New to strings. Please help! Violin or viola?

New to strings. Please help! Violin or viola?

Hi everyone
I came across your website while googling for links about the viola and fiddle. We are totally ignorant about stringed instruments and my nine year old daughter is starting at a new school where it will be compulsary for her to learn violin, viola or cello. We have to decide which. Cello is too big as we catch public transport to school. So its violin or viola. When I was around five my parents bought me a violin but couldn’t
stand the screeching and i was left in my room to practise. This would not happen to my daughter no matter how bad it sounds we love music and are well adapted too noise as she has spend the last two years playing the trombone and her little sister plays drum kit. Anyway from what I have learnt so far the viola is slightly lower in pitch is that right? So
perhaps this would be more pleasant for the family’s ears.

The fiddle search emerged because my daughter seems to enjoy folk music and we are wondering wether her learning of the viola could lead her to fiddle playing too. Or is it quite different from violin? (she is not so keen on
classical as yet)

We would love your thought on these topics if you have time.


Re: New to strings. Please help! Violin or viola?

Fiddle/violin and viola are played very similarly; the main difference is in tone, and how far the player has to space their fingers. The viola uses a different set of strings—C, G, D, A—than the violin, which goes G, D, A, E.

You get the painful noises on either when played poorly.

There’s a great demand for viola players in classical, because most choose either the violin or cello. It’s easy enough to switch instruments once you get the hang of one of them.

Now, to actually get to an opinion; I’d suggest, if she’s interested in folk music, she start on fiddle. For younger players, interest in the music is key; it gives them a reason to learn. If you don’t mind the price tag, you might want to look into Yamaha’s Silent Violin series. They’re electric violins that you can plug headphones into, so you can practice without disturbing others. They’re a bit expensive though, and she’d probably need a separate, normal violin (rental, probably) for playing in school.

Hope that was helpful in some way!

Re: New to strings. Please help! Violin or viola?

Have you thought about letting her choose for herself? Don’t treat it as "having to decide because it’s compulsory". Treat it as an opportunity. An "excuse" for encouraging your daughter to learn an instrument you might otherwise not have thought of. Take her to a music shop and get her to try out some stringed instruments, telling her if she likes one of them she’s allowed to have one.

Re: New to strings. Please help! Violin or viola?

Violin and viola are much more alike than they are different.The basic playing techniques are the same, and some players can easily play both. (Not me, I have trouble getting the notes in tune with a viola. I’m just not used to the extra stretch it takes.) Viola is definitely more common in "classical" music (academic, symphonic, etc.) than it is in folk music, but a beginner can learn the fundamentals on either one. Violas tend to be a bit more expensive to buy, I think, if that’s an issue.

Re: New to strings. Please help! Violin or viola?

Crikey, I’m sure glad that when I was nine, my folks never sent me to a school where it was compulsary to learn violin, viola or cello.

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Re: New to strings. Please help! Violin or viola?

I second the comment that all these instruments will "screech" for the absolute beginner - do you not feel that your parents were horrible to you, buying the instrument then banning you ? Or was this a ploy for some private time together, like some kids get sent to Sunday School ?
No but seriously, you will find some contradictions soon; for a start the "classical" style of playing does not sit well with traditional irish music, if the requirement is that your child learn the instrument, then you would need to get a teacher of traditional styles, but if the school expects her, or is teaching her, to be playing classical music, then the styles she learns would need to be part unlearned for ITM, as we call it.
The viola is not much used in ITM, and in orchestras its primary use is as a lower harmony to the violins, often in relatively simple phrases; viola players suffer much as contraltos in choral works, not being given demanding or satisfying parts. That said, my band did have a viola player as one of its lead musicians for a while, though it wasn’t a particularly successful time musically.
I would say start her on the violin.
PS I am curious - does the whole school get out its instruments at assembly, or something ?
What happens to those who want to give up ?
What percentage go on from school to use this in later life ?

Re: New to strings. Please help! Violin or viola?

Perhaps it’s a small school, and they want to make sure they have enough musicians for the school orchestra. By starting everyone on violin, they can identify those that don’t take so well to it, allowing them to develop their other talents, and keep the best ones on for the orchestra. A bit like sports (I’m sure I would have disliked football even had I not been forced to play it at school). Incidentally, aren’t beginnners tin whistle lessons mandatory in a lot of Irish schools?

Playersmum - I am a relative beginner on violin (fiddle) myself, so I can’t give detailed advice. But I would say, take care in choosing an instrument to buy. Unless you’re made of money, don’t buy a top quality instrument, as you don’t know at this stage how far your daughter will pursue it (Besides, she will probably not be starting with a full-sized instrument). Beware of the cheapest instruments - if the instrument sounds terrible, your daughter will not enjoy playing it, and will probably not make much progress. But there are reasonable sounding instruments at reasonable prices. So, seek trustworthy (i.e. don’t necessarily trust the shopkeeper) expert advice before buying - the school music teacher should be able to give recommendations.

I wish your daughter much enjoyment - may music be more than just homework for her.

Re: New to strings. Please help! Violin or viola?

A few more points about the viola.

The smallest size viola is very nearly the same length as a full size violin; but is deeper in the body so as to give the bigger volume and resonance required by the lower tuning.

An important problem a violinist will have to face when moving to the viola is learning another clef extra to the standard violin treble clef, which is also used by the viola. This viola clef is the alto clef and middle "C" is on the middle line of the stave.

Straddling the divide between the cello and the violin, the viola is in a useful position to be able play a lot of music written for the two other instruments. The viola is tuned like a cello, but an octave higher, so a lot of cello music can be played on the viola with few problems - Bach’s suites for solo cello, for example, and most solo cello music from that period; and Elgar wrote a viola version of his famous cello concerto to be played by one of the world’s greatest violists.

An orchestra without violas playing the inner parts would sound very thin. It is for this reason that composers find it easier to write a quartet for 2 violins, viola and cello than a trio for 2 violins and a cello.

From what I’ve seen of classical orchestral viola music (viewed from the cello desk next to the viola section) it is on a difficulty level similar that of the violins. It’s not true, and a little unkind, to say that violas players are those violinists who didn’t quite make it into the back desk of the second violins. A viola section (and a cello/bass section, for that matter) that’s not playing in tune is going to upset the intonation of the whole orchestra and make things a bit wobbly for the violins above them - so they carry a responsibility.

Violas in sessions? I must say they are rare, with the exception of such luminaries as Mr Gill. The violist in a session has a number of options:
(a) to play the music "as is" at the same pitch as the fiddles, but this will mean acquiring the technique to play easily and in tune in the 4th and 5th positions on the A and D strings - by no means insuperable, it just means a few more months’ work with a teacher after you’ve left the beginner’s level;
(b) don’t play tunes that go above "E" on the A-string, but, because there aren’t a lot of those, after a while I suspect that the violist will feel unsatisfied and will then be considering option (a);
(c) where possible, play tunes an octave lower. A lot of tunes come into this category, and this lower octave can add a lot to the session sound.

God! at this rate I’ll be talking myself into getting a viola 🙂

Re: New to strings. Please help! Violin or viola?

If your daughter plays viola, she’s also going to have to learn to read the alto clef. Useful for almost no other instrument.

Violin (fiddle) music is written on the treble clef, and every melody istrument I know in folk msuic uses the treble clef.

I’d say violin. She can always switch to viola later, but violas are as rare in folk/traditional music as if they were made of butter.

Re: New to strings. Please help! Violin or viola?

I began lessons on the violin at school when I was about 9 - playing classical music, with a few Irish tunes thrown in (my teacher was Irish). I gave up the violin at 13, but returned to it several years later to play Irish music, which I had always loved. I have been playing Irish music on my fiddle now for several years, and am so grateful for the opportunity I had at school to learn this instrument at an early age.

If your daughter enjoys folk music, I’d say go for the violin without a doubt - playing this kind of music opens so many doors, and provides many opportunities to make new friends.

Good luck!

Re: New to strings. Please help! Violin or viola?

Thankyou for all your help, in the end it will be HER choice. We just needed some info so she could make an informed decision.
The alto clef issue seems like it will be a ‘con’ for her as she already reads treble clef well. From what I gather from your replies the skills she will learn when learning the violin are a little more versatile. I will explain this to her.
Regarding the school, it is actually a really beautiful school were the kids are taught in a really relaxed environment doing gardening, cooking etc alongside their ‘normal’ learning. The compulsary strings (from grade three till six) is a remnant of the original Steiner method of education that is practised at the school. After grade six the children can continue with strings, choose another instrument or give up music altogether if they wish.
At home we all love music , she will have heaps of encouragement and interest from her family. I sure that whatever instrument she chooses it will be a positive experience for her.
Thanks again.

Re: New to strings. Please help! Violin or viola?

I was a bit flippant earlier, I apologize,
I’ll try to be more helpful:

The differences between viola and violin are more to do with human perception and prejudice than the instruments themselves. They are, after all, virtually identical

Often, the viola is perceived as a dumb thing to play. It’s repertoire often straddles an aurally difficult area in between normal lines of melody and bass and is consequently often overlooked by composers who seem to use it for merely filling out the harmony. A really great composer, however, will write exquisite lines for the instrument that will actually form the anchor and the heart of the music.

It takes a certain kind of character to truly enjoy the viola. Primarily, you have to be ego free and you have to be able to enjoy the spaces in between the obvious.

And in diddly music, all of the above still applies. If you wish play the melody in unison, as is usual, it takes a lack of ego to play a quieter instrument an octave lower. But, and here is where the instrument can truly sing, you can find harmonic space that can really make the music shine in a way that no other instrument can.

So what I’m saying is that it’s down to the character of your daughter. If she is brash and wants to be in charge and the centre of attention, then the viola would be lost on her. Though if she is thoughtful, intelligent, ego free and introspective, then the viola may be just right.

Though, and here’s the rub, would you really want to brand a nine year old as houghtful, intelligent, ego free and introspective?

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Re: New to strings. Please help! Violin or viola?

Being the eldest sister with three siblings, she is always trying to be the of attention, so maybe viola wouldn’t suit her, I don’t know. We will try to explain all the details to her and let her decide for herself.
thanks again

Re: New to strings. Please help! Violin or viola?

I used to teach violin, viola and cello in a tiny Icelandic music school; I am a viola player myself. Even now there is a shortage of viola players everywhere, probably because so many people still start on violin and switch over later. My colleagues there who taught viola from the off were definitely getting the best viola results. Many children (and parents for that matter) that I spoke to found the E string of a violin very uncomfortable to listen to as well, which meant that maybe parents did not encourage their children to practise as much as they could have done.
There are pioneers in rock, pop and jazz playing viola: John Cale (Velvet Underground) and Billy Currie (Ultravox) who were both also multi-instrumentalists, John Metcalfe (worked with Peter Gabriel on the orchestration of many of his songs for the album New Blood) - they are out there. However, I have found it harder to find folk players, although there is more and more material printed for viola. I have used this book with adult learners:
There are some folk tunes in the Viola Time Joggers/Runners/Sprinters series
and there is a collection of Scottish ceilidh tune books, 4 of which at least have been transcribed for viola

So, maybe your daughter will be a pioneer? I spent a few months playing viola in a fiddle-dominated Strathspey and Reel Society, which gave both my brain and fingers a workout, as none of the music was written in alto clef nor was it all necessarily in good positions, so a lot of switching up and down octaves was also involved. Maybe some people would say go and learn it all by ear anyway? If her teacher is fairly flexible, then your daughter will no doubt get a great immersion in all kinds of music and who knows where that will lead one day? 🙂