Wanna Be Violist -- yep that's me.

February 15, 2021, 3:04 PM · So I recently bought myself a beginner's viola. It is properly setup, sounds good, and plays well and easy. And surprisingly, I am able to apply my violin techniques much more easier than I thought.

I never played viola in my life except just a few weeks ago. After I got my viola, I started playing by transposing the pieces I know in the violin. I was even able to play Bach Solo G minor (transposed of course) with it, along with other favorite repertoire that did not require me to go too high in the upper registers.

I even bought myself Suzuki Book 4 for Viola to help me in my sight-reading exercises on the alto/viola clef.
But what I found out is that the Viola Suzuki Book 4 pieces are pretty much a transposed version of the violin pieces.

Given that I have no delusion of becoming a true violist, I am beginning to wonder if it is even worth my time to learn pieces in viola that are in the correct keys and not just transposed from the violin?

I can pretty much play any piece on my viola that I want even without referring to any music sheet. Whether they are in the "correct or original" key for the piece, well, that's a different story altogether.

I am just curious how many "primary" violinist who plays viola as well in this forum play classical repertoire in the true intended key of the piece?

This is just for my own curiosity. I don't intend to open up a debate of any kind at all.

One day, I just decided to play the viola, and "voila"... here I am... lol.

Replies (33)

February 15, 2021, 3:14 PM · Welcome to the dark side! I started as a violin maker, but Michael Tree converted me into a viola maker.

As a matter of fact many violinists were (and are) also viola players, Paganini, Bach, Menuhin, Oistrack, Vengerov, Zukerman. Michael Tree played the violin too, and so Toby Appel.

But, yes, you will have to learn the alto clef.

Edited: February 15, 2021, 3:56 PM · While it's great to play transcriptions from the violin literature, I'd also explore some of the viola repertoire too. I know I'm suggesting another trnascription here but violists play this all the time: Bach cello suites. They're the cello suites played an octave higher. Some of the other more approchable viola rep includes Glazunov Elegy and Casadeus Concertos. That's on the easier side of the spectrum but it's always good to start a bit simpler as you get fluent with the clef. Viola is a different entity and thus has its own literature, though it is yes indeed very similar to playing the violin.
February 15, 2021, 4:28 PM · Thank you Luis and Ella, for your insights. I truly appreciate it. Now I have some things to ponder.
February 15, 2021, 5:06 PM · Ben - I did what you did to firm up my transition from life-long violinist to "also a violist." I think it is a great way to do it, if you can.

I bought Suzuki Viola Books 4 -7, which is as far as they went then and used that to transition myself to sight-reading viola clef. Until then I had used the gimmicks of reading viola 1st position like violin 3rd position and viola 3rd position like violin 1st position one string over. It worked at the rate of one Suzuki book per day. After that I played viola in orchestra for about 5 years - until COVID-19.

A really fine piece of music to help firm up your viola chops is the ZELTER viola concerto (available on IMSLP.org). Very rewarding!

February 15, 2021, 6:07 PM · Thanks, Andrew for your insight. I'll also look up the Zelter violin concerto :-).

From what I've read so far from you, Luis, and Ella, it may be worth my while to learn alto clef :-).

February 15, 2021, 6:13 PM · Other relatively easy pieces that may be good for violinists switching to viola: the Telemann viola concerto and the the Schumann Adagio and Allegro. The latter is a transcription, but originally from horn, not violin.
February 15, 2021, 6:55 PM · My son plays both violin and viola and has found that the most interesting repertoire to play on viola is chamber music, especially quartets and the like! Obviously, this is hard during a pandemic, but it may ultimately be some of your most satisfying playing.
February 15, 2021, 7:10 PM · I would add that finding a good sounding viola is much harder... In general, violas are plagued with a dead C string, too slow response, too narrow dynamic range (you change your bowing and almost nothing happens in terms of volume and sound colour) and lack of clarity (notes will get mixed during quick passages).
February 15, 2021, 8:07 PM · Thanks, Andrew H. for repertoire suggestions. I will definitley look them up too.

@Susan - I doubt I will ever reach your son's viola playing level.. lol. Hopefully he will be able to do chamber again soon.

@Luis - I'm sure you are correct. So far, with my limited ability on the viola, I haven't reached it's limit yet... lol

Edited: February 15, 2021, 8:11 PM · Here is my blog post on my entry into the viola world. Perhaps you will experience some of the same things.


To teach yourself Alto Clef you just have to dive in. I got ahold of a book of viola studies (Hofmann) that have no violin counterpart (so that I could not play them by ear) and I read through the first half of those.

I strongly suggest you get a transcription of the Bach cello suites for viola. I have the Primrose edition but I don't really care for it. Primrose claims that only the first four suites are worth attempting on the viola and I think he's right. I find the Bach cello suites are more satisfying on the viola than his gamba sonatas.

Luis is right, of course, about viola sound and response. As I described in my blog post, my viola has a big rich sound, but responsiveness and dynamic range on the C string are poor. This is not usually a problem but it was a significant hardship when I was playing in an orchestra and we did the Grieg Holberg Suite which has a nightmare of a C-and-G-string passage in the first movement for the viola section. With apologies to Frank Zappa, my C-string is a Harley -- you kick it to start. This is really not what you want in a chamber instrument where sensitive sound-blending is the order of the day.

February 15, 2021, 8:55 PM · Thanks for the blog, Paul. Interesting read. :-)
February 16, 2021, 4:16 AM · For my regular semi-pro orchestra, I postulated on viola, but thye put me in the first violins!
I think I made the mistake of a)holding my viola high, b)vibrating all four fingers, and c)playing in tune!
I even had to swap my spare viola for a decent violin..
Edited: February 16, 2021, 5:29 AM · Expect and welcome transposition.
If I had a viola and wanted to play Bach violin music on it, I'd transpose it. If something is "violinistic", it won't be "violistic" unless it is transposed. If you want original viola music, there's the Hindemith Meditation I picked up in a charity shop a while back. I tried sight-reading it and playing alto clef for the first time and simultaneously transposing it for violin. Yes, it gave me a headache!
I could easily buy a viola, but my flat needs a new kitchen, so I'd better be careful with my money.
February 16, 2021, 7:45 AM · @Adrian - no good deed goes unpunished.
February 16, 2021, 9:02 AM · I had a violin teacher who was a violist and demonstrated everything on the viola (except perhaps the highest notes). We would play the Bartok violin duets and he would play the lower line (as is) on the viola.
February 16, 2021, 9:14 AM · My violin teacher is a violist.
February 16, 2021, 11:05 AM · I even setup a viola as a violin for lessons, with 3 viola strings, and a violin E near breaking point. The viola A lost its harshness, which the E took over willingly! I retained the viola bow.

Apart from not disturbing my left hand when switching, I could better show my slender-handed young ladies how to manager their often-outsized violins.
They could even film me on those smartphone thingies.

I know several violist violin teachers; I like to think we love music and children more than ourselves?...

February 16, 2021, 11:21 AM · The Zelter concerto is a good shout. Its really nice. For another transcription, I'd recommend Fauré's elegie which, surprise surprise, was written for cello originally
February 16, 2021, 11:27 AM · Realistically - Most Violists spend most of their time in orchestras or chamber music. I would suggest the Viola part for the Beethoven Quartets.
February 16, 2021, 12:19 PM · There isn't any point playing transcriptions of violin concertos on the viola except maybe the Bach concertos. The viola is not designed for really high stuff like the violin -- remember that the violin's highest string is just a thin wire, its diameter is an outlier among the four strings of the violin. The viola doesn't have anything comparable.

Some composers failed to recognize this (or they ignored it) and wrote screechy orchestral parts for the viola, for example Aaron Copland.

You will know you have reached a comfortable familiarity with alto clef when you are merrily sight-reading an orchestral part and you freak out when you see a treble clef.

February 16, 2021, 3:04 PM · Welcome to the best side of the string world, violas!

Another vote for the Zelter viola concerto, it is fantastic to learn. I also think the Telemann Viola Concerto is brilliant to learn too.

Enjoy your viola journey :)

February 16, 2021, 3:45 PM · I call myself The Accidental Violist, since I fell into it quite unexpectedly. (Short version: A local community orchestra desperately needed violists and I was drafted.)

I quickly realized that it's not right to look at the viola as a big violin. There are enough similarities to get you started, but you soon realize you're dealing with a different instrument. The sound is deeper, you have to really dig into the strings to make it sing... and then there's that alto clef. Yes, there are short cuts comparing it to various positions in treble clef, but it's best to just learn it as a separate entity. Learn where the open strings are on the staff, and that middle C is the middle line - and then just start practising. It took me two weeks to get to where I had a somewhat usable knowledge of alto clef, which meant I could at least find notes during rehearsal. After a while it becomes natural.

For small ensemble playing, look for Progressive Duets, arranged by Doris Gazda and Larry Clark, published by Carl Fischer. There are two books of duets and one of trios, for violin, viola, and cello. All parts are present in each book, and are designed so you can mix and match depending on what instruments are available.

As for solo pieces, the one I'm working on is the Telemann Viola Concerto in G major.

As others have said, welcome to the dark side. I like seducing violinists by handing them my viola and having them draw the bow across the C string.

February 16, 2021, 4:07 PM · Thank you all, once again for all your insights, recommendations, and tips. I truly appreciate it. I guess there's no turning back now.. lol.

Seriously, I do enjoy playing my viola :-).

Edited: February 16, 2021, 5:12 PM · Many years ago in my orchestral cello days, our principal violist didn't show at an important rehearsal. I wasn't aware of this until the conductor "asked" me to play, on the cello, the viola principal's part which contained an important solo passage. I'd never played the viola but was aware that the main viola clef (the alto) was almost but not quite unlike the cello tenor clef. Knowing this didn't prepare me for the reality of sight-reading a non-trivial solo in an unfamiliar clef in a live rehearsal. I managed somehow to scramble my way through it without disaster, but I would have been very grateful for the ministrations afterward of those kind folks in white coats had they been around!

The moral of this must surely be, check that the conductor knows the real difference between the alto and tenor clefs!

No, I regret I'm a bit too old now to take up the viola. The violin takes up all my time now, and I somehow doubt whether my DFA would permit the purchase of a second instrument!

February 17, 2021, 12:36 PM · Elgar's Cello Concerto has been arranged for the viola, and performed.
February 17, 2021, 1:06 PM · Welcome to the world of the Diesel Geige! I - as many others I think - started playing the viola because a group of friends wanted to play chamber music and no-one played the viola. I still play the violin and in different periods of my life one instruments has taken priority. As mentioned above the instruments are similar enough that knowing one will help you play the other, but you must embrace the differences. Learn to enjoy the slower response of the C string.
And you really must learn to read the alto clef properly! Forget about the "shortcuts" of pretending you are in 3 position on the violin etc. You will soon discover that the accidentals and half steps are in the wrong place.
A good way to learn is to join the viola section of an orchestra of matching level. Or playing string quartet. Playing something you already know on the violin will not help you much in terms of learning the clef. Write the open strings on a piece of staff paper and look at it frequently throughout the day.
February 17, 2021, 2:22 PM · Thanks Trevor and Bo for your insights and advise. I'm now determined to learn alto clef. From what I've read from all the encouraging and wonderful comments I received, being able to read alto clef, would make playing viola more satisfying -- even for a wannabe like me .. lol.
Edited: February 17, 2021, 3:22 PM · Ben, your approach, reading viola parts in the earlier Suzuki books that are transposed from violin parts should get you reading alto clef in no time as it did for me.
Good Luck.
February 17, 2021, 4:07 PM · Thanks, Andrew. I will continue doing that.
February 18, 2021, 10:56 AM · Yeah, eventually you need to be able to read stuff that you don't know by ear, though. That's why I suggested the Hofmann studies because they're on IMSLP and there's no violin transcription that I'm aware of. If there is a violin transcription, nobody uses it because there's too much other stuff that's better. The ironic advantage of the Hofmann studies is that they're so unmusical that you can't predict what jarring harmonic cadence will come next.
February 18, 2021, 3:36 PM · Thanks, Paul. I will check this out too. :-)
Edited: February 19, 2021, 6:17 AM · In fact I possess a copy of the Laubach Augener Méthode pour Alto, A Practical School for the Viola. I found it in a charity shop. I may never use it, but if I buy a viola, I'll show it to my teacher.

I suspect, though, that transposed Suzuki books are the best idea.

February 19, 2021, 11:04 AM · Alto Clef:- I have read that in the 16th century, right after the violin family was invented, the strings were used to double the choir parts; a small viola to double the Alto line, and a larger tenor Viola to double the tenors. C-clefs were used to notate the parts. Later the tenor Viola disappeared, and we are still using the Alto clef for the Viola. It would have been better to use the mezzo-soprano clef for the viola. That would put middle C on the second line from the bottom, and violinists could switch instruments easily, without learning a new system. It's too late to re-write 400 years of Viola parts.

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