switching to viola

December 6, 2018, 3:41 PM · my orchestra teacher talked to me today about how one of the former concertmasters at my high school is now the principal violist in a professional symphony and how he thinks I could easily make a career as a violist. I have tried the viola before and my only complaint was that it's heavy, and I think now I could manage it better.
the thing is I have a college audition for the violin soon and I really want to study with their violin professor. if I ever attempted to play viola professionally, would having a violin performance degree be seen as a positive or negative thing? is it possible to do some sort of multi-instrument major or are violin and viola-based performance degrees seen as interchangeable?
I can also already read alto clef so would this be a pretty easy switch if I actually decided to do it down the road?

Replies (38)

December 6, 2018, 3:47 PM · Wellcome to the dark side!!! There are (and were) many violinist/violists: Paganini, Oistrack, Menuhin, Zukerman, Julian Rachlin, Vengerov, etc.
December 6, 2018, 3:50 PM · I know of two people whose undergraduate and graduate degrees are in violin performance, who made the switch and are now playing in well-paying fulltime orchestras. You don't need to add a viola degree if you don't want to. It's nice to have some viola experience on your resume though. If you remain a violin major, maybe audition for the NRO or another summer festival on viola. You can also play chamber music at school as a violist while studying violin.
December 6, 2018, 4:25 PM · What Luis and Mary Ellen said. There is no reason not to pursue viola. It gives you many opportunities for growth and diversifying your repertoire and may open opportunities for chamber music. And, all this applies even if you never decide to go for a symphony orch position with it. There may or may not be better opportunities for violists professionally with orchs; I am not in a position to counsel you on that. But you don't lose anything by becoming a good violist.
December 6, 2018, 5:16 PM · I play and teach both. I'm just careful to finish a practice session with 10 minutes of the "other" instrument.

I also sing tenor, so the (amateur) world is my oyster! I love the "inner voices" of the music.

Viola strengthens my left hand, violin refines my bowing.

December 6, 2018, 5:34 PM · Anna, if you have a private violin teacher you should ask for advice there too. If you are a fine violinist you will probably have the chops to become a really exceptional violist.

More than 30 years ago a young woman played a viola solo with our community orchestra. She had the most exceptional sound and bowing ability - I mean, I still remember! At the time she was a viola student at California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, CA ("CalArts"). Turns out, during high school she had been concertmaster of the Utah All-State Orchestra. That impressed me because I realized how much competition there was among violinists at that level, and how clever her decision to move to viola might become.

Viola can be physically tougher than violin - but you rarely have to play in such high positions.

Good luck to you.

Edited: December 6, 2018, 5:59 PM · All that sounds like fine advice. I would only add that my general sense (not knowing much about these things, admittedly) is that the days of viola being somehow an easier career trajectory are over. That cat is out of the bag.

Practicing viola will improve your violin playing. That's one good reason to do it. To learn the clef, get a set of viola studies for which you have never seen the corresponding violin studies (Hofmann, for example, are good for this because they are relentlessly unmusical so you won't be able to predict what comes next by ear. You have to read.)

December 6, 2018, 5:49 PM · Note that viola is as competitive as violin today, and you'll be expected to play a lot more modern music. The viola world has changed significantly in recent decades.

So avoiding competition is no longer a good reason to pick up the viola. On the other hand, playing both instruments opens up a lot of opportunities.

That said, you do not have to major in viola performance to be a credible violist. Some conservatory-level violin teachers actually require all their students to play both violin and viola.

December 6, 2018, 7:11 PM · One further thought. All of the great composers who played violin also played viola and preferred viola when they were playing in a chamber or orchestral group. So, to me this says something powerful about the virtues of knowing how to play the viola well, leaving aside whatever professional advantages it may have.
December 6, 2018, 7:25 PM · I'd like to add: I'm acquainted with one professional violist (a regional orchestra principal violist) who was a violin performance major as an undergrad. She was required by her violin professor to learn viola in addition to violin -- the professor was one of those who had all his students learn viola because he believed it was a less forgiving instrument and would improve his students' violin technique. She ended up switching to viola mainly for the challenge of playing a more difficult instrument, then got a master's degree in viola performance and has played viola exclusively since then.
December 6, 2018, 7:49 PM · Being able to play viola as well will give you a lot more opportunities both as a chamber musician and as an orchestral player. In many conservatories, violinists are required to pick up at least basic viola skills.

So you can major in violin performance but if you like playing viola, also add a significant viola component to your regimen. Note that if you are auditioning for a professional orchestra, no one will care if you are primarily a violinist or violist; it's all about the audition.

Edited: December 6, 2018, 9:40 PM · Anna, if I were you, I would ask myself: do I love the sound of viola more than the sound of violin?
There are many motivational factors, such as the prospect of employment, but at the end of the day, if you chose an instrument for purely practical reasons, will you be happy?
What do you want to tell the world by either instrument? Would viola be a better medium than the violin?
There have been many discussions about the benefits of playing viola and many of us bi-instrumental now.... it will enrich you as a musician and especially as a chamber musician, but again, do you love the instrument enough to dedicate time to excel in music making?
December 6, 2018, 10:15 PM · To be clear, it's never going to be "easy", but switching to viola isn't a bad thing at all.
Edited: December 7, 2018, 2:08 AM · It's too soon to know if I'll switch, but drawing the tonalities out of these instruments is so satisfying, that I'm sure I'll buy a viola one day (but the counter-argument is - stick with violin, as drawing tonalities out of it is more arcane). If I join an amateur orchestra that needs violas, that will be a strong incitement. And to start ASAP in order to learn the alto clef is a pretty good incitement too.

One of the best things you can do at any university is connect with a teacher whose intellectual and emotional wavelength you are on. But I'm not going to extrapolate to music - you might end up playing banjo in that case!

Edited: December 7, 2018, 6:37 AM · I'm sure the OP plays far better then I ever will, but in my local area there is a huge shortage of amateur violists, so even though I far prefer to play the violin, I am called upon all the time for my meager viola skills. Too bad most of the "opportunities" are things like community orchestras that don't pay. It's okay though -- I make reasonable side-money on the piano!

Andrew wrote, "One of the best things you can do at any university is connect with a teacher whose intellectual and emotional wavelength you are on." I know what he means, but I found, throughout my education, that the best such connections were to professors whose intellectual wavelengths I aspired to be on. The ones whose creative and intellectual powers were far beyond my own. Maybe it's because I was arrogant enough to think I would get there too, if only I worked as hard. But if you meet someone who makes you say, "I want to learn how to think / work / create / communicate like him or her," that's a good choice for a mentor. This method has served me very well.

Edited: December 7, 2018, 7:20 AM · I'm not convinced amateur orchestras reflect the numbers at the professional level. For one, in my experience the average age of community orchestra musicians means community orchestras reflect the instruments people were learning 40-50 years ago. Meanwhile, in six of the eight community orchestras I've played in over the years, the viola section has been by far the youngest of the string sections for most or all of my time in those orchestras. It hasn't been unusual for the entire viola section to be below the orchestra's median age. In one case, for half a season all four violists were among the orchestra's six youngest members. This suggests that the days of violists being in demand at amateur level may soon be over as well; there is now a steady stream of good violists being trained that may not have existed before.

(It's also not a rule that violists are always in short supply at amateur level. I greatly prefer to play the viola, but I've been asked to switch to violin in two different orchestras before, and in a third orchestra I played in, another violist was asked to switch to violin. For the first 12 years I played in orchestras, I never played in a viola section smaller than 8.)

But again, playing two instruments always opens doors.

December 7, 2018, 12:10 PM · The Viola shortage only exists at the student-amateur-small town -semi-pro level. Any audition for a vacancy at a fully professional orchestra will attract lots of candidates. At the last audition I did (the very last!) there were three vacancies in the viola section of a budget class B pro. orchestra. There were 20 candidates. We were all warming up in the same large room so I was able hear all of them. I estimated that I played better than one person, and I definitely had the cheapest instrument in the room. After picking their 3 winners, there would be enough left over to form 2 complete pro-level viola sections. Most play on 16 inch instruments. Bigger than that makes it very hard to play the modern repertoire, (R. Strauss, Shostokovitch, etc.) The 15 1/2 inch violas, unless they are very expensive, don't have the big, rich C-string tone needed to win the audition. Playing both instruments can help the technique for each one, and makes you more employable.
December 7, 2018, 12:48 PM · My cello teacher was also a violist, although he didn't teach that instrument. Amongst other things, he regularly deputised on cello or viola at professional level for any visiting pro symphony orchestra that needed one in a hurry.
Edited: December 7, 2018, 1:08 PM · "Most play on 16 inch instruments. Bigger than that makes it very hard to play the modern repertoire, (R. Strauss, Shostokovitch, etc.) The 15 1/2 inch violas, unless they are very expensive, don't have the big, rich C-string tone"
Interesting to know. I told my teacher of a 14" viola I had seen and she said I could handle a 16". I didn't ask her about measuring myself. She plays a 15", made in 1780 (in case you wondered about the strange size).
Edited: December 8, 2018, 1:22 PM · Great advice above. My #1 suggestion, like Rocky mentioned, is "follow your heart". Do try the viola, and get some playing opportunities on it, and do try to get good at it. It is totally up to you whether or not you want to stick with one or play both. I have to agree that the viola world has changed significantly in the past few decades. That said, it's possible that depending on the prominence of the orchestra, viola slots may attract somewhat fewer candidates than violin or cello slots, but even then, the competition would be pretty intense. At any rate, even if there was a viola shortage, it's best to follow your heart no matter what. After all, you'll be happier that way.

It's possible that one day, there will no longer be a shortage of amateur violists, but this day is very, very far in the future. If you notice a significant number of violas in an amateur orchestra, I think this is purely coincidental and this is a purely regional phenomenon. It sounds like Andrew Hsieh lives in a region with lots of amateur violists while Paul lives somewhere with a severe shortage of violists.

December 8, 2018, 2:33 AM · Most solo violinists who also play viola seem to adopt a smaller instrument, which is understandable for technical reasons although regrettable because they often end up sounding pretty much like themselves on violin. Chamber music players, on the other hand, seem to go for sound quality above facility; in the context of a string quartet I think you really need the fruity sound of a 16" or larger instrument. What implications this has for proper finger technique I couldn't say but although I have short fingers I feel quite comfortable clambering around a big viola.
Edited: December 8, 2018, 3:55 AM · @steve, I like what you say about chamber music. In fact there's a pretty big distance from the viola to the cello, and it makes sense for the violas to be big.
December 8, 2018, 4:09 AM · And of course the viola is often required to hold the bass line
December 8, 2018, 4:41 AM · Some permanent violists did violin at conservatory. Primrose, for one, and John Dexter of the Manhattan Quartet more recently. And one of my teachers spent so long as concertmaster of his orchestra at Juilliard that they made him move to principal viola.
December 8, 2018, 9:37 AM · I have longish arms (36" sleeves) and fairly big hands (XL gloves) so my opinions have to be considered in that context.

Anyhow, I moved from a long lifetime of violin to viola almost 4 years ago because of right arm problems. I have found (and measured) the following:

The elbow angle playing a 16" viola in 3rd position is the same as playing violin in 1st position.

The finger spacing playing a 16" viola in 3rd position is the same as playing violin in 1st position.

If you have learned well (instinctively?) the relationships between elbow angle and finger spacing for violin - playing viola is just an extension of these relationships. And, by the way, these relationships also hold for playing cello - in a "bigger way."

December 8, 2018, 11:31 AM · I don't think all violinists/violists necessarily use smaller violas. In my opinion, players must use a size that is comfortable, and those who use smaller violas use them for a variety of reasons: they're easier to play, they're small in stature, etc. I'm a little biased here as a violinist/violist who is small in stature (slightly under 5'2" tall), but I think smaller violas are becoming more common and good ones are becoming easier to come by because of advances in technology, advocacy, ad efforts made by makers. I actually think this is a good thing, as this makes the viola more accessible.
Edited: December 10, 2018, 1:11 AM · Similarly, I consider myself a violist first, and will not play violin unless there is a severe shortage of violinists. But I play a smaller viola (15.75") because, even though I'm 5'7" and my arm is easily long enough for a 16.5" viola, I have extremely short fingers with only a 7.5" hand span. I play the largest viola on which it is possible for me to play an octave double-stop in first position on the C/G strings.

(Hand size is also why Andrew Victor considers the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata to be an intermediate piece while I consider it on par with the Walton and Bartok concertos. For me to play the lower-string octaves in the third movement comfortably, even a 14" viola might be a bit too large.)

Nonetheless, my viola is the second-largest in an elite/semi-pro community orchestra where I am the only violist without a music degree. The only viola larger than mine is a 16.75" viola whose owner stands 6'3". No fewer than three violists in that orchestra play instruments that are 15" or smaller.

December 10, 2018, 1:34 AM · My violas have body length of 15.75", but a vibrating string length of only 14", similar to many 15" violas.

If the viola is not valuable, one can reduce the string length by half an inch by moving bridge and soundpost forward and and moving the nut backward. The tone is not degraded, in fact the slightly lower tension is often beneficial.

December 10, 2018, 2:56 AM · I think it all depends on what you want to do with your viola. I'm entirely self-taught on that instrument (you'd have to be a fool to take lessons from me) and to start with confined myself to quartets, other small chamber groups and bit-parts in mixed recitals where I could choose pieces I was comfortable with. Later on in my community orchestra I switched from violin to viola and rose to the vertiginous height of deputy principal section-leader before deciding my reactions were too slow to bring it off consistently (does a switcher ever get really fluent moving between alto and treble clef?).

Fifteen years ago I bought a 17" instrument from Yitamusic and was amazed at the tonal difference as compared with my previous anonymous 16". OK, it was a bit of a stretch in the lower reaches, but actually involved a lot less effort because of the extra resonance. I've recently invested rather more dosh on a 16.25" which achieves even more tonally speaking, but I suspect you'd have to spend considerably more again to get the same from a 15.5" instrument.

December 10, 2018, 7:21 AM · Playing confort depends not only of the size, but also on the weight of the instrument, string length, ribs, upper bouts width etc.

Here my two cents about choosing a good viola, as a viola maker.

Avoid monochrome instruments. Look for many colours and contrast, you can have that only when you have a good dynamic range.

With a good viola you can work with the bow to create colours. In most violas you will change your bowing and nothing will happen.

With a good viola when you draw your bow from the

fingerboard towards the bridge increasing the weight you will notice a big change in volume and colour of the sound. Just good instruments offer that.

The viola must not choke when you play FFF near the bridge.

Avoid hollow sound, look for a focused sound.

Clarity is important too, when playing quick passages the notes should not mix.

Check the instrument in the upper regions of the C and G strings. You may not be using the 7th positions of the C string now but as you start studying more difficult pieces you will have to do that. Just good violas will sound good in high positions of the C string, in general you will have many wolves and rasped notes there.

Playing confort: not only the size matters here but also string length, upper bouts width, rib height, weight, feeling "under the chin". Try to play in high positions of the C string.

Look for a quick response too.

December 11, 2018, 2:06 AM · Does anyone play shoulder restless on viola? I play restless violin and have always wondered what this would mean regarding viola size. I plan to get one in the next few years to play with family music-making.
December 11, 2018, 5:04 AM · The left arm is more stretched out, making an efficient left hand shape harder to achieve. Also we use the lower strings more often, and they require a firmer pressure from the fingers.
We may need to tilt he viola more on its axis: I have 30° on violin, 45° on viola.
We may want a wider vibrato, in spite of the wider neck, splayed fingers, and greater pressure.
We may not reach the higher positions without the left thumb leaving the neck altogether.
So, all told, I suspect most of us violists use some kind of frequent shoulder support from necessity more than from habit!
December 11, 2018, 6:43 AM · I can play violin with or without a shoulder rest (I play restless when playing Baroque or Classical), but it is absolutely impossible for me to play viola without a shoulder rest. Yes, there is a point where it will balance without a shoulder rest -- but with my short fingers I have a hard time stopping the C string at all if I hold my viola there!
December 13, 2018, 7:06 PM · Jason, there are a number of violists who play restless, including at least one forum member. I think it all comes down to personal preference. If u want to play viola without a shoulder rest, go ahead and give it a try. Do expect some challenges with the bigger and heavier instrument, but if it fits your built nicely and your technique and posture argood, that should put you on the right track . A chinrest that truly suits you will make a world of difference.
December 13, 2018, 7:53 PM · There is much more great solo literature for the violin than for the viola, and more varied, so it is well worth keeping on studying the violin. There is only one situation in which I have found that playing the viola can adversely affect my violin playing, and that is when I'm playing exactly the same music on each instrument, and this music demands exquisite subtlety of expression. Even in this case, I'm sure that more practice would remove this problem.
December 14, 2018, 6:48 AM · One more Centime d'Euro..

The 45° tilt (around the axis) that I need can be obtained with a small pad under the bass side of the viola, but on the collarbone rather than in front of it. No shoulder support..

December 14, 2018, 12:20 PM · I don't think finger length is necessarily the limiting factor in moving from violin to the viola - the width and suppleness of the left hand as a whole are, in my opinion, more important*. As a cellist I have no problem with playing D-D across the C and G strings in the first position. On the violin I can comfortably reach from A to C-nat across the G and D strings in the first position, so I wouldn't expect a problem with an octave reach in the first position on the viola, depending on its size of course - but playing the viola, for me, is an experience yet to come ;).

While we're on the subject of big reaches (NOT stretches!) on stringed instruments, the other day I came across an orchestral transcription of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" in which, in the first movement the first violins are required to play in rapid succession three C's: the first is the C on the D string, the second C is on the A string an octave above the first C, and the final C is on the E string an octave above the second C. The hand pattern for placing those three C's is actually playable with thought, practice and prayer if you first place the top two C's with the 2nd finger on the A, the 4th finger on the top C on the E string, and then reaching back with the index finger to place the C on the D string. Placing the lowest C first on the D and then reaching upwards for the others is more problematic.

* the length of the 2nd finger of my left hand (the longest) is 3.25", and the width of the palm of that hand is 3.5".

Edited: December 14, 2018, 1:25 PM · On the viola, an octave on the upper strings is not really a stretch for anyone, but on the lower strings, the body of the instrument makes it more difficult to swing the left elbow over. The cello doesn't have that obstruction.

And, Trevor, I wish my hands were as big as yours! The longest finger of my left hand is just under 3" and I have a very short 4th finger (about 2.2"). I literally don't know a single adult whose fingers are shorter than mine, even though I'm not especially short (5'7").

Of course, I'm playing a 15.75" viola anyway.

December 14, 2018, 2:44 PM · Hence The Tilt....

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