Viola. A Guide

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The viola is now classed as an "endangered species" by local authority music providers. Youth orchestras, which are the flagship showpieces of music services, are hard pressed to find enough players to make a section which should consist of  10 players for a symphony orchestra. This was always the case, but is getting worse as government money is put into larger group sizes which translates to violin groups, the viola always being a minority instrument.

Sometimes called the "middle fiddle,"  or the "Cinderella" of the string family the viola is usually not known by the average non- musical person who can usually identify a violin or a cello. It is played in exactly the same way as the violin and is tuned a fifth lower, meaning that 3 of the 4 strings are sounding the same pitch with the 4th,  the C string sounding a fifth lower than the violin. ( The pitch of the 4 viola strings is also an octave higher than the cello.) The principal difference is in the tone or timbre of the sound. Most listeners would describe the viola sound as more mellow than the violin. Viola music is written in the alto and treble clef. The violin only uses the treble clef.

The difference with the violin is in the size of the viola which is not fixed in its full size version. Whereas the full  size violin is  14" in the length of the back, the viola varies between 15 and 17 inches which in practical terms is a huge difference. The average size for a viola is 16" and most players would opt for the largest size that thay can comfortably manage. The reason for this is that the larger sizes have a fuller, richer tone. In terms of acoustics the ideal viola size would be half way between the violin and the cello which is an impractical size to play successfully.

The viola is seen as more of an orchestral and chamber music instrument. It is a member of the string quartet with 2 violins and a cello, the most popular and significant chamber group. The solo repertoire is rather small with no concertos for instance by the romantic composers from Beethoven, Brahms, Tchiakovsky, Dvorak, Sibelius, Elgar etc. all who have written either great violin or cello concertos, but none have written a viola concerto. However Mozart composed his last and finest string concerto known as the Sinfonia Concertante in E flat for  violin, viola, and orchestra. Composers such as Walton and Hindemith have addressed this with fine concertos for the viola, but these do not have the audience appeal of the classical "greats." Much of the viola repertoire is in arrangements of music originally for the cello and the 6 Cello Suites of J S Bach are a popular mainstay of the viola repertoire. This works well as being tuned to the same notes an octave higher means that the original key, which gives character to the music, remains the same.

Most viola players start on the violin which is learned particularly successfully from a young, preferably pre-teen, age. The reason is simple as a viola is intrinsically larger than a full size violin and an 8 year old child would usually play on a half size violin. Tuning a half size violin as a viola is viewed by many players and teachers as unsatisfactory, although not all agree on this and some teachers like to start pupils on a "mini viola" to foster a loyalty to the instrument. My own view is that a transfer from intermediate standard, grades 4 or 5, at age 13or 14 is the best option, particularly if the pupil has a large build.

Many violin pupils find progression after grade 5 challenging and teachers use it as a benchmark. In the senior youth orchestras grade 7 or 8 is a normal requirement for the violin sections, however with the scarcity of viola players there is usually an entry level of around grade 5 on viola, so violin players have an incentive  to convert to viola and many music services have conversion classes for this reason. I am currently involved in teaching one myself. Some pupils who have reached their limit on the violin find the viola is more satisfying and suits them better, turning into fine viola players.

The conversion class consists of getting used to the alto clef where middle C  is on the middle line of the stave. There is a book by Mary Cohen for this purpose called " Quick Change " which gives the violin and viola versions side by side, also a suitable progression of pieces are chosen for the class which are usually quickly learned by students who are already fluent on the violin.

The viola is regarded as a musicians' instrument. Many of the great composers played it  and for some it can be more satisfying to experience a musical work from the middle, be it a symphony or quartet.

In conclusion, if you are learning the viola stick at it, we need you !  If you are thinking of learning it go ahead, it may change your life.

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