Violin or Viola. Which is more competitive to enter music school?

August 24, 2018, 6:27 PM · In the area of major conservatories(ie. Juilliard, Colburn, Oberlin) which is more competitive to audition on, Violin or Viola?

Replies (40)

August 24, 2018, 6:47 PM · 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.

It seemed to me that she had made a decision based on a rather straight-forward statistical assessment: the chance of encountering other violinists of her ability where much greater than those of encountering violists of her ability.

Simple math!

August 24, 2018, 7:30 PM · 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.
August 24, 2018, 8:05 PM · 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.
Edited: August 24, 2018, 9:30 PM · 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.
August 24, 2018, 9:48 PM · ...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!

It seems to have finally gone the opposite way in my area in the past year with a sudden shortage of violists, but that's mostly because it seems like every orchestra within 50 miles, from professional orchestras all the way down to low-level community orchestras and school orchestras, was missing at least half of its regular violists due to illnesses and injuries for much of the 2017-18 season.

Edited: August 25, 2018, 12:45 AM · 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 :)
August 25, 2018, 4:05 AM · 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.
Edited: August 25, 2018, 11:17 AM · The viola standard for students is not overall terrible. Wow.

August 25, 2018, 11:50 AM · 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.

But by the time you get to the end of high school, some of the excellent violinists will have decided they prefer viola. (And some of the original violists will have gotten serious.) At the professional level, I don't think it's necessarily any easier to get a job as a violist. However playing both instruments well will increase your chances of landing gigs, since you can take either type of opportunity.

August 25, 2018, 3:53 PM · 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.
August 26, 2018, 1:57 AM · Mary Ellen Goree,

Maybe it's not terrible at Hans Eisler, Curtis or Amsterdam, but in my experience at Melbourne, Sydney, Salzburg and Munich, there was only 1 good violist in Salzburg and 1 really good one in Munich (DiYang Mei, winner of Rostal and Markneukirchen competitions). The rest including me are cringeworthy to listen to. The whole of Australia literally has 0 good viola students, compared to around 20-30 for the violin. I think it's primarily because viola teachers don't give the same good technical guidance as violin teachers. Sure the technique is slightly different but fundamentally it is the same. Violin teachers all pass on information through a deep lineage, but it is less so with viola teachers. Which brings me to my final point which is that more violin teachers should help viola students.
Edited: August 26, 2018, 3:14 AM · 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.

In my experience, when I've tried to get technical help from violinists, as often as not it's the violinists who realize they're in over their heads when they either can't see anything wrong with my technique beyond the fact that it somehow isn't working, or don't know how it can be corrected on a larger instrument. Most of the time I've gotten much more useful advice from violists.

August 26, 2018, 4:04 AM · Hmmmm, my experience has been that viola technique is far more forgiving than violin technique.
August 26, 2018, 4:44 AM · 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.
Edited: August 26, 2018, 2:52 PM · 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?

I think that some violin teachers are good at helping violists (not necessarily teaching them), but others are not. I think the violin teachers who are best at helping violists are those who have tried viola and have actually tried to adjust to it, those who have some understanding of the differences in technique, and those who understand how technique differs between violinists with different body types. Some of the techniques specifically used by small stature violinists are more applicable for viola than techniques for larger people because smaller violinists are required to open their left hand more and find ways to deal with an instrument that seems largish to them. My violin teacher, for instance, is by no means a violist, but she has a good understanding of how technique varies among violinists of varying body types and most of the differences between the violin and the viola, including technique. In addition, she has made some observations about technique by watching viola players when she runs into them playing their violas. Therefore, she is able to logically map out some of the adjustments that a violinist might make while transitioning to the viola to some extent. She is very supportive of her viola-playing violin students, and will help them with their viola issues when necessary. If she herself cannot help, she will point them to the right person for help.

I think that a lot of my violin experiences have helped me with my viola playing. For instance:
1. I have run into some challenges playing double stops due to slender hands, so my violin teacher has worked with me to help open and reposition my hand. This knowledge has helped me a lot when dealing with the larger fingerboard on the viola.
2. Although I am very sound conscious and strive to sound my best, sometimes for musical reasons and perhaps just being tired at lesson, getting a big, full sound has been a little difficult for me. Therefore, my teacher has given me suggestions on how to transmit weight and get more sound with less effort. That information has helped me a lot with tone production on the viola.
3. My teacher has also talked about how the violin is held differently for players of varying size. She talked to me about how I should hold the viola.

Keep in mind that my teacher does not want to teach wrong technique so she is very careful with the advice she gives.

August 26, 2018, 3:00 PM · Both are competitive. Just go to see some viola auditions to good orchestras and you will have an idea of how competitive it is.
August 26, 2018, 6:09 PM · 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.

For example, if there are 100 violinists and 30 violists at a conservatory, I think it's reasonable to assume that around 10 percent will be good, which equates to 10 good violinists and 3 good violists. The problem is that at the AVERAGE conservatory level, it is more like 15 good violinists out of 100, and 2 good violists out of 30.
Edited: August 26, 2018, 8:45 PM · 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.
August 26, 2018, 11:08 PM · 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?
Edited: August 27, 2018, 1:09 AM · 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...

Ella, once again I am talking about average level, not top level. Perhaps my definition of 'good' also includes good work ethic, discipline, awareness and acceptance of deficiencies, ability to identify deficiencies and see them as urgent (big one) and willingess to learn. Now tell me that is 100% of students...

Edited: August 27, 2018, 1:58 AM · Is this you James?

Then I can understand where you may be coming from.

Edited: August 27, 2018, 9:03 AM · 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?

Edited: August 27, 2018, 8:56 AM · 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. :)

I find the viola is a lot harder to play. I think that's kind of obvious because it's bigger and just generally less responsive. Its top string is not a thin wire, for starters.

I don't know about conservatories at all. I'll leave those arguments to those who have experience being there and preparing their students to be there.

My general observation -- which may be flawed -- is that the study of the violin has become absolutely obsessive when it comes to technical mastery. Mastery not only of the fundamental techniques that one will need to play in an orchestra or chamber ensemble, which is how most pro classical violin performers earn their living. But also mastery of all the parlor tricks -- scales in tenths, left-hand pizzicato, mind-bending bariolage, and so on. Violin concertos (not to mention studies and other rep) have totally left the planet. One must be a fine violinist indeed to play a good Franck Sonata, but what sets violinist apart is instead the ability to play some freakishly hard (but scarcely musical) Paganini caprice or Sarasate show-piece. In my opinion this trend is a kind of cancer on the development of the violin as a musical instrument. I know many violinists really love all that flashy stuff, and yeah, part of me wishes I could do it too (because that would probably mean I could play things like the Franck Sonata as well), but in the long run I'm not sure it's been good for music.

My general feeling is that, so far, this cancer has not yet metastasized to the viola. 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, essentially entirely, because when's the last time you went to the symphony and heard a viola concerto? (Oh you did? I'll bet it was the Walton Concerto, which I'm told isn't nearly as hard as most of the romantic violin concertos.)

Edited: August 27, 2018, 12:09 PM · 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.
Edited: August 27, 2018, 5:22 PM · '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.

You mention that 'the study of the violin has become absolutely obsessive when it comes to technical mastery. Mastery not only of the fundamental techniques that one will need to play in an orchestra or chamber ensemble, which is how most pro classical violin performers earn their living.' This I agree with, but I also think that in terms of the level of depth regarding fundamentals, the study of the violin far exceeds that of the viola.

For example, a Bach solo sonata is obviously very difficult to play for anyone. However violinists at least try to play these pieces or maybe they are forced to as part of university curriculum. It's fantastic music and it also happens to be damn difficult. A Bach fugue is completely impossible to play perfectly, just like a Paganini caprice is. Does that make both of them cancer? Of course Bach isn't cancer, but if violinists are exposing themselves to the fundamental difficulties of solo Bach sonatas and violists are busy playing 1 movement at a time of a cello suite, it's to be expected that violists will not reach the same technical proficiency. Now of course they don't actually need 'cancer facility' like tenths/lefthand pizz etc, since viola pieces are generally less difficult because the instrument is physically more difficult to play, but being able to play solo violin Bach to a decent level means that it translates to your violin sonata and your Mozart concerto so they will probably improve too.

Edited: August 27, 2018, 5:26 PM · 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.

15% excellent
35% good
35% acceptable
15% terrible

10% excellent
20% good
30% acceptable
40% terrible

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.

Edited: August 27, 2018, 5:27 PM · 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?
Edited: August 27, 2018, 5:47 PM · 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.

Anyway this is not the point of the discussion, now we are just talking about interpretations. At the end of the day, the original poster should choose whichever instrument they enjoy playing more.

Edited: August 27, 2018, 5:55 PM · So I see this...

"if violinists are exposing themselves to the fundamental difficulties of solo Bach sonatas and violists are busy playing 1 movement at a time of a cello suite,"

That already tells me you're not looking at the same level of experience and training for violinists vs. violists. Playing a solo Bach violin sonata is much closer to getting into a conservatory than playing one movement of a Bach cello suite on viola. Almost every violist in a typical amateur orchestra is already well above the level where they're "playing 1 movement at a time of a cello suite."

August 27, 2018, 7:15 PM · 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.
Edited: August 27, 2018, 7:34 PM · 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.
August 27, 2018, 7:36 PM · 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?
August 27, 2018, 7:45 PM · Because the rest of it has even less resemblance to reality.
August 27, 2018, 8:29 PM · "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."

I agree with your last sentence. I would insert the word "more" before "excellent" in your second sentence. Regarding your first sentence, I am extremely well versed in what it takes to enter a conservatory (by which I mean a first-tier school) in the U.S., and I disagree with you. Perhaps things are different where you are, or perhaps you are including what I think of as second- or third-tier colleges and music schools.

August 27, 2018, 9:07 PM · 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.

August 27, 2018, 9:27 PM · 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.
August 27, 2018, 10:02 PM · 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.

Your point, however, about violists tending to work on the (transcribed) cello suites instead of the (transcribed) violin solo sonatas of Bach is well taken.

The scientist in me wonders if all of this could be tested experimentally. Take the top three violists at Jacobs or Curtis, give them all violins, and see if they bring up the same rep that the the top three violin students are doing, in the same amount of time. (Sure, give the violists an extra month to get used to the instrument.)

August 27, 2018, 11:20 PM · 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.
August 28, 2018, 12:33 AM · 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.

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