Viola to Cello transition?

January 23, 2019, 9:31 AM · Hi everyone!=)

I'm new here! I've been lurking for months, and now I've finally decided to post.
I'm a female adult beginner viola student (28). Started last year having no background knowledge of music. I've always loved string instruments, and last year I finally decided to take up viola.

I'm a beginner (7 months in), so I'm basically just getting to know the instrument and what it entails. But since I started I've been having neck and shoulder pain . I did notice that I was using my chin to grip my viola and lately I've been working on changing that. I also changed my SR and my CR.
I've always had an issue with my neck, and now I'm finding that the viola is worsening it.

As I'm getting to learn what playing the viola is like, I'm seeing all these 'new' things that I wasn't aware of before taking it up. I really don't want this neck pain to become a serious injury in the long run.

My main concern is, have I chosen the wrong instrument for a pre-existing 'neck condition'? As I'm an an adult beginner I know my music days will be "shorter-lived", so I feel I should consider these medical issues, since I would like to play an instrument that allows me to play longer.

Apart from working on my technique and posture, I guess I want to ask you from your own personal experience. Have you tried playing both? Did either of the two cause you more pain or injuries than the other?

Anything you can tell me or advice you have will be more than welcome! Thank you!

Replies (22)

January 23, 2019, 9:46 AM · There is absolutely no question, I believe, that the viola is the most difficult of the stringed instruments and that the cello is the easiest -- in terms of sheer ergonomics. The cello is a wonderful instrument. Good luck with it! Stop back after you've learned a few pieces so that we can congratulate you on your accomplishment.
Edited: January 23, 2019, 10:27 AM · Denise,
I am a long, long time amateur string player - violin, viola and cello. Since passing my 80th birthday more than 4 years ago my violin chops have depleted rapidly - and I think I am in a position to answer your query.

Viola is the most taxing instrument, physically. Fortunately much of the ensemble and a good bit of the solo viola music avoids the highest positions. One other multi-instrument player I know also has physical problems with viola - it's just too big - it hurts! Unfortunately, viola is what I play mostly in orchestra and other ensembles these past 4 years. However, I have enough experience to know how much pain and partial paralysis I can tolerate and can usually shake out problems during short rests in the music or between movements.

Cello, which I've played since I was 14 is physically the most comfortable (as Paul Deck has stated) but virtually all cello music requires one to become comfortable moving the left hand all over the place for music that would comfortably remain in one position on either violin or viola. So cellists really have to become "muscle memory-familiar" with the entire span of the instrument - essentially 2-octaves up every string (except maybe the C string - which most affordable cellos have problems with anyway).

I would always recommend cello as a better starting instrument for older people. For most people it is quite ergonomic. When I was teaching, my oldest student started cello at 60, next oldest was 50. One was an experienced piano teacher (but left handed) the other had no prior musical experience. They did about equally well. One cello starter about your age did amazingly well (she had prior experience with clarinet and sax and sight singing) and in 10 months she was into Suzuki book 6 - and then, unfortunately, she moved away.

One thing you should be aware of - on the cello, if you go far enough you will eventually encounter reading music in 4 effectively different clefs, viola 2 clefs, violin music is all written in treble clef.

January 23, 2019, 11:33 AM · One thing that is missing from your post: do you have a teacher? If you do not, getting a teacher might help you learn to play in a way which avoids the problems you are developing. If you have a teacher, as her/him why you are having these problems and what you can do to avoid them. Then, try for a few months and see if things get better. I am a violinist/violist, and the viola is certainly the more taxing of the two. I am not in a position to comment on the cello, so I defer to Andrew on that. Good luck!
January 23, 2019, 11:47 AM · Thank you for your replies! I appreciate you taking the time.

Andrew Victor, your answer was really helpful. Apart from giving me more insight on the cello, it corroborates my doubts about the viola putting a lot of strain on the body.
Regarding the clefs, I know it's a nightmare, but I'd approach it having that in mind. When I finally decided to learn a string instrument, I knew I was going to have to be very patient, determined and practice a lot! haha It really is a long process, but a lovely one.

I love the sound of the viola, I really do. But I also like the cello, and what I want the most is playing music. I very much regret not having started earlier, so I don't want to waste any more time and pick an instrument that will allow me to keep playing into an older age (as someone who first started at 28).

I think I will try to get a cello and see how it feels. I'll probably won't ditch the viola altogether, though, but maybe turn it into my secondary instrument?

Both your answers help me make up my mind! Thank you very much! =)

January 23, 2019, 11:54 AM · Hi Tom! Thanks!

Yes, I do have a teacher! I got myself a teacher even before I got my viola. She helped me pick one.
I have mentioned this to her, and she suggested I tried a few things. I even changed my SR (from a Kun to a Wolf Forte Secondo) and the pain got even worse. I do play with a lot of tension (in my everyday life , I always have a tendency to lift my shoulders), though, and I am trying to change that. In order not to clamp the viola with my jaw, I now have to balance it with my left arm and hand, and find it hard to move my hand freely. All this is technique, I suspect.
But my main concern is that I already suffer from neck issues, and I don't want them to get worse and cause damage in the future.

January 23, 2019, 2:00 PM · I have to agree that viola is the most taxing orchestral string instrument ergonomics-wise. In your case, the cello may be a better option, but if you really want to keep playing viola, you should try to find one that is relatively small and light. Also, you could try some sort of movement retraining like yoga or Alexander Technique so you can better learn to align yourself.
Edited: January 23, 2019, 9:13 PM · Viola and Cello are so different, both fingering and bowing, that I would not call it a transition. they are just different. Cello is the best string instrument for late starters, unless you are big and strong enough to try the bass. Viola can be physically hazardous. I recently did something to my left shoulder, did months of physical therapy, and down-sized to a 15 1/2 viola.
January 23, 2019, 5:02 PM · My viola suite "professionals in the last few years of their careers"!
15.75" body, but a vibrating string length of 14".
January 23, 2019, 5:54 PM · And also, according to your post, you say the wolf shoulder rest caused you more pain than the Kun. Maybe you should explore other options.

PS: I am neither an oldie nor someone with a history of injury or pain. I am a small female person who comfortably plays a 15.5" viola with average or even large dimensions. i'm not totally sure about the string length, but I think it's anywhere from 36 to 37 cm. Keep in mind that I have slender hands but long, flexible fingers, so I think it's totally possible to manage a viola as a small person as long as your arms are long enough. It just poses more challenges.

January 24, 2019, 4:23 AM · I have heard that there is something called a vertical viola, that is 20" long and played vertically. Maybe it worth a try as well? Sadly I have never seen one being sold can be tried in the store.
Edited: January 24, 2019, 8:58 AM · Never abandon the viola! The most noble of the stringed instruments!

Shar and Johnson have aids to help with left hand support to help get used to balancing support of the left hand along with freedom of movement.

Have you also tried perhaps a taller chinrest? If you are lifting your shoulder to try and secure your instrument, perhaps there is a bit too much space between your jaw and the chinrest.

I'm a big fan of the Wittner adjustable chinrest. You can change height and angle using the different spacers.

It is marketed as a center mount, but I use mine side mounted and it works great.

A shoulder rest is only part of the support system, for proper use, a well fitted chinrest is also required. Playing without a shoulder rest also is optimized with a properly fitted chinrest.

Good luck! Violin/viola playing is by its nature not ergonomically designed. We must all learn how to best adapt to holding these beautiful instruments without hurting ourselves!

P.S.- 28 is YOUNG!!!! I started at 45....



January 24, 2019, 9:02 AM · Playing the violin is hard with neck problems but playing viola is twise as hard. I would say switch to cello, some necks just cannot tolerate violin or viola.
Edited: January 24, 2019, 9:27 AM · I agree with Andy Victor about the range of the cello. It has naturally a very wide range -- especially in comparison to the viola -- and when you are learning as a student you will have things put in front of you like etudes by Popper and transcriptions of violin pieces that will have you high in the "nosebleed" section of your fingerboard. And that can be physically taxing too until you develop a callus on the side of your thumb. This actually is one thing that is easier for adults. My daughter struggled with that for a long time because she was ready to play that stuff at a young age but her poor thumb was so tiny that it just hurt to hold down the string. She is a little older now (12) and she got a new cello so it's progressing. But she can still only practice Popper Papillon for 10 minutes at a time.

But -- if your goal is to play simpler chamber music and join a community orchestra, that music will involve some "thumb position" but not nearly as much high-and-screechy stuff as you will encounter in "student" pieces. In my community orchestra, nearly all the cellists started as adults, while nearly all the violinists started as children.

If you transition from viola or violin to the cello, the first thing you will have to deal with is that the cello has a different fingering scheme because the strings are so long that you can't reach the intervals otherwise. So you start shifting earlier and forevermore you will shift more than violists have to. Once you are through Suzuki Book 2 or so, however, you'll find all of that quite natural and logical.

January 24, 2019, 9:51 AM · Things can work in the other direction - from cello as first instrument to violin decades later. I found that facility with the whole length of the cello fingerboard (the Kodaly Sonata op 8 finishes with the 3rd B on the A-string played ff as a fingered note!) transferred to a similar familiarity with the violin fingerboard sooner than I should have expected - I had good teachers on both instruments.
January 24, 2019, 3:33 PM · Trevor that's an interesting account for sure, thanks for sharing that. Not sure how many adult beginners are going to wind up playing Kodaly but, of course, one never knows.
January 27, 2019, 11:50 AM · I had to put in my two cents, struck like others by the idea of 28 being young! I started violin at 54 or something like that, and switched to viola a few years ago. If your teacher helped you choose the viola, then I assume she chose the correct size. I actually found viola more comfortable than violin (even though I'm small; my viola is 15") because my neck is long. I hope your teacher has been stressing posture and comfort all along. My violin teacher always said that "chin rest" is a misnomer--that it's actually a jaw rest. But health should always be of primary concern. If you switch to cello, best wishes! I've been tempted to at least try it. It has such a beautiful sound and such a huge range. And lots of gorgeous music written for it. A general comment: my viola teacher has been teaching me some cello positions lately because my hands are so small. Playing D-sharp on the G string while keeping my hand in first position was impossible.
January 27, 2019, 7:01 PM · With reference to my remark about the Kodaly Op 8 for cello, here is a link to a video of a recital by Janos Starker in Japan in 1988. The Kodaly starts at 30', and is preceded by Bach's 3rd suite for cello and an unaccompanied sonata for cello by Cassado.

January 28, 2019, 1:26 AM · Paul, mate, fella, sure Popper wrote some beginner etudes, and music too, but what was all that about "thumb position"?

Calluses? Only press the thumb to the fingerboard when it is playing a note. The thumb must be "in position" to play, but there without tension. And then, lean on the thumb with the arm, when the thumb actually stops the string on the fingerboard.

And, not once, never, have I had a nosebleed by playing to the top of the fingerboard on a cello. The full range of the fingerboad is available to the cellist after about three years, and there is nothing medically detrimental about scooting up to the top G.

Go, play cello, all of us, I say.

January 30, 2019, 11:02 PM · Carlene Hutchinson built an alto violin, which has been referred to as a vertical viola. Yo Yo Ma has played one in concert. Google "Yo Yo Ma vertical viola" for some articles.
Edited: January 31, 2019, 10:47 AM · What appears to be the most informative result coming out of a "Yo Yo Ma vertical viola" search is an article by the Baltimore Sun. Unfortunately, Baltimore Sun is, for reasons that are unclear to me, unable to permit people in Europe (as I am) to access their website. I have had this problem a couple of times before with US-based newspapers. Anyone have a solution?
February 2, 2019, 11:49 PM · Oh wow-- that's the first time I've heard of a v.commie having such problems. Sorry. Here's a parsimonious but informative link to try:
Also various wikipedia articles such as Vertical_viola.
And the following is Ma's performance of the Bartok
Viola Concerto played with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra from the New York Album, supposedly played on the alto violin:

Here is an interesting quote from Ma in the Sun article: "The cello is too cultured," Ma says. "The Bartok's a tragic work, and it needs the viola's suffocating cry." If it doesn't violate any copyright laws, maybe someone who _can_ access the article and also send it to themself might make it available to you? Unfortunately my e-mail setup won't allow it.

February 3, 2019, 8:05 AM · I did not have any pre-exisitng health condition when I picked up viola 4 years ago... and it made me become aware of all posture issues I had neglected while playing the violin!
It takes some time to find the best combination of accessories (CR and/or SR). Some violas have quite high ribs so SR may cause more damage. The shape of CR may limit you in choosing the best way to hold the instrument, etc, etc... How big is your instrument? How experienced your teacher is? Is she viola or violin teacher?

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