Violin to Viola: Am I Crazy?

Last week, when a group of musicians gathered to play together in a friend’s living room, I learned that some of my acquaintances get together every Saturday morning and play string quartet music.   I was invited to join in, and in the process learned that the group was about to lose one of its viola players.  At 93, she’s decided she just can’t keep up any more.   Her departure is a blow, since viola players are traditionally in short supply.

That was enough to send me into the new Shar storefront in Farmington to rent a viola.  After first falling in love with a 16″ model with a cello-like sound and a $2,000+ price tag, I received a student viola kit for my $16.95 monthly rental.   The viola has some scuffs and a serious crack in the back, but I figured it would be a good start.   After all, I need to learn to read the C-Clef and re-learn where all the notes are because of the different stringing of the instrument.

Crunched viola in the middle of a road

Viola Road Kill

So, a week into this experiment, I’m still trying to remember where the sharps and flats fall on the string bed, and I’ve learned that the viola is probably the Rodney Dangerfield of the orchestra.  There may not have been any instrument that has as many jokes about it.   A sampling:

How is lightning like a violist’s fingers?
Neither one strikes in the same place twice.
What’s the definition of “perfect pitch?”
Throwing a viola into a dumpster without hitting the rim.

There are hundreds of similar jokes, collected by MIT of all places, a composer named Pete Levin, and the sheet music site,

Which brings me back to the reason you want to play any instrument in the first place.

  1. You love how it sounds.  (and I do love the mellow lower registers of the viola)
  2. There are opportunities to play it.  (Yes, there are only about 2 viola players for every 100 violin players in the world).

So far, so good!  But I’m not yet ready for prime time.



Filed under Fun Stuff, Personal Journey

5 responses to “Violin to Viola: Am I Crazy?

  1. Lynne Cantwell

    Good for you! I’ve had a similar love affair/interest in the D flute, altho I need to get a different instrument if I ever want to learn to play it — the handspan is *way* too wide for me on the traditionally-built instruments. But what you’re saying about the sound of the lower register — oh yeah. It’s yummy. (Maybe my older ears are just better tuned to lower notes, after all those years of wearing headphones, lol.)

    My foray into the sax section of my high school Jazz Band was easier. At least the fingerings for the upper registers of alto sax and clarinet are the same — and the fingerings on the lower sax registers are almost identical to those of the upper register.

  2. I am trying to learn the violin in the hopes that I could easily switch to the cello or viola once I save enough money to buy either one. Is that even rational? Violins are cheaper from where I am located and violin teachers are not hard to find.

    • A few questions:

      1. How much musical training do you already have? Can you read music already? If not, you may want to start with the violin, since you’ll be on the G-clef when you learn to read. The G-clef is used by a large number of instruments, while the C-clef used by the viola is pretty much unique to the viola.

      2. Which instrument do you truly love? If you love the sound of the viola, then you should start there. Starting on the violin – while technically similar – will only frustrate you if you aren’t truly bonded to the instrument.

      3. How much do you enjoy mental games? I’m finding that the most challenging part of making the switch from violin to viola is reading the music properly. It’s a bit of a mental game to stay focused and play the right notes when the clefs are so different. I find puzzles stimulating, but many people are frustrated by them.

      As for the issue of cost, if you check out stores that service high school bands and string programs, you can usually rent an instrument pretty inexpensively until you are sure. That’s what I’m doing with the viola now. Until I’m sure I’m going to stick with it (and am willing to invest more than $2,000 in a quality instrument and bow), I’m renting a decent instrument for about $17 a month.

      Many string teachers I know may focus on the violin, but chances are they can also start you out on viola or refer you to someone who is a specialist.

      Hope this helps.

    • No there are no frets, but that’s what tuners and your ears are for And your arm won’t be sore besacue you only hold it up with the weight of your head and the shoulder rest keeps it from moving You don’t need to be smart, you just need to know where your notes are!

  3. fireandair

    No, you’re not crazy. Violas are awesome — all of the beauty, none of the screech. I’m a little sensitive to high-pitches noises though, so for me, violins only sound good when you stay the eff off the E string anyhow. 😀

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s