Taking up viola
I recently took the plunge and rented a viola. I came to violin with a cello background, and the viola seemed like the "just right" instrument for me. And that's mostly the case. Just about everything "clicks" more for me (even bowing, strangely) than with violin - except the left hand.
The viola is a 16". So far, my left hand is just not liking the stretched-out feeling of first position, and if I add in an extended 4th finger - ouch!
My question to others who've made the switch: does it get more comfortable as you get used to it, like any physical activity? How long should I try to stick it out before going to a 15.5"? It's now been a little over a month.
Set up your hand balanced around the third finger, and stretch back for fingers 1&2. If you set up around finger 1 and then try and stretch up for the other three, it will be quite a stretch indeed.
Craig's point about fourth finger being a problem is a good one, particularly if you are a violist. I am a violinist who took up viola about 5 years ago. One of the differences between the two instruments is that, given the larger size of the viola (whether it is a 16" or a 15.5"), you tend to have to move your hand around a lot more while playing than if you play violin. You cannot simply keep your left hand stationary while playing, and that can be true even if you are staying in the same position. So, that's one way to address the issue and see what happens. You may also want to find a teacher to help you with this and other issues. As my first teacher pointed out, violists spend a lot more time than violinists in 1/2 and second position, which helps address some of the issues.
It's not necessarily the size as much as the string length, how the bouts are shaped, etc. You may just have an instrument with a longer string length or large bouts. I have a lovely 15.5 viola with a very large upper bout, smaller lower bout, and a shorter string length. I would try a few more instruments to see if you can find one with a better fit. Having said that, you definitely have to make adjustments with the left hand to balance well.
Good advice so far. My hands are not THE Largest (I cannot even get them in any glove smaller than XL) and I play a 16" viola - the ladies in our section play 15.5" instruments (one definitely has smallish hands) - we all complain about left-hand pain and numbness.
Thanks for the advice. Tom/Susan - thanks for the advice on moving around/shifting. I've tried that for 4th finger extensions, but I wasn't quite sure this was totally kosher viola technique. As I guess I'm learning, with viola it seems technique is about finding whatever works!
Oh, Susan brings a up a great point. Violas are far from standard.
On average, 15.5's don't sound as good as 16's. But there is overlap between the two sets and you can probably find a decent sounding 15.5. The thing is, that's really not going to buy you that much. Susan is right -- the viola is not nearly so standardized as the violin and there are other aspects that affect how it feels and plays in your hands, insofar as those design elements play out through the overall string length from nut to bridge.
My 2 centimes d'Euro..
Mine is kind of an experimental William Whedbee viola from 1991. It has a great sound, since the upper bout is relatively large, but is much easier to get around because of the narrow lower bout. There are other violas that actually flatten the lower bout to achieve the same effect. Lots of options out there to try. And they definitely are not standardized.
One advantage of coming from a cello background to the viola - or violin for that matter - is that your left 4th finger and its control should be more developed than it would be otherwise. I think that goes for a cellist's left hand in general.
Get used to shifting a lot more. William Primrose discouraged stretching the 1st or 4th finger at all because of the risk of injury.
M.D. - one other thought in addition to the good advice and insight you have received, and this is practical. Unless you are a professional or are part of a semi-pro group, it probably matters little whether you have a 15.5" or a 16." You can probably find a 15.5" that sounds good enough for your purposes if you find that the 16" is really too big for you. As others point out, you should probably try a number of violas because there is less uniformity with that instrument, so that the "size" may not be as crucial as how the instrument is configured in some of its details.
As someone who plays a lot of violin and viola, I would emphasize that the No. 1 goal is NOT to strain your left hand and risk injury.
Some excellent advice above. I'll say the following:
Thank you all so much for your suggestions. I've had a couple days to try implementing them, and it's going much better. I'm trying to get used to balancing my hand around the third finger, and shifting instead of using extensions. I'm very grateful for your help!
I can’t imbed from my phone, but here is a masterclass discussing the left hand subtleties for viola
Hi M D, I'm glad that the suggestions above were helpful.
First, it’s great you have found the viola is just right for you! I’m with you on that, it’s so much fun to play. As recent returner to the viola (after playing it on and off as needed in the my school’s pit band in high school) I have been working a lot on dexterity and working with extending my fourth so it doesn’t hurt. I’ve been using Louis Svecenski’s technical exercises for the viola, something I was given by my violin teacher years ago. It’s full of nice exercises to encourage relaxing and using the fourth finger, but without hurting. At least it doesn’t hurt me. Ultimately, if it hurts, shift instead.