Switching to Vola - But no teachers?

November 5, 2018, 10:10 PM · Hi everyone,

I have a couple of viola related questions and will provide some background:

I've been playing violin for close to 3 years and have recently completed Suzuki Book 4.

One day while visiting my local violin shop, I tried a viola and fell in love with the instrument (and impulsevely bought it). I would like to switch, however, I have found it very difficult to find a viola teacher in my city. Those that I have contacted aren't accepting new students and haven't been able to refer me to another teacher.

I would really like to learn this instrument and have been practicing based on what I've learned on the violin.

I did find one teacher (a violinist) you said she could teach me - however I'm not convinced (I might as well stay with my present violin teacher).

My questions are:

Is a shortage of viola teachers common in most cities? (my city is fairly large with 2 professional orchestras and several amateur ones)

Can a violinist teach me the viola well enough for me to progress rapidly?

Replies (19)

Edited: November 5, 2018, 11:41 PM · Viola teacher shortages are not uncommon, but there are plenty of places with lots of viola teachers, too. Do you intend to give up violin completely? How far are you willing to travel for viola lessons? I was thinking maybe you could travel a bit farther? Does your violin teacher know of any violists in your area who teach? Some violin teachers are good at teaching viola, and some are not. Some don't technically teach viola but will help their viola-playing violin students with viola issues if need be. Some are also aware of the subtle but important differences in technique. If you really can't find a teacher, worst case scenario is just to teach yourself. The technique is mostly the same anyway, and you'll most likely make good progress even if you don't have a viola teacher, as long as you continue your violin lessons. Plus, lots of violinists teach themselves the viola anyway, so I think it's totally viable. In addition, you should also think about your goals as a violist. Do you intend to study the repertoire and take it seriously, or are you more interested in just having fun with it? Of course you should seriously consider lessons if you intend to study the repertoire and take it seriously and/or you intend to give up violin, but if you're just more interested in having fun, lessons aren't a requirement, though they're always beneficial no matter what. If you do intend to teach yourself, I would focus on learning the clef (which is probably the easiest thing to teach yourself anyway), getting used to the instrument, playing in tune, trying to sound your best, and perhaps experimenting with bowing a little if necessary. In the meantime, do educate yourself about viola sizes (as there's no standard, really) and the viola's role in music. Also, you should consider listening to some viola pieces as well. If you want more specific advice about the transitioning process and/or anything else that's related, please don't hesitate to ask us.
November 5, 2018, 11:51 PM · - I do experience a shortage of viola teacher as well as of amateur violists in my region, and this is something that's often mentioned. But teachers usually teach what the market asks for. I know two teachers who regard themselves as violists but teach violin almost exclusively because this is what people are booking them for.

-Most violin teachers will also be able to teach you some viola. The basics are quite similar, as you have experienfed yourself. Nevertheless it can be useful to find a dedicated violist for some additional lessons occasionally. Violinists tend to think too violonistic, at least my teacher does, which isn't to helpful from time to time, especially when it gets into fingerings. (His hands are larger than mine, and many shifts away from 1st position are helpful and necessary for me but questionable or even nonsense for him...) But in general we get along very well and he seems to learn something in return - I believe I'm his first and only viola student... But for the holidays when he's not teaching, I've found someone to help me with the viola specifically.

- My viola playing definitely improves my violin playing. And vice versa.

November 6, 2018, 7:41 AM · In my area, there are tons of viola teachers. Nearly all of us also teach violin. That is a necessity for most of us. Some of the violin teachers in your area may actually be violists but list themselves as a violin teacher because of the disparity between the number of people looking for a violin teacher versus looking for a viola teacher.

End of Suzuki violin book 4 is a good switching spot. That is where the repertoire really starts to differ in the Suzuki method books.

November 6, 2018, 8:07 AM · It really depends on the specific experience of the violinist in question whether or not they are able to teach viola competently. Some violinists will have actually studied at least a reasonable amount of viola repertoire and would be competent to teach viola past beginning levels, while others don't even own a viola and/or have only dabbled in a few string quartet viola parts, etc. (I'm personally a violist who also teaches violin, but I will pass students on around the Mozart 3/Kabalevsky level to a teacher who is primarily a violinist, because I haven't studied much violin repertoire past this level.
If your current teacher feels comfortable with teaching viola to you at your current level, you could stick with him/her for now and perhaps ask to be put on a waiting list for the viola teachers you contacted. Like others said above, though don't be put off by teachers who list violin/viola as several of them are probably primarily violists.
Edited: November 6, 2018, 8:24 AM · Ha, my violin teacher is a violist, so if I ever want to switch... Sorry, I know that's an annoying answer. Or maybe it's an OK answer, and your violin teacher can teach viola?
Seriously, though, it doesn't matter too much for me - all I need is a kick every now and then if my posture is bad or a rap on the knuckles if I'm holding the hairy stick wrong. Others may need more instrument-specific guidance.
Edited: November 6, 2018, 8:42 AM · 1) In the amateur world, good violists are more rare than amongst professionals. Real violist teachers are rare.
2) A good violin teacher should be able to adapt to the particular challenges of the viola: firmer fingers more widely spaced, and more sluggish strings under the bow.

I too am a violist with violin students up to high intermediate level. I have even strung my spare viola as a violin to show my slender-handed young ladies how to cope with their full-size violins..

November 6, 2018, 8:42 AM · My teacher works for esta. Perhaps you could email them for advice?
Edited: November 6, 2018, 8:52 AM · I have never had a viola lesson, as far as I can tell violin technique serves pretty well.

When I did my second addition of viola to my "repertoire" of string instrument playing (25 years after my first addition of same, when I was 40 years old) I bought Suzuki VIOLA books 4 - 7 (which was as far as they went at the time) and read through them. Since I had taught violin students from Suzuki books 1 -10 I was familiar with that music and playing the Suzuki viola transcriptions helped adjust my mind to reading the alto clef. I probably performed about half a dozen gigs on viola over the next few years.

About 15 years after that transition I went back to viola again, finally for "real," when I was 80 and I've been playing viola regularly in about 7 monthly ensembles ever since. My pickup sight-read piece for that restart was the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola solo. Since that worked I went on from there.

There are a large number of great viola pieces available on IMSLP. One of the most delightful is the Zelter concerto (it is in E-flat major, as is the Mozart SC, probably the "best" viola key (the "Masonic key," a favorite of Mozart's, I'm told!).

Left hand positioning on a 16-inch viola is very similar to playing a 14-inch violin: the left arm stretch to violin 1st position is the same as viola 3rd position and the finger separations are the same. Viola 1st position is proportional to that. (From playing higher positions you learn this proportionality of various positions and instruments (z.b., cello finger positioning in the 2nd octave of the strings is about the same as viola positioning for the same notes).

It all works well if your arms are long enough and your hands and fingers big enough. But there is no question that fingering the viola C string can be a "stretch" especially in 3rd and higher positions.

Bowing a viola may seem easier than a violin; the average viola bow is ~17% heavier and a little more forearm torque serves you well much of the time.

November 6, 2018, 9:46 AM · I already mentioned above, but could only see it clearly by writing this post... My viola (and violin) teacher is a violinist who was trained as a violinist and whose viola experience is limited to a handful of viola lessons at university. And my additional holiday viola coach is a dedicated violist who teaches 100% violin. Hm...
November 6, 2018, 1:27 PM · As someone who had played violin most of his life and picked up the viola four years ago, I agree with the folks who say you can mostly teach yourself. The differences in technique are subtle, but a good violin teacher can help you with most of them. That said, you should take a look at any conservatories or music schools in your area. I know that where I live, at least one has a one semester course for violinists wanting to learn viola. After you have learned the basic techniques, a violin teacher can help with many of the problems you will run into. My teacher, who does not play viola at all, has been helpful with me in figuring out how to deal with viola problems. Plus, a teacher who plays violin can share the repertoire of violin/viola duos, which is a wonderful repertoire. Good luck and have fun!
November 6, 2018, 1:57 PM · The fundamental technique is the same, so most violin teachers should be able to teach Viola. My experience was the opposite. My first Violin teacher, for the beginning to intermediate levels, was the principal Violist of our local pro. orchestra. I started Viola in college, and had only one short series of lessons with a "real" violist (Chicago SO), which did not change anything in my technique.
Things to know: the clef is the easy part, use the in-between positions more often, avoid stretches by shifting more often. Don't go high on the C-string, the response is very different from the Violin G string.
November 6, 2018, 4:18 PM · The benefits of having a violist as a teacher are in nuances, but also in the fundamentals. Ergonomics is way more important on viola, and wrong size, or improper setup and poor posture can lead to chronic injuries. Nuances ... in bowing technique and sound production. It may be similar, but it is not the same instrument. It takes a lots of experimentation and mindfulness to discover the best viola sound. Here, a few tips from an experienced violists are priceless.
November 6, 2018, 6:13 PM · Tom , but there is a difference I expect between someone still learning the violin at level Suzuki 4 and a mature player who has a lot of experience and history of playing the violin so the experience of picking up the viola might be really different for both and the early intermediate player will not really be in a position to teach oneself, no?
Edited: November 6, 2018, 7:46 PM · Tom's idea for a violin to viola transition course is a good one, and I would consider trying to find one in your area, especially if you can't take viola lessons. I have to agree with Rocky that ergonomics are much more important on the viola than on the violin because it is a bigger and heavier instrument. That said, do remind yourself of the dos and don'ts of posture. I, too, am a violinist who taught myself viola, and it has gone very well so far. Although I would love to take viola lessons, for personal reasons (which I don't wish to go into), it will not happen anytime soon. My violin teacher is by no means a violist, but she is very knowable about technique (which helped my transition immensely), is aware of most of the differences between the two instruments including technique, and has an understanding of how technique differs between violinists with different body types (which I consider very helpful for a violinist teaching viola). She is incredibly supportive of her viola-playing violin students and will help them with viola issues if need be. If she herself cannot help, she will help them to seek the help they need. Bowing is definitely different. I think the most important thing to know is how to get lots of weight into the strings (namely the concept of arm weight) because the viola needs more weight from the bow in order to make a big, full sound. The process of transmitting weight is something that should be taught to violinists as well, and it is basically the same for both instruments. On viola, it is mostly a matter of using more weight, and you will experience a more exaggerated version of the weight transmission process than on the violin. Knowing what to strive for soundwise will help you a lot. In my personal opinion, left hand position and fingering is a very individual thing due to differences in hand structure and the amount the player needs to stretch. In fact, there's actually a fair bit of variation in hand position among violinists (according to my teacher and what she noticed), much more so than you would expect. I would say that overall the left hand position must be more open on the viola in order to reach farther without strain. As to exactly how the player will achieve this, there are several different ways of going about it and it is up to the individual player to choose an approach, or a combination of approaches, that bests suits their hand structure and musical needs. The player may also need to move the thumb around a little more (without necessarily shifting), do slight pivots of the hand (e.g turning that hand to reach with the pinky more often), do micro-shifts or use alternate fingerings (as Joel pointed out). The higher positions are harder to reach so that may need to be approached differently, and there are different approaches among violinists, too. Plus, this is something the OP doesn't have to worry about just yet because he isn't advanced enough yet for that. Bottom line: do what works best for you. For me personally, although I have smallish hands (narrow palms but long fingers), violin fingerings work well for me strain-free most of the time on viola (I use a smallish viola anyway because my arms aren't long enough for the bigger ones). I do have to admit that I do tend to use more of the less-used positions (e.g 2nd) more often on the violin for convenience.

Tammuz, I think that although being more advanced would make it easier to self-learn viola, I think it is totally doable at Suzuki book 4 level since they are well-grounded on the violin already. As mentioned before, the technique is mostly the same anyway, so self-teaching is certainly quite a reasonable option. Of course the subtleties can trip up some people, and if that happens, they should seek help about it. At any rate, do ask your violin teacher if that happens, and go from there.

November 6, 2018, 9:08 PM · Maybe you are having trouble finding a teacher because you typed "vola teacher" into google.
November 6, 2018, 9:23 PM · Voila!
Edited: November 7, 2018, 5:25 AM · Incidentally, Fiddlerman also owns violaman.com. Check it out and maybe you could ask him about his experience with the viola?
November 7, 2018, 1:22 PM · Tammuz - I have no idea how much difference the level of violin playing makes. I suspect not as much as you might think but I leave the answer to someone who has made the switch at an earlier point than I. I think Ella is probably correct.
Edited: November 7, 2018, 1:32 PM · My experience (albeit in the lower reaches of the business) is that moonlighting violinists make the best viola players. On the viola I have no idea what note I'm playing unless it's an open string (even then I have to pause to work it out) and my reaction time is a quarter second longer but unlike most amateur violists I have no fear

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