Violin/viola teacher doesn't let students play both violin and viola. Why might that be?

April 9, 2018, 1:49 PM · Hi everyone,
I'm just curious. I know of a violin/viola teacher (who's primarily a violist) who doesn't seem to let his students play both violin and viola (though I know of at least one of his students who secretly plays both instruments). I could ask him, but he's not very close to me, so it'll be hard to fetch him. I've already talked to someone about it (I'm thinking of asking my own violin teacher as I haven't asked). The only reason I can think of for him not to let his students play both is because students might mix up the two instruments, thus hindering progress. Although as a teacher that would concern me, not being allowed to play both instruments may take away from some student's enjoyment. In addition, there are many advantages to playing both including more open doors. Furthermore, depending on mentality, some people have issues with mixing up the two instruments and some don't. Would it be fair as a teacher to at least give students the chance to try playing both equally (quantity wise) if they want to? I wouldn't mind asking students to push an instrument to the side temporarily to facilitate learning another. As a teacher, would you give your students the chance to play both violin and viola? Why or why not? My personal answer is "yes" because it's their desire and it's their study. However, if mixing up the instruments is actually causing problems, I'm sure there's probably some ways to deal with it. After all, the last resort is to get them to quit an instrument, but I don't want to go there if at all possible.

Replies (25)

April 9, 2018, 2:36 PM · Whenever students want to do something that's inefficient or might hinder their progress, I give them all the necessary precautions and then give them the choice on whether to do it or not. It's their time and money; who am I to actually prevent them from doing it? But, it's important that the warnings are given first, to absolve the teacher from the responsibility of leading the student down the wrong path. It's like re-cambering a bow. Some luthiers/archetiers will do it, but only with the warning that it might destroy the bow.

Good example: I teach a left-handed girl on a left-handed violin. When the parents approached me initially with this idea, I told them that I'd be most comfortable teaching her right handed and that I didn't have any experience teaching on a left-handed instrument. I told them that it would be MY personal preference to teach right-handed, and that it was my recommendation to do so for a variety of other reason (which I listed). They then told me that they understood, but that they'd still have to insist on going with a left-handed violin. So, I accepted the challenge (the first day it actually made me dizzy because I had to think of everything in reverse), but it's gone better than I could have ever imagined. It's my belief that the girl is just very talented and could have done well on a right-handed or left-handed violin, but the fact remains that it's gone very, very well. Furthermore, because she knows that she's one of very few violinists that plays left-handed, it makes her feel more special and unique, and she sees playing as a means to show other left-handers that they can accomplish things in their own way. So it's empowering to her, and feeds her sense of self-worth. This provides an advantage, the power of which can't be overstated: it makes the violin a part of her identity, and thus will lead to her being a much better player in the long run.

Anyways, it turns out that every other teacher in my area simply turned them down. They just said "if she won't learn right-handed, then I won't teach her." So by being overly strict with their ideas of how it should be learned, they turned down a very talented young musician who is probably going to grow up to make beautiful music. And if it weren't for a teacher being flexible (me), it's extremely likely that she wouldn't have ever played the violin (and trust me when I say this, given the specific student/parents in question).

Regarding learning violin and viola: I'm sure you can imagine that in a brand-new student, developing a solid base of muscle-memory is one of the most important initial things we need to do. This is already difficult to do on a violin OR on a viola, but by switching back and forth constantly, it makes the development of a proper muscle memory base almost impossible for a beginner.

More than likely, if you were to have a brand-new student learn both viola and violin simultaneously, there would be constant sliding in their finger placements, and a constant confusion regarding how to control sounding-points. In addition, the setup of the instrument would be unstable, because the instruments must be held differently. And of course, we use timbre/overtones to judge whether a note needs to be modified, so this adds further confusion to the process of learning how to play in tune, even if the muscle memory itself wasn't an issue.

In a very talented student, it might be possible to develop two separate sets of muscle memory that run parallel to each other and thus don't interfere much. But this requires someone that has the mental processing/storage to run two systems of thought separately and efficiently, which is extremely uncommon. Maybe 1-2% of people at best.

In an experienced player of either viola or violin, the muscle memory base has been established clearly in the context of one instrument, and so adding a separate muscle memory set is doable. This is especially true because we can simply add a modifier to some of our already-established muscle-memory bases. For example, when switching from my violin (14") to my viola (16"), I simply tell all of my fingers to stretch proportionally larger than they normally would, and then use my adaptive finger-tuning sense to make any small changes in the intonation that are necessary for a given note.

PS: when discussing students from now on, it would be very helpful if posters could specify the experience/advancement/age the students are in question, because teaching -- and the relevant advice regarding it -- changes forms depending on the experience of the student. I think of it like the forms of water: Starting from the lowest temperature, it is a solid, and once it reaches above 32F, it becomes a liquid, and above 212F it becomes a gas.

So to ask questions about water in *general* simply isn't going to be very useful to anyone, because depending on the STATE of the water (solid, liquid, gas), then the answers will be very different.

April 9, 2018, 2:44 PM · Thank you so much, Erik. I think your strategy is extremely reasonable, and I would use it if I were be a teacher. I did not think of the level of students my question was targeted to. I will say that I was talking experienced players, as beginners seem extremely unlikely to start two instruments at once.
April 9, 2018, 3:29 PM · I can't think of a single good reason to prohibit an experienced violinist from playing viola, or vice versa.

(I can think of plenty of good reasons to refuse to teach a student on a left-handed violin, but we already hashed that out on another thread.)

April 9, 2018, 3:33 PM · I agree with Mary Ellen. Most serious violinists end up learning viola at some point, often in college.
April 9, 2018, 4:35 PM · I think that if anything, it is beneficial to play both instruments. Those who primarily play violin can experience their bow arm from a different perspective on viola, where it is much more difficult to play loud and to get the strings to speak. And those who primarily play viola can get more extensive experience with double stops and high passages in the solo violin repertoire, as well as experience more romantic concertos than they would in most of the viola repertoire.
April 9, 2018, 10:42 PM · Are you thinking of getting into teaching, Ella?
April 10, 2018, 12:26 AM · I would understand to stop one specific student from playing both, based on what the teacher sees as weaknesses in the student. But setting an ironclad rule like that for all students, seems narrow minded.
This should be a case by case, student by student consideration. Always with the cautionary speeches, as Erik points out.
April 10, 2018, 4:32 AM · I had one boy learning both, with a half hour pause between the two lessons.

He had a 3/4 violin and a 14" viola. To concentrate on the differences in finger stretch and tone production, I often used the same piece for both, (the transposed viola version was of course fully written out).

He actually prefered the viola, but didn't want to relinquish his place as leader of the school orchestra!

April 10, 2018, 9:32 AM · Practicing the viola is like warming up with the donut in the on-deck circle. When you switch back to the violin it feels like a little toy and you can play anything.
April 10, 2018, 9:35 AM · Erik, I might get into teaching, but right now, I can't be sure.
April 11, 2018, 10:13 AM · I am just asking.... Isn't the leaning two instruments similar the learning to speak two languages?

In many bilingual families small children often confuse languages and mix words, but at the end they get native fluency in both, which never can be achieved if one of the languages is introduced later. It always will be a translation and accents in one of them. If to draw a parallel: one always would think about violin and "translate" fingering to viola or vice verse. But if one studies both from the start, he/she can achieve natural pose etc inherent to the instruments...

April 11, 2018, 10:13 AM · I am just asking.... Isn't the leaning two instruments similar the learning to speak two languages?

In many bilingual families small children often confuse languages and mix words, but at the end they get native fluency in both, which never can be achieved if one of the languages is introduced later. It always will be a translation and accents in one of them. If to draw a parallel: one always would think about violin and "translate" fingering to viola or vice verse. But if one studies both from the start, he/she can achieve natural pose etc inherent to the instruments...

April 11, 2018, 10:20 AM · K Ch, kind of. I think the issues Erik poses can be a problem, but I'm talking experienced players here.
April 11, 2018, 2:19 PM · Experienced violinists should be able to pick up viola on their own. Learning to read the clef(s) is easy. If you are familiar with the Suzuki books start with viola book 4 and go from there. You should be able to cover about one book per day in an hour per day.

By the time you finish you will know what to do. You will have figured out the relative note spacings the way the slightly heavier bow works in your hand and the way you need to use it to get the tone you want. Vibrato is essentially the same (I find it easier on the larger viola).

So by the end of the week you should be able to read and play an awful lot of the Classical Period orchestral and chamber literature and much of the Late Baroque sonatas and concertos.
A 16-inch viola scales like a 14-inch violin so the finger spacing AND the arm extension for 3rd position on the viola are the same as for violin 1st position. Perhaps larger or smaller violas are more problematic.

I started cello slightly before my 15th birthday after 10 years of violin. There is far less "muscle memory" conflict with cello/violin than viola/violin because the body dynamics are different. The bowing positions are different but the transmitted feel of bow on string is pretty much the same. When I was 16 I was playing the Beethoven violin concerto on violin and Haydn D major (No. 2) concerto on cello. I did have a fine teacher for cello and had stopped violin lessons. I did/do viola without a teacher; started 44 years ago, but only played about 100 hours total in the first 40 years - until 3 years ago - now I play it all the time.

Much viola playing is easier than the the same "level" on violin or cello. For example the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata is a true virtuoso cello piece, but a fairly straight-forward sight-read on viola.

Try it! You will see (and hear)! Just be sure to get a viola whose sound you love. A lot of wonderful viola solo music is available on . After the Suzuki start with the Zelter concerto and the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante viola part. Eb Major is the key absolutely designed for viola!

Edited: April 12, 2018, 7:24 PM · I agree with Andrew and I would add that the Bach cello suites are delightful on viola and not that hard. Start with the D minor prelude of course! One thing though -- the Primrose edition is awful. His markings make no sense to me. Can someone recommend a better one? And please don't lecture me about "urtext". Maybe that works for you but I want the benefit of fingerings and bowings.
April 12, 2018, 7:40 PM · The convenient thing about the Bach cello suites is that there is no urtext. There are only two surviving contemporary copies, neither in Bach's hand, and the bowings are wildly different between the two.
Edited: April 12, 2018, 7:54 PM · Never understood this. Never heard this with woodwind players that double or more on other instruments. As for spacings, we are changing spacings with different positions anyway - viola is just changing the spacing to a bigger one but it's still relative. I explain it to my students in this way: You can write you name in very big letters or very small but your style of writing and proportions will be consistent. As musicians we have to be adaptable creatures or we are going to miss out in both music making and career. I would even go as far as to say cello isn't out of reach for a violinist once you understand the difference in fingering - intervals are consistent and spacing is still relative in the same way but bigger.

It's interesting that the teacher is teaching both so that means they learned at least something about violin and viola.

April 12, 2018, 8:31 PM · I have never had students who play both instruments have problems mixing up the two instruments.

The only reason I can see for not wanting a student to play both would be lack of practice time.

April 12, 2018, 9:46 PM · Lack of practice time can be a concern, but only if you're studying approx the same amount of repertoire on both simultaneously. Some people may remain around equally active on both (in other words, playing both around equally time-wise), but only seriously study one of the instruments with the other being more "for fun" or in ensembles only kind of thing. Plus, I know of students who study multiple instruments equally (both commitment and time-wise) and manage very nicely.
April 12, 2018, 10:59 PM · I played both and really did not have a problem. Now I only play violin and sold my viola about 8 years ago. The repertoire for violin is so good and large and it's great to play the Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms sonatas as well as some Bach partitas - and of course those Kreisler and other small pieces are a pleasure to play. (Not to mention all the great chamber music i.e. string quartets etc).
Edited: April 13, 2018, 2:50 AM · Bach cello suites? I still like the Watson Forbes viola edition (OUP): very musical choices of fingerings, bowings & dynamics, from which I depart frequently!

For a good, scholarly arrangement, there is Simon Roland-Jones (Peters); he has alternative solutions for the 5th & 6th suites.

Bach's original manuscripts are lost: we only have Anna Magdalena's copy (where the slurs are very often a little too far the right) and two others from organist friends. As with most manuscripts before the advent of music printing, I feel we can tke numerous liberties with the rather inconsistent bowings..

Edited: April 13, 2018, 2:43 AM · I find I can switch from viola to violin, but I must practice both.
I like to do 10 minutes of the "other" instrument at the end of a session.
I have to maintain two sets of reflexes, in both hands (and arms); but I find it disturbing to change to another viola with slightly different string-length.
My 4th finger retains the same shape on violin or viola: the other three fingers open backwards on viola for passage-work, but for slower passages I adopt more cello-like fingerings, with a rounded hand shape.
Teachers with large hands don't always think of this.
April 13, 2018, 3:38 AM · " Bach cello suites? I still like the Watson Forbes viola edition (OUP): very musical choices of fingerings, bowings & dynamics, from which I depart frequently!"

I did play them to old Watson - with my own re-editing. He never seemed to notice! He only got worried when I brought a contemporary piece by a fellow student (who was a viola player) and he said it was bl**dy unplayable. And he was right! I had to make it up a bit in the concert ...

April 13, 2018, 4:22 AM · Okay that's two recommendations for Watson Forbes, so I'm getting that. Thanks! By the way mostly I play violin but there are two local orchestras that need violists really badly so that's why I bought a viola -- to play viola in the orchestras. It's pretty fun but the parts double the 2nds and the cellos and the bassoons too much. Once in a while there is an exposed line and that's great because in each orchestra there are only two of us.
Edited: April 13, 2018, 4:25 AM · Most orchestras can only afford two viola players because apparently they don't count, and other people are fed up with counting the bars for them ... (wink)

WARNING - English Humour ...

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