Violin to Viola: A Journey Worth Making

by Mark Pfannschmidt

This article first appeared Stringendo (Winter 2014-15), a publication of ASTA MD/DC

Violin students choose to switch to the viola for many reasons, often at the suggestion of orchestra directors and teachers. Since there is much similarity in the way both instruments are played, the motivated student can make this change quickly. For the student who is talented, but had a later start, learning to play the viola well will open up opportunities to play orchestral and chamber music, providing great musical enjoyment.

In making the switch to viola, there are several differences to be highlighted that will make the transition smoother and faster. The immediate need is learning to read alto clef, along with making adjustments to bow technique that are necessary to making the viola sound well. Less obvious initially are considerations in fingering and the use of open strings. For the student who will use a viola smaller than 14 inches, fractional violin strings for the upper three strings are an option along with a fractional size C string. There are also fractional viola strings available. Using a full size viola C string on a fractional size violin results in a C string that is neither stable in pitch nor desirable in tone.

And speaking of strings: for the younger student who will use a viola whose body length is less than 14 inches (full-size violin size), it may be cheapest to use fractional violin strings for the upper three strings, and use a fractional size C string. There are also fractional size viola strings available. Using a full size viola string on a fractional size violin for a younger player results in a C string that is too flabby to make a good sound.

Clef reading for violists was the subject of an article that I wrote a few years ago. This article contains suggestions for learning alto clef, including some helpful resources. It can be found on my website here and also on the ASTA MD/DC website here. It is worth noting that if the student uses transcriptions of pieces learned on violin as a vehicle for learning alto clef, it is immediately apparent that the instrument doesn’t speak well unless the bow is used quite differently from violin, and this fact will be more obvious to the more advanced student.

Using the Bow Like a Violist

All general aspects of bow technique all differ in their application to playing the viola: weight, distribution, placement and contact point. These are the basic variables for any string player, but this article will highlight the differences which will help a violinist to make the journey to “the Dark Side” more quickly and proficiently.

1. Arm Weight
Just to get the instrument to speak, the violist must use more arm weight. This term is highly preferable to referring to “pressure”, which tends to encourage over-pronation and tightness in the bow hand. Learning to pull a “dark, chocolate-covered” tone is important to developing a good viola sound.

I have often found it helpful to have the student consider that the bow hair “scrapes” the string to make a sound. If this causes tension in the bow hold images such as stroking a cat or kneading dough can be helpful. Some students grasp the difference more readily by having the teacher demonstrate on the back of their bow arm or by feeling the actions of the teacher’s hand and fingers during a demonstration. This is particularly true on the C string.

Since viola bows generally weigh more than violin bows, an important aspect of a violinist’s transition to viola is strengthening the hand to hold the additional weight of the bow. A violist sometimes has to play long spiccato passages, which require the constant “catching” and “dropping” of the bow (see Example 1). Just as with the violin, a student must learn to drop the weight of the bow into the string and let this additional weight help him to create a beautiful sound.

There is nothing as disconcerting as a new violist who plays with an airy, wispy tone. While this often sounds pretty under the ear, it definitely sounds weak and sickly to the listener.

2. Distribution and Placement
It is surprising to see the difference in these aspects of bow technique when I have my viola students learn transcriptions of violin pieces I also teach. Fast-speed strokes like martelé and accents usually need less length of bow than on violin. This is due to the longer, thicker strings, which take a little more time to respond to the bow. Martelé is often helped by being placed somewhat closer to the frog, e. g., what might be martelé in the upper half of the bow on violin, often translates as the 3rd quarter of bow on viola, i. e., less bow and closer to the frog. This is particularly true on fractional size instruments.

The other main difference is the placement of spiccato in the bow. This stroke will be executed closer to the frog than on violin for the same type of sound. The same is true for some other types of springing strokes: sautillé and jeté. Up-bow staccato and staccato volante still work best in the upper half of the bow, just like violin, but take more work to grab the string for clean articulation at the beginning of the stroke. Sevcik, 40 Variations, Op. 3 is a great source for working on various bow strokes. I prefer the transcription by Alan Arnold, published by Viola World Press, which has some thoughtful violistic changes to Sevcik’s original bowing indications, including changes in placement and amount of bow.

Another consideration for placement: the violist often has to use more of the side of the hair, especially near the frog on the A string, where flatter hair may cause the violist to hit the bout with the thumb.

3. Contact Point
The violist often must make the point of contact closer to the fingerboard (and consequently, further from the bridge) than on violin; this is particularly true on the C string. For the older student, this is often complicated by the fact that the new viola is larger than the old violin, so that the bridge is further away from the face.

Just as with violin, the student must learn to use arm weight, bow speed, placement and contact point to control the color of the sound. Still, it is useful for students to understand the differences outlined above to speed them on their way to becoming competent violists.

Using the Left Hand Like a Violist

1. Open Strings
The legendary violist, William Primrose, in his book The Art and Practice of Scale Playing on the Viola writes:

I assume that any intelligent student will, and does pursue studies to develop the fourth finger so that the ancient fetish of avoiding all open strings by using, instead, the fourth finger, (in order, among other things, to strengthen it—or so we were told!) may be relegated to that limbo to which it belongs. Especially on the Viola are the open strings among its glories, and to eliminate this source of characteristic sonority is one of the crimes to be charged the old order of Violists who were responsible, so often, for the criticisms levelled at the instrument—its somber lack-lusterness and so forth. I advocate the bountiful use of open strings in all playing. (Emphasis mine: MP)

With this advice in mind, the student should learn to play scales with open strings in both directions, where practical. This sometimes means that students need to play their scales without open strings in school and with open strings for the lesson, but since the viola student is of generally superior intelligence and needs to be flexible, this is a great opportunity to enhance those qualities! As with any consideration of fingering after basic technic is developed, sound is the most important consideration. Some instruments have a rather nasty A string, and if a wound string doesn’t mitigate this problem (a Dominant wound string is an excellent choice for remedying the harshness of the A string), then other choices may need to be considered—much as the violinist must learn to make a beautiful sound on open E.

2. Use of Positions
Many violas don’t sound good in the upper positions (above 5th position), particularly on the G and C strings. Whereas the G string in the upper positions is part of the characteristic sound of the violin, this is often not the case for viola, particularly student models. For this reason, careful consideration should be given to the voice of the particular instrument, and changes in fingering should be made as necessary. Special consideration should be given to anything higher than the first octave (with the exception of the A string); many student violas sound particularly stuffy and closed above 4th position, especially on the G and C strings. There is also often a “wolf” tone at f' or f#' on the G string, just below the octave.

The other important left hand consideration for the violist is the mastery of second position, particularly in flat keys. This position often fits the hand better for two reasons: the 4th finger doesn’t have to reach as far (since the spacing in second position is closer than in first) and the left arm is also closer to the body. Example 2 is from 100 Etudes, Op. 32 by Hans Sitt. The second volume (#21-40) contains five etudes in 2nd position (#21-25). Volume 2 contains 5 etudes each in 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th positions. I have transcribed these etudes, but they are not currently published. Contact me at for more information. These etudes, originally for violin, are written so that they fit nicely into 2nd position—there are not lots of awkward string crossings, and a cursory glance shows that 4 of the 5 etudes are in flat keys (they have been brought down a fifth from the original violin version).

On viola, it is often more advantageous to shift between adjacent positions, instead of the more traditional 1st and 3rd. Example 3 illustrates this point. It shows the use of 3rd position at the beginning to aid in the dolce tone quality. The redundant 2nd position fingerings are at places where experience has shown students like to shift (usually to 1st position). Fingerings have been carefully worked out to avoid string crossings in the dotted rhythms, which easily result in a contrast in tone quality from string to string (a "bump" in the sound). The half-step shift at the beginning of measure 5 and the use of the open string to shift back to 3rd position all assist the violist in learning to use adjacent positions strategically and use shifts for color. Note especially the use of whole step shifts to the ab' in the last measure of the second line and again to the c just before the final measure of this excerpt. Here the fingering is chosen as an example of expressive shifting, characteristic of the Romantic era.

Note: I have transcribed these etudes. They are available for purchase at Also, I have written an article about teaching these etudes, which can be found here (ASTA MD/DC) and here (

Final Thoughts

Because the viola has broader shoulders, the violist needs to bring the left arm further around when going into the upper positions (beyond 5th position). This position of the elbow is also useful for assisting the 4th finger to reach its place in any position, particularly in expressive passages where small adjustments can be made for each finger.

Playing the viola well is a very rewarding experience. Keeping these principles in mind will aid in the success of a violinist who has determined to become a violist.

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