Viola – The Unsung Hero of the Orchestra

Have you ever heard of a viola? Do you play viola? Are you tired of always having to explain to people what a viola is, and how it is not just a larger violin? Let’s take a look at the this instrument today – the unsung hero of the orchestra.

Did You Know?

The viola was developed about the same time as the violin – in the first half of the 1500s, in northern Italy.

Once upon a time (in the 16th and 17th centuries) the viola section consisted of three different kinds of violas. They were different sizes, had different ranges, and played different parts – alto, higher tenor, and lower tenor. By 1750 the lower tenor viola morphed into the cello of today. The higher tenor disappeared from the scene, and the alto tenor became the viola in use today.

Violas use the same four strings that the cellos use – C, G, D, A. But no, you cannot just put cello strings on a viola.

Unlike violins and cellos, there is no standard size for a full-size viola. Full-size violas can be anywhere from 14 to 17 inches long. Choosing the right size is a matter of the size, strength, and preference of each individual violist.

Stradivarius violas are worth more than Stradivari violins. There were not as many violists as violinists, so not as many violas were made. Fewer great violas = greater value!

What does a viola sound like? How would you describe its sound? People have described the sound as being mellow, rich, dark, intense, melancholy, and chocolatey. And who doesn’t like chocolate! Does that make violas the favorite candy of the orchestra world?

Making the Viola Popular

The poor viola was never as popular as the violin. Part of the reason for that was that there wasn’t much music written for solo viola. Nobody knew how great the instrument could sound on its own! The first known viola sonatas were written in England in 1770 by William Flackton. He thought it was a shame that very little solo music was written for the great sound of the viola, so he wrote some himself.

Two other people who helped to focus the spotlight on the this instrument were Lionel Tertis and William Primrose. Lionel Tertis (1876-1075), known as the “father of viola playing”, was one of the first internationally famous violists. He performed as a soloist and a chamber musician, and he also taught viola. He wrote and arranged several pieces for the instrument. In 1980 the Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition was formed in his honor.

William Primrose lived from 1904 to 1982. He started as a violin soloist, but later switched over to viola. He has been called a 20th century virtuoso. (That means he was really good!) He also devoted time to teaching and writing viola technique books. The Primrose International Viola Competition began in 1979 – the first international music competition for viola.  

What’s the Difference between a Viola and a Violin?

In many ways the two instruments are quite similar. But there are some important differences you should know.

Similarities Differences
Both instruments are held the same way Violas are larger than violins
They are very similar
in the way they look
The strings are different – Violins use G, D, A, E for strings, while violas have C, G, D, A
Both are members of
the string family
Range of viola is lower than that of violin
Both are played with a bow Size of violins is standardized, but not violas
  Strings on a viola are thicker than those of a
violin

Starring Role for Viola – Supporting Actor

The viola does not usually get the lead role in an orchestra, a string quartet, or any chamber music group. Its main role is as a supporting sound. The viola part may never stand out, but if it were missing, everyone would know! Usually the instrument plays counter-melodies or harmonies. If you are familiar with choir voices, the viola part would be comparable to the alto part. Not usually the melody, but still very important.

Violists are a Step Above

Violists are a special group of people. They are unique! Many people claim that it takes more skill to play viola well than violin. Why would that be?

Violas are larger, so the fingers must spread out more on the fingerboard when playing. This requires greater technical skill.

The viola is heavier than a violin, so it takes more effort and strength to play the instrument. Even the bow is heavier than a violin bow, so a violist needs more strength in both arms and shoulders. (Daily arm workout, anyone?)

Viola strings are thicker than violin strings. In order to get a great sound, the violist must use more bow speed and more weight on the bow.

Not only that, viola players must know how to read alto clef! (Superior intelligence required?) How many violinists do you know who can read both treble clef and alto clef?

There are far fewer violists than there are violinists. Viola players rule! Your importance is underrated. Great demand for great viola players!

Violas are not just super-sized violins. They are unique instruments that have a special sound and play an important role in any orchestra or chamber group. No other instrument has a sound compared to chocolate! Love your viola and love your violist!

If you want to read more about violas, check out these links.

Read Here

And Here

Also Here

And Here

And if you want to read about some other instruments, you can read about Flutes, Violins, Trumpets, and Marimba.

Buying New Strings – What You Need to Know

Buying new strings for your violin (or viola, or cello)? There are several things you need to know before you press “buy.” Some of them you probably never even thought of before. I’ve had string players in my home for over 20 years, and still had to ask several questions before our last string purchase. There are so many options! How do you figure out exactly which strings to buy? And how do you know when to get new strings? Let me help you figure this out.

When Is It Time for New Strings?

First Big Question – When is it time to get new strings? How do you know? Guess what – there is no easy answer! Strings do not come with expiration dates. They don’t turn colors when they need to be replaced. The answer is somewhat subjective. Obviously, if a string breaks it must be replaced. But what about the ones that don’t break?

If the end of the string is starting to fray or unravel, it is probably time for new strings. It is probably time for new strings if you are having to work harder than usual to get the sound you want. If your strings are unresponsive, or dull-sounding, you probably should get new strings. Having a hard time getting your strings to stay in tune? That might also be a sign that it is time for new strings.

The more you play, the more frequently you need to replace your strings. For an advanced player, someone practicing several hours a day, strings probably need to be replaced every 3-6 months.

Buying New Strings – What You Need to Know

What do you need to know before placing an order for new strings? A Lot! Not only do you have to know the correct instrument and size, and which strings, but you have to know what type of end you need on the string, gauge, brand, core, tension, full set or not, etc. Let’s take a look at each of these.

What Instrument, What Size, What String?

First, you must specify your instrument, the size of your instrument, and the string you want. Be sure you choose the strings for your instrument – violin, viola, cello. OK – this seems basic, but you don’t want to be careless and make a mistake and order the wrong strings!

Then, what size instrument do you have? Full size? ½ size? And if you are playing viola, full-size doesn’t one size. There are several sizes of full-size viola. Know the correct length of your viola. (Viola length is determined by the actual length of the body of the instrument, not including the fingerboard. Most full-size violas are between 15.5 and 16.5 inches.)

And then, if you are not ordering a full set of strings, be sure you order the correct string.

Full Set of Strings or Individual Strings?

Which brings us to the next question. Do you need a full set of strings (all four), or are you just replacing one string? Do you want the same brand of strings for all four strings, or are you planning to mix brands? Know that you can buy a full set of strings, or you can purchase strings individually. For younger players, you will probably be well served by just buying full sets of strings.

More advanced players may like the sound of different strings for different ranges and may choose to buy strings individually. How do you make that decision? Ask your string teacher for suggestions and advice. Some online stores will list sound descriptions of the different strings they sell to help you choose what you want. (dark, mellow, bright, etc.)

How Do the Strings Attach to your Instrument?

You need to know how your strings attach to the tailpiece of your instrument. Do they have a loop at the end, or a ball at the end? And sometimes strings come with a tie knot. Tie knot ends attach the same way that ball ends strings do – the knot replaces the ball. And some strings now are sold with removeable balls – you can use it with the ball or remove the ball and have a loop end.

If you don’t know which end you need, ask your teacher or orchestra director. If any of your strings have fine tuners, strings with ball ends work well for tuners with two prongs, and strings with loop ends work better for tuners with one prong.

Cores and Wrappings

The next two things you need to think about are cores and wrappings. Strings are made with one of three core materials: gut, synthetic (composite) or steel. Each core material affects both the sound of the string and its responsiveness.

Gut core strings offer a full, rich, complex tone. Steel core strings are often very bright-sounding, and they tend to produce a more “metallic” sound.  Synthetic core strings are similar in sound to the gut core strings but are more resistant to temperature and humidity changes. They hold their pitch a bit better than the gut core strings.

Often these strings are wrapped or plated with a different material – like aluminum, silver, gold, or titanium. How to choose? Each material will affect the response and tension of the string. Also, some may react with an individual’s body chemistry differently.

Gauge and Tension

Finally, you must decide on gauge and tension. Most student violinists (violists, cellists) will be fine with medium gauge and medium tension. Gauge measures the thickness of the string. While most will want medium gauge strings, the other options are thinner (or “weich” or “dolce”) and thicker (or “starck” or “forte”).

Tension refers more to how hard you must press on the string, or how pliable the string is. Unless you have a specific reason for “lighter” or “heavier” most people use a medium tension.

Where to Buy and How Much Will Strings Cost?

You have figured out all the details you need for buying your new strings. Now, where will you buy them, and how much will they cost? Start with your local music store – see if they have what you need. If you are buying basic student strings, your local store should have them, especially if they service or provide school instruments. And if you break a string the day before your performance, your local store could be a godsend.

If you are looking for more advanced strings, or more specialized strings, you may have to order them online. I have personally purchased strings from Shar Music (sharmusic.com) and from Southwest Strings (swstrings.com). Both have a great selection of strings available. (And no, I don’t have any connection with either store.)

How much will they cost? As you search, you will find that the cost can vary a lot, based on the strings you want and the instrument you play. A full set of student violin strings will be between $15 and $20 while a full set of better quality strings for violin could be $150 or more. A full set of student cello strings is about $50, while a set of higher quality cello strings could cost over $250.

Put the Strings on the Instrument – No Easy Task!

Have you ever put strings on your instrument before? If not, it’s best to have your teacher help you with this. It’s not as easy as it looks. It is too easy to break a new string when putting it on, if you don’t know what you’re doing. (Been there, done that.) But the #1 most important rule when replacing strings – only do ONE string at a time!!!!! Otherwise, you risk have the bridge fall out

More Resources

You might want to check out these other resources for more information about buying strings.

This is a great article explaining the different kinds of strings, gauges, tensions, etc. Read here.

Here is another article about choosing and buying strings.

This article explains the process of changing strings.

Here are some other sources I used for my research. Read here, here, and here.

What to Expect from the First Lesson with a New Music Teacher

Are you starting your child with a new music teacher? Have you had to leave your music teacher? Maybe you moved, or the teacher moved, or the teacher just wasn’t working out. But now you have found a new teacher and are ready to get started. What should you expect from that first lesson?

The New Teacher

I hope you have found a great music teacher to continue with your child. Does the teacher offer a trial lesson? Have you gotten any references from this teacher? Have you checked out the references? Does the teacher have a printed (or online) studio policy covering payments, recitals, missed lessons, and make-up lessons? Have you read through the studio policies?

Still looking for that perfect teacher? Check out these suggestions.

Or are you still thinking about changing music teachers? Consider these ideas.

Prepare Your Child for the First Lesson with a New Teacher

Be sure your child is aware of what is happening. Does he know he is getting a new teacher? Does she know she is not going back to a former teacher? For some kids, this could be a big deal. Some are very resistant to change, or apprehensive about meeting new people. (I have a couple girls like that!)

Tell your child what you know about the new teacher. What is the teacher’s name? What should they call the teacher? How far will you have to travel to get to the new studio? Does your child know anyone else who takes lessons from this teacher?

It’s a good idea for you to plan to stay in the lesson with your child for the first couple of lessons (especially if your child is younger, or very nervous/upset/apprehensive about the whole process). This will give your child some reassurance and will allow you to observe how the teacher teaches and interacts with your child.

Your child should be prepared to play some music she has worked on recently, something she has played in the past. The teacher may ask your child to play something she worked on several months ago, some scales or technical exercises, a favorite piece, and some sight reading. All this helps the teacher understand your child’s musical understanding and abilities.

What Should Your Child Bring to this First Lesson?

  •         Any music used in the last year or so
  •         All method books, theory books, and technique books
  •         Assignment notebook from the last teacher

Teacher Assesses the Student

                During this first lesson the new teacher will be trying to understand your child’s musical abilities. What has he learned so far? What does he do well? What does he need to work on? The teacher will also be looking for any technical problems your student may have, and posture problems that need to be corrected, any issues with form or technique that need to be addressed.

                Don’t be alarmed if the teacher suggests changing a bow hold, or changing a hand position, etc. This is part of the reason you sought a new teacher – you want your child to make more progress with his instrument. Changing certain things may be just what your child needs! This is not necessarily a criticism of the former teacher, but an improvement to help your child.

                The teacher may also suggest new music, or a new series of method books. Again, this is not a direct criticism of your former teacher. Different teachers have different approaches, and different lesson books are more effective with certain approaches than others.

You Need to Assess the Teacher

Observe

As the lesson progresses, you should be watching how the teacher interacts with your child. Is this someone your child will relate to? How professional is the teacher during the lesson? Is there a connection with your child?

I remember watching my son’s trial lesson with one of his cello teachers. He had my son play a piece, and then asked him why he played it the way he did. The teacher just wanted my son to think about what he was doing, and to have a reason for the way he played the piece. The teacher made a couple suggestions, then had my son play the piece again. It sounded so much better. I remember thinking that, yes, this was going to work. He studied with that teacher until he finished high school, and really enjoyed working with him.

While watching this first lesson, you should also check out the condition of the studio. Is it safe? Is it clean? Is there enough room for student, teacher, equipment, instruments, etc.?

Ask questions!

Do you understand all the studio policies regarding payment, missed lessons, make-up lessons, recitals, performances, etc.? If the teacher wants you to change method books, ask why. Why does he/she prefer this other set of books? What will your child gain from switching to a different set of books? How will this affect your child’s progress? Ask the teacher what he/she sees as issues that need correcting/changing. How will the changes benefit your child? The teacher should be able to give good answers to all your questions.

Final Evaluation

Think through this first lesson. Carefully consider what you observed.

  • Will your child adjust and enjoy working with this teacher?
  • Can you trust this teacher to do what is best for your child?
  • Will the teacher’s approach work with your child?
  • Do you feel that your child will make good musical progress with this teacher?
  • Will working with this teacher help your child enjoy playing her instrument more?
  • Can you work with the studio policies?
  • Are both you and your child comfortable with this teacher?

I hope you have found a great teacher that your student will feel comfortable with and learn from! Tell me about your favorite music teacher in the comments. (Or maybe, your least favorite teacher!)