Learning Viola + Violin at the Same Time: Bad Idea?

February 11, 2019, 10:06 PM · Pretty sure I know the answer to this but is it a bad idea to try to learn viola and violin at the same time?

I already have a violin that I'm learning how to play and loving, but the grass is always greener on the other side and I've been listening to and watching a lot of videos of viola performances that make me want to play viola too.

The only thing stopping me is the fear that it will negatively affect my ability to learn violin, and I'm not ready to make a full switch to viola.

Its the old jack of all trades problem. I can either put all my time and effort into one instrument and eventually be good at it, or I can divide my resources and be mediocre at multiple instruments.

Maybe I'm way off base. What do you fine people think? Would trying to learn viola while also learning violin cause more trouble than it's worth?

Replies (17)

Edited: February 11, 2019, 11:23 PM · First, I am going to say that as long as you're willing to put in the effort, you can learn two (or more if you can put in the dedication) totally different instruments and be decent of both of them.

I think the most important thing to consider is how experienced you are on the violin. From your old threads, it sounds like you are still in the late beginning stages, having only played for a year or so.? Please correct me if I'm wrong. There is nothing wrong with playing both. Don't switch fully if you don't want to. Follow your heart, whatever it may be. There are plenty of benefits including more ensemble opportunities and many play both equally. The only problem with starting viola in the beginning stages of violin study is that because your muscle memory is not well developed yet and that the viola cannot be approached exactly like a violin thus requiring a somewhat different muscle memory set, there could be problems with mixing up the two instruments hindering progress. Once you have reached a more advanced stage on the violin, playing both should not pose too many problems, as your muscle memory is well developed enough to stay stable even if modifiers need to be added to it. See the first response to this thread for a better explanation of this phenomenon (you don't have to read the first paragraph, the second paragraph contains the important stuff).

Some people can switch back and forth problem free, and others struggle a bit, and it is totally a matter of mentality. In my opinion, switching back and forth is a skill that should be developed. After all, if flutists can switch to piccolo on the fly and sax players can easily switch between different types of saxophones, why can't we do the same?

February 12, 2019, 3:00 AM · I find I can switch easily because I have developed two sets of reflexes, in both hands. After an hour on one instrument. I like to spend ten minutes on the other.

Fourth finger rules! It must stay curved, to hold down the wider-vibrating strings, for vibrato and extensions. The other three must get back out of the way..

The bow is usually 10 grammes heavier, which avoids tensing muscles to energise the heavier strings. The bow stroke has a little "cello" in it.

I find the viola strengthens the left hand, while the violin refines the bowing.

February 12, 2019, 4:40 AM · If there are rentals in your area, how about renting a viola for a month, give it a try and see how you feel about it?

While we can talk about all the pros and cons, but eventually it downs to your adoptability, and if you like the instrument. I think if you are really keen, you will find a way. Of course, it also depends how good do you want to get -- ie do you want to be good for your own enjoyment, or you want to be good to go to top notch music school and compete internationally. The former doesn't need as much optimization in learning plan compare to latter.

Personally, I would love to give viola a try myself. It is easier to find vacancy in an ensemble as a violist than violinist.

February 12, 2019, 8:32 AM · A couple of questions come to my mind:
1. What are your goals for playing the instruments?
2. Is your mind sufficiently flexible to play both instruments?
3. Is your physicality sufficiently flexible to play both instruments?


1. a. If your goals are to be a good sight reader and be able to play from written sheet music in various situations (and ensembles) it is good to attain a certain level of confidence on one instrument before moving to others. For the violin-to-viola switch I would think being able to read and play violin in at least 1st and 3rd positions would be a preferred starting state.

1. b. If you plan to be an improvisor on both instruments and do much playing be ear - what the heck - start now and rent a viola!


2. a. With violin 1st and 3rd positions in your mind and left hand you will be ready to add the switch to viola and initial "transposition" of your mind to alto clef. It should not take long to actually be reading alto clef as a "2nd language."


3. a. If your arms and hands are large enough you can find a viola that scales to your arm length and hand size. For example, 1st position on a violin (14 inch) has the same finger spacing and arm extension as 3rd position on a 16 inch viola. If you are lucky enough to be sized to play a 16" viola, you will find the proportions (or ratios) between arm extension and finger spacing on both instruments continues to "run" as high as you can get on both. If you do not have such arm and hand sizes - you will find the appropriate scaling for yourself --- the other violists I play with all have shorter arms and smaller hands than I do - and they all started on violin and some still play it as well.

3. b. I think you can begin exploring this a bit now, rent or borrow a viola and play (by transposition) the same scales on it that you are playing on the violin (that is; play your G major violin scale as a C major viola scale, etc.). This will teach you the physicality of both left and right hands.

I have played violin, cello and viola for 80, 70 and 45 years respectively. Sometimes I have played all 3 instruments within the same hour - switching my mind to the differing sight-reading states. So I have some idea (at least for me) whereof I speak of the various factors involved in instrument switching. While the violin and cello have been with me virtually all my life, my viola playing was quite intermittent until just 4 years ago and I had to re-teach myself every time a performance requirement arose until then. Even now I have to "turn a switch" in my mind to remain consistent with which instrument I am reading music on (especially between violin and viola). Because of its different physical requirements the cello has never needed the "switch."

February 12, 2019, 6:38 PM · In short, I'd recommend against it. If you are an average beginner student, you will not have success in learning both initially. Even if you were above average, it wouldn't be ideal.
February 12, 2019, 7:07 PM · I definitely agree with Erik that because the violin and viola are so similar with subtle differences, I don't recommend that a beginner learn both at the same time, but if you are more experienced, it is totally okay.
February 12, 2019, 7:29 PM · Viola and violin are exactly the same. There's no switch; you're just doing a drop C tuning.
February 12, 2019, 7:49 PM · Cotton, I absolutely hate so much to disagree with you, but the viola is more than just a large, low-pitched violin. Because of its lower pitch, the viola has an entirely different repertoire and a different role in ensembles, which is pretty obvious given its pitch range. You cannot play the viola exactly like you play the violin. Sure, the technique is largely the same, but the larger size and thicker strings result in subtle but important differences in technique. If a violinist played the viola exactly like a violin, the sound would not be nice to listen to because it would be relatively weak and the notes may be out of tune. Furthermore, the larger size makes the viola more awkward so posture and position are that much more important.
February 13, 2019, 9:46 AM · I guess I'd need two different teachers if I bought a second violin, then, because the exact same technique on two different instruments of the same kind would also not necessarily sound nice.
Edited: February 13, 2019, 3:45 PM · Ella, there are different opinions on this issue. Scott Slapin, who is not exactly a loser on the viola, has emphasized in an interview with Laurie here on v.com that, for him, viola technique and violin technique are identical.
February 13, 2019, 4:06 PM · Actually, cotton, a beginner switching back and forth daily between two very different violins would indeed be detrimental, as I've seen happen many times.

I have a feeling that because you are in your own world of advanced level playing, it's very difficult for you to relate to the plights of the average beginner.

Edited: February 13, 2019, 6:18 PM · One thing to watch out for is picking up the wrong bow by mistake!

An observable difference between the violin and viola is that the violist tends to do more shifting than his violinist counterpart, because of the greater size of the viola placing practical limits on the reach of fingers and hand. This implies differences in left-hand technique.

For anyone who wants to remember what it is like to be a raw beginner, try playing the violin left-handed.

February 13, 2019, 7:11 PM · I'm with Ella here. Finger spacing is the easy part, at least for experienced string players.

When I play violin (as a violist 99% of the time), it usually takes me just two or three scales to figure out the finger spacing, but often a full day or two to stop choking the string all the time with excessively heavy bowing. I also find that I have to constantly remind myself not to shift when using the 4th finger would be more logical.

My girlfriend is an experienced violinist (Bruch/Mendelssohn level) but has never played viola apart from trying out my viola a few times. She easily figures out the wider finger spacings within a minute or two, but takes a long time to start digging into the strings enough. She says it "feels wrong" when she actually puts enough weight on the strings because she's doing exactly what she's been taught not to do.

February 14, 2019, 7:38 AM · Jean - as someone who plays both, I disagree with Scott and Cotton that they are essentially the same instrument in terms of technique. As Ella and others have pointed out here and elsewhere, while there is much in common, there are a number of subtle but important differences. The easiest to master is finger spacing. Others are trickier. So, I would think that learning both at the same time for someone who has not already mastered one or the other would be a mistake.
February 14, 2019, 11:15 AM · I played both for a long time. I would recommend that the student do violin until they have learned the high positions and are fully grown. Trying to squeeze a good sound out of a small Viola, less than 15 1/2, can be very frustrating. The 14" Viola can be the transition instrument, only for learning the clef. The bowing feels different. Violin bowing for me is a delicate balancing act, while Viola is like pushing a recalcitrant donkey, you never hit bottom. Left hand technique is modified a little from Violin. I avoid stretches and extensions, shift more often, use the in-between even and half-positions more often. With a good, responsive Viola, which I have never owned ($), the third position can become the more comfortable, default home base. If a player enjoys orchestra and chamber music more than solo playing, Viola can be a good choice.
February 14, 2019, 12:18 PM · Unless he's no longer here Drew Lecher would be someone worth consulting. I've been away from V.Com for quite a few years and lost touch with Drew. I would love to hear his opinion. Royce
February 14, 2019, 5:26 PM · To Joel: The OP is an adult beginner as far as I can tell from his previous threads, so playing a 15.5"+ viola is most likely not a problem.

To Jean: Yes, I've seen some varying opinions on the difference between a violin and a viola. I see some consensus in certain arease e.g to get a big sound, violas need more weight. I've seen a lot of postings on this issue. Many say the technique is largely the same with subtle (but important) differences. On the other end of the spectrum, I've seen some say that the differences are significant and it takes months, even years to master them.

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