Update on my "not getting joy from the violin" kid

March 16, 2023, 8:55 PM · Everyone was so helpful when I posted about my 13-year-old struggling to find joy in playing that I wanted to give an update.

Things are much better, though the technical remediation is still a struggle. We've talked through a lot of different options for her, and she's actually started playing a lot more viola. She seems more comfortable in viola world from a psychological standpoint, though physically she needs a little work on her set up. Her viola playing is pretty remarkable. She decided just last week to take the youth orchestra audition on viola (she is also taking it on violin), learned all her excerpts in just a week, and sounds amazing. She has a great sound, perfect viola vibrato, and gets around the instrument amazingly well (and mostly in tune now). Everybody is really trying to encourage her, because she is in many ways a better violist than violinist (not sure how or why), which of course is extremely valuable. There just aren't very many high level young violists out there.

She was also asked to play in a three-day festival orchestra that is very advanced level (on violin) -- she is by far the youngest participant and is super excited to (finally) get to play in a really high quality orchestra. Her scholarship and mentorship program arranged for her to play in it -- most of the other kids are high schoolers in the top level of the youth orchestra.

We still haven't heard from any of her summer programs, but hopefully we can figure something out for her in that regard.

In any case, thanks again for all the advice. Things are definitely better. I still don't know where she will end up, but there is definite improvement all around.

Replies (31)

Edited: March 16, 2023, 9:36 PM · Excellent. Violists are often born, not made.
March 16, 2023, 10:23 PM · Totally agree Stephen. If she is a viola player, then that is where she needs to be! That may actually have been a hidden part of the problem.
March 16, 2023, 11:26 PM · This is wonderful news, and I agree with Buri.
Edited: March 16, 2023, 11:43 PM · Wonderful! There’s a stereotype that good violists were once failed violinists, but I think in actuality like Stephen that they are born violists. Someone (like your daughter) might start on violin, but they were always going to end up being a violist. They just needed to figure that out for themself. The viola is a wonderful instrument and I’m sure she’s going to enjoy exploring its voice.
March 17, 2023, 4:23 AM · Even as a treble, I always enjoyed singing alto, so at near 15yo the viola ("alto" in French) was the next step..
Actually I'm a "failed violist" as I have earned more playing and teaching violin, but my violin is built like a small viola.
In retirement, sing tenor and play viola, and the world is your oyster!
March 17, 2023, 6:15 AM · Glad to hear she is happy, thats all that matters really.
Edited: March 17, 2023, 7:50 AM · I play a lot more viola now than I did in the past, because viola is where my quartet club needs me. I get my violin fix in community orchestra and in my weekly lessons.

The main thing to watch with viola is that it's just more physically demanding so you have to be extra careful about tension and paying attention to when your body is telling you to back off. Preventive measures include being very attentive to setup and posture, and to be more thoughtful about fingerings, especially "four vs. one" for notes like A#. Intonation is obviously an adjustment from the violin but the same things will help -- scales and arpeggios, scales in broken thirds. Scales in thirds are great, too, but again -- watch out for tension. Your MVP will be different on the viola too.

If you're going to be a violist my unsolicited advice is to always be working on a chamber part because that's where you're going to be doing 99% of your playing -- if you're lucky. (Also get the orchestra part for the Grieg Holberg Suite and start working on that frightful exposed passage in the first movement.)

March 17, 2023, 7:50 AM · Really wonderful to hear!
Edited: March 17, 2023, 9:12 AM · Pierre Monteux liked to say that he failed as a violinist, so became a violist. When he failed at that, he had to become a conductor.

But he had a notoriously self-effacing wit-- and had graduated with first prize for violin from the Conservatoire along with Jacques Thibaud.

March 17, 2023, 11:37 AM · Great to hear! She's at an age where she's trying to develop her unique voice, and the viola is a very unique musical voice.
March 17, 2023, 12:57 PM · Thank you for the update, Susan! It sounds like a great choice for her and will continue to bring her much joy!
March 17, 2023, 1:39 PM · I'm happy to hear that she's doing well and things are looking up. I'm just curious: how is a born violist different from a born violinist, like, when you say she's more comfortable in viola world psychologically or that she's a better violist than a violinist, what exactly does that mean/look like? I'm kinda just wondering, since I'm am amateur who lovees both violin and viola equally and struggles to choose one over the other (although I did consider pursuing a music performance degree but decided that music would not be a financially viable creer due to my lack of interest in teaching). For instance, I love the sound of the viola and enjoy the inner voices, but I also love some of the more showy violin pieces and enjoy being the melody as well, so I find great value in playing both regularly. I never had viola lessons, and although I was told I was good at viola, I was never really told I was a better violist than a violinist, but I was certainly encouraged to play viola a lot because of ensemble shortages. Again, I'm not looking for advice, just wanting to understand something a little more.
March 17, 2023, 2:04 PM · Paul, thank you for that information. These are also concerns of mine, as she is petite (5'1"), though our viola works well for petite people. Mostly she complains about feeling like she is clamping her jaw right now, so we definitely need to assess her set up. She is very flexible with almost hypermobile joints, which is great because she can do all sorts of 10ths and extensions, but also puts her at higher risk of injury.

Ella, it is hard to explain why she seems more like a violist to me. Some of it is she doesn't like to be the center of attention, doesn't like to be the soloist, likes to blend in. She likes that there are more opportunities to be valued and to shine on viola, and that playing doesn't feel like an ongoing competition she will never win. But she also likes to play the more interesting melodic first violin parts, so it is a bit of a mixed bag.

As for her actual playing, if you give many violinists a viola, they sound like a violinist playing on the viola. They don't have a natural sense of how to produce a rich sound, how to articulate, or how to change their vibrate in order to complement the range and response of a viola. She seems to have a natural ability to do these things. In addition, the "hard" things on viola (double stops, runs, etc.) come more naturally to her than some of the virtuosic violin techniques (mostly bow stuff, though she has a darn good up-bow staccato on viola!).

March 17, 2023, 2:23 PM · Thanks for the explanation. Yeah, I agree that if she feels like she's clamping down uncomfortably to hold the instrument then she should definitely try different chinrests.
March 17, 2023, 2:26 PM · @Susan - Paul's advice is good. You should make sure she has a viola that is right for her size. Violists tend to want the biggest d*mn instrument they can find because the larger instruments tend to resonate and sound better/richer/deeper. The downside is that lots of violists injure themselves with instruments that are too big.

As Paul says, some of the technique is different, particularly the amount of left had movement while playing. Violists also tend to use 1/2 and 2nd position a lot more than violinists.

One thing you did not mention is whether she has a teacher for viola. If not, that could help her make the switch more smoothly. There are also some books/etudes for people transitioning.

The good news is that violists are much more in demand and more popular than violinists, particularly for chamber music where the best viola parts are found. A long time violinist, I took up viola when I retired nine years ago and gradually transitioned to primarily being a violist due to joining a string quartet and switching to the viola section of my community orch. No regrets. Your daughter will flourish as a violist.

March 17, 2023, 2:40 PM · Her teacher, while primarily a violinist, also has several viola students, and teaches the violin to viola class at the pre-college program here. I played viola in high school and college, so we are OK in the teaching department for the most part.

Our viola is a 15.5 inch Whedbee from 1991, with uniquely cut bouts to make getting around easier while preserving a big sound. Interestingly, Bill Whedbee lives just a few blocks from us!

March 17, 2023, 2:58 PM · @Susan - Interesting instrument. A 15.5 viola is a pretty good size for someone who is small. I use one that size, and I am not all that big (5'5" on a good day) However, you should monitor her to check for potential problems that might result from a too-big viola.

Is her teacher a professional violist or just a professional violinist? In my violin days, I had lessons from teachers who were excellent violinists and could play viola, but it was not their preferred instrument. I would not take viola lessons from them at this point. At some point, you might want to find a professional, full-time violist to teach her if her current teacher is not. However, at this point she is probably fine, particularly if she is doing well and likes her teacher.

She should always keep in mind that most of the major classical composers who were string players preferred playing viola, e.g., Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorak. I recently attended a concert given by a pianist at the Kennedy Center, and he was talking about music between pieces. Among other things, he said that he would have given his left kidney to have attended the premiere of one of Mozart's string quintets because Mozart was playing the first viola part and Haydn the second viola part.

March 17, 2023, 3:08 PM · The more famous quartet he sat in had Haydn and Dittersdorf as violinists, and Pleyel (?) as cellist. Leopold Mozart was impressed.
March 17, 2023, 3:09 PM · @Stephen - I would be impressed by that lineup!
Edited: March 17, 2023, 3:28 PM · Dittersdorf on first violin, Haydn on second violin, Mozart on viola, Vanhal on cello.
March 17, 2023, 4:17 PM · There apparently was a brief conformation with Wieniawski on viola, Piatti on Cello, Ernst on 2nd violin and Joachim on 1st violin.

That must have been an interesting audience to be in:


Edited: March 17, 2023, 9:22 PM · Probably the concert I would most like to have attended took place on December 22, 1808. It took place in a freezing hall in Vienna and lasted four hours, but Beethoven premiered the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Choral Fantasy, and a bunch of other, less significant works. What a program!
March 18, 2023, 1:39 AM · As to the original topic... I may be unusual in that I started violin in order to play viola, but I was immediately better at viola than violin. Some of my bad violin habits turned out to be good viola habits: I already used a heavy bow stroke with a relatively pronated hand, which was a problem on violin but turned out to be exactly the right adjustment to make to play viola.
March 18, 2023, 3:04 AM · To the best of my knowledge the anecdote about Mozart playing viola in a quartet with Haydn, Dittersdorf and Vanhal only occurs in the notoriously unreliable Reminiscences of Michael Kelly. Like most musical anecdotes (including most of those about Heifetz..) it should be taken with a pinch of salt, and I'd very much like to see evidence for the further embellishments provided by Tom and Stephen above!
March 18, 2023, 7:08 AM · but Steve it is mentioned in a letter that Mozart wrote to his father, no? in that letter he boasted that he was much better than the rest in playing passages in a suitable position so that the fingering was easy. or am I confusing with another anecdote?
March 18, 2023, 8:59 AM · @Steve - which of the "embellishments" of mine are you referring to? For the Quintet story, I have only the word of the pianist I saw at the Kennedy Center. For the December 22, 1808 concert, there is lots of information out there, e.g., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beethoven_concert_of_22_December_1808
Edited: March 18, 2023, 9:10 AM · Maybe not the event Kelly refers to? Unfortunately I don't have my copy of his book to hand. I should have thought the viola parts of 18th century quartets could all be played in the first position!

Even in my own "reminiscences" I'm sometimes not entirely sure whether some of the details I think I remember aren't imagined...

Tom - I never heard the quintet premiere story so I wonder if that could be apocryphal too?

March 18, 2023, 1:18 PM · @Steve - I have no idea, but since Mozart liked to play viola and was good, my guess is that he probably played in the viola in one of more of the premieres of his pieces. Also, he was close to Haydn, so it would not surprise me if he and Haydn did what the pianist I heard said. But, I have no other source.

I know Beethoven premiered his works where there was a piano part, at least until the Archduke Trio which was the last piece of his he premiered on an instrument due to his increasing deafness.

March 19, 2023, 12:27 AM · That’s so lovely to hear!
Including about mother and daughter sharing the interest.
Have you considered reaching out to her summer programs proactively?
They may be just as happy or happier to take her as a violist.
March 19, 2023, 7:58 AM · In our experience, summer camps focused on chamber are always looking for violists, often using faculty and staff to fill in.
March 27, 2023, 12:26 AM · Thats a wonderful update!

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