016 at 01:28 AM · Welcome to the viola world. I'm mainly a violinist but I bought a 16" viola in December and wrote a blog entry about my experience with the transition.

17" is really big. Maybe you can play it, but it could be hard to sell again if you need or want to do that later. I suggest you try a 16" viola first, for a while, to make sure that you do not strain to play it, and to make sure that you can't be satisfied by how it sounds.

The main thing about practicing is to be vigilant about your posture and setup, and to avoid tension assiduously.

As far as solo repertoire, well, there is plenty of it, but the Bach cello suites are a quite universal suggestion. I got the Primrose edition but I don't think it's all that great.

March 29, 2016 at 05:20 AM · Hi, Emily. Someone on reminded me that even though a 15" viola seems small for a larger person, it's a bit larger than a 4/4 violin so if a violin works for you... (Of course, you sacrifice some sound with a smaller instrument but it can still be fantastic.) And for people like me with long necks, the taller ribs are a godsend. I found Wohlfhart etudes for viola, "by" Rachel Barton Pine and I'm enjoying them. I'm doing volume 1 but volume 2 also exists. As for tips on transitioning, there is a book called "From Violin to Viola" by Harvey S. Whistler (pub Hal Leonard) that is pretty good. Also, look at Jonah Sirota's Nov 27, 2015 blog for other advice.

March 29, 2016 at 07:28 PM · Thank you very much, both of you!

Yes, Bach was on the list as that's probably the best known. I'll also check out those etudes, I had them for violin once but lost them, they were good though. I'll find them for viola. And check out the blog.

I guess with the size I was thinking that since I am a larger person it might be a shame to play the smaller instrument with compromised sound. But I guess we'll see!

March 29, 2016 at 07:31 PM ·

You will notice a remarkable jump in sound if you simply go up to a more "reasonable" 16"

March 29, 2016 at 07:41 PM · Hmm ok, that makes sense. The viola I received is an Eastman, I've seen them priced around $350. If I come across a 16" viola around the same price I'll consider trying to trade or sell the one I have/buy the one I find. I mean, after trying it out of course.

March 29, 2016 at 09:02 PM · Welcome to the Darker Side! Bach suites are a must - take them slow and concentrate on tone and intonation. Take a look at Practicing the Viola, Mentally and Physically, by Kievman. The bow must be held/played a little differently - I would call it with a "heavier" right elbow to get more in the string. Have fun!

March 30, 2016 at 12:00 AM · Emily, I didn't make a big deal out of size because I didn't know whether you wanted to put the money into getting a larger one at this point. It's not as easy to sell a viola as a violin. But I'm sure Seraphim Protos will have advice on getting the most for your money. Regarding Darren's comment about quality vs size: I decided on 15" because I was concerned about the strain on my joints as an older player. My viola happens to be of pretty good quality even though it is "factory made" (Bulgarian).

I was interested in the fact that you are fiddler. I have recently switched to playing viola with my Scottish fiddle group. I'm only the second violist in the group, but the group itself is trying to play more harmonies and there seem to be a lot of 6-string violinists so it's becoming more viola friendly. Someone in (I forget who, but he's written about it in posts) sometimes plays viola with his fiddle group.

March 30, 2016 at 11:56 AM · I jumped right into a 16.5 viola- cheap but all wood and not bad- and then even got a 16.5 5 string viola-

the first 4 string I find rather playable, but the 5 string fingerboard is a little wide in that size. I don't play them enough, but I wish the 5 string was 15 especially- so that's something to think about for 5 strings- maybe not so big then.

Doubt I'm going to make any changes at this point- I'm just a hack- the big bodies really boom though

March 30, 2016 at 02:11 PM · I think you can use the 15" viola that you have now to determine whether you will stay with viola, whether you enjoy the literature of that instrument, its role in the ensembles in which you play, etc. Then you can decide whether to supersize it.

March 30, 2016 at 02:27 PM · Here we go again, body size.... yes, it is important,

but what matters more is the vibrating string length.

Longer or shorter viola will impact the angle of your left elbow - not to be ignored!

Longer string will impact your ability to play in tune, especially in the 1st position.

Lastly, neck shape and thickness can make a huge difference when it comes to comfort.

Never underestimate the importance of ergonomics!

March 30, 2016 at 02:32 PM · I remember when I first transitioned I had a sheet that I put next to my music to help me read alto clef. This by itself wasn't entirely helpful. I would suggest also (unless you already know alto clef) learning where all the open strings are (A, D, G, C) and then "counting" up or down from there (rather than counting from middle C).

Pretty much everyone has already recommended the Bach Cello Suites. I would start with the first one (which is what I did), and then move on from there.

A great way to get to know the clef is reading through Schradieck.

March 31, 2016 at 12:04 AM · @Rocky, thanks for mentioning all those details. They usually don't arise when you're looking at violins.

April 4, 2016 at 05:23 AM · Thanks for all your replies!

I won't go actively seek a different viola then, at least not now, but I'll keep my eye open at the local music shops, since a lot of cheaper stuff in this price range wanders in and out of 'em, including violas. I'll see what happens with that and be satisfied with the 15" for now then.

@Francesca, I've heard some people have 5 strings around here, but I haven't heard much about violas. I haven't been around much yet though. I mostly want to bring the viola to swing/jazz nights. We'll see. Glad to hear that it's out there though! I'm wondering, do you play the fiddle parts from the E string on in 4th position on the A string or do you adjust the songs to fit the viola's range and incorporate the C string?

@Rocky, thank you for pointing that out, part of why I'm considering the size now as I'm getting started is that I had thought of how the intonation will change with size. I guess the 15" might be the easiest transition from a fiddle, but also I'll learn the intonation now and if I upgrade later it might take adjustment.

@Charlie, Shradieck, will look for this. :)

April 4, 2016 at 11:56 AM · Emily, You are welcome.

Here are 2 simple tests:

1. Place your 4th finger on C stings (note G) and compare it with open G; keep the finger in that position for a few seconds to see how does it feel. You can place other fingers to their respective position to check additionally.

2. Form a double step on C and G strings: octave in 3rd position (note F); this should feel comfortable for most players, regardless the VSL. Shift (slide) down to E, then E-flat. Check for change in tension. Shift (slide) down to D. Check for tension / discomfort.

[this test is for more advanced players]

If your whole wrist / hand and all fingers are under stress, the VSL is too long.

Although there is no "standard" VLS, some viola makers settled with 370mm for their violas between 15.5 to 16.25 inches.

My 15.5 viola has a VSL of 360mm and is quite comfortable for me. Some violas go as short as 355mm without big sacrifice in sound quality. Bring your measuring tape with you. Good luck!

April 5, 2016 at 02:55 AM · Emily, my first step in blending into my fiddle club was to play music that someone with a 5-string violin had transposed one octave down. I then worked on my skills at doing the transposing in my head. But now writing harmonies for our music is taking off, even though it is still written in treble clef. I am working on playing treble clef on the viola. There is just one other violist in our club and I asked him what he does. It seems he's been playing viola forever and uses all these techniques plus playing in higher positions. I'm still working on that latter skill.

To comment on your conjecture that there must be other violists out there: Maybe someone else can respond to that--I honestly have found few. But I AM sensing some "viola envy" among the violinists and fiddlers I hang out with!

April 5, 2016 at 01:32 PM · There is a pernicious uptick in viola related threads lately.

It is troubling, and this rebellion must be crushed before it can gain a foothold here at!

April 5, 2016 at 02:21 PM · Perhaps we should petition to have the site name changed to

To all the pros who took the time to respond, Thank you very much!

I recently obtained a free 15.5" viola because the table had cracked near the saddle from a badly mounted chin rest. It was an easy fix so after the repair I decided to heft it up on my shoulder and see what all the fuss was about.

A couple of things I noticed:

I seem to need to dig the bow a little more into the strings to get them to sound, especially the C and G strings. But once they are going I can ease up a bit on the pressure. Is this typical? Should I do a slight wrist or finger "catch" of the lower strings to get them going?

The location of the thumb/base knuckle of the index finger has to be much further away from the nut in first position than with my violin in order to get my third and fourth fingers to drop comfortably onto the 4th and 5th notes of a diatonic scale. This leaves me with no reference, like the feel of the heel of the neck against my thumb or index finger, for locating first position. Is this typical? Or does one set the hand further back to feel the heel and reach forward with the fingers instead of mostly dropping them straight down?

Once my hand is setup, I find intonation a lot more forgiving on a viola, at least in first position. The longer string length seems to allow a little more slop in the finger work before the note is noticeably off key.

What strings would you recommend for faster response to the bow? With the violin, I can bow all day. But I really have to work hard on the bow with the viola.

April 5, 2016 at 02:43 PM · Carmen, I noticed many of the same things the first time I tried viola, and I wrote about it in one of my blog entries. With the viola, you have traded in the thin wire of the E string for the heft of the C string. Newtonian mechanics applies: Objects at rest tend to stay at rest, and the force needed to realize the same acceleration of two objects is proportional to their respective mass. Viola strings are more massive and you need to work harder to get them moving. This is the main reason the viola bow is heavier. Initially you may feel like you need to add some "punch" from your index finger to get your lower strings moving but after a while you'll see that you adjust in other ways. I wonder if violists actually start bowing their notes slightly sooner to compensate for the very slight increase in lag. Regarding thumb placement and reference points on the neck for intonation, I think that's just going to be different and you have to get use to it. I found with my 16" viola that my first-finger notes in first position were typically too sharp, and I had to recalibrate my left elbow to position my hand correctly for the longer instrument. Scales and studies will teach you finger placements and patterns, I don't think there's any other way. You will find yourself trading more high fourth finger notes (G#, D#, A#) for low first finger (half position type extensions) on the next higher string. I do not have big hands, and my experience is that first position on the viola needs to be a little more fluid than it is on the violin.

April 5, 2016 at 03:15 PM · Thanks Paul. I think I will place a small piece of transparent tape on the thumb side so I can feel the first position location until I feel comfortable with my hand shape.

What I have noticed on the violin is I can "sense" the distance between my thumb and base knuckle of the index finger. So I can tell when my hand is out of place by feeling if the neck is too thick or too thin for first position. Do you have the same sensation or are you just not conscious of the details? You just "know" when your hand is positioned correctly?

April 5, 2016 at 03:22 PM · And yet another one succumbs to the irresistible force of the dark side.....

April 7, 2016 at 07:59 PM · There are a lot of good points being discussed here. I've been going through the same things with my viola teacher: the extra impulse needed to get the note started, the effort required for good staccato, and yes, good old intonation. I have long fingers, but also a 16 1/2-inch viola, and those first-finger notes in first position go sharp all too easily. One thing my teacher has suggested is to make the hand's natural position center on the 2nd and 3rd fingers, and to reach back with the first finger. (Similarly, reach up with the 4th finger as needed.) Violist Tabea Zimmermann has written an article in The Strad that touches on this; an excerpt is here.

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