Violin or Viola. Which is more competitive to enter music school?
In the area of major conservatories(ie. Juilliard, Colburn, Oberlin) which is more competitive to audition on, Violin or Viola?
My answer is based on an observation I made nearly 30 years ago when a college age violist came to play with our community orchestra. She was enrolled in the California Institute of the Arts as a viola major. She was an incredible player. In her CV I read that when in high school she had been the concertmaster of the Utah All State Orchestra.
I'd guess that violin and viola are similarly competitive today. The number of outstanding players who choose to focus on viola early on has grown significantly. While there are still fewer outstanding violists than violinists, the number now seems proportionate to the number of places for violists in conservatories.
I agree that they are similarly competitive. The days of a mediocre violinist having a bright future on viola are long gone, Twoset Violin notwithstanding. The successful violists I know of who started out on violin were excellent violinists first.
I agree that nowadays, the competition for viola players is similar to the competition for violinists in the professional world and in top conservatories. However, at lower-tier schools, viola is still often somewhat less competitive than violin. Regional shortages for violists, especially in medium and smaller cities, are still common. This is mainly true with student and amateur violists. There are still noticeably more professional violinists than violists. However, because the viola's popularity has risen significantly over the past few decades, there are enough violists to fill most professional jobs.
...though even at amateur level it really depends on where you are. Somehow, I've always found myself in places that have surpluses of violists and shortages of violinists at amateur levels. In community orchestras I've played in over the years it's been common to see three or four people in the second violin section who are mainly violists but have to play violin to balance the orchestra!
The viola standard for students is overall terrible. Having said that though, I still think that makes violin and viola equally competitive, since if you are a violist then you are quite likely to be at the same level of are lot of other violists. The only scenario where it becomes less competitive for viola is when a seasoned violinist switches to viola. As you can see from the Primrose viola competition, Luosha Fang is a curtis viola graduate and cruised over the other violists with relative ease. I am a violist and I feel no shame in admitting that the general viola standard is very low, acceptance is the first step in moving forward :)
I've known a few mediocre violinists switch to viola because it's "easier" to win conservatoire places or jobs. I've known three excellent violinists switch, too. The mediocre ones remained mediocre;the excellent ones remained excellent. One is principal with a full time symphony, one does 50% with a symphony and 50% chamber music, and the third is a surgeon.
The viola standard for students is not overall terrible. Wow.
At the average public school, the violists are more likely to be the kids who were assigned an instrument, started late, and didn't get private lessons.
Is your goal to get into Juillard or to play the viola the rest of your professional career?
Viola shortages vary from region to region, so I wouldn't be surprised if one region has a surplus of violists while another region is severely short on violists. It is possible in special circumstances that a mediocre violinist does become an good violist because of better training or better suitability to the instrument.
Mary Ellen Goree,
I'd argue that it's for a different reason: the viola is a less forgiving instrument in many ways. It's not so much that the technique is different or that instruction is not as good, more that even slight technical shortcomings are magnified by the inherent awkwardness of the instrument. For example, the viola demands much more left thumb movement than the violin to play any given type of passage, which means flaws in left hand technique may limit a violist much more than a violinist.
Hmmmm, my experience has been that viola technique is far more forgiving than violin technique.
Teaching? As a "failed" violist who has only played professionally on violin (!) I find that meeting the greater technical and tonal challenges of the viola give me extra resources in my violin lessons.
James, my theory is that the overall worldwide standard for professional violists is very high, just as high as any other instrument. However, the standard for violists and the number of good ones again varies from region to region, and that while there are lots of great violists where Mary Ellen lives, there are far less of them in some other regions. If you look at the cities you mentioned, how good are the violists in the symphonies? Maybe you don't know all the good violists in your region? Or you don't enjoy the playing of the professional violists in your region?
Both are competitive. Just go to see some viola auditions to good orchestras and you will have an idea of how competitive it is.
The original poster talks about conservatory level students. I never ever said that the professional violist standard is not high. Obviously violists in a professional orchestra will be good because they only accept 1 out of dozens for each audition, and those who bother to audition are probably quite good already. So while there may be just as many good violists as violinists in a professional orchestra, this does not mean the same at conservatory level.
James, seriously, when you say "conservatory level," which conservatories are you referring to? Curtis? Juilliard? Eastman? New England? Oberlin? CIM? Jacobs School? At the AVERAGE conservatory level, it is 100 good violinists out of 100, and 30 good violists out of 30. Conservatories don't accept people who aren't already good players. Some of those players will be better than others but they will all meet a high minimum standard.
Mary Ellen is totally right about top conservatories. I would rethink your definition of "good". Does "good" refer to those who can play with near-perfect technique and musical expression? Does "good" only refer to players who you enjoy listening to?
Mary, ok well if you say that 100% of students at the average conservatory are good, then we definitely have a different interpretation on the definition of good...
Is this you James?
James, you said “average conservatory level” and I am trying to understand what you mean when you say “conservatory.” Could you please explain your usage of the word?
I play both violin and viola. I'm an intermediate amateur. Mozart 5 on the violin is a stretch goal. Even if I do learn it, you might not want to hear it, depending on how touchy you are. I'll be proud of it though. :)
For some reason, I actually kind of agree with you, Paul, even if this observation is kind of "flawed". There are viola pieces with crazy tricks, but they are rarely performed and most of that stuff is commissioned modern music. Viola players sometimes play the Paganini caprices, but far less often than violinists. My guess is that such tricks are more difficult on viola because it's a bigger and less responsive instrument. I find those tricks cool, and I love being flashy and showy. I have only noticed the type of cancer you describe with violinists to a small extent, and I think it's healthy. I do think it might be worth spending a little more time on musical skills for ensemble playing, however.
'Viola students still seem quite focused on aspects of technique and musicality that are directly applicable to their likely career trajectories -- as orchestra or chamber musicians if they become performers' this is what I actually disagree with... I don't disagree entirely, but it makes it sound like violists are as equally focused as violinists on practical aspects of technique and musicality, and I believe they do much less.
Mary, perhaps I shouldn't have used the word 'good' since it is quite vague. Here is the distribution that I see approximately at the average conservatory level. And by conservatory, I mean any conservatory of music, university of music or Hochschule for music. Basically any tertiary institution.
I think that it is important to keep in mind that conservatories/university music programs vary greatly in level. While some lower-tier programs accept mediocre players, top-level conservatory entrants play at a very high level. Even very exceptional students can learn something from the great master teachers. My guess from your definition of "good" is that those who are playing at a level equivalent to a top conservatory student who has already complete their undergrad degree is considered "good". Is this right?
No I don't necessarily think good means top student. I think it means anyone who is above acceptable. And I would say acceptable means a performance which moved me only a little, but has some merits, was technically secure enough to not make me want to cover my ears, and the student has some potential.
So I see this...
I don't think that working on one movement at a time of a Bach cello suite doesn't always show a relatively low standard. It is normal to work on one movement at a time of solo Bach unless you're in a university/conservatory program no matter what instrument you play. Of course, it isn't uncommon to work on multiple movements at a time, either.
True, but he's using it as a comparison to violinists learning entire Bach solo sonatas and implying that many conservatory-level violists are not capable of working on more at a time.
Ok that was the literally the least important point I made in all of my posts, and you guys do nothing else but pick at that, and don't acknowledge my actual reasoning?
Because the rest of it has even less resemblance to reality.
"If you think that you need to be good/excellent to enter a conservatory, you are wrong. Students apply for these schools so that they can become excellent. They apply so that they can learn something valuable from the teachers."
James is in Australia, I believe. I suspect that his figures might be more applicable if we looked at ALL the students entering tertiary institutions for music, rather than just the students going to first-tier schools. There may be greater stratification of those students in the US than elsewhere, I suspect, due to the sheer number of tertiary institutions where one can potentially study music.
Well there's the difference in terminology. In the U.S., "conservatory" is generally understood to refer to the first-tier schools. One can major in music at many regional campuses (non-flagship) of state universities, but those are not conservatories in the U.S. sense.
James the difference between the Bach fugue and the Paganini Caprice is that the former is rich with worthwhile musical content. It was written 90% for its musical value. Bach was not hell-bent on torturing future generations of violin students with his solo sonatas (or inventing devilish studies for his own students so that they could blow away Vivaldi's students at the Queen Elizabeth). In contrast the Paganini Caprices were written solely for these ulterior purpose -- they exist to showcase (or perhaps develop) some advanced technical feat.
Interesting, Mary Ellen. In my locale, that doesn't seem to be true, probably due to the presence of Shenandoah Conservatory, which is certainly not a first-tier school.
I'd forgotten about Shenandoah. I suppose there are other schools that use the term; I just jumped immediately to the Juilliard-Eastman-Oberlin world. At any rate I would never consider music majors at, say, the Southern University of North Dakota at Hoople to be conservatory students but if those are included in James's generalization, then I can see where he's coming from.