Inspired by all the questions I usually get asked about playing the viola, I’ve decided to write answers to the more frequently asked questions. This post has turned into a longer one than I expected, so I’ll be impressed if you make it through it all. Hopefully you’ll learn something new about the viola though!
What is a viola? What is the difference between a violin and a viola?
A viola is often described as a ‘big violin’, which is a pretty accurate, if rough, description. A viola is larger than a violin in all dimensions – it is longer, deeper and a little chunkier, but the most significant difference between a violin and a viola is that the viola’s sound is lower in pitch (a fifth lower, to be precise) than the violin, and its tone is richer, rounder and mellower compared to the violin’s brilliant, flashy sound. The viola shares its 3 highest strings with the violin, but has one string a fifth lower, so instead of the violin’s E-A-D-G strings, its strings are A-D-G-C. The viola is the second highest instrument in the violin family, coming in pitch between the violin and cello, and the viola is the middle section in an orchestra.
How do you read the alto clef?
Lots of people ask me how I can read ‘that weird alto clef’ and my answer is usually the same every time – it is no different from reading any other clef, except that fewer people know how to read it, as fewer people play instruments that use it (it is also used for the viola da gamba and the alto trombone – rarer instruments than the viola!)
It is a little known fact that violists have to read not only their own clef, but also the treble clef, as when we play high passages it is much easier to read in treble clef than read millions of ledger lines. This is fine, but it does lead to difficulties when sight-reading when the clef changes half way through a line (or even worse, at the end of a line), and also embarrassing moments when you play loudly in the wrong clef…
Why is the viola sometimes called the ‘Cinderella’ of the orchestra?
The viola has been under-represented as a solo instrument and unfairly maligned as an orchestral instrument (see below), leading to some calling it the ‘cinderella’ of the orchestra. In recent times, beginning with pioneers such as William Primrose and Lionel Tertis (who wrote books called ‘My Viola’ and I and ‘Cinderella No More’), the viola has risen to prominence as a solo instrument in its own right, with more and more works being composed for it.
The viola repertoire is relatively small compared with many instruments, but given that the instrument took a long time to be recognised as a solo instrument, many major works have been written for it such as the famous Walton and Bartok Viola Concertos, and works by Britten, Vaughan Williams, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Clarke, York Bowen, Penderecki and Schnittke.
Aren’t viola players just failed violinists?
Absolutely not! Contrary to popular belief, playing the viola is actually harder than playing the violin. It is a larger and heavier instrument to hold, requires a more robust bow arm as the strings are slightly thicker and require more effort to make vibrate (especially the C string), and the notes are further apart than on the violin, making it harder to stretch some notes. Overall, it is harder to make a good sound on the viola than it is on the violin because of its larger size, but the sound when it comes out is gorgeously rich and full.
The commonly held belief that viola players are ‘failed violinist’ may have come about because violinists sometimes switch to viola, especially if there are not enough viola players in a group, so if a mediocre violinist was asked to play viola then of course they would play the viola badly too. Or violinists are simply jealous of the richer sound that we as viola players make! 🙂
I find that when I switch to violin (mainly only for teaching purposes, as I am definitely a true violist at heart!) everything seems very easy and so small, like playing a toy version of my viola!
I’ve never heard of any famous viola players.
Most people if you asked them probably would not be able to name any famous viola players, but if you do your homework you’ll find that many of the most famous composers including Mozart, Bach, Haydn and Beethoven played the viola and composed music for it, if only in combination with other instruments – Mozart is said to have directed the first performance of his Sinfonia Concertante from the viola. Other composers who were viola players include Britten, Frank Bridge, Schubert, Dvorak, Rebecca Clarke and Paul Hindemith, suggesting that as a composer, the viola was a popular choice, perhaps because of its role as a harmony instrument.
Many famous violinists also play (or played) the viola, such as Nigel Kennedy, Maxim Vengerov, David Oistrakh, Yehudi Menuhin and even Paganini, so it was not nearly as neglected an instrument as most people think! The pioneers of the viola as a solo instrument included the British violists Lionel Tertis and William Primrose, and notable viola virtuosos of today include Lawrence Power, Yuri Bashmet, Nobuko Imai and Jane Atkins.
A good article about viola players is here
Why would you choose to play the viola and not the violin? Isn’t it boring not playing the tune?
There are lots of reasons to choose the viola over the violin (no offence to any violinist colleagues!):
- The viola produces a richer, darker tone and can be more expressive than the violin
- As mentioned before, the viola is harder to play than the violin, making it more of a technical challenge. People will often tell you that playing the viola part is ‘easy’, or easier than the first violin part, which is true to an extent as first violin parts are often stratospherically high, but there are different challenges in viola parts such as playing fast on thicker strings.
- I personally find it very satisfying to be in the middle of the texture, both in orchestras and in chamber music, underpinning the harmony – I don’t mind not playing the tune all the time!
- Having said that, many composers give the viola section really great bits of tune, which conductors often refer to as ‘viola moments’!
Why are there so many viola jokes?
Viola players have a hard time of it. Take the following exchange on facebook:
Q: Why would a viola player constantly go to his locker five times a day?
A: To read the instructions: instrument on the left, bow on the right
To which a viola player commented: ‘What are you talking about? Isn’t it viola on the right?’
And 2 other comments:
‘Nonsense. Everybody knows viola players can’t read.’
‘Wrong: a viola player who would practice 5 times a day would soon become a musician and start playing the violin.’
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of viola jokes. They all draw ammunition from the assertion that violists are failed violinists (see above), so we are credited with various characteristics in the jokes: not knowing how to hold our instruments (above), playing timidly (eg How do you get a viola-player to play pp tremolo?’ – ‘Write solo in big letters over the part’), so old that we are dead (eg What’s the difference between a viola and a coffin? The coffin has the dead person on the inside) and just plain incompetent (eg How can you tell when a violist is playing out of tune? The bow is moving). All I have to say is for all of these jokes, try replacing the word ‘viola’ with another instrument – the joke will work just as well with practically any other instrument.
Viola players (for the most part) tend to be friendly, approachable and long suffering – perhaps because we have been maligned for so long!
See this article for a good description of the viola, viola players and a mention of viola jokes.
Why do violas come in many sizes?
Unlike with violins, cellos and double basses, there is no such thing as a ‘full size viola’. Violas can range in size from just larger than a violin (which has a body length of 14 inches) to massive violas with body lengths of 17 to 18 inches. Most viola players will choose an instrument in the range of 15-16.5 inches, as these are the instruments that are comfortable to play in size and produce a good resonant tone; the smaller the instrument, the smaller the sound, especially on the C string. The size of your viola is a personal choice based on what size is comfortable for you relative to the sound of the viola. I have played violas ranging from 15 to 16 and a quarter inches, and my current one is 15 and 3/8 inches – relatively small, but it produces a nice resonant sound as it is quite generously proportioned widthways.
Does anyone start playing on the viola? Why does it seem like most viola players start on the violin?
People can and do start playing on the viola itself, but due to its larger size, most small children who start playing will start on the violin and then move to the viola when their hands and arms are big enough. Having said this, you can use a small violin strung as a viola (but this really does not sound good, especially on the C string), and there are now violin-viola conversions available, which help small violins sound more resonant like violas. These are a bit drastic, as a small hole is drilled through the front of the violin and the bridge is placed in direct contact with the soundpost, but they do sound better than a simple violin strung as a viola. I cannot emphasise enough that this should never be attempted at home or with a violin other than a cheap factory made one.
Can you play fiddle tunes on the viola?
Yes, definitely! Fiddle tunes transposed down a string work well on the viola, especially slow airs, as they suit the mellow tone of the instrument. The viola can also be used very effectively to accompany fiddlers using drones and chords.