Advice for beginner playing violin/viola like a cello?

October 31, 2020, 2:50 PM · As some of you might recall from previous posts, I'm a beginner in my 60's playing a violin strung as a viola. Back in 2012 I had lessons for about four months before I was forced to quit due to illness.

This summer I picked it up again and started over in my beginner book (Essential Elements 2000). I worked hard on scales, intonation and bow control. But left hand numbness soon became a problem. No matter how I stretched beforehand and tried to adjust my posture, I could not practice more than 20 or 30 minutes before having to stop. I believe it's ulnar nerve compression. I have really short arms. Even my 4/4 violin is too long for me to cup the scroll with my hand.

Instead of quitting, I decided to hold my "viola" vertically in my lap and play it like a cello.

On Sept. 26th I changed strings from Helicores to Tonicas and began playing vertically. What a nightmare! My fingers didn't know where to land; I had zero bow control. I wasn't playing my instrument vertically so much as learning an entirely new instrument from scratch. I felt so disheartened. But now I can practice for hours at a time.

A month later and bowing is a lot better. My biggest challenge right now is how to find the notes with my fingers, then improving intonation.

With my instrument held on my collarbone, the neck resting in the crook at the base of my thumb, my left hand always knew where it was in relation to the fingerboard. But playing vertically, my left hand feels lost in space.

Is there a way to create something like a "home base" for my left hand so my fingers know where they are in relation to the fingerboard? Or is this just something that gets better with more experience? (it has already improved somewhat from where I was a month ago)

Regarding intonation: I have a Korg CA-1 tuner to check my accuracy. My notes wobble quite a bit, even with my finger apparently in the same place. A "C" for example, won't be completely off as C# or C-flat, but it's not a perfect C, either. So I lean my fingertip this way or that way to make it a clean C, but as I do a long bow stroke the note still changes. It doesn't hold steady on the green light.

Once I manage to get a note perfectly "in the green", I can't seem to land it again without fishing for it.

When I played normally I was able to stay "in the green" more of the time. What am I doing wrong?

I know I need lessons from a teacher but that isn't an option right now. Any advice you can give me here is hugely appreciated.

Thank you for your time.

PS: Viola jokes are welcome :-)

Replies (30)

October 31, 2020, 3:55 PM · Amrita,

The process is not easy but the reality is that you already have a complete set of neural pathways associated with the instrument. If you played long enough you turned those paths into superhighways. You have to build a whole new network from scratch.

Fortunately, our brains are very "plastic" but the process is very slow in the beginning. You will, with time and consistency, create all the bio-mechanical circuits to make playing in the vertical position possible.

Finding a teacher who will work with you and the vertical position will be next-to-impossible but becoming an autodidact is well in the realm of possibility.

October 31, 2020, 6:17 PM · "Autodictat." I had to look that up. Thank you for the encouragement, George.

This plasticity of the hippocampus is precisely what I'm trying to preserve as I get older. Thus, learning an instrument! I had hoped that the neural pathways developed during my few months playing on the shoulder weren't too ingrained to change easily, but they were. So it really is like learning a new instrument from scratch. Creating new muscle memory. Only this time without a teacher.

After watching some cello tutorials for beginners on youtube, it appears that finding 1st position is a typical beginner problem. I just learned that I must keep my thumb aligned with my second finger at all times. That should help.

I probably have to be a little more patient with myself. It has only been one month. I might be trying to go too fast.

I was inspired to play vertically by these two artists. They just looked so much more comfortable than I was.

The Impossible Duet: Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia for Cello and Violin

Gaelynn Lee, playing violin like a cello:

October 31, 2020, 8:01 PM · Why not take a lesson from a cello teacher?
October 31, 2020, 9:33 PM · Most of the teachers are not doing in-person classes right now. I don't have a computer or smartphone that can do virtual classes. There is one teacher about 50 miles away who teaches both viola and cello, but I'm not up to making a 100 mile round trip.
November 1, 2020, 4:22 AM · Have you considered buying a 3/4 size violin instead of trying to use a full-size instrument? Or buy a 13" viola which a comparable size but is built to be a viola instead of using a violin restrung as a viola.

Regarding learning to play in an upright position, try to ignore most of what you learned before. And remember that you need to approach this as a complete beginner since very little of your former technic will translate to playing vertically. Your bow arm is moving very differently, and your fingering is very different. so start again at the very beginning and using your Essential Elements 2000 should be fine. But approach it as if you were a student in a school ensemble class -- those pages are laid out to basically be a single page a week. Don't try to go fast -- as adults our brains can comprehend far more much faster than our muscles can achieve. But to effectively learn a new instrument (which is what you are doing) we have to be as little children and move slowly so that our muscles and our neural pathways can develop.

I've noticed that my adult students are the most difficult to teach because they know what they want to sound like and get very frustrated when they don't sound like that. Listening to professionals is great IF you are only listening to see what might be possible after you've been playing as long as they have. But don't let it frustrate you when you can't play like they can.

Watch as many youtube videos of instruction on cello, since essentially you are playing a baby cello. Adapt what they are saying to your smaller instrument, move very slowly and don't expect too much too soon.

Keep us posted! Good luck in this new journey!

Edited: November 1, 2020, 9:38 AM · Amrita,
Regarding your question about how to find home base:
Put a small piece of adhesive tape on the neck of the violin opposite where your index finger (1st finger) is in tune. Place you thumb in contact with the tape and start playing with your 1st finger opposite your thumb.

Playing the violin the way you propose is common in some cultures. One of my granddaughters spends part of her time living on the Greek island of Crete. She says one of her neighbors, a very good musician holds his violin that way, although not all Cretan violinists do. (My granddaughter took violin lessons from me for 10 years - so she knows her way around a violin, under her chin.)

Elise's suggestion is a good one. My experience has been that professional cellists can play a violin in cello position - and easily read treble clef - since that is one of the clefs cellists play. My cello teacher (when I was a mid-teen) could do that. In fact I could too, but by my mid 20s if I held an instrument in that position I read the music as a cellist and if I held an instrument under my chin I read as a violinist.

If I recall correctly, there is a wonderful video of "the gang" playing part of the Schubert Trout Quintet with cellist Jacqueline duPre playing violin on her lap (other players included Perlman, Zukerman, Mehta and Barenboim).

Edited: November 1, 2020, 9:57 AM · If you really want to play the violin, what you should to is take your violin with you to a physical therapist. I can recommend one who specializes in upper extremities and who does virtual appointments. She was recommended to me by Susanna Klein, who is a violin professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. Show the PT how you are practicing and let THEM prescribe "stretching" or whatever exercises might be needed to keep you playing.

Just about all you can do otherwise is trade in your violin and your viola for a cello and be done with it. The cello is the most ergonomic of the stringed instruments and no wonder it's the one often taken up by folks "getting on in years". If you want to do Zoom lessons there are plenty of teachers who can use the extra income because their freeway-phil paychecks are distant memories and their freelancing side-businesses have entirely imploded.

One reason you want to think twice about taking viola lessons from a cellist is because the fingerings are different. If you switch to the cello you will be starting over from a purely physical standpoint but of course you will carry your musical training with you (knowledge about intonation, tone production, etc.)

November 1, 2020, 2:11 PM · Thank you all for your advice. I really appreciate your taking the time to share your wisdom with me.

David's practice advice is spot-on. I *did* start over at the beginning, but I've been rushing too fast. I didn't know how long to spend on each excercise; how fluently I should play it before moving on. I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself. Having a structure of one page a week takes the pressure off.

Andrew's suggestion to put a piece of tape on the neck to give a place for my thumb to rest is also helpful. Thank you, Andrew! Your story about people in other cultures playing their fiddles on their laps reminds me of the old saying, "It's amazing what one can accomplish when one doesn't know what one can't do."

Even though I miss hearing a fiddle ringing under my ear, I don't want to try playing an instrument of any size on my shoulder again. At my age, with whiplash injuries, shoulder arthritis and fibromyalgia, that's just asking for a repetitive stress injury. I don't heal well from those.

If a PT saw me holding my 14" violin/viola, the first thing she would say is "get a smaller one." I've considered it and don't want to go there. It's been hard enough finding a C string that doesn't suck on a 14". A shorter C string would be even worse. Maybe I'm being unreasonably stubborn, but I don't want to play a 13" instrument or a cello. I love the viola.

Rather than spend money on a new computer capable of virtual appointments, PT and an even tinier viola to play on my shoulder, I'd rather spend money on a *better* viola and just play comfortably on my lap. I'm actually saving up for a 14" V. Richelieu!

I don't mind holding it unconventionally. I'm doing this purely for the fun of it, for the joy of making noise, for the sense of satisfaction I feel when mastering new skills.

I found two series of instruction videos on youtube for beginner cellists. They've already given me some helpful tips and you guys have given me more. This is such a great community! Thank you so much.

November 1, 2020, 6:26 PM · The piece of tape on the neck to anchor my thumb is helping a LOT. I can hear the improvement already, and the tuner shows it.

Thanks again, Andrew!

November 2, 2020, 8:12 AM · I wonder whether taking up the cello would be much more of a challenge for you than learning violin held like a cello? And viola da gamba might present less of a challenge than either option.
November 2, 2020, 9:32 AM · It's just that I don't want to play a cello. I honestly _love_ the viola, and I already have one (sort of).

Cost is a factor as well. I can barely afford new viola strings. Cellos and viola da gambas are very expensive, as are their strings. And they are heavy. I wouldn't be able to carry one to lessons.

If it's a matter of putting on frets, I can put on stick-on frets for a lot less money than buying a new instrument, but I think Andrew's suggestion of the tape is going to help me improve without them.

If cost was not a factor and my body wasn't so decrepit, I'd love to try a viola de gamba, but I just don't see that as an option unless I win the lottery big time.

November 2, 2020, 11:45 AM · My idea with the tape on the neck (not the fingerboard) is that once you have the 1st finger placed you work out the other "fingers by ear."
If you go to higher positions (probably 3rd position first) you will work out your left arm posture in relation to the edge of the violin body by feel (as students do when the violin is under the chin and as cellists do for 4th position).

Tapes on the fingerboard - as so many young students use - cannot really be felt, are misleading as to intonation and looking to see them puts them into improper playing position - the same is true for cello students who use fingerboard tapes. I know there are famous teachers who have their students use finger-board tapes, I saw a video of a fantastic little cellist with 2 octaves of FB tapes. (I need a smiley face here- ;-) - will have to do!)

Frets on a fingerboard defeat the character of a violin when it comes to playing double stops and chords in certain keys - as well as vibrato options.

Edited: November 2, 2020, 1:26 PM · You could even try a really big viola by adopting cello-type fingerings.
We violists often do, anyway!

The great 'cellist YoYo Ma recorded Bartok's viola concerto on a Carleen Hutchins Vertical Viola ("Alto Violin") with a 20 inch body. The viola, that is.

November 2, 2020, 2:36 PM · That's an idea, Adrian. How are cello-type fingerings different from what I'm doing? Or, how big a change would it be?

Right now, violin-length fingerboard is comfortable for my 4th finger. But as long as I'm saving up for a real viola, a bigger one would be exciting if I could make it work.

Andrew, I did as you advised. I put a tiny piece of scotch tape on the back of the neck for my thumb to rest on until I get it set in my muscle memory. It's really helping! Personally I can't stand the look of tapes or stickers down a fingerboard. Never had them, never will.

One more question for you violists/cellists: What is the ideal bow length for playing vertically?

Edited: November 2, 2020, 4:21 PM · The hair on a full size cello bow is 2 inches (5 cm) shorter than a violin or viola bow. The ideal bow length for a particular person is also related to their arm length.

An average full-size (i.e., "4/4") cello bow weighs 80 grams compared to a 70 gram viola bow or 60 gram violin bow. Sub-scale bows are lighter in weight.

If you are getting a new bow to play your instrument vertically be aware that because of the relative angles of the instrument's strings, the bow and the center of the earth the gravitation force vector pulling on the "cello" bow will be reduced compared to the same instrument played under the chin. Also be aware that bow sticks resonate so that simply using a cello-bow-like bow for its weight and length may prevent certain instrument resonances from being optimally activated.

It would be best if you could experiment at a shop that has a number of bows to try.

EDIT: Let me add - that it would probably be helpful if your instrument is long enough to rest on/between your thighs (a few inch behind your knees) while you sit upright with the scroll on your shoulder/collar-bone when you play it so it is firmly supported.

November 2, 2020, 4:34 PM · Thank you again, Andrew!

My arms are so short, I could not even cup the scroll of a 4/4 violin on my shoulder. And I have some arthritis in my neck and shoulders.

I have a Codabow Diamond SX viola bow at 70 grams and about 29.5" long. And a nice old German pernambuco bow with a violin frog weighing 65.5 grams at 29". I guess you'd call it a hybrid bow? I could never have afforded either of them at a violin shop; basically I really lucked out on Ebay. They each draw a different sound. The Codabow is more powerful, the German is sweeter.

I've been thinking about trying a smaller, lighter baroque bow for this exercise. Maybe even a mid-weight Incredibow for viola. It's probably not a "great" bow, but it's something I could afford and I'd never need to pay for rehairing.

I believe you have one of these? How did you like it for cello?

Edited: November 2, 2020, 8:17 PM · I used my "cello Incredibow" on viola for a while and liked it fine. It all depends on the instrument and the rosin you use. I never liked it much for cello (but I have better cello bows).

The longer violin or viola bows are no problem - you don't have to use all the bow as I'm sure you know. I would think the bows you have should work fine.

November 2, 2020, 8:16 PM · If you're sure I know something, I'm afraid your confidence is misplaced! I did notice that the bows work better when I choke-up on the stick a little, so thanks. They're good bows, certainly better than I am. Nice to know the Incredibow is decent as well.

I'm just going to keep practicing, saving my money. When I have enough to buy a better viola, perhaps I'll also have a better idea about what will suit me.

Thanks, again!

November 5, 2020, 10:55 AM · Re: 'cello fingerings.
Instead of "framing" a perfect fourth with the index and pinky, cellists frame a minor (1234) or major (1-234) third.
Be conscious of half positions! Changing from 0-1234 to 0-1-234 entails moving the hand forward by a semitone: still 1st position for the text, but in reality it's 2nd position withe index bent back.
The fingers come in from the side, and can open in an easier fan-like fashion.
November 5, 2020, 12:14 PM · When you play a violin or viola in "cello position" you will still finger it like a violin or viola.

Cello fingerings in the "neck positions" are different than for smaller instruments because of the larger distances between notes. For example on the D string on cello, the (first position part of) the D major scale (D-E-F#-G) is fingered 0-1-3-4 - you cannot reach the A (next note) on the D string in first position. If you are playing the D string part of a C major scale on cello it will go 0-1-2-4 (D-E-F-G). You don't need to finger a violin or viola that way.

November 5, 2020, 4:37 PM · Thank you both for explaining that.

When covid is over, I'm going to go to a violin shop and sit down with the larger violas to see if I can get comfortable with that. If I can, it would be fun to have a big viola.

If it's too much of a stretch mentally or literally, I can still go with a V.Richelieu. They make a 14" that really does sound good.

Edited: November 6, 2020, 4:29 AM · Just to add that although I play my 15-3/4 inch viola in the usual way, I often borrow fingerings from cellists. Many violas need a firm left finger contact (except during shifts), and a very spread hand tires my aging tendons!

I found an interesting paper on the different fingerings of Flesch and Galamian in their editions of Kreutzer, Bach etc. Galamian had longer fingers and favoured extensions and stretch-then-contract shifts, while Flesch had stubbier fingers and favoured more frequent shifts and across-the-strings tritones.

November 6, 2020, 10:38 AM · I haven't even learned how to shift yet. Still in 1st position. But I'm prone to tendon injuries from the slightest nothings, and I don't heal well from them.
November 8, 2020, 12:09 AM · I am curious if you are using a cello style vibrato or violin/viola vibrato ? Forgive me if this has already been covered.
Edited: November 8, 2020, 6:55 AM · I should recommend watching cellists or cello tutorials: I find their vibrato is so much easier with the fingers coming in from the side, rather than from underneath.

Tendons? Mine are 71yo and I always start practice in a kind of fuzzy slow-motion to find the stretches with just enough pressure to get a clear tone; then trying to keep this lightness when playing normally. Following what others have said, don't force or squeeze, but "pop" the finger down enough to start the note, but release some of the pressure during the note.

Edited: November 9, 2020, 12:21 PM · AMRITA,
Check out the CRETAN LYRA and the BYZANTINE LYRA on line (for example, Wikipedia). These instruments are played in a position very similar to playing violin or viola in "cello position." The Cretan Lyra has 3 strings: A-D-G, so any violinist or violist would be very familiar with the notes (although I think it is hard to find printed music for the instrument - it seems to be "learned by ear"). The space between the strings is larger than for violin or viola and the notes are sounded by placing the finger tips on the sound board and touching the strings on their left side with the fingernails. Strings are very cheap, about $15 for a complete set. A violin bow is typically used to bow the Lyra, but it is held from underneath, not from above as a cello bow would be held by a cellist in that position.

I played on a Cretan Lyra this past Saturday for a few minutes. My granddaughter had just returned to California from Crete with a Cretan Lyra she had just obtained. She has lived on the island of Crete three times over the past 2 years doing research for a couple of books she is writing (she is a published writer/author). She was planning to return to CA in December but was alerted 2 weeks ago that her December flight has been cancelled (Europe is shutting down) and she only had a few days to change her flight and get out of there. She had already arranged to buy a Lyra and take lessons - and she managed to get the Lyra on the last days. She brought it over to show me for a birthday party we had this past Saturday. She took violin lessons from me at ages 6 to 16. She is now set up to take ZOOM Lyra lessons by one of the known soloists on the instrument, Kelly Thoma.

I'm not suggesting you should learn Lyra instead of "lap viola," but the techniques of Lyra players might be instructive.

November 9, 2020, 2:28 PM · that's interesting, Andrew.

I wonder what the tonal advantage is for holding the bow upside down. Or is it the cellists that hold the bow upside down?

Edited: November 10, 2020, 12:30 PM · It's no advantage for me - it may derived from the "taller" (or is it "wider") bows I've seen on line for use on Lyras. They could be held the way bassists hold German-style bass bows (French-style are held like cello bows).

But apparently it is an option.

actually, if you are going to play a lap viola you get to define how you do everything (until you get a lap-viola teacher).

My granddaughter is having trouble adapting to that kind of hold for her Lyra. One other thing - my granddaugher's ZOOM teacher tells her the "end-button" of the Lyra goes on one thigh but the teacher (Kelly Thoma) holds hers between her thighs when she performs (you can find it on youtube).

Edited: November 12, 2020, 3:01 PM · Viola da gamba bows are less "deep" than bass bows but are still held "underhand". I find it possible to hold my normal bow this way, with the 2nd and 3rd fingers pressing on the hair. The up-bow motion is then the stronger one as the arm swings inwards.

Watch some alto or tenor gambas on U-toob!

November 13, 2020, 11:12 PM · If anyone's interested, I'm happy to say that things suddenly began to "click" today. My intonation is starting to sound better.

I'm still working my way slowly through Book 1 as David suggested, but I'm also practicing the finger pattern exercises cleverly hidden at the end of Book 2. I practice finger patterns by string and finger patterns by key along with scales for an hour or two, followed by the lessons in book 1.

This is so much fun :-)

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