Violin or Viola - least pressure to bow?

July 18, 2017, 9:59 PM · Hello All

Just a quick question I am asking on behalf of an elderly relative who wants to learn some basic scales on a string instrument, etc just casual stuff. She has some tendonitis in her hands, particularly the right hand - not severe but an issue.

Do the violin and viola require the same amount of grip on the bow, and the same pressure applied by the right hand on the strings?

I have read conflicting things on this across various forums and would greatly appreciate some specific, definitive advice from a specialist forum like this.

With kind regards


Replies (22)

Edited: July 18, 2017, 10:13 PM · Viola really depends on a few things, but in general it takes marginally more pressure on the bow. The viola bow is generally a little heavier than the violin bow, so this helps to counter that. The viola speaks a bit slower and takes a bit more to get started than a violin.

If exerting pressure is a concern then between violin and viola the violin is the better choice. It is lighter, the strings require less pressure to press down, it requires less pressure to speak, the distances between pitches are smaller, etc.

The viola is larger and a little heavier, as well as require more stretches. Unless your relative is dead-set on viola (in which case, find a 15" or even a 14" if you can)I would recommend violin. They can also seek out heavier bows (would holding more weight be a problem?) to reduce the amount of pressing they have to do, but that might be a different problem. For the left hand you can always look at lighter gauge strings, which will also help with the amount of bow force required also.

July 18, 2017, 11:32 PM · Thanks Michael - this is very kind of you to reply so quickly. From what you say I think the violin may be the better choice. I think the important thing here is we're looking for whichever requires the lighter grip with the right hand when bowing, particularly thumb pressure, and the least downward pressure on the strings to make a sound. We had some confusion because we wondered if a lighter bow would demand more pressure to make a sound, but you can see we know zero about this!
July 18, 2017, 11:50 PM · That's not untrue Jay, but there are more factors to account for than just the weight.

The nature of the instrument and the strings, the rosin used, etc. They can all effect how much pressure is required. In general the violin is more responsive to lighter strokes than a viola.

July 19, 2017, 1:03 AM · Thanks for the extra tips, Michael - being more responsive to lighter strokes hits the nail on the head, so I think we have a winner!

Edited: July 19, 2017, 7:28 AM · I have a few comments on this:

1. Are you sure it's tendonitis and not arthritis?
1.a Holding a bow is not at all taxing - you pretty much just balance it - but tremors of the hand can make a proper (i.e., conventional) bow hold difficult to use effectively.
2. The right viola bow can be used on a violin and the extra weight of the viola bow can make it easier to get sound without worrying about "pressing down." (I don't really want to get into the issue of "pressing down," since it is full of complications and conflicting thoughts.)
3. A typical violin bow weighs 60 grams and a viola bow, 70 grams (28 grams per ounce). So we are basically talking about the difference between holding 2 ounces or 2.3 ounces - not a big thing - it's the balance of the bow that really matters.
4. Small violas can be deficient in sound quality - and who wants to learn to play something that doesn't sound good? The maker needs to have known how to size the instrument body and f-holes for air resonance-especialy for the lower tones.
5.Full-size violas (16 inches and larger) can be really tough on the left hand -even those that wear a size XL glove.
6. A violin is more easily heard. That can be good or bad - depending on why you are playing and how well you play.

I'm an elderly player of both violin (78 years since my first lesson) and viola (cello too) so I have intimate connections to the bows of all three instruments and I find it easier to use one of my viola bows on a violin these days in spite of a slight loss of sound quality. Only one of my viola bows sounds decent on my violins - not the one that's best on my violas.

The violin's musical literature is so prodigious and the treble clef used for all violin music so ubiquitous, that I would favor starting on the violin - but possibly also checking out viola bows with it. Viola music uses mostly the "alto" clef but at times ventures into the treble clef region. One clef is really enough for one to deal with: pianists have two (treble and bass clefs) and cellists have four (bass, tenor, treble, and "trouble" (treble read (and played) an octave lower).

However, if one has an interest in learning enough for ensemble playing (e.g., string quartet or orchestra) then viola is PERFECT. The parts are generally easier and violists are more in demand because they are rarer.

One's choice of specific instrument, bow, strings and ROSIN can make a big difference in how easy or difficult playing can be and how it sounds.

July 19, 2017, 10:24 AM · I feel that 15-inch violas should not be looked down upon because some tiny women are forced to use one. I agree that violin is the better choice because viola (especially C string, I think) needs a more intensive bow stroke.
July 19, 2017, 10:57 AM · Viola is a bit heavier and requires more stretch of the fingers. The C string, being thicker and heavier, requires a bit more pressure and bow speed, especially in economy instruments.

Experiment with rosin. Some are stickier than others and can require less bow pressure to get the strings moving.

July 19, 2017, 1:07 PM · I have seen some 15-1/4 and 15-1/2 inch violas that sound VERY good, but in general, they are rare. 16" and above is where you find the most good-sounding instruments, and many say that 16-1/2 is the lower limit in size. I personally play on a 16-3/8" viola that sounds good to me.

There is no question in my mind that any decent sized viola requires more physical effort to play than for the violin. The right hand/arm in particular needs more "weight" on the viola to get a good sound and for the instrument to speak. And as others have said, the left-hand stretches for the viola are a constant thing, while for the violin, the left hand is more often in a relaxed "natural" position until you get the more challenging literature.

July 19, 2017, 5:15 PM · My thanks to Andrew, Ella, Carmen and Karl as well as Michael for your kind replies. I think looking over these posts the consensus is that the violin is probably the less strenuous on the hands, particularly the right hand. The ensemble point about the viola is very interesting but we're looking at some simple tunes and exercises, maybe some basic music theory just for personal ambition etc. To me, it's looking like the violin might be what we're looking for. And this is a great forum by the way!

July 19, 2017, 6:35 PM · Andrew,

I didn't even think of that. Good call! I've done that before when I've had to switch back and forth during school courses between rests. It was too much hassle to have two bows *and* two instruments in reach, so just kept the viola bow. I actually prefer it on violin as well.

July 20, 2017, 4:24 AM · A good viola will have a quick response too, in the same way of a violin.
July 21, 2017, 6:27 PM · Thank you, Luis. This is good to know, but I think if I consider overall size and weight of both instrument and bow, the violin seems to come out on top. Add to this the fact they are generally a little cheaper, plus cheaper strings, plus more sheet music. In many respects I prefer the tone of the viola, but this is more about practicality I think. If any violists here can make the case that the viola is just as easy on the hands and arms (specifically the bowing hand/thumb) then the debate is thrown open again!

Kind regards

Edited: July 21, 2017, 7:11 PM · Holding a viola bow is not necessary more work than holding a violin bow, but it's more about how physiaally taxing playing the viola is, generally speaking.
July 21, 2017, 8:10 PM · Thanks Ella, and my reading of this thread is that the viola will be harder work. We're looking for whichever of the two instruments' bows will be easier/lighter on the hand when trying to produce a note. This is all about how much pressure must be exerted with the right hand. Whichever allows for the lighter grip and least pressure when producing a decent, even note is what we need :)
Edited: July 21, 2017, 8:26 PM · Jay, As I said - you can play a violin with a viola bow. actually you can also playa viola with a violin bow - but you have to work harder to do it. The weight of the bow helps with the playing of either instrument. The thinner strings of a violin are more sensitive so for the most vigorous playing that instrument requires less pressure (force). Too much bow force into the strings destroys the sound quality - which is why so many newbies sound so awful - in addition to being out of tune.

I understand your question - but I don't think it's the right question - As i said it is 2 ounces vs. 2.3 ounces. Holding a bow is more a matter of balance than grip or pressure. It may take some time to learn that - but with the right teacher it can be learned pretty fast.

Edited: July 22, 2017, 5:25 AM · neither....
Viola da gamba is way more ergonomic and also easier to learn being a fretted instrument. Bow hold is also more natural and the bow is lighter.
Picking a violin at older age with already present tendonitis is, in my opinion, calling for trouble.
If I were your relative, getting healed would be a pre-requisite for playing any instruments.
Edited: July 22, 2017, 6:23 AM · My thanks to everyone who has contributed to this thread and offered such wonderful advice. Andrew - your argument seems to be that there is no real difference if the bow hold is correct, which is encouraging, but I think given other factors such as instrument weight & dimensions, fingerboard size and the ubiquity of violins/strings/sheet music we will probably start with violin and see what happens. As I mentioned, this is just a fun hobby and not a serious commitment so there's nothing riding on this decision.

Thank you all :)

July 22, 2017, 8:57 AM · For those who are arthritic, it is generally regarded that the most ergonomic of the stringed instruments is the cello.
Edited: July 22, 2017, 9:15 AM · Paul - I didn't know it was "generally regarded" thus, but from my experience it is so --but you have to carry the damn thing, not trip on it or drop it, set it up, and not stab yourself. Also from my experience ---none of these are trivial! I've done them all - which is why I use a hard case, not a cello bag.
July 22, 2017, 9:27 AM · Playing the cello is ergonomic, more so than violin or viola, but lugging that damn thing is an effort. That's why I don't play cello. I'm sure I would love playing the cello, but transport is a problem. The gamba sounds like the best choice, but finding a gamba and finding instruction is very tough, even more so than viola and the rarest orchestral instruments.
July 22, 2017, 9:38 AM · I'd go to a good violin shop that gives good advice and hires out instruments. That should help the decision.

Edited: July 22, 2017, 4:40 PM · For most amateurs 95% of your playing is in the exact same room of your home. I would think that it would be easier to find someone to help you for five minutes to load your cello into the car, for your lesson or whatever, than to struggle with the dastardly ergonomics of the violin for hours on end.

The viola is physically harder to play in almost every regard. Its only saving grace for the amateur is that most orchestral and chamber parts up to an intermediate level don't require shifting much beyond 3rd position. That's my experience anyway.

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