switching to viola
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?
Wellcome to the dark side!!! There are (and were) many violinist/violists: Paganini, Oistrack, Menuhin, Zukerman, Julian Rachlin, Vengerov, etc.
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.
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.
I play and teach both. I'm just careful to finish a practice session with 10 minutes of the "other" instrument.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Anna, if I were you, I would ask myself: do I love the sound of viola more than the sound of violin?
To be clear, it's never going to be "easy", but switching to viola isn't a bad thing at all.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
"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"
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.
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.
@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.
And of course the viola is often required to hold the bass line
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.
I have longish arms (36" sleeves) and fairly big hands (XL gloves) so my opinions have to be considered in that context.
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.
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.
My violas have body length of 15.75", but a vibrating string length of only 14", similar to many 15" violas.
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?).
Playing confort depends not only of the size, but also on the weight of the instrument, string length, ribs, upper bouts width etc.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
One more Centime d'Euro..
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 ;).
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.
Hence The Tilt....