Viola, what's that?

June 17, 2016 at 04:22 PM · Hello, I have been playing violins continuously for the past 4 years, and previously I did play piano for a few years when I was 7, I was at the level performing in junior competitions in 1999. Personally, I hated playing the piano, and always wanted to go for a violin(I was unaware of viola back then). I just wanted an instrument that allowed me to play more than limited number of keys, the perfect solution was a string instrument. I ended up playing a violin for one year during my childhood(and then I quit until 4 years ago, because as a 9 year old, with constant discouragement from family doesn't develop well).

I also quit playing the piano, and moved onto Alto Sax.

I did get to learn the "conventional" or common string family way back in middle school, I became viola-aware but it never stuck to my head until I got to play a viola. The first time I got to hold a viola was at my luthier's workshop late last year. I even briefly owned a 16" viola for a week.

I really enjoyed the experience but, It wasn't exactly my cup of tea, possibly because I am used to a violin, and I had a lower-end viola. If an opportunity arises, I might get another viola.

Nowdays,I joke with the ladies, "If you want me to be serious with you(in terms of romance), you must play viola, and we must perform a duet". The response I get from that in ALL occasions was, "viola what's that?".

Even if I look around in local orchestra, it seems that the viola players are in higher demand than violinists. Even more so than Cellists. Even in local ads, violas go so much faster than violins.

In short violas and violists are "unique", "hot" object and people in demand.

I'm a little bit curious, why are violas so less common. Why are people less aware of viola than violins?

Also, when was your first encounter with a viola and a violist?

Replies (66)

June 17, 2016 at 06:57 PM · Well, this already sounds like another viola joke.

June 17, 2016 at 08:05 PM · I think it is less common because it is lower than violin in pitch. It's always been the high strings sound that people find so sweet- at least I think. So viola doesn't go so high- Conversely, if you like the low growl, then viola is cool- I do like the sound and I have a normal 16.5 viola and a 16.5 five string that still has the high e. The low sound isn't as striking as a cello, but the instrument is still so relatively more convenient then. The big bodies add a bit to the larger sound and distinguish them from a violin, although I find the 5 string almost too big.. I'd like to try a 15 inch viola but it's not worth the investment at this time. I play violin about ten times as often as viola anyway. Initially I thought the small size too small as I've had broken fingers and large hands, but they ended up adapting to the smaller size more than I thought and the 16,5 is rather large feeling still.

June 17, 2016 at 08:41 PM · "Even in local ads, violas go so much faster than violins."

Not in the UK they don't! But I hear people are buying them in case there is a shortage of fuel for their fires ...

Unless you mean play much faster ... but most are stuck in the slow lane, even if turbo-charged.

June 17, 2016 at 08:42 PM · I don't think you should be even considering the viola. You are clearly far too intelligent as evidenced by your ability to spell, and your ability to write coherent sentences.

Cheers Carlo

June 17, 2016 at 08:59 PM · I think that is for the popularity of the Violin mezzosoprano sound and cello bass sound over the dark and opaque dark sound of viola. I also think that in some aspects the viola is more difficult than Violin, like in fingerings and the size of the body; one friend recently told me that she would like to play viola, but she is afraid because she has little fingers, compared to mine or my teacher

June 18, 2016 at 12:30 AM · I think it's because viola is just like violin and everyone thinks violas are violins as they look exactly the same from a distance. I used to think the viola was the same as the violin except tuning, as I have always been able to pick out the C string and that has always told me that what I'm hearing is a viola. Recently as a result of actually sort of trying the viola, I became more aware of the viola, the number of people that play it and the fact that violas are not exactly the same as violins.

June 18, 2016 at 03:01 PM · Is this a serious discussion?? Most violists I know started out playing violin. All violinists I know are pretty good sight readers - that is they can sit down in front of new music and play it and keep in time with other people playing it. Their violin-playing technique is quite similar to the technique needed to play viola - so the challenge is reading a new clef (which for a violinists is just placing their fingers differently for a notes a given places on the 5-line clef). The hardest part for them is wrapping their heads around key signatures and which fingers to raise and lower in response to sharps and flats.

The early Suzuki viola books contain the same music as the Suzuki violin books so an aspiring new violist (who is also an experienced violinist) can probably start on Suzuki Viola Book 4 and work through to Book 7 in an afternoon and be a ready violist for a chamber music or orchestra rehearsal the next morning.

Often violinists are reluctant to take up viola because they will sacrifice their prominent, fast, high parts, their ability to sight read a single clef that they have known all their lives, and their potential to become concertmasters. Therefore we end up with a world with enough violinists, enough cellists, and not enough violists.

Taking up viola is really a good enterprise for aging (i.e., aged) violinists who need reassurance that their brains are still viable. Most viola parts in orchestral and chamber music are less challenging technically than violin parts (especially first violin parts). It is much more difficult physically to get to and play in the higher positions on viola - but so much viola music is written below 5th position so that's not really a problem. With a little thought transitioning violinists will realize that their viola chinrest should be lower than their violin chinrest to compensate for the instrument's thicker body - don't buy a "viola chinrest" that scales to the instrument size like a violin chinrest.

Cello music that has been transcribed for viola (such as the Elgar Cello Concerto, or the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata (which was actually transcribed for cello after being composed for the original, short-lived 6-string instrument)) is much easier to play on viola. Same pretty much for everything transcribed for viola, because notes that are stratospheric on cello are right in the easy spots (an octave lower) on viola. There are also some delightful classical viola concertos (Stamitz, Hoffmeister, Zelter) that are not difficult to play.

Main problem with violas is finding one that fits your body and sounds really good, because the typical viola body is a little too small to support its lower tones. But good makers turn out some wonderful instruments by knowing how to do it.

And since violin and viola case lengths are determined by bow length, it is no more difficult to carry a viola around - it's not like you would be switching to cello.


June 18, 2016 at 04:59 PM · Viola was accidentally created when Antonio read off wrong measurements...

With the joke aside, a viola is larger and heavier so it is not comfortable for many people with small physique. In fact, a full size violin is too big for some women; 7/8 size violins have been called "ladies' violin".

June 18, 2016 at 06:27 PM · I was I'm afraid guilty of lowering the tone of the debate and Andrew is quite right about encouraging people to play viola as well as violin. In fact some of us play both, although I have no viola now and in the last 6 years or so i have only played violin.

When I was a violinist at the RAM in London several centuries ago, I also took up the viola. I was lent a viola by the Academy and a few days later played to the prospective viola professor. Of course I had not learnt the clef and so I had fingerings over nearly every note. I got away with it and I received the comment that I could also already read the clef, which of course I couldn't - but I did not disillusion him.

June 18, 2016 at 10:21 PM · I think that the viola and the Violin technique is 90% the same; if you can play viola, you can play Violin, but that's not always the same on the contrary case

June 19, 2016 at 08:06 AM · But the remaining 10% is huge.

Except for those who play them exactly alike and miss the point..

June 19, 2016 at 02:41 PM · "Except for those who play them exactly alike and miss the point.."

Oh dear Adrian - you have gone and caught me out again!

Actually ... I think the difference is a lot more than 10%

I've never worked out how to play either instrument - but you never know - one day.

Mind you, I've met a few violists who have never played the fiddle and boy, do they live in a fantasy world ...

June 20, 2016 at 01:14 AM · In my brief encounter with a 16" viola was that it was ringing very well, especially for its value, and it certainly had the "lag" in sound. It lacked responsiveness of a violin.

The larger instrument was also a strain on my body, I also learned that in comparison to my violin bowing, I was ATTACKING the strings with the bow to get similar responsiveness. This I didn't dislike, because I do like to get aggressive with my instrument sometimes. I recently broke both E and A string from this.

I've read somewhere, is it true, that violists rarely go above 4th position?

I found that the viola I had, had pretty much the same finger spacing as violin's 1st position, in its 3rd position, and up from there.

June 20, 2016 at 05:23 AM · My first encounter with a viola was that of the daughter of family friends, whom I idolized. I was probably about 8 and she was 12, maybe. I don't remember anything about the event except her telling me she played the viola. Wow! The first actual violIST I came across was the principal violist of the San Francisco Symphony--Geraldine Walther. She was featured soloist in the concert we attended. About a year ago I decided to get a viola and I will attest to the fact that violists are hugely in demand, at least in the San Francisco Bay area. As for getting your hands on a viola: they're not so much in demand. I got really lucky: my main luthier had exactly one, tucked away somewhere. It was already a few years old but was not pre-owned. It fit me perfectly (15") and was in my price range. In the past year it has amazed me how much it has opened up. I'm incapable of playing the violin now--I don't have that much time to practice and all my practice time has to go into the viola. But I don't care--I'm too much in love with my viola.

June 20, 2016 at 05:34 AM · @Steven, to take a stab at your other two questions: I personally think violas are "rare" for two reasons: 1) demand and 2) violin shops don't want to keep such a large range of sizes on hand and makers seem to want to limit the sizes they will create so that they can perfect their patterns for the sizes they do create. I looked seriously at a viola at Ifshin's, which has its own lines and is a large shop. The 15-1/4" size of one model was too large and when I asked to try a 15", they had to string one up. And if you look at their l'ancienne line, they only have 15 1/2" to 16 3/4".

June 20, 2016 at 07:08 AM · Stephen

"I've read somewhere, is it true, that violists rarely go above 4th position?"

If I were to make a joke about this I would say that going up high gives violists frostbite (But also fiddlers as well!)

But it's NOT true - violists do go up high, but depending on the size of the instrument in question, it can be quite demanding and much more risky than on the fiddle, where one can play several notes with one finger. Therefore fingering on the viola is more conventional in higher positions and well, it really is a harder instrument. Some of the things on the violin like thirds octaves and tenths at speed are doable - but nearly impossible on the viola. (Maybe that's a good thing too). Viola players are sometimes considered to be the more serious musicians, at least that's how I felt as a viola player, but now I only play violin I think maybe differently!

June 20, 2016 at 03:46 PM · @Charles, maybe someone should invent for viola the analogue of the cello "thumb position"?

June 20, 2016 at 03:51 PM · I have seen both Yuri Bashmet and Maxime Vengerov bring their thumbs along the side of the fingerboard (like Midori on the violin). I do this too thanks to my stubby fingers.

June 20, 2016 at 04:08 PM · @Francesca

It has I think already happened - played on a spike like a cello, and with the possibility of using thumb position. See Robert Spear's posts.

June 20, 2016 at 04:14 PM · ..and Yo-Yo Ma recorded Bartok's viola concerto on one. His ease in high positions make me weep with frustration!

June 20, 2016 at 06:18 PM · Why would you want to go waaaay up the fingerboard on a viola anyhow?

The high notes are what a violin E is made for.

A viola as for the meatier lower notes.

June 21, 2016 at 07:50 PM · We have to show we can!

But then I dont't want an A-string that sounds like a trumpet! I use an Aricore-Eudoxa A, with a long, light stroke: sweet, singing tone up to the end of the fingerboeard.

June 22, 2016 at 05:11 AM · I just googled "yoyo ma viola". It wasn't what we consider to be a viola. It was one of Carleen Hutchins's instruments, called in fact an alto violin. According to the article, it sounded closer to a viola da gamba than to a viola. Adrian, did you hear the recording?

June 22, 2016 at 07:05 AM · Yes, I have the CD. The tone is deep and warm without the usual nasal quality. I don't hear the slightly reedy tone of a gamba, though. The C-string is sonorous, if a little "woolly". The A-string sounds more like the high notes of a 'cello, but then it is played by a great 'cellist!

Edit: Its body is nearly 20" long, so it corresponds to the very largest "tenor violas" (with the same tuning as "contralto violas")o of the baroque period. One very tall violist played one in the normal viola position, but 'cello technique is better adapted.

I believe Bob Spear's model is narrower than Ms Hutchins', perhaps for a less "boomy" tone.

June 22, 2016 at 07:09 AM · When I first saw a viola I was like 0_0 "THAT'S A HUGE VIOLIN" I even went as far as asking the person where they got such a big violin then they said its a viola what you talking about and I laughed :D


June 22, 2016 at 02:44 PM · Maddie, that was similar to my reaction at my luthier's workshop, except, I was amused by how violas look like larger violins.

July 3, 2016 at 07:46 PM · My mother was a cellist who also played one of Carleen Hutchins' alto violins. Through Carleen, Yo yo Ma had asked to borrow her instrument for the Bartok, but she couldn't part with it for that long, so he found another one. She told me that when she played in the American Symphony, the conductor, Leopold Stokowski, was trying to recruit cellists to play alto violins and move to the viola section.

I like the sound of the instrument, but it's quite different from the sound of a viola, which I prefer. I'm a violist, and I could play the alto violin until fourth position (bouts were to wide to get around)....but had to make sure the endpin was in first!

July 3, 2016 at 08:46 PM · The problem with the viola is that it's significantly harder to play, and you can never gain the same agility and responsiveness that you had on the violin, especially in the upper register where you are comparing the chubby A string of the viola to the thin wire of the violin E. The cello, in turn, has the advantage of superior ergonomics and the ability to take the high stuff in thumb position. The point of the viola is to enjoy the rich sonorous sound especially in the lower register. Good chamber music and orchestral scores take advantage of that key strength. Viola heroes who write stuff that goes up into the nosebleed section of the fingerboard on the viola aren't doing anyone any favors, least of all the listener, because the viola just isn't designed for that. I bought a viola and I enjoy playing some chamber music and orchestral music, but I have no interest in the instrument's mainline solo repertoire. Even before that, I have not really encountered a shortage of violists when putting together chamber groups. Plenty of violinists around who double up.

July 5, 2016 at 02:49 PM · Well, I'm one of those composers who uses the full range of the viola. While I agree you don't want to stay up in the fourth octave forever, a flashy run up and down is fine. When not played with too much bow pressure, there is a nice quality to the first octave plus of the A string that's quite different from the same pitches on the violin. Anyway, I've written five albums of violacentric chamber music, and Paul, if you want to give the viola a second chance, I welcome you to listen to some tracks at my website!

July 5, 2016 at 06:12 PM · In my opinion I think viola has the same soloist possibilities of the violin; have you ever heard the viola solo in Don Quixote by Richard Strauss? Is a good example of the use of the viola in virtuoso solos.

September 8, 2016 at 01:42 AM · Well, recently I picked up a 15.5" viola, and have been trying to set it up. Thanks to 1/2 pay reduction due to tuition I must now pay, I am stuck at very slow-rate in terms of getting the viola set up and sounding properly.

I got the viola from yitamusic, I was told that I should get a new soundpost, get the pegs refitted and fingerboard touched up. I have postponed the peg refit with a wittner tailpiece, but I am likely going to get new strings at the very least.

This viola will be a practice instrument, basically it'll be 1 hour viola practice per 3 hour violin practice. I am also not particularly looking to make it sound at its best, at least yet for the sake of my wallet.

Considering I've paid $300US for the viola, case and bow, and I've paid about $30US for the wittner tailpiece+light set-up, I'm starting to question how much to spend on the strings, and how much to spend on making it better sounding over time.

Any suggestions starting with long lasting strings ideal for practice, and no performance at relatively low cost? I'm currently looking at Warchal Karnoel sample set as the best economical solution.

September 8, 2016 at 02:03 AM · Instruments from Yitamusic are usually very good for the price, sometimes remarkably so. Karneol strings would probably be a big improvement and probably all you need for now.

September 8, 2016 at 02:36 AM · I have had great experiences with Warchal Brilliants on a number of violas (and a violin, for that matter). Karneols sounded sort of muted on the one Viola I tried them on. Zyex can be great on viola, and very affordable.

I doubt a new sound post is a necessity. Sure, it may be a nice upgrade down the line, but leave it be for now. Did he reposition it?

September 8, 2016 at 03:12 AM · I find it unprofessional that Yitamusic does not fit the instrument before selling it. Cheap it may be, but that is no excuse.

I second Karneols and/or Zyex as a good choice. Did not have experience with Brilliants yet.

September 8, 2016 at 03:33 AM · One Luthier adjusted the soundpost a little bit, when the viola came, the bridge was packed away, with tailpiece wrapped in paper and bubble wraps for shipping purposes.

He said he likes the viola itself, but had a lot of suggestions in regards to the setup. I mean, I 100% agree with the pegs at the very least. He also suggested fingerboard planing, and new soundpost. The fingerboard, I think I can tolerate, since there is no obvious buzzing or bumps that prevent me from shifting. Soundpost, I don't know. Right now the only thing I believe that NEEDS to be done would be string change, because I cannot tolerate the D and A string that are currently on it.

Rocky, I think they do fit it, except to their local environment in Shanghai. It may also explain why two of the bows I bought from them so far had their hair too short, and the pegs.

September 8, 2016 at 08:31 AM · I didn't like the Karneol on my viola as a set. The only string I keep from that set is the C string. A is Larsen and D and G are Vision Solo. Not entirely happy yet but good enough for now. Viola strings are so much more expensive than violin strings. Need to keep them on for as long as I can. :-)

September 8, 2016 at 01:20 PM · Well, the viola is slowly sounding better each time I touch it. It did fly from Shanghai over the weekend, I hope it's just having a culture(environmental) shock for the time being.

September 8, 2016 at 01:57 PM · Hill peg compound has solved most peg issues I've had with my Chinese violas and violins (Yitamusic and OVH)

September 8, 2016 at 04:33 PM · Whence I find my compound, I'll grease them very much.

September 8, 2016 at 06:01 PM · Hill compound certainly makes a big difference and one tube lasts a lifetime!

September 8, 2016 at 08:17 PM · If you don't misplace one.

September 9, 2016 at 01:06 AM · The pegs are unfortunately beyond lubrication. I just tried them. Oh well, I have wittner tailpiece. I can tune-okay with the finetuners.

Also, it's starting again:

Technical review/practice on viola + scales on viola = playing on violin immediately after= best tone and technical quality in my performance.

September 10, 2016 at 06:35 PM · Quick inquiry, if regardless of how much rosin is on the bow, and regardless of which bow, the bows fail to grip the string properly, this is sign of bad string right?

September 10, 2016 at 06:48 PM · It is a sign of a violinist beginning to study viola using the same approach to bowing arm ...

... alternatively, a sign of a poor quality viola bow.

It may also be a slow-to-respond instrument, or poor choice of string gauge / tension.

You may want to re-visit your violin-viola schedule. The best way to learn a new skill, similar to the old one is to leave the old aside.

If you can, allocate a few weeks to viola only, then return to violin for a week. Next step, alternate weekly.

Once you learn the differences, you may reach the ability to switch daily or within the same day.

September 10, 2016 at 07:15 PM · I'm asking mostly because when I had the 16" viola, everything worked out great. Now, with a 15.5" Yitamusic viola, with the original strings, I am having a very difficult time making a note on G string after 3rd position, and any note at all on D string.

September 10, 2016 at 08:19 PM · Then you know the cause - instrument itself is less responsive. What is the vibrating string length and what strings/gauge do you have?

September 10, 2016 at 08:36 PM · I'm mostly blaming the string at this point, because others have reported that these strings are just bad.

September 11, 2016 at 08:21 AM · Someone said D-strings are like playing on wet cardbord! It must be hard to find the right materials; e.g. aluminium wound D's are too thick and dull for the rest of the set, while silver wound ones are too thin and bright.

September 14, 2016 at 04:33 PM · Is it a good, or a bad thing, that C string vibrates whenever I play the first G on D string?

Basically everything has been progressively getting, either the viola and/or the strings adjusting to the new environment. I can't afford to get anything more done to this viola until next month at the earliest.

September 14, 2016 at 05:01 PM · " Is it a good, or a bad thing, that C string vibrates whenever I play the first G on D string?"

It probably means youare playng in tune.

On a viola!!!

September 14, 2016 at 05:08 PM · I can get G vibrating sympathetically, but C? Analogous thing to G string vibrating from playing D on first A when I had a boxwood tailpiece. It was too much power, and went with heavier ebony tailpiece over that.

For viola, I already got the wittner tailpiece, and they kept the original ebony.

Basically, all notes on D string sounds too complex, and convoluted with too many overtones.

Also, Adrian, having played scales literally everyday on either instrument at random, I hope I am playing in tune. Although I am yet to successfully play an artificial harmonics scale.

September 14, 2016 at 11:36 PM · Yucks! I found it, wolf on F-F# on both G 3/4th and D 1st position.

September 14, 2016 at 11:45 PM · Putting a single string mute on D string on tailpiece side(I learned to do this with my violin's wolf) has almost entirely eliminated the wolf.

Should new soundpost be in order? Especially since the viola was made, and fitted in Shanghai at sometime this year.

September 17, 2016 at 05:42 PM · I think I will return this viola. I think the last straw was the fact that the chinrest was glued on. I think this is my last Online purchase on instruments/bows.

September 17, 2016 at 05:58 PM ·  photo IMG_20160917_132031_zpskjftr9df.jpg

 photo IMG_20160917_132036_zpsq0s7bpl2.jpg

September 17, 2016 at 06:04 PM ·

September 17, 2016 at 06:11 PM · I would be more concerned if the bridge got stuck due to premature installation. This appears like a consequence of attaching the SR while the varnish was still not 100% cured. Could be removed nicely and re-touched. If you can live with sound quality / ergonomic, give it a 2nd thought. It is not easy to find an affordable, ergonomic and good sounding viola in Ontario.

September 17, 2016 at 07:28 PM · Rocky, I agree with that, but as I am suffering more than 1/2 paycut, as my graduate school started. I cannot afford to even set this viola up. The chinrest area is also indented.

The violin costed me about $400 Cdn + ~$100 on current setup.

I might as well, just forget about viola altogether. One luthier did suggest that the bridge area was prematurely marked. Also, the bridge angle, I dislike it. In long run I am looking at:


1. New soundpost ~30-60

2. New Bridge ~60-100

3. New pegs/pegs setup ~30-100

4. chinrest indentation/varnish clean up ~?

5. New Chinrest ~20-50

6. Fingerboard touch up ~60

7. New Strings ~110

I can use this money to get the textbooks I need, new computer parts, coffee, groceries, and on my violin.

I knew that at least some of these will be expected. If Yitamusic has made me aware of these, I would've just gotten a student level viola well fitted, with Dominant strings on at local store for $500. Not to mention, that I would pick one that does NOT have a wolf on F-F#

September 18, 2016 at 01:11 AM · Are you using the strings that came with it?

It will cost you $70 to send it back. Get a set of Warchals for $55 and see if they help?

September 18, 2016 at 01:50 AM · Craig, I am just too disappointed at this viola to do anything about it. I am in contact with Yitamusic, they have offered discount instead of return, but I'm not sure, I'm just ticked off at the set-up. As I've said, it would be cheaper to walk into a store around here, play a few student viola, and pick the one I like, than to fix up this viola.

September 18, 2016 at 01:56 AM · Hi Steven, I have a slightly used set of Eva Pirazzi's that I'd be happy to send you if you would like to give them a try. (I'm in Canada too)

September 18, 2016 at 02:53 AM · Thank you Ron, I really appreciate that. I've just concluded talking to Yitamusic, and they will be giving me a discount/refund on the instrument. It is at the end of the day, better than paying post office for a return trip. Besides, Getting a box, and packaging this would be a nightmare for me.

Unfortunately, time is also in short supply for me. Hopefully in the future, I will have accumulated enough of both funds and time to invest in this viola. I think your Eva Pirazzi would be better used by you, or someone else in needs.

Again, I appreciate that very much, but I will manage.

September 18, 2016 at 02:56 AM · I just had a look at Yitamusic's return policy. It is on their website, and it states that if you bought the instrument less than thirty days ago, you are entitled to a refund, whether it is defective or not. If they're not giving you a refund you are within your rights to insist on it. Quote their own return policy at them.

September 18, 2016 at 03:18 AM · Steven,

I am really sorry for your troubles. Let me join others as voice or reason here: If they offer a discount which equals the costs you listed above, consider keeping this viola.

If not, return it and start looking for another one.

In any case, do not give up on viola playing!

Let us know what is the outcome.


September 18, 2016 at 03:24 AM · Thank you Steven and Rocky, they have agreed to refund $80 USD, and did so.

It won't cover the cost that I've listed, but not all on the list are exactly what I paid for, rather I want to get worked on(such as new string).

I will be visiting my luthier next month to fix few things that I can afford.

September 20, 2016 at 02:26 AM · Some may think this is a very odd thing, but I'm now playing the viola without a chinrest, but with a shoulder rest.

The curved/flat bottom of the viola gives my shoulder the strain, and the creeps.

I'll have to say, the entire first position D string on this viola is completely filled with wolfnotes. I've never encountered an instrument with so many wolves!

I'm also finding that I may need heavier tailpiece, since if I put the single string mute closest to the tailpiece, the wolves are least prominent.

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