Viola Affects Violin?

July 13, 2018, 6:34 PM · Hello!
I am a Violinist that's been playing for three years. In those past three years, I have been pretty okay with intonation. I picked up the Viola about eleven months ago. For about nine months, my viola was the same size as my violin, so transitioning from violin to viola wasn't difficult as all. But recently (about two months ago), I exchanged that viola to a bigger one (Fifteen inch Viola; My violin is a Thirteen inch).
Ever since then, switching from violin to viola has been hard, and it feels like my intonation hasn't been as accurate as before.
If I play the violin, I tend to play flat. When I play viola, I'm either too flat or too sharp. I've been so frustrated and I don't know what to do! It seems like my intonation is getting a little bit better; just a little. But I feel like it's not coming out the way it was before I switched to a bigger sized viola.

Has anybody else struggled with this problem? If so, how can I overcome it?

Thank you for reading.

Replies (23)

July 13, 2018, 9:43 PM · Switching back and forth should not be a problem, unless there are some impediments.

First things first: hardware
1. make sure that both instruments have a proper neck_stop:body_stop ratio. Any experienced luthier can check that for you in 5 minutes. If this is not so, you will very slowly lose your sanity trying to play in tune.
2. string clearance is properly set
3. neck curvature and fingerboard dressing is similar or very close
4. viola is not too big for your physique

Second, until you get experienced, do not switch from one instrument to another on the same day.

Third, have the same or very similar warm-up routine on both instruments; scales, arpeggios, etc. Use the same fingering for scales on viola and violin.

July 13, 2018, 9:52 PM · 2" is a bigger jump up then most people make at one time. Was there a reason you went to a 15" viola rather than a 14"?

I remember struggling but it was more a struggle when I would first start playing one instrument or the other and then after I had played for a few minutes, the intonation would settle in.

Since you are sometimes sharp and sometimes flat I wonder if you have a really good sense yet of just how far your arm needs to extend to be in position on the viola and actually the same question on violin.

My suggestion is to practice dropping your playing hand down, then put your hand in playing position, drop 3rd finger to the string and check it with the open below. If it is in tune then stop to really, really feel what your arm and body feel like when it is in tune. After you get that, then do that, play 3 and then another finger until you get that consistent.


July 13, 2018, 9:53 PM · I play 14 inch violin and 16 inch viola so I assume your 13 inch violin and 15 inch viola have comparable relationships to each other.

What I have observed is that the finger spacing or my viola's 3rd position are about the same as my violin's 1st position. My elbow angle in viola 3rd position is the same as my violin's 1st position. So the angle of my elbow defines finger spacing on both instruments for me. As one moves about higher positions on violin this same proportion of finger spacing to elbow angle seems to continue. Fingers get closer and closer the higher up you go!

Thus with more time and experience you should be able to work with both instruments on this basis. Reading the clefs can get jumbled some times - especially when the notes are fast and the key (and key changes) are furious and you have not seen the music previously. So - practicing with the goal of conquering these problems will help -- PLAY SCALES in tune!

Edited: July 14, 2018, 3:20 AM · On the viola the forearm slants more and we may be tempted to bend the wrist to compensate, which does not help the hand to open more. More elbow swing can help to play strongly (and in tune) on the lower strings

Fourth Finger Rules!
To stay strong and supple it must be curved as on the violin, and be placed first. The others must adapt to the wider intervals: the middle finger may curl more under itself (nice short nails!) and the index may have to lean back, almost on its side. In first position, our thumb and the base of the index will be noticeably further from the peg-box.

For long, vibrated notes with the first finger, we can move hand back to allow a rounded finger shape.

I play viola and violin, and I have short fingers. I find I have learned two sets of reflexes (in both hands..) and can switch easily, but I find it hard to adapt to a viola only slightly different from mine.

July 14, 2018, 9:57 PM · Adrian said something that made me think of something else. A lot of violinists put their left thumb across from 1st finger. Some violists prefer the thumb to be flexible where it is but mainly hang out between the first and second finger. This makes it easier to make the reaches on viola.

Some violists (Kim Kashkashian comes to mind) also will let the left wrist relax a bit. It is very subtle but will feel different.

July 15, 2018, 7:28 AM · Viola will help your violin playing. Like warming up in the on-deck circle with a lead donut on your bat.

I agree with Andrew about scales, but scales often neglect low positions. Studies that work the lowest positions will help more in my opinion. Especially is you are playing the viola only in community orchestras, like me.

July 15, 2018, 5:15 PM · Remember intonation isn't really in your left hand, it's in your brain. Whether you're playing violin or viola, when you play you are constantly making adjustments to be in tune -- and that starts with your ears and is governed by your brain. That's why slow precise practice with very good concentration works -- you're literally training your brain how to hear, and once you know exactly what you want to hear, your fingers will figure out how to give it to you.

I play violin and viola, and I used to have trouble switching between the two in the same session. If I started on viola, my hand frame would get stretched and intonation would be challenged when moving back to violin.

But here's the interesting part. As I got more experienced at switching back and forth, the problem just kind of went away. I can go back and forth between the two instruments without too much difficuty intonation wise.

So I guess my advice would be, just follow good practice for developing intonation. The violin/viola adjustment is a problem that may solve itself as you just improve your intonation and shifting.

Slow scales, constantly checking intonation against open strings and harmonics. Schradieck and Sevcik etc. And as your left hand develops, play a lot of double stops, beginning with octaves and sixths and then thirds and, especially, fourths (because fourths are very unforgiving). Ruggiero Ricci maintained that the single most valuable study to develop a violinist's left hands was to play scales and passages in thirds.

And of course play unaccompanied Bach, Suites, Sonatas and Partitas.

You should definitely develop three octave scales and arpeggios on both instruments. Yes you'll be playing mostly in lower positions, but higher position work has an impact on your lower position work. I.e. the precision needed to play in tune in high positions (and shift) will help you when you're playing in 1st position.

July 17, 2018, 3:19 AM · How long does it take you to "adjust" when switching between the two?
I think it's normal to have a period of time where your brain and fingers need to adapt to the size change. I don't believe anyone just seamlessly changes between the two and can play difficult repertoire immediately and accurately right after switching. Buffer time is needed.
July 17, 2018, 12:09 PM · Hmm. Intonation in fast passages is in the hands of the hands..
The brain should notice discrepancies, but hasn't time to correct.
July 17, 2018, 2:06 PM · It takes me 5 or 10 minutes to adjust my intonation when switching between violin and viola. After that I've adjusted to the longer stretches on the viola, or the lighter weight on the violin. After playing viola for a while, a violin seems so tiny and light that I feel I can do anything with little effort.

I do get a touch of clef dyslexia from time to time, but that passes as well.

July 17, 2018, 4:36 PM · Good advice above. I'm one of these people who has pretty much no trouble switching between the two. For me, I seem to somehow memorize the spacing difference, so I could switch in the same session and not run into trouble. Of course, this isn't everybody. Since violinists also have to constantly adjust to different spacings "on the fly" because of the closer spacings up high, I think that being able to adjust "on the fly" is going to help switching back and forth a lot.
Edited: July 17, 2018, 5:22 PM · I can not recall the source... but this is what I use to "re-calibrate" my hand from violin to viola and back:
1. one finger scale on a (d) string, with drone on d (g) string
2. one finger chromatic scale with the same drone as the above
3. fifths - all the way up 2 inner strings (1st finger)
4. fifths in semitones (chromatic) the same as under 3
5. sixths (the same as in 3)
6. sixths (the same as in 4)
7. fourths (the same as in 3)
8. fourths (the same as in 4)
9. octaves (the same as in 3)
10. octaves (the same as in 4)
11. thirds (the same as in 3)
12. thirds (the same as in 4)

All of the above takes 10-15 minutes, 2 notes per bow in different rhythms & bowing patterns to avoid habituation. This is also good for right hand, since double stops on viola ask for different approach in sound production than on violin. The same warm-up can be done in other 2 string combination and different scales. Enjoy!

July 17, 2018, 6:09 PM · Ella, have you noticed you're able to seamlessly change even when going from a very difficult violin piece to a very difficult viola piece immediately afterwards?

Like, if I try to play the intro to symphonie espagnol on violin perfectly, and then try the exact same passage on viola, it will certainly NOT be seamless, even if I've done the passage perfectly on each instrument in the past at different times. I need a buffer to adjust in that scenario, because the leaps are much bigger than simply a whole step or half step, so the effect on how much I need to adjust is exponentiated.

In short, I think the relative difficulty of the music is where the discrepancies will start to manifest.

I also think that a more advanced player will generally be able to adapt quicker than a less advanced one. Sounds like OP isn't very advanced, so more buffer time is needed.

July 18, 2018, 9:19 PM · I certainly believe less experienced players need more buffer time than more experienced players. I don't think I've tried to switch back and forth with very difficult pieces in a while, but even if I did need buffer time, I think it was only 1-2 minutes at most. I think I'm just weird. I know I'm not like most people.
July 19, 2018, 1:46 AM · Perhaps relative familiarity matters too? I switch seamlessly from violin to viola with no buffer time at all, but it takes half an hour or more to switch from viola to violin.
July 19, 2018, 7:44 AM · I try to fit in five minutes of the "other" instrument at the end of session: not enough to disturb what I have practiced, but a kind of "reminder".
July 26, 2018, 7:08 PM · I play both and always start my session on either one with scales. I do scales that use the same fingering on the same positioned string on each (e.g., on the violin I will do A major and on the viola I will do D major). Eventually, you get fairly used to the differences. The worst problems long-term are the clef issues, particularly what one v.com poster labeled "violin moments," where you suddenly look at the music and forget you are playing viola and are in alto clef.

Anyhow, these problems are relatively unimportant compared to the pleasure you can have playing both.

Edited: July 26, 2018, 7:50 PM · Actually I find that the right hand is harder to adjust when switching than the left. Maybe it's just my instruments but my viola is a LOT less responsive than my violin. Sound point is way different too.
July 26, 2018, 10:27 PM · Paul, I've noticed that too, except I've gotten pretty used to it now. Sometimes, when I go from violin to viola (but no the other way around), I feel like I have to work so hard, yet in a lot of cases it's due to a lack of rosin. If I make sure there's enough rosin on my viola bow when I switch directly from violin, I'm okay.
Edited: July 27, 2018, 11:22 AM · I have played both violin and viola most of my life. I preferred a big viola (it was a fat 16 " ),because I wanted it to feel like a different instrument, not just a slightly bigger violin with a different clef. Third position on viola feels like the same spacing as 1st position violin. Avoid stretches or extensions on viola, it's already hard enough. Use 2nd, 1/2, and all those in between positions more often. I have done a couple of orchestra auditions on both violin and viola, the same day, and chose to do violin first, then viola, because of the different feel of the bowing.
July 27, 2018, 5:52 AM · This is from Simon Fischer's
The Violin lesson page 6:

Just in playing the violin you are already playing several instruments. There is more difference between playing the E string on the violin and the G string on the Violin; than there is between playing the A string on the violin and the A string on the Viola.
The German musicologist Hans Keller used to point out that if; because of the different sizes of the instruments and therefore the different stops; it is necessary to have a dedicated profession called violinist and another one called violist; then it should equally be necessary to have a dedicated profession called 1st position violinist and another called 5th position violinist.

Edited: July 27, 2018, 6:23 AM · "a dedicated profession called 1st position violinist and another called 5th position violinist"

These really do exist. In many junior school orchestras (and some amateur adult orchestras) they are specifically for the 2nd and 1st violin sections respectively ;)

July 27, 2018, 11:20 AM · In a sense, the first violins of good orchestras are high note specialists; they win and keep their jobs, spend a large portion of their playing time, on the second half of the E string, where the notes are about 5 mm apart, and the margin of error for intonation is an almost impossible 1 mm. Players with narrow finger-tips have an advantage.

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