Choosing a second instrument?

July 5, 2020, 7:16 AM · Looking for advice/suggestions.

My son, a rising fifth grader, is currently taking violin lessons. He’s been playing for about 1.5 years and is partway thru Suzuki book 3. He’s not doing a full Suzuki program and can read music. At his school, all 5th and 6th graders must participate in orchestra, band, or choir. Due to the middle school schedule, he can’t play with the older orchestra (7th and 8th grade) students. So.....what would you do? I’ve talked to the orchestra teacher and she suggested that he just stick with violin and accept that he’ll be bored for a while. That seems...not great. He could add another instrument, but that adds practice time, and I’d assume he’ll want to play violin with his school
orchestra at some point. He also played in a community orchestra pre-COVID (and will again once it re-starts).

Replies (39)

Edited: July 5, 2020, 7:49 AM · Many violinists also learn to play viola. The technique is similar and in adulthood it provides additional opportunities for ensemble playing. The only "glitch" is learning to read alto clef comfortably. Suzuki makes that easy because much of the music in the early books is the same - just shifted so the fingerings are the same so that if the learner is paying attention, after reading through the first few books he will be reading alto clef and - voila! another violist!

A second suggestion will not help with orchestra boredom, but learning to play piano would be a life-long gift.

My second instrument was cello, which I started at age 14, 10 years after starting violin, and that has been a benefit all the rest of my life. I did not get to viola until I was almost 40. I bought all the Suzuki viola books (well, from numbers 4 to 7, as far as they went at the time) and just read through them, I think it took about a week. I continue to play one or another of these 3 instruments in various ensembles and just for my own fun and amazement.

When I entered high school, we had an inferior orchestra, but a really good band. The director drafted some of us male violinists to play baritone horn ("euphonium") in the band. It was a real hoot playing in a 100-piece prize-winning band, maybe except for some of the football games when the temperature was so low that our lips got stuck on the mouthpiece. So a wind instrument is also a possibility - but I have not tooted a horn since high school and I've been playing string instruments for the 68 years since.

July 5, 2020, 8:02 AM · I don't understand the problem.
Is the orchestra only for older kids, and does he have to join a band instead?
Is he too good for the 5th and 6th grade orchestra?
If he joins the choir, he probably won't have to waste any time practising singing.
July 5, 2020, 8:10 AM · Piano or organ for sure, will be the most useful for him.
July 5, 2020, 8:16 AM · If it's compulsory to be in an orchestra, band or choir, then a keyboard won't help much.
July 5, 2020, 8:43 AM · I would have him pick up viola. Because it is so similar to violin, he won't have to practice it much beyond the repertoire at school and he will learn a new clef. People are always looking for violists, so it will come in handy as he gets older. My son is a violinist, but he has gotten several scholarships for agreeing to play viola for something.
July 5, 2020, 12:51 PM · I love Andrews suggestion of viola. I would also
consider mandolin. Paganini's father played mandolin and started little Niccolo on that instrument. It could be called "training wheels" for violin, with the same fingering, requiring a greater stretch and more finger strength which would compliment violin studies.
Edited: July 5, 2020, 1:24 PM · Choir, if he is at all interested, is great for sightreading and melodic/harmonic lines, low on practice, and can be really fun!
Viola is a great idea for all the reasons people have said, and can even strengthen violin technique, but be aware it can do a number on posture if he doesn't get good guidance or pay attention to adjusting to the larger size/weight. If he's a broader shouldered, large-handed kid that won't be as big a deal.
How about percussion? I have had quite a few violin students that "joined the band" as percussionists. Fun, different, great for rhythm, and usually, I think, you don't bring it home to practice :)
July 5, 2020, 1:43 PM · Just now I was thinking about the bass because it is cool. I wish the violin can do separate words in terms of techniques.
Bass vs Violin
July 5, 2020, 1:46 PM · I would recommend choir. It reinforces ear training like almost nothing else, and is great for theory because it is one of the few musical activities where every participant routinely sees the entire score. Sight-singing is a very useful skill to develop.

Experience singing in choirs was one of the most important things I was able to draw on when learning violin and viola as a late starter.

July 5, 2020, 1:52 PM · Another vote for viola.
July 5, 2020, 2:29 PM · Piano is a really useful and versatile instrument, and it is much easier to understand music theory when looking at a keyboard, rather than a violin. Buuut, if this is not a time where a teacher is available, then it may be frustrating and lead to bad habits to try and tackle piano from scratch. Viola will be a much easier transition, will have the benefit of learning the alto clef, and is a great skill that I wish I had the time to develop too.
July 5, 2020, 2:35 PM · I’m not sure that viola would help much with the boredom factor. At the beginner level violin/viola technique is more or less interchangeable, so once he figures out the clef he will be as bored as he would be on violin. Plus unless he is quite tall for his age, the small viola he would play won’t really give him the idea of what a real viola tone is anyway. I say this all as a violist. Nothing wrong with trying viola if he’s interested, I just don’t think it will solve his boredom problem.
I would recommend trying cello or Bass. I might otherwise recommend choir or even percussion, but I don’t think this is the best/safest time to join band or choir.
July 5, 2020, 2:49 PM · I 100% agree that playing viola won't fully solve the boredom problem because violin and viola technique are pretty much interchangeable at the beginner level and especially in a school group setting. That said, taking up viola is a great idea in general.

Choir or percussion in band are probably the easiest ways to get through school music without having to do a crap ton of practice.

July 5, 2020, 3:36 PM · Viola is a really great idea, however percussion as Ella suggested might be a fun journey for him. What would he like to play as a second instrument?

Flute was my secondary instrument for many years, it was a nice challenge, but didn’t take up the same practice time violin did.

Edited: July 5, 2020, 4:55 PM · Ingrid's reasoning was why I suggested choir.

Playing viola in this level of orchestra will definitely not be any kind of challenge for longer than two or three weeks -- and chances are, at this level, he's going to be better at reading alto clef on the very first day than most of the other kids will be at reading their music at the end of the year. The boredom problem will remain.

July 5, 2020, 5:40 PM · I recall reading in/of one of the old pedagogical books which said something that amounted to learning to sing being a requirement for being a violinist. Of course that's debatable, and having a voice let alone having a good voice producing a specific pitch and articulation, etc., are not technically necessary for playing a violin, but I agree with Andrew's point that knowing the pitch, as you need to to sing, is very useful for playing string instruments.

There's a hurdle in using your own voice for music as it seems to expose you, but doing that in a choir returns some cover and words add a valuable element that we otherwise miss.

My son had to play a band instrument in middle school. I don't think he got much out of it. I think he did get something out of the singing I had him do for a while earlier.

Edited: July 5, 2020, 5:45 PM · If the problem comes from a scheduling conflict, playing another orchestra instrument will still mean he can’t play with the older students. If that’s the case, I’d probably vote for choir as well, as there are all kinds of benefits to singing in chorus and learning about vocal technique and the repertoire.

If he really enjoys playing the violin and wants to stick with it through middle school and high school, it might be worth it to see about programs outside school, like other youth orchestras or chamber music programs (if they’re available). If he’s taking private lessons with a teacher outside of school already, perhaps the private teacher can suggest some things to try.

July 5, 2020, 6:33 PM · I think the recorder might be a nice second instrument; similar range and same clef. Guitar is a good choice too.
July 6, 2020, 2:12 AM · How do you receive a scholarship for agreeing to play the viola for something? At my school, the only scholarships I see people get is for agreeing to play in their class' scholarship quartet where they get free tuition or the doctorate version of that same quartet which is essentially the school's resident quartet. We also, of course, have TF/TA positions but I have not heard of someone being offered a scholarship for playing viola despite primarily being a violinist here.
July 6, 2020, 2:32 AM · Percussion skills shouldn't be under-rated. We as musicians perhaps assume our sense of rhythm is perfect, but in our uke group we did a piece that required a cowbell, and I bought one and was surprised at how hard it was to beat it with perfect rhythm.
July 6, 2020, 5:46 AM · Going against the grain here I will recommend that he stick with violin and consider other things he can learn while playing violin in an orchestra playing music which is easy for him. He can study the conductor and pick up good knowledge of what works and what doesn't work so that someday he can conduct. He can also work very well on his intonation skills, learning to play nicely in tune while others around him are having trouble playing in tune. That's a very difficult thing to do, but if he can do it he will be the leader others follow. He can set himself challenges, like working hard to play perfectly rather than simply being the best player in the ensemble. He can work hard to play perfectly in sync with the conductor's beat pattern instead of simply playing along with the ensemble. One factor which is apparent when listening to various groups where the musical skill in each group improves from group to group is the clarity of the ensemble sound -- better groups play with a much more focused sound because everybody is playing in perfect sync with the conductor's beat. Your son can work on his rhythmic perfection while playing in a rhythmically inaccurate group, thus learning better how to isolate his sound in his ears from the sounds around him and forcing him to focus his sound to match up with the visual cues from the conductor.

Since scheduling won't allow him to play in the more challenging orchestra, being the best in the lower orchestra can teach him leadership skills. Helping less able students around him can teach him how to encourage and help others without seeming to be snobbish about it.

There is much to be said for being "the big fish in a small pond" and he can still learn much this year. In my opinion someone who can't find things to learn in any situation simply isn't trying and wants to have things handed to them.

Plus he will continue to have the musical challenges of his private lesson music. Adding another instrument will add to his practice time which you seem to indicate might be a problem. And even singing in chorus, if he is truly to learn how to read choral music and sing accurately on pitch should take practice time at home, although it rarely does unfortunately.

Edited: July 6, 2020, 11:08 AM · I play both piano and violin and it has been an extremely rewarding combination despite my decidedly sub-"Bruch-Level" skills on both instruments.

My daughters studied violin and cello. A second instrument with lessons and daily practice, with sports and homework and other activities, would have been impossible. But they were both piano-curious, so I made sure there were some books of primary-level "piano classics" and other stuff available. Eventually both of them taught themselves to read and play just by messing around maybe 1-2 hours per week. The only "lessons" they've had are the "ahem" from me when they've played the same wrong accidental two or three times. They're not playing virtuoso stuff by any measure, but either one of them could work up a Clementi Sonatina to performance grade with a couple of weeks of work. Do they have bad habits that a teacher would likely need to fix? Maybe -- but if they "got serious" about piano my guess is those would be gone in a couple of weeks. Until you get to a pretty advanced level, piano just isn't as technically fraught as violin. I did give them some general tips like sitting on the edge of the bench and at least considering the printed fingerings. Violin and cello lessons embody a certain amount of stress. I wanted them to have another musical outlet that was free of stress and continual judgment.

The viola sounds an obvious choice if your son wants to play in the younger orchestra without being too bored. He might be the only one, though, but that's not necessarily deal-breaking. Sometimes youth-orchestra parts are written for "third violin" to double the viola parts. The problem will be the instrument. Fractional violas are all rubbish. Junior might be rather underwhelmed with the sound he gets from it. But he might rise to it if you leave him to his own devices to figure it out for himself. At the age of 10, viola is not so different from violin that he would need separate lessons. I play viola in three local ensembles and I've had exactly two lessons on it. In the first lesson, I brought my viola to my violin lesson as a show-and-tell item and my teacher tolerated my run-through of a Bach gamba sonata movement. In the other lesson, I was at a summer camp and the teacher gave me the useful advice that the viola will not tolerate as much force as the violin.

Edited: July 6, 2020, 11:13 AM · Choir is a good choice.

If the OP’s son is bored playing the violin in the younger group, then he might be bored playing viola. The viola parts in elementary ensembles are usually less complex than the first violin parts. Rarely do they get the melody, and it’s like playing a bunch of drones.

Then again, playing violin or viola in an age-appropriate orchestra can have many social benefits. As David Bailey points out, your son could learn leadership skills. And, it may be easier to make friends now with peers who, in 1-2 years, will be in the older orchestra that your son wants to join. (12-13 year olds can be a tough crowd to befriend as a new kid). This depends a lot on how experienced the orchestra teacher is at managing different levels in one room.

By the way, navigating mixed levels in a group is an issue that will keep coming up in high school and community orchestras.

July 6, 2020, 9:19 AM · @Christian, regarding scholarships for viola, I am talking about pre-college level. My son has gotten scholarships to several summer programs for playing viola in string quartets or similar ensembles.

For someone going to a college without a big music program, you can also get scholarship money for playing viola in the orchestra. My friend got into Princeton doing this.

Main point is viola can open doors for a lot of kids!

July 6, 2020, 10:39 AM · Your son is still quite young. In my opinion, at that age the most important thing is that the kid enjoys music and that it teaches him a little bit of discipline. Music has to be fun and it's very easy to "burn out" a child with repetitive practice of scales and ugly pieces that he doesn't enjoy. He must do that to some extent (discipline) but enjoyment is the first priority.

I would only put him under stress if he had a special talent for music. And even if he had, I would prefer him to become a happy doctor/lawyer/architect/engineer that plays some music during his free time than a sad musician that doesn't really enjoy what he does because he got burnt out and sick of music.

As for the second instrument... have you asked him what does he like or prefer? Give him some options, talk with him and let him choose the one he likes the most. Children like to choose things, and feel these things as special just because they chose them themselves.

If you ask me about which second instrument would I choose, I'd strongly suggest the piano. It's as expressive as the violin, and it requires a completely different set of abilities. It opens up the door to other keyboard instruments as well as to a wide repertoire, from Bach to Rachmaninov.

July 6, 2020, 11:26 AM · I agree about the advantages of choosing viola, but I also agree that if it's a beginner's group, he will in short order be just as bored / frustrated playing viola than he would playing violin.

To offer more musical options (not just for this year's scheduling conflicts but for the future), I would suggest either joining the chorus, or picking up a band instrument that is in treble clef and doesn't require transposition. Flute, for instance. Percussion is also a great choice, since it's an excellent cross-genre skill. And you will be surprised by how often someone needs to pinch-hit for a percussionist.

July 6, 2020, 11:38 AM · If you do pick a band instrument try to avoid one that sits just in front of the trumpets.

The voice of experience!

July 6, 2020, 7:38 PM · Andrew is spot on. :-)

Acoustic shields and earplugs FTW!

July 6, 2020, 8:09 PM · Is that what those glass panes in orchestras are for?
July 6, 2020, 9:46 PM · My daughter is in the same boat.

Acceleration is not offered. "Advanced" orchestra which isn't all that advanced starts in 8th grade. You have to be in 8th grade to participate.

I asked the orchestra teacher what he'd recommend and he said viola.

My child says she'll just do whatever her friends want to do. I think they'll choose choir when it is offered again. I don't know what the school's plan is exactly.

If I could pick for her, I'd pick percussion.

Edited: July 6, 2020, 10:49 PM · Percussion is usually overpopulated in middle-school bands. On the other hand the marimba is definitely a cool thing, and a student who already plays another instrument pretty well and can read music well is going to have an advantage over a total beginner on a mallet instrument.

I played the trombone in middle-school band. It was definitely better than taking home-economics. When I got to college my first roommate was a trombone player so we had something we could talk about right off the bat. He liked JJ Johnson and Kai Winding, whereas I preferred Bill Watrous. We both agreed Rob McConnell was a fake because he played a valve trombone. Of course that's a ridiculous prejudice but we were just kids.

July 7, 2020, 10:03 AM · Since your first name is Colleen you may already be aware that the violin is the most common instrument in Irish music sessions. The tenor banjo with "Irish tuning" (GDAE like the violin but down an octave), is also common in Irish music sessions. There may be are children's Irish music groups in your area where your son would be welcomed with either instrument or both. But if I had another life to live I would pick piano.
July 7, 2020, 10:13 AM · I love tenor banjos, but the woman I know who has one is selling everything she's got except for the banjo, shucks!
July 7, 2020, 8:38 PM · I don't recommend organ, unless you can be guaranteed access to one every time you want to practise, and also it's a difficult instrument to play expressively. Perhaps take up the organ for a year when you've reached a standard on the piano higher than I ever reached. I never made it to being even a reasonably good organist. However I'm glad I know the St Anne's, the Cesar Franck 1st Choral, the Brahms Chorale Preludes, and the Mendelssohn 6th Sonata at least conceptually. But it would be nice to be able to play with conviction more Beethoven than just the slow movement of Op 10 No 3 (which I never had a lesson on, it just grabbed me).
Edited: July 7, 2020, 9:01 PM · In high school, I sang in choir, played violin, bass, trombone, bass guitar, guitar, piano, saxophone, and organ. As an adult approaching retirement age, I still play all four strings in various ensembles and keyboard instruments for myself. I played trombone and sang through college as a composition major.
My recommendation looking back- violin, voice, and piano would be my advice. Piano will help with theory and give a wider range of ensembles to play in and styles to play. You can play many sounds with electronics and now with computer workstation software, the world is your oyster. Voice will help with intonation and expression. Between those three, you have the most repertoire compared to any other instruments and you can sing or play in almost any ensemble.
You can pick up viola any time and really, it’s just learning the clef and some alternate fingerings. Mandolin is not really used much unless you’re into country. mandolin orchestras are few and far between.
July 9, 2020, 8:50 AM · I second David Bailey about finding ways of alternate learning and contributing as a more advanced player in a "lower level" group. Regarding the second instrument, I played violin and piano growing up and second all the comments about the usefulness of piano. I only have anecdotes, but when some of my students started wind and brass instruments at school, it seemed that they found the beginner requirements pretty "easy" (of course, I don't know about their actual playing quality). Not that you would want to make a habit of striving for the minimum, but practice needs probably won't be too heavy at that stage.
July 9, 2020, 4:17 PM · Mandolin sounds like a fun idea. I came to violin from mandolin, and the advantage of having the fingerboard already worked out should work just as well the other way. You'll have to build calluses, though - compared to violin, playing a mandolin is even more like a cheese grater than a guitar is. There aren't many orchestral opportunities for mandolin, so you'll probably wind up hanging out with bluegrassers - but that's a lot of fun and you get a good grounding in improvisation.

My current main instrument is viola, and is another good choice. But I wonder how many opportunities there are in school orchestras. I once went to a concert by local school students and watched with tragic empathy as the one girl with a viola sat through an entire piece without a note to play.

Edited: July 10, 2020, 4:07 AM · I don’t want to be offensive, so please don’t refer this to you in case it doesn’t apply. Maybe this is rather about the teacher of the orchestra, here.

My three children have very different personalities, but they have two things in common: They play their instruments on a level way above what is average of the orchestras they are required to play in, at school, due to the lucky circumstances of musicians as parents and good teachers.
And, the three orchestra leaders evaluated them as never ever displaying signs of boredom, nor bragging about their abilities, but being an always friendly and reliable support for the group.

On the other hand, I have had students who constantly complained about how bad their fellow school orchestra players were, and they had parents, non musicians, who had a constant urge to point out how outstanding their children were (they even weren’t), and how boring the orchestra was. These students were by no means better players than my children, but they and/or their parents had this arrogant attitude toward playing in a school group.

I mean, I would never recommend a student play in some community orchestra if she doesn’t match the level, but when it is required, at school, it is a totally different thing. That’s one thing a school orchestra is all about- learning to fit into any group and give the best you can for everyone to prosper.

Every once in a while, such a topic comes up, and I always wonder why people think orchestra should be something special. When a Spanish kid in England is required to take a Spanish class, for some reason, or when a math enthusiast is way ahead of her class, you normally never tear apart their class experience. The teachers use their pedagogical inspiration to integrate these kids and their skills.
I always found it a lucky situation if something is easy. And I try to get my children to be grateful for their luck and give it back to the community.
School orchestra shouldn’t be about competition, and in your situation, I would tell this the teacher. Why isn’t she liking forward to having someone in the group that has some solid knowledge, already?

July 11, 2020, 10:24 AM · What Emily said.

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