Violin difficulties, will moving to the viola help?

July 30, 2020, 12:45 PM · Hi all, My name is Sam, an adult learner without a teacher (I've had bad experiences with teachers due to a disability I have), and I've been playing the violin for 5 years. In that time I have never found the instrument that comfortable, especially when playing the G string.

I have a right hand disability which means I have a unique bowing technique, but this isn't the issue. My right hand disability means that my left arm is relyed on for almost evrything in life and as a result is very developed.

I'm wondering if this over-development means that my bicep tenses too much when reaching round to the G string. Is this normal for muscular limbs? This tenseness happens simply when putting my index finger on the G string A in first position, even when there is no vibrato, no movement and no pressure down from the finger or up from the thumb. It is just the twisting required of the arm to reach that string.

If I press on the G string without twisiting my arm as much (keeping my elbow under the instrument), there is too much friction between the edge of the finger board and the base of the index finger, making vibrato close to impossible. I would have thought flexibility would come after five years of this but I haven't seen much change. Has anyone had this problem, or it is just normal for the instrument?

Lastly, I have heard some say that the larger viola can help tensing issues dissappear, while others say the opposite. I have always loved the sound of the viola and want to try it, but I'm curious if anyone has experience moving instruments and has any idea if I might find the larger instrument more comfortable. I'm 5'8 so what size viola might suit me?

Thanks for taking the time to read all this. Any thoughts are greatly appreciated!

Replies (14)

Edited: July 30, 2020, 3:44 PM · Height has nothing to do with it - it's the length of your arms and the size of your hands (& finger length). I'm 5'8" now (but down over the years from 6') and I find playing on the viola C string more difficult (and painful) than the violin G string - it wasn't always that way, but age takes its toll. I play 16" violas. If you can get to a shop to try different size viola do so.

The viola fingerboard/neck is a bit wider and thicker than the violin's so the lower string will be even more difficult to reach.

You can make access to the lowest string on either instrument easier by angling the instrument more toward your chest.

Edited: July 30, 2020, 1:22 PM · There's nothing about muscular arms (within some non-cartoonish bounds) that would intrinsically encumber violin playing. You can have relaxed, muscular arms (or tense string beans). I was a strength coach and am a powerlifter, and am fairly muscular - my level of tension varies based on my mood and has little to do with being muscular or lifting weights.

Having muscle tissue is one thing. Using it in a task-appropriate manner is another. It's possible your left arm/hand is generally tense from being in-use/on-guard all the time, but this can be unlearned and/or situationally altered. If you are inflexible at a joint, basic stretching and mobility drills also can help.

I do not know your specific disability, but with some exaggerated flexor tone is the norm. This can manifest as internal rotated postures (and lack of external rotation strength and mobility).

The position we need for reaching over to the G string requires external rotation at the shoulder. It is common for a shoulder to be lacking motion in this direction. For most people, this can be improved if you find the stretching/mobility drills to do so (but you probably want some guidance here to be sure it's your problem).

You can also experiment with how you hold the instrument, namely which direction it is pointed relative to your body. I wonder if your right hand needs are dictating a position of the instrument that makes things harder for your left.

July 30, 2020, 2:48 PM · I am skeptical such a switch will be miraculous, but my reaction is, if you can afford it, just try it! A decent student viola (Chinese) is not that expensive.
July 30, 2020, 5:06 PM · If you're having a hard time with the violin G string, the viola will be harder because you have to rotate your arm even more. This particular tension problem is one that should probably be solved on violin before you try to take up the viola.
July 31, 2020, 12:28 AM · Based on what you say (issues with twisting and reaching around for G-string), switching to viola is probably going to be more difficult unless you are comparing the G-string on violin and G-string on the viola (and forget about the C-string).

If you feel your violin is too small for you or you have problem squeezing for semitone at high positions, yes, viola should be easier. Or viola would be easier if you think the violin pieces are too fast, too high or too difficult. But it seems unlikely to help with tension and reaching.

But I agree with Jean, just buy or borrow a viola and try it! May be that's really what you want.

Edited: July 31, 2020, 3:07 AM · Sam, since you are to be self-taught, your personal comfort is the important thing. It's not impossible you might find a sympathetic teacher.
Some people hold the violin higher than others. Some hold it more to the left. You may want to examine how you hold it. Perhaps hold it more to the right, more tilting. You might want to see how far to the right you can hold your left elbow.
There is a youtube video where the teacher admits that for lengthy stays on the G string she shifts the position of the violin down south from her shoulder. She has some kind of longish chin rest, the end of which she has filed flat and this helps her to maintain control.
July 31, 2020, 3:26 AM · I have a 30° tilt on violin, 45° on viola, so I get a warm vibrato on the lowest string with my short pinky..
July 31, 2020, 11:20 AM · Well said, Adrian!
That reminds me: Chicago dealer Bein & Fushi issued a 6-DVD (late virtuoso violinist) Ruggiero Ricci "master class" in which he advocated and demonstrated a method of holding the violin with virtually a 90° tilt and suggested it was possibly the way Paganini held his violin. By this time Ricci was in his 80s (and I can attest that by the time you get into your 80s, you may well have to seriously modify your posture and technique). But back when Ricci was younger and looked more conventional playing his violin he was known to be one of the most remarkable performers of the 24 Paganini Caprices and all Paganini compositions.
Edited: August 1, 2020, 9:50 AM · Thanks so much everyone for your input!! I've found after a bit of experimentation that lowering the instrument further down my chest/collarbone helps reduce tension reaching round to the G. I'm using a necklace around the shoulder rest to support the violin in that position. The downside is that now my right hand struggles to bow the E string as the bow is closer to the vertical, which my disability makes difficult. So it is a balancing act.

In the meantime, I'll add streching exercises to my routine and maybe indulge in a student viola birthday purchase. I have never yet regretted buying an instrument, and want to be able to play and record deeper tones. I hear Stentor Violas are deccent value for money.

August 1, 2020, 11:46 AM · I have one more question to ask. My right hand has no horizontal wrist motion and I cannot move my fingers independently of one another. As a result I grip the bow handle like a claw, using my wrist's vertical movement to keep the bow roughly perpendicular to the strings as it moves up and down. I can get a smooth sound out of it some of the time but not always, as the grip means I can't let the bow glide of its own accord as I have heard it should be (A previous teacher called my bow hold 'a disaster'). I'll admit it is difficult to get smooth tones out of the high positions on the g string, as well as certain notes on the other strings (C is a problem on the D and A strings) though this my just be my instrument.

My question is, is the viola forgiving in terms of getting a smooth sound out of it in comparison to the violin?

I know I should probably hunt down a viola to test but it is a little difficult where I live.

August 1, 2020, 12:32 PM · 1-If you have a problem with C on both D & A strings it might be a WOLF TONE. There are ways to fix this if it is. You should check with another player to see if it is a wolf. Cellists know a lot about wolfs - they can spot them a mile away! It is a "battle" between the vibrating note of the string and a very close resonant frequency vibration of the instrument body that sounds as a note that will not play out properly and sometimes seems to be caught in a "machine-gun battle." There are "wolf eliminator" devices that can help - and some that can actually cure the problem.

As much as possible try to avoid doing things with your left hand that cause tension in your right. I know it leads to some limitations but if "making music" is your main goal, do what you must to play what you want while working out alternative ways to use your right hand.

If you want to play a "chin instrument" there are many ways to hold the bow to play most sub-virtuoso music. Holding it with your thumb under the frog might help. Now I sometimes have to do that because of an essential tremor that has increased with age. I can play everything I have to and almost everything I want to on violin and viola with that bow hold.

August 1, 2020, 2:53 PM · There are guys on here who play the violin quite well even though they are fairly pumped. So I don't think that's an issue.

The cello is the most ergonomic of the stringed instruments, by far.

Edited: August 2, 2020, 6:27 AM · Thanks Andrew, I'll investigate the wolf note. My right is never tense, I simply have to hold the bow a certain way because of no lateral wrist motion (only having vertical wrist motion means my right hand palm faces the instrument and grips the end of the frog that way), but it is not uncomfortable at all, just difficult to control the bow smoothly (lack of finger dexterity means I have two choices - I either grip the bow and have restrictive control, or I don't grip the bow but have no control whatsoever.
Ive accepted these limitations and want to make sure my left side is comfortable, though my sound would benefit from a more forgiving instrument.

Thanks for your input Paul. The Cello is great but I find drawing the bow horizontally very difficult - I need gravity to help control the bow. I'm not quite pumped enough to put the cello on my shoulder...

Edited: August 2, 2020, 7:16 AM · Sam, now I understand your bowing problem better. Let me suggest that the German-style bass bow has a frog designed to be held the way you are holding your violin bow. Just google "German style bass bow" to see examples. (The French style looks like an overgrown cello bow, completely different bow hold.)

It might be possible to adapt a version of that style frog to your bow.

A viola bow is 10 grams heavier than a violin bow that 1/3 ounce is not much, but the added torque would not help your problem. Also, the viola bow is typically used with more torque applied from the right hand (index finger) than a violin bow so that would probably be an added negative factor given your bow hold.

You are right about cello - but a cello bow adapted to a "German-style frog" would be very reasonable - and would work. Cello IS the most ergonomic of the bowed string instruments. The amount of gravitational assistance the bow gets depends on how far you extend the endpin to adjust the angle - and what style of endpin you use. There are "bent" endpins that allow the fingerboard a 45-degree angle slope and less to the ground. The typical cello bow weighs 20 grams more than a violin bow.

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