Learning both Violin and Viola

January 22, 2019, 4:08 PM · My oldest student has expressed and interest in learning the Viola as well as continuing with the Violin. His logic is that there is more demand for Violists and more competition for Violinist chairs. He plays well, is quite smart, occasionally lazy (what teenagers aren't?) I have a Violist who is willing to provide lessons. Oh yes, he actually likes the sound of the Viola.

I know there are more than a few double-majors here so I'm just wondering what pitfalls might be expected.

Replies (13)

January 22, 2019, 4:45 PM · All the violinists in my son's precollege program are required to learn viola. The main reason for this is they only accept really high level students, and often only take 2-3 violists who meet their standards, so they need more violas for chamber music and orchestra. But it is an excellent skill for all of them to have, and I highly recommend it.

In general, though, most of them eventually determine a priority instrument. A few do switch fully to viola. Most stay on violin and only play viola as needed. I've also heard of some who switch after undergrad.

I would say the main pitfall is that unless the student turns mostly to viola, he will be scorned by the viola world as an interloper. Obviously, he may also end up with too much material to practice if he is going full force on both instruments. Other than that, there really aren't pitfalls.

January 22, 2019, 4:45 PM · Tentatively I say "why not?"

But how old is this "oldest student," how advanced on violin and do you anticipate any difficulty reading the alto clef?

Edited: January 22, 2019, 5:15 PM · I mean, it's just a big violin in a different clef. Easy peasy.

I can't see any violin student needing a separate teacher for viola. There is no difference in technique, only a little bit of new repertoire (which is interchangeable anyways!).

January 22, 2019, 5:51 PM · I'd say there are only benefits, and it's not a hard transition for any student who has reached the point of playing in 3rd position. Many conservatory-level violin teachers require their students to also play viola. The benefits to playing both include a better ear for intonation, because you can't rely entirely on muscle memory when switching between instruments, and better bowing technique, because the player has to maintain agility while digging into the string more on a viola.

The repertoire only starts to differ significantly at advanced levels, so a different teacher is probably not required. (That said, it would help for the teacher to be fluent in alto clef.)

Edited: January 22, 2019, 7:20 PM · I play both equally: violin for solo concerts and viola for chamber music. There are soo many benefits to playing both, so I'm very happy for your student!

One thing I would definitely advise him NOT to do, is to focus mainly on viola and leave the violin on the side. Anything more than 60/40 in favor of viola can be detrimental in the long term. This should only be done after he is at least 20, when he has a very solid violin technique and can solve problems on his own. There are very few good young violists compared to violinists (I know people will all come out and contest this point but I really don't care). The viola repertoire is challenging in its own way, but it is absolutely no comparision to the violin repertoire, so your student needs to be playing a lot of the main violin rep to get his fingers fit and in shape. I am not saying this with bias as a violinist nor violist, but as a player of both. The 'viola sound' of course needs to be learnt, but it requires much less work than earning the elasticity and nimbleness of a violinists hands. I would venture to say that it is almost impossible for a serious student of 22 who has only been playing viola his whole life, to switch to violin and be exceptional, whereas the opposite is absolutely possible.

Edited: January 23, 2019, 6:10 PM · Some great advice above. There are no pitfalls to playing both violin and viola unless you're really time-crunched and don't have the time to practice both. There are many people who study multiple instruments on an equal basis and some even play two totally different instruments equally well. The technique is mostly the same with subtle differences, which are important if you really want to sound good. I think it's really important to determine your student's goals as a violist. Unless he's really struggling with the transition or he really wants to study the viola repertoire, a separate viola teacher is not required. I think that playing both is a great idea as others have said above, and it will surely open more doors. It is always possible to study one while playing the other as more “for fun" instrument on a regular basis. I would say let him play with the viola for a bit and see what he wants to do with it from there. Violin teachers can help viola-playing students with viola issues if you can if need be. The clef is relatively easy to teach yourself.
January 22, 2019, 9:04 PM · I've heard it said that it's okay for kids to start supplementing violin with a little bit of viola once they are big enough to play a full size, but if a kid is going to seriously play viola in the future, they shouldn't focus on it until their violin technique is already mature -- Romantic concerto level.
Edited: January 23, 2019, 6:14 PM · Lydia, I'd say that one can give up violin for viola anytime, but if one wishes to play both, he/she needs to wait until he/she is fully grounded on the violin (that means being able to shift and do some vibrato) or otherwise instrument mix-up issues may arise. You do not have to be big enough for a full size viola in order to start playing. There are small kids who do play viola, and they either use a real small viola or a restrung violin. Of course these small violas don't sound as good as full size ones, but they have pretty much the same pitfalls as fractional violins and cellos, anyway.
January 22, 2019, 11:18 PM · I'm with Lydia. Also violas less than 15.5" usually sound like crap anyway.

The student's rationale of there being less competition may be true at the community-orchestra level but it's not true any longer at the conservatoire level above. The cat's out of that bag.

January 23, 2019, 1:23 PM · Thanks to everyone for the responses. Now to answer some of the questions:

He's a High School Freshman and has been playing for five years. He is moving up to fifth position and beyond, but that means he needs a new teacher as I can no longer demonstrate those positions due to arthritic hands, shoulder issues, et cetera. So he's moving on anyway. The teacher he is moving to plays both instruments.

He is very bright and has already deciphered the Alto Clef by himself.

Conservatory isn't in his future. While he wants to play through college and after he is looking towards a degree and career in business. No aspirations to become a professional musician. Playing in a community orchestra as an adult is also one of his aspirations.

His hands are a bit larger than mine (and I have a diminished fourth metacarpal which makes long stretches difficult.

He does want to play both but seems to have done the supply/demand calculation.

The bottom line is that nobody seems to know of any pitfalls and that makes me happy.

January 23, 2019, 2:12 PM · James you are so right.
January 23, 2019, 4:47 PM · After an hour on "one" instrument I like to do 10 minutes on the "other".

As the fourth finger should stay curved on the viola to have sufficient strength and flexibility, the other fingers must open out backwards. For a flexible but firm first finger, I will shift into half position more often than on the violin.

Edited: January 23, 2019, 6:07 PM · I also like to keep a curver 4th finger on viola, as it helps with vibrato and accuracy. Unlike Adrian who has proportionally short fingers, I have proportionally long fingers, so I don't need to do anything special to maintain a curved pinky on viola. I also shift into half position more often on viola because I hate high 4s so much. I can play them, but they just feel plain awkward. I can switch back and forth no problems in any circumstance. adrian previously mentions that he has two separate sets of reflexes in both hands for violin and viola, and I am the same way. When I was transitioning from violin to viola, playing violin did not adversely affect the transitioning process.

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