Taking the Plunge
A violinist was having lunch with another violinist friend one sunny day. She had come directly from a quartet rehearsal, so she brought her violin with her into the restaurant.
While eating, she got a call from the violist in her quartet (whom she had given a ride home). The guy said he had left his viola in her car, and could she please bring it back when convenient. The violinist agreed and said goodbye.
Then suddenly she gasped.
“Oh don’t worry,” said the other violinist. “He won’t even need it before your next rehearsal.”
“No, you don’t understand! It’s a hot day, and so I left the car windows wide open!”
Now the other violinist gasped too. “Oh no! If we hurry, maybe we can stop the worst from happening!”
Together they ran out to the parking lot. But it was too late. There were five more violas tossed into the backseat.
Yes, there are many, many viola jokes. Some of them are quite funny, and (to be honest) apt. But it is still a beautiful and under-appreciated instrument, and I am glad I made the switch from violin to viola.
If you’re thinking about trying the viola out, I would probably encourage you to go for it. You can always go back to violin if it isn’t for you. I still play both, and it’s pretty easy to go back and forth.
Here are some of the pros, cons, and challenges:
Learning the Clef
The hardest part for me was learning the alto clef. In terms of note names, it is one note (plus one octave) off from treble clef. In terms of fingering, it is a third off, so third fingers become first fingers and twos become open strings.
This was mind-bending for me at first. It was like trying to learn a foreign language where a word sounds almost like a word you already know, but means something completely different.
I crammed that first day – slogging through all of my viola parts for several hours – and then, exhausted, slept like a rock that night. The next day things just clicked. Our brains do amazing things while we sleep!
Now that I am fluent in both clefs, the alto clef feels more logical to me. Middle C, for example, is right in the middle of the staff.
Making the Physical Adjustments
A full-size violin is about 14 inches, while a standard viola is 16 to 16½ (though some are larger – even 18 inches long). The bigger the viola, the more resonant the sound, which is particularly important for the C string. So you’ll want to play on the largest size you can comfortably handle. Of course, the longer the viola the more you have to stretch out your fingers to play in tune. It is a case of maximizing within natural limitations: fuller sound without losing playability.
If you have at least average length fingers, you’ll be fine. If your fingers are long, playing viola might be even easier for you than violin. If your fingers are short, well, try to find a smaller viola and do the best you can.
One of the big differences I noticed when I switched was that the viola is slower to “speak” than the violin, especially on the lower strings. These strings are fatter and less responsive, so you have to work harder to coax the sound out. I found that you can’t bow as quickly and get the same purity in the note. You have to use shorter, slower bow strokes and a bit more bow pressure – but not too much, which will crush the sound. In contrast, the violin is much easier to play!
Playing the (Luscious, and Sometimes Boring) Internal Harmonies
There is a joke about singers:
Q: What is an alto?
A: A soprano with a brain.
The viola is the alto of the string section; the violinist with a brain. The first violins almost always get the melody, so if you know how the symphony goes, you can guess your way through the main themes. With viola, this won’t work; you have to actually think – and read the notes. Often they don’t make any sense at all by themselves, but there is this wonderful revelation when playing them in context with the other parts.
Often the violas get the luscious internal harmonies, the part that makes the music so interesting and beautiful. And yes, sometimes, we are playing “oom-pah-pah” measure after measure and trying not to fall asleep, while the violins trip merrily up and down their fingerboards. It takes character to endure these boring bits, and makes those times when we finally get the melody so much more special.
To hear the viola section at its luscious best, grab some tissues and try listening to Beethoven’s 7th symphony, the second movement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J12zprD7V1k
Indulging in Open Strings
The legendary violist William Primrose is famous for saying that “The glory of the viola is the open strings.” I agree! Violinists are taught from an early age to “cover the E string” in particular, by using their fourth finger rather than the open string. How freeing it is when switching to viola to just let them all ring. And, oh, the open strings are gorgeous.
Coping with the Relative Lack of Literature
One undeniable downside to playing the viola is that there is a lot less solo music written for the instrument. Violinists have hundreds of concertos and sonatas; violists have merely dozens, and many of them will never be audience favorites. If you ask a hundred classical music lovers who their top ten favorite composers are, none will say Paul Hindemith or Walter Piston, who composed several pieces in the standard viola repertoire. Their music is simply less melodic, and therefore less enjoyable for most people to listen to.
Violists make up for this lack by borrowing music from other instruments: for example, the Bach Suites and Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise for cello; a couple of clarinet sonatas by Brahms; Schumann’s Adagio & Allegro for horn; and a few from now-obsolete instruments: Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata (yes, there was an instrument called the arpeggione) and Bach’s Gamba Sonatas. (To be fair, the gamba isn’t exactly obsolete, but people pretty much stopped writing music for it after Bach’s time.) All of these work pretty well on the viola.
Enjoying the Camaraderie
I have found violists to be a more friendly and approachable bunch of people than violinists. The instrument does tend to attract a different personality: someone who doesn’t need to be in the limelight, who is happy in a supporting role, who is motivated to seek out less obvious treasures, who will patiently wait for the exciting parts.
This is, of course, a stereotype, and like other stereotypes it is often, though not always, true. There are violists who are soloists at heart, who have big egos, are territorial, sometimes misanthropic. And there are plenty of violinists who are humble and get along with everyone. However, most of the viola sections I have played with have had a sort of “we’re all in this together” team spirit that I don’t remember experiencing as a violinist. We just have more fun, and seem to like each other more.
The “Required Viola Year”
I once heard of a violin teacher who made all her students take a year off and learn viola. Some approached their viola year as if they were fulfilling an unpleasant but necessary obligation. Some were surprised at how much they liked it, and decided to keep going. (Her studio had a lot more violists than others like me who teach both.)
All, however, benefitted from the experience: increased sensitivity in the bow arm/hand after working harder to coax the sound out of the viola’s fatter strings, a new appreciation for and awareness of the internal parts in an orchestra, more nuanced vibrato, and more.
If you get the opportunity, I highly recommend taking the plunge. Just see what happens. And just ignore the viola jokes. In fact, I’ll leave you with one of the other kind…
Q: Why are violas bigger than violins?
A: They’re not; the violinists’ heads are bigger. :-D
Quodlibet: A piece employing several well-known tunes from various sources, performed either simultaneously or in succession. (Schirmer Pocket Manual of Musical Terms)