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How to move from playing violin to playing viola

Moving from playing the violin to the viola isn't just a small step in a musician's journey; it's a major transition that requires a whole new set of skills and adjustments. Fortunately, for those who learned the violin first, they already have a solid foundation in technique, music theory, and reading music.

In this article, we explore the challenges of changing stringed instruments, and discuss some tips on how to make the transition smoothly. So, if you started playing violin, but now want to move to viola, read on to get started.

Similar yet different

Young woman with curly hair in a pink dress playing a violin with eyes closed.

To begin, the viola is larger than the violin, which affects both hand positioning and bowing techniques. This size difference requires violists to adapt their left-hand finger spacing and explore new bow angles with the right hand. It’s not just about playing the same notes on a bigger instrument, but a fundamentally different technique to produce the best possible sound. Furthermore, the viola's physical demands mean it takes more physical energy to hold and play, adding another challenge to the violin to viola transition.

Secondly, learning the alto clef is key when transitioning from violin to viola. Unlike the violin, which is read in treble clef, the viola primarily uses the alto clef. This clef positions the middle C on the middle line of the staff, which is different from the treble clef where middle C sits one ledger line below the staff. For violinists, this means learning to read music in a new way, as the notes are positioned differently on the staff in alto clef.

However, the adaptation for viola is not just physical; it also involves a thoughtful interpretation of music. To help navigate different string levels, Dr. LeeAnn Morgan, stringed instrument faculty member at Brigham Young University and Director of Chamber Music at The Gifted Music School, recommends continuous bowing exercises such as those adapted from Eugène Ysaÿe. These exercises not only improve technical prowess but also open up new musical possibilities by smoothing the transitions between strings.

If you’re already playing in Suzuki Book 4 or higher, there are specific resources that can help. Dr. Morgan recommends starting with "Viola for Violinists: the Conversion Kit" by Dwight Pounds. This method book is an excellent starting point. She also suggests transposing Mazas etudes for viola and exploring "From Violin to Viola: A Transitional Method" by Harvey Whistler.

Where to start

In essence, switching from violin to viola is more than just learning a new instrument; it's about embracing a new musical voice. With a solid musical foundation, expert guidance, and a lot of dedicated practice, violinists can find a rewarding new expression in the rich, deep tones of the viola.

Do you already play the violin, but want to expand your musical instruction? The right teacher and instrument can make all the difference. That’s why Johnson Stringed Instruments provides teachers and parents with resources to help them choose the perfect instrument for students. With our convenient rentals, you can rent a viola online for in-store pickup or at-home and school delivery. Master the art of playing multiple instruments with us today!

Additional Resources

Carriage House Violins

Located in Newton, Massachusetts, Carriage House Violins is the instrument sales division of Johnson String Instrument.

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Johnson String Project

A charitable foundation whose goal is to provide high-quality instruments to children who live in under-served communities and who are participating in El-Sistema-inspired programs in Massachusetts.

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