Taking up viola

Edited: February 13, 2019, 9:49 AM · 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.

Replies (18)

Edited: February 11, 2019, 10:27 AM · 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.

And, in my opinion, the sound from the 16” will be more satisfying than you will get from the 15.5”.

4th finger is a challenge for violinists (14”) and violists alike.

Edited: February 11, 2019, 11:08 AM · 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.

However, the size alone can exacerbate problems. Most people who play viola want the biggest d*mn viola they can get simply because the larger instruments can sound better and more resonant. However, as colleagues in my orch have found out, you can end up with serious injuries by choosing an instrument that is really bigger than you can handle. Your luthier may be able to help you choose the instrument that is the biggest one that is appropriate for you. I am not a big guy. I ended up getting a 15.5" because it was the largest size I felt I could handle. It sounds great, so I am not unhappy that I could not get the biggest, most resonant one in the shop or even that I felt 16" was too big.

Good luck!

February 11, 2019, 11:06 AM · 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.

As for the extended 4ths -- just shift!

February 11, 2019, 11:33 AM · 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.

I am also a long time cellist (70 years) and violinist (80 years) - viola definitely hurts the worst - although cello is sometimes hard on the back.

Selecting the optimum strings for viola can also be a crap shoot. I have two violas. The good one is really picky (needs low tension A & C), the other one sounds pretty good with almost anything - even EP-Gold.

February 11, 2019, 12:12 PM · 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!

Susan, with a larger upper bout and smaller lower bout - is your viola basically a reverse of the Tertis idea? I've read a little about Tertis violas and am intrigued. But it doesn't seem to have caught on, and I'm curious as to why.

Andrew Victor - I found cello to be very tiring on my right shoulder and I often suffered from too much left-arm tension when playing in thumb position. But that's probably my poor technique! Would you say the players you know with 15.5" violas are at a major acoustic disadvantage to the larger ones?

Edited: February 11, 2019, 1:41 PM · Oh, Susan brings a up a great point. Violas are far from standard.

I had a 16.25" Maggini style viola that had a pleasantly short vibrating string length, yet a relatively large body.

See the paper here for how that works out.
https://helenviolinmaker.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Transcript-of-talk-to-Chets-viola-day-Jan-04.pdf

Of course, you don't get something for nothing. The bridge is moved relatively forward in that design, and I bumped into the upper bouts a few times with my bowing knuckles when playing it (caveat: I'm no expert player...).

I also have a 18" viola that is somewhat manageable due to it having a relatively short neck. The issue there, is that you start encountering the body of the viola in a major way starting in 3rd position.

The Tertis model I also had sounded like a larger instrument, but with the wider middle bout, that limited the bow angle on the A string before you started also bowing on the C bout.

In summary: you batter buy an array of violas in different sizes and designs, just to be sure....

Edited: February 11, 2019, 1:43 PM · 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 suggestion is to re-finger passages that require a lot of stretchy fourth finger. Violists just don't play A# on the D string with 4th finger nearly as willingly as violinists. You find another way around. while also getting some exercises that will improve your fourth-finger stretchiness. One more secret is to start your practice day with exercises that are entirely in third position even if it's just a few two-octave scales. Then work your way down. Third position on the viola feels pretty similar to first position on the violin to me. I've heard violinists who say they do this "start with third position" thing. I think v-commer Jim Hastings is one but I am not 100% sure.
February 11, 2019, 2:01 PM · My 2 centimes d'Euro..

I agree with Craig about centering the hand on the ring finger, provided the pinky is normally curved: for strength on the the wider-vibrating strings, for vibrato, and to allow extensions. Sometimes I help the pinky by bringing the wrist in towards the viola's shoulder. For a "low 2" my middle finger is curled a little under itself, while the index leans back to touch near the corner of the nail rather than its centre.

For a "low 1", my index is practically lying on its side, and so for a long or vibrated note I need a brief shift into half position.

But I also adopt more frequently the "low 4" with fingerings borrowed from the 'cello: 1-234, with more frequent shifts.

I also agree that the bowing has just a little "cello" in it, especially at the beginning of each note, and also I graduate from a short, heavy stroke on the C-string to a longer lighter one on the A (I prefer a synthetic A to a steel one, I don't play the trumpet!)

February 11, 2019, 3:01 PM · 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.
February 11, 2019, 3:01 PM · 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.

My cello teacher played cello and viola in professional symphony orchestras, a slightly unusual combination which I suspect helped me psychologically when I switched from cello to violin several decades later.

Edited: February 11, 2019, 3:13 PM · Get used to shifting a lot more. William Primrose discouraged stretching the 1st or 4th finger at all because of the risk of injury.

I have very short fingers (literally the shortest fingers of any adult I know, including people almost a foot shorter than me) and play viola (mine is 15.75") almost exclusively. I even default to a low 4th finger and avoid using my 4th finger in "normal" position most of the time -- which is to say, if I see an A-natural on the D string, I shift in most circumstances.

And I agree with Craig: build your hand frame around your 2nd and 3rd fingers, not your 1st finger as seems to be commonly taught on violin.

Edited: February 11, 2019, 3:14 PM · 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.

In addition, as Andrew points out, violists do a lot to avoid using fourth finger. However, one thing about viola is that you can generally use the open strings to avoid fourth finger if it seems reasonable. Violists are not a prickly as violinists about open strings because the open strings sound better on viola than on violin.

Edited: February 11, 2019, 4:18 PM · 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.

1) A smaller viola is a really good idea if you have average hands. And in fact, even among professionals, supersized violas (17 or larger) are not nearly as popular as they were a few years ago.

A number of pros are actually downsizing because of injury worries. Even at smaller sizes, lack of volume is not generally a problem with violists. If anything a professional violist spends a lot of time trying NOT to play too loudly on the A and D. I have a 15-inch viola and it will dominate a string quartet if I'm careless.

2) Part of learning to be a good viola player is to get very comfortable with half position and 2nd position. On a violin you often extend a fourth finger on the G string to play a D sharp; on a viola you may not want to do that to reach a G sharp on the C string. Depends on the context, but it's often better to play half position on the G or 2nd position on the C.

Good thoughtful fingering will preserve your finger ligaments and also help you play in tune because you keep the integrity of your hand frame.

3) For the safety of your hand, practice extensions with care -- just like you would carefully practice 10ths on a violin. Gentle stretching is okay but pain is not -- you can do permanent damage surprisingly easily. Your finger should still have some curve to it -- if you're having to flatten it completely to reach a note, it is probably better to shift or deal with a string crossing.

Edited: February 11, 2019, 11:38 PM · Some excellent advice above. I'll say the following:

1. I heartily agree with those who suggest balancing the left hand towards the middle and ring fingers rather than the index finger. This is one way to achieve a more open hand position without strain, which I believe is necessary on the viola. One thing that I don't think was mentioned is the placement of the thumb relative to the hand on the neck. For more reach, you can try placing your thumb more opposite the middle finger rather than the index finger (typical for violin). You can even try placing back back towards the scroll behind the first finger. You can also try tucking your wrist a bit closer to the neck. Also, make sure that the edge of your palm (where the palm and the fingers meet) is not hanging below the edge of the fingerboard. Instead, it should be level or above the edge of the fingerboard. With regards to shifting and fingering choices, strangely I have not found a greater need for second position on the viola than the violin, even though I am a short female violist with small hands (although I have long, flexible fingers). It could be because of my unusual tendency (as a violinist) to use second position more than typical. I do tend to use half position more often because I hate high 4s (e.g playing A# on the D string with fourth finger in first position) and prefer low first fingers instead. I can play those extensions, surprisingly without strain, but it feels rather awkward. To reach low first fingers and fourth finger notes, I think I tend to move my hand (without necessarily moving my thumb) or move my thumb a bit (without necessarily moving my hand much), rather than actually shifting. This may also be referred to as microshifts or crawl/glide shifts. I know I'm mentioning a lot of personal thoughts, but I'm just curious what others think. After all, this is such an individual issue. Because we come in all shapes and sizes, there is no "one-size-fits-all" solution, and I think we really need to experiment with different possibilities to find just the right fit for us as individual players.

2. I also agree with those who say that violas have no standardized dimensions. For left hand comfort, the string length (which determines the distance between the notes), the neck dimensions, and the right upper bout size (for upper position play) are a lot more important than the body length. I think the body length is much more useful for determining the right size viola for an individual's arm length. Try a variety of violas, and don't confine yourself to smaller size violas, especially if you're looking for comfort in other areas besides the length of the instrument.

3. Excellent smaller violas do exist, but they are more difficult to find, especially in the cheaper price ranges. Do not play a viola that is too big for you, as it can lead to serious strain-related injuries as mentioned above. If you are a smaller person (like me), the effort needed to find a great-sounding small viola is worth it.

4. I largely agree with Adrian about violin vs viola bowing. The viola's thicker and more massive strings require more weight and less bow speed in general in order to make a big, full sound, and a little extra nudge of energy is needed to get the strings to speak properly, especially the C and G strings. I heartily agree with Adrian on using a shorter, heavier stroke on the C and a longer, lighter one on the A, and I do the same sort of thing.

PS: I am a short, female violist (who is also a violinist) who is slightly under 5'2" in height. I play a 15.5" viola with a string length that is somewhere between 36 and 37 cm (I don't remember). I have (I think) proportionally long arms, slender hands, and long, flexible fingers. I am confined to violas 15.5" and smaller because I am basically forced to over-extend my left arm with anything bigger.

Edited: February 13, 2019, 9:58 AM · 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've been using several Rubank (Whistler) viola books - Violin to Viola, and the two Introducing the Positions books. Looking at Whistler's approach through the lens of the advice I got here, the Violin to Viola book especially seems less like a true transitional method and more like a rehashing of early violin technique in alto clef (lots of 4th finger, extensions).

I'm still thinking of swapping my 16" rental for a 15.5". I tried a few smaller violas when I was deciding what size to get. The smaller ones I tried had an odd quality to the C string, and I'm not sure whether it was more a function of the quality of these violas (rental fleet quality) or their size - but if I attacked the open C string with a fast bow and moderate to high pressure, there was a strange almost out-of-tune effect to the sound - the pitch seemed to waver a bit like strings that have gone false, except on the attack instead of the end of the note. Does anyone else have any idea of what I'm talking about, or am I hearing things that aren't there? It seems less pronounced on the 16".

February 13, 2019, 9:51 AM · I can’t imbed from my phone, but here is a masterclass discussing the left hand subtleties for viola

https://youtu.be/wA9gdD3UuaA

Edited: February 13, 2019, 6:17 PM · Hi M D, I'm glad that the suggestions above were helpful.

I think you have made a wise choice to consider downsizing for easier playability, at least for now. In fact, many violists, including relatively tall players, prefer smaller violas because they're easier to play and handle. I think starting with a smaller viola can help you get use to the changes without feeling too overwhelmed. You can always upsize to a larger one once you're more comfortable, but it is not necessary. The only advantage of playing a medium-sized (16"-16.5") viola is that they tend to (but not always) have a slightly deeper tone, which is preferred by some players. Plus, good medium-sized violas are somewhat easier to find than good smaller ones, especially in the cheaper price ranges. Anything above 16.5" is considered large, and such big violas are not that commonly played and are generally only used by very tall players with very long arms.

The C string thing you describe has nothing to do with the viola itself. Rather, it is due to the quality of the string installed on the viola. The pitch changing thing you describe is often associated with crappy beginner-quality steel strings, which are common with rental instruments. To eliminate the issue, consider using synthetic C strings like Dominant or Tonica instead.

Edited: February 15, 2019, 12:08 PM · 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.

To deal with oddities for the C string on a 15.5 inch viola, I’ve experimented with strings, and I use Warchal Amber C. It works well with my instrument, giving it a lovely quality sound. Of course, this string might not work for you if you do choose to go down to 15.5 inch viola. I find experimenting with different strings is half the battle with the sound, and it can be quite a lot of fun finding the tones and colours your instrument has to offer!

I had the same issues as you when using a 16inch, which is ultimately why I play a 15.5, it’s more comfortable, but still gives me the sound I desire.

Good luck with your journey!


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