Adding viola?


Christine said: Sep 22, 2006
 22 posts

My 9yo has played Suzuki violin for almost 3 years. She is doing great, enjoys it, and is finishing book 3. She’s doing pretty well with music reading and just started a local youth orchestra.

She is in 4th grade and will participate in the public school strings program this year. Since she’s played violin for a few years already, she really won’t get much out of the strings program this year (or next probably) as those kids are just starting. She is considering learning viola through school, since there are so few viola students.

Does anyone have advice about adding viola? She wants to keep violin as her primary instrument, but wants to give viola a try. I know she would have many more opportunities as a violist (youth orchestra), as there are very few students in the area who play viola, but tons of violins. Will learning alto clef confuse her?

Because of time (and money) we couldn’t add private viola lessons right now. She would continue her Suzuki violin lessons. Her private violin teacher is supportive, although we haven’t had the chance to discuss it in depth.

Meg said: Sep 22, 2006
 8 posts

I would very much encourage adding viola. I started Suzuki violin age 3 and added viola age 10 for many reasons. It was a great decision as it opened up many many doors for me. As you’ve pointed out, there are generally a lot fewer viola players than violin players & so I got more opportunities to play in quartets etc. It is a challenge, however, once people know you play viola, to stay playing violin in any ensembles. I played in the local youth orchestra and the school orchestra and managed to keep it so I always played viola in one and violin in the other—but I had to refuse many orchestra directors requests or I’d have played viola exclusively.

One thing to be careful of is that many of the introductory orchestras have music that is arranged in the following format: hardish violin 1 part, moderate violin 2 part, easy violin 3 part. The violin 3 part is then re-written in auto clef for the few violas that the orchestra might have. That means, if a child is one of the best violinists in the group she would probably be put in the first violins, but if she offers to play viola she will be put playing what is basically a third violin part. I remember being in this position aged about 11 and feeling extremely bored at how easy it was and annoyed that the part I played didn’t even go onto the C string!

I don’t know why, but learning alto clef did not confuse me, nor has it confused anyone I know who picked up viola after studying violin. I don’t know enough about psychology to explain in, but it seems to be separate in my brain and pretty much always was.

As for learning in school, I think this is a great way to start.

The only other advice I would give is on the size of the instrument. I started on a 3/4 violin strung up as a viola, which I believe was more or less the same size as the violin I was playing at the time or maybe one size up. I believe a larger intrument would have put too much strain on my body (I know too many viola students with tendonitis) but someone with more experience would probably be able to advise you better about that. I do know that the C string tone won’t be as rich as on a full size viola, but you can get special C strings that can compensate for this somewhat. Also there are some special small violas that have been designed with a bigger body (the top left had part of the body is extended) and this produces tiny violas with great tone, however, that is probably going a little off topic.

I hope this all helps. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but these were my experiences.


Debbie said: Sep 23, 2006
Debbie Mi138 posts

From another perspective, playing viola has really enhanced my violin playing! Now when I pull out my violin, I find myself making richer and fuller tone after playing viola!!

Jennifer Visick said: Sep 23, 2006
Jennifer VisickForum Moderator
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Suzuki Early Childhood Education, Suzuki in the Schools, Violin
1069 posts

Go for adding viola. The world needs more violists :)

Learning alto clef might be a little confusing at first. I “switched” from violin to viola in 9th grade and it took me about 3 months to read alto clef well, although my brain still would occasionally “switch” clefs mid-music if I wasn’t concentrating.

You might want to ask your suzuki violin teacher about playing some of the suzuki viola repertoire; Suzuki books 1-3 for viola are nearly (but not quite) identical to the violin books, except everything is transposed down a fifth. It might be intriguing to search the suzuki viola books for the “viola” pieces that aren’t in the violin books.

Community Youth Orchestra Of S CA said: Oct 10, 2006
 Violin, Viola
70 posts

Some of the greatest violinists in the world also play viola (and vice versa). It is a definite plus for any musician to play both instruments, especially in chamber music and orchestra.

Jill said: Apr 14, 2007
 2 posts

I love my viola. For a child just be careful about mixing violin and viola technique. You don’t want to mess up a good violin technique or get tendonitis from a bad viola technique, so choose the viola small enough so that your child can play it with violin technique. Good luck and enjoy.

said: Apr 15, 2007
 44 posts

I had an 8 year old in Book 5 when she started in our local youth orcestra program. The conductor asked her if she would be willing to play viola as there were none in the that particular orchestra. My daughter was flattered that the conductor would think she could learn and play a new instrument. I thought it was a great idea since most of the violinists were in Book 2 or 3.
Here is how we got going—it worked so well that I used this method with my other 2 violin-playing children. I got Essential Elements Book 1 for viola (although any string method book would work) so that we could see the string names and how the clef worked. She worked very quickly through this book as a lot of it is basic rhythms and notes, but it worked very well to familiarize us both with the clef. Then we moved on to EE Book 2, which has has actual note-reading pieces in it. Many of the tunes are familiar, so the student knows what they are SUPPOSED to sound like. At the same time, I got Suzuki Book 1 for viola and had her playing through those pieces while looking at the book. She was so familiar with those pieces that it was not very laborious, but helped her learn the alto clef with no trouble at all. When she was about half way through EE Book 2, she had her first viola lesson with a high school student.
I don’t think children have any trouble learning alto clef. After all, beginning piano students learn two clefs at the same time. I, on the other hand, still cannot read alto clef, even after having three children learn it. (I can’t read tenor clef with my cellist, either.)
My children have gotten lots of opportunities to play in various groups that they would not have had as violinists. Even though the viola parts are often easier note-wise, they can be tricky rhythmically. Your child will only benefit from learning another instrument and will get lots of positive attention from conductors. My daughter loved viola so much that she is now a viola performance major in college!

Christine said: Apr 17, 2007
 22 posts

I was the original poster for this discussion—way back in September. I appreciate everyone’s comments and advice. I realized I never posted a follow-up to let you know what happened.

My daughter did end up adding viola. She started on a 12″ viola ( she was on a 1/2 size violin.) She recently moved to a 3/4 violin and a 13″ viola. Her current viola is a nice instrument, expecially considering it’s a rental.

She plays viola only in 4th grade strings (no private viola lesson.) Our schools have a large strings program, but most kids don’t start until 4th grade. While she’s doing well with alto clef, 4th grade strings is so easy for her that I know she plays everything by ear. She’s in suzuki book 4 for violin and does play her Suzuki pieces on the viola, although not a lot since her violin practice takes so long.

She told me the other day that she wants to play violin next year for 5th grade strings, not viola. Her teacher is asking her to stick it out one more year on viola. I’m hoping that this summer, we can do some serious viola work and she’ll give it a try for another year. With 4th grade strings not being a challenge for her (I doubt 5th grade will be a challenge either), I would like for to get a better taste of what she can do with viola. Also, I really don’t want her to take her really nice violin on the bus next year :)

I think part of her dislike for the viola is that she is a 1st violinist by personality. She plays in a chamber music group and loves being the leader. She’s a strong player and loves a good challenge. Right now, with the level of music her group plays—she gets that challenge by playing the 1st violin part. But, the woman who leads her chamber music group is a fantastic violist and my daughter is in awe of her. I’m hoping she’ll be an encouragement to her too.

If she gives up viola now, I think she’ll regret it later. We’ll see how the summer goes.

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