A Comprehensive Guide To Playing The Viola – Tips, Techniques, And Accessories

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Discover the art of playing the viola with our comprehensive guide. From choosing the right instrument to developing proper technique and joining ensembles, learn everything you need to know to master the viola.

Choosing a Viola

When it comes to choosing a viola, there are several factors to consider. In this section, we will guide you through the process of finding the perfect instrument for your needs. From understanding the sizing guide to exploring different types of violas and deciding between renting and buying, we’ve got you covered.

Instruments Sizing Guide

Before diving into the world of violas, it is crucial to understand the sizing guide. Violas come in various sizes, ranging from 15 inches to 16.5 inches. Choosing the correct size is essential to ensure comfort and proper technique while playing. To determine the right size for you or your child, follow these steps:

  1. Measure the arm: Start by extending the left arm fully and measuring the distance from the neck to the middle of the palm.
  2. Consult the sizing chart: Once you have the measurement, refer to a viola sizing chart to find the corresponding size. Remember, it’s better to choose a slightly larger size if you’re unsure, as a smaller instrument can lead to discomfort and restricted playing ability.

Types of Violas

Violas come in various types, each with its unique characteristics and sound qualities. Understanding these types can help you make an informed decision when choosing a viola. Here are some common types of violas:

  1. Student Violas: These violas are designed for beginners and are usually made of lower-cost materials. They provide a good starting point for learning the instrument without breaking the bank.
  2. Intermediate Violas: As the name suggests, intermediate violas are designed for players who have progressed beyond the beginner stage. They usually offer better quality materials and craftsmanship, resulting in improved sound and playability.
  3. Professional Violas: Professional violas are crafted with the highest level of skill and expertise. They are made from the finest materials and are meticulously handcrafted to produce exceptional sound quality. Professional violas are typically more expensive but are worth the investment for serious players.

Renting vs. Buying

One of the key decisions you’ll face when choosing a viola is whether to rent or buy. Both options have their advantages and it ultimately depends on your individual circumstances. Let’s explore the pros and cons of each:


Renting a viola can be a great option, especially for beginners or those unsure about their long-term commitment to the instrument. Here are some benefits of renting:

  • Affordability: Renting a viola is often more cost-effective in the short term, as it allows you to pay a monthly fee rather than investing a significant amount upfront.
  • Flexibility: Renting provides the flexibility to switch to a different size or upgrade to a higher-quality instrument as you progress. This is particularly advantageous for young players who may outgrow their initial viola size.
  • Maintenance and support: Rental agreements often include maintenance and repair services, ensuring that your instrument is always in good condition. Additionally, rental shops usually offer expert advice and support to help you choose the right instrument.

However, there are a few drawbacks to consider when renting a viola:

  • Long-term cost: While renting may seem affordable in the short term, the cumulative cost over several years can surpass the price of buying a viola.
  • Limited customization: Rental instruments are often standard models that may not offer the same level of customization as a purchased instrument. This can limit your ability to tailor the instrument to your preferences.


Buying a viola is a more significant investment but comes with its own set of advantages. Here’s why buying might be the right choice for you:

  • Long-term investment: Purchasing a viola allows you to build equity in an instrument that can appreciate in value over time. It also provides a sense of ownership and pride in your instrument.
  • Customization: When you buy a viola, you have the freedom to choose from a wide range of options, including different woods, varnishes, and accessories. This allows you to find an instrument that suits your playing style and preferences.
  • Emotional connection: Owning a viola that is yours can create a deeper emotional connection to the instrument. This can positively impact your motivation and dedication to practicing and playing.

However, buying a viola also has some considerations:

  • Upfront cost: Purchasing a viola requires a larger initial investment compared to renting. This may not be feasible for everyone, especially beginners who are still testing the waters.
  • Maintenance and repair: As the owner of a viola, you are responsible for its maintenance and repair costs. This includes regular maintenance, such as restringing and occasional repairs that may be required over time.

Proper Viola Technique

Holding the Viola and Bow

When it comes to playing the viola, proper technique is essential for producing a beautiful and resonant sound. One of the first things you need to learn is how to hold the viola and bow correctly. The way you hold these instruments will greatly affect your ability to play with ease and precision.

To hold the viola, start by resting the instrument on your left shoulder, with the chinrest against your jaw. Your left hand should hold the neck of the viola, while your right hand holds the bow. It’s important to maintain a relaxed and comfortable posture while playing, so make sure your shoulders are relaxed and your back is straight.

When holding the bow, rest the pad of your thumb on the bow grip, with your fingers naturally curling over the top of the bow. The index finger should be placed on top of the stick, while the other fingers lightly rest on the underside. It’s important to maintain a loose grip on the bow, allowing it to move freely across the strings.

Correct Finger Placement

Once you have mastered the proper way to hold the viola and bow, the next step is to learn correct finger placement on the instrument. This involves placing your fingers in the right positions on the strings to produce the desired notes.

The fingers of your left hand are used to press down on the strings and create different pitches. The thumb of your left hand should rest lightly against the back of the neck, acting as a guide for the other fingers. The first finger is usually placed on the string closest to the scroll, the second finger on the next string, and so on.

To ensure accurate finger placement, it’s important to practice scales and exercises that focus on finger independence. This will help you develop the muscle memory needed to play the correct notes without looking at your fingers. As you progress, you’ll find that your fingers become more agile and can move smoothly between different positions on the fingerboard.

Bowing Techniques

Bowing is an essential aspect of playing the viola, as it directly affects the tone and quality of the sound produced. There are several bowing techniques that you should familiarize yourself with to enhance your playing ability.

The most basic bowing technique is the down bow and up bow. The down bow is performed by starting at the frog (the part of the bow closest to the hand) and pulling the bow across the strings towards the tip. The up bow is the opposite, starting at the tip and moving towards the frog. It’s important to maintain a consistent and smooth motion when bowing, avoiding any jerky movements.

Another important bowing technique is the use of bow pressure. By adjusting the pressure applied to the strings, you can control the dynamics and expression of the music. Lighter pressure produces a softer sound, while heavier pressure creates a louder and more intense sound.

Additionally, bow speed and bow placement on the strings also play a role in shaping the sound. Experiment with different bow speeds to create varying dynamics, and explore the different areas of the string to achieve different tonal colors.

Remember, mastering bowing techniques takes time and practice. It’s important to focus on developing a smooth and controlled bowing motion, as this will greatly enhance your overall playing ability.

In summary, proper viola technique is crucial for producing a beautiful and expressive sound. By learning how to hold the viola and bow correctly, placing your fingers accurately on the strings, and mastering various bowing techniques, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a proficient violist. Practice regularly and seek guidance from a qualified instructor to ensure you’re on the right track.

Essential Viola Accessories

Rosin and Bow Care

Taking care of your viola and bow is essential in maintaining their longevity and ensuring optimal performance. One of the most important accessories for your viola is rosin. Rosin is a sticky substance made from tree sap that is applied to the bow hair to create friction against the strings. This friction allows the bow to produce sound when drawn across the strings. Without rosin, the bow would simply glide over the strings without producing any sound.

To apply rosin to your bow, simply take the rosin block and rub it along the bow hair. It’s important to apply a sufficient amount of rosin, but not too much, as excessive rosin can create a harsh and scratchy sound. A good rule of thumb is to apply rosin every time you begin a practice session or performance.

In addition to rosin, proper bow care is crucial for maintaining the quality of your sound. After each use, it’s important to loosen the bow hair to relieve tension. This helps to prevent the bow hair from stretching over time. Additionally, be sure to wipe down the bow stick and frog with a clean cloth to remove any excess rosin or dirt.

Shoulder Rests and Chinrests

Playing the viola requires proper posture and positioning. This is where shoulder rests and chinrests come into play. A shoulder rest is a device that attaches to the back of the viola and rests on the shoulder, providing support and stability. It helps to prevent the viola from slipping and allows for more comfortable playing.

When choosing a shoulder rest, it’s important to consider your own body shape and size. There are different types of shoulder rests available, each offering varying levels of height and adjustability. It’s important to find one that fits your shoulder comfortably and provides the necessary support.

In addition to a shoulder rest, a chinrest is another accessory that aids in proper positioning. The chinrest is attached to the left side of the viola and provides a comfortable resting place for your chin. It helps to stabilize the viola and allows for better control and agility while playing. Like shoulder rests, chinrests come in various shapes and sizes, so it’s important to find one that fits your chin comfortably.

Music Stands and Sheet Music

Having a reliable music stand is essential for any viola player. A music stand provides a stable surface to hold your sheet music, allowing you to comfortably read and play at the same time. When choosing a music stand, consider factors such as stability, adjustability, and portability. A sturdy stand that can be adjusted to your preferred height and easily transported is ideal.

Sheet music is the written notation of the music you will be playing on the viola. It is important to have a good collection of sheet music that suits your skill level and musical interests. Sheet music comes in various formats, such as individual pieces, books, or digital files. It’s a good idea to have a mix of different types of sheet music to keep your practice sessions varied and interesting.

As a viola player, it’s important to keep your sheet music organized. Consider using a binder or folder to keep your sheet music neatly organized and protected. This will make it easier to find the pieces you want to practice and prevent them from getting damaged.

Learning to Read Viola Sheet Music

Playing the viola is a beautiful and rewarding experience, but before you can dive into the world of music, it’s essential to learn how to read sheet music. Sheet music is the written language of music, and understanding it will open up a whole new world of possibilities for you as a viola player. In this section, we will explore the key elements of reading sheet music for the viola, including understanding clefs and key signatures, identifying note values, and reading dynamics and articulation marks.

Understanding Clefs and Key Signatures

When you first encounter sheet music for the viola, you may notice that it is written on two different clefs: the treble clef and the alto clef. The treble clef is commonly used for higher-pitched instruments like the violin, while the alto clef is specifically designed for the viola. Understanding these clefs is crucial because they determine which notes you will be playing.

In addition to the clef, you will also come across key signatures in sheet music. Key signatures tell you which notes are sharp or flat throughout a piece of music. By familiarizing yourself with different key signatures, you can anticipate the accidentals that may appear in the music and adjust your playing accordingly.

Identifying Note Values

Knowing how to identify note values is fundamental to reading sheet music. The duration of a note is represented by its shape and placement on the staff. There are several common note values you will encounter:

  • Whole Notes: Represented by a hollow circle, these notes last for four beats.
  • Half Notes: Represented by a circle with a stem, these notes last for two beats.
  • Quarter Notes: Represented by a solid circle with a stem, these notes last for one beat.
  • Eighth Notes: Represented by a solid circle with a stem and a flag, these notes last for half a beat.
  • Sixteenth Notes: Represented by a solid circle with a stem and two flags, these notes last for a quarter of a beat.

By understanding these note values, you can accurately interpret the rhythm of a piece and play it with precision.

Reading Dynamics and Articulation Marks

Sheet music not only provides you with the notes to play but also includes instructions on how to play them. Dynamics and articulation marks convey the volume, intensity, and style of a musical passage. Dynamics are indicated by symbols such as “p” for piano (soft) and “f” for forte (loud). Articulation marks, on the other hand, describe how each note should be played, whether it be staccato (short and detached) or legato (smooth and connected).

By paying attention to these markings, you can add depth and emotion to your playing. They serve as a guide to help you interpret the composer’s intentions and convey the desired musical expression.

Practicing and Developing Skills

Creating a Practice Routine

Creating a consistent practice routine is essential for developing your skills as a viola player. By establishing a structured practice schedule, you can maximize your progress and ensure that you are making the most of your practice time. Here are some tips to help you create an effective practice routine:

  • Set specific goals: Determine what you want to achieve in your practice sessions. Whether it is improving your intonation, mastering a difficult passage, or developing a particular technique, having clear goals will give your practice sessions direction and purpose.
  • Break it down: Divide your practice session into smaller segments to focus on different aspects of playing the viola. For example, you can allocate time for scales and technical exercises, etudes or studies, repertoire pieces, and sight-reading. By breaking down your practice into smaller chunks, you can address different areas of your playing and avoid feeling overwhelmed.
  • Prioritize technique: Dedicate a portion of your practice time to working on specific techniques that need improvement. This could include exercises to develop finger strength and dexterity, bowing exercises to improve control and tone, or exercises to enhance your vibrato or shifting abilities. By focusing on technique, you lay a solid foundation for your overall playing skills.
  • Be consistent: Consistency is key when it comes to practice. Aim to practice every day, even if it is for a shorter duration. Regular practice helps build muscle memory and strengthens neural connections, allowing you to progress more quickly. It is better to practice for shorter periods each day than to have sporadic, longer practice sessions.
  • Use a timer: To stay focused and make the most of your practice time, consider using a timer. Set a specific amount of time for each segment of your practice routine, and stick to it. This will help you maintain discipline and prevent you from spending too much time on one aspect while neglecting others.

Developing Finger Strength and Dexterity

Developing finger strength and dexterity is crucial for achieving precise intonation, agility, and control on the viola. Here are some exercises that can help improve your finger strength and dexterity:

  • Finger exercises: Start by practicing simple finger exercises, such as playing scales, arpeggios, and chromatic patterns. Focus on maintaining even pressure on the strings and using the correct finger placement. Gradually increase the speed and complexity of the patterns as you become more comfortable.
  • Shifting exercises: Shifting is an essential skill for playing the viola. Practice shifting between different positions on the instrument, starting with small shifts and gradually increasing the distance. Pay attention to maintaining a consistent hand shape and finger placement while shifting smoothly and accurately.
  • Double stops: Double stops involve playing two notes simultaneously on adjacent strings. Practicing double stops can help improve finger independence and coordination. Start with simple double stops, such as playing open strings together or playing intervals like thirds and sixths. Gradually progress to more challenging double stops with wider intervals.
  • Etudes: Etudes are musical compositions specifically designed to develop specific technical skills. There are numerous etudes available for viola players that focus on finger strength and dexterity. Incorporate etudes into your practice routine to challenge yourself and improve your overall playing ability.

Improving Bow Control

Bow control is essential for producing a beautiful tone and expressive playing on the viola. Here are some exercises and techniques to help improve your bow control:

  • Bowing exercises: Practice various bowing exercises to develop control and consistency. This can include exercises like long bows, spiccato, staccato, and legato strokes. Focus on maintaining a relaxed grip on the bow, using the full length of the bow, and achieving a smooth and even sound.
  • Bow distribution: Experiment with different bow distribution techniques to achieve different sounds and dynamics. Learn how to distribute the bow weight between the contact point and the amount of bow used. This will allow you to produce a variety of tones and articulations.
  • Dynamics and articulation: Practice playing with different dynamics and articulation marks to enhance your musical expression. Experiment with playing forte, piano, crescendo, diminuendo, and various articulation techniques such as staccato, legato, and slurred notes. Pay attention to the nuances in your bowing technique required to achieve these different effects.
  • Listening and observation: Take the time to listen to professional viola players and observe their bowing technique. Pay attention to their bow speed, pressure, and positioning. Try to emulate their sound and incorporate their techniques into your own playing.

By incorporating these exercises and techniques into your practice routine, you can develop strong finger strength and dexterity, as well as improve your bow control on the viola. Remember to practice consistently and gradually increase the difficulty of the exercises to continue challenging yourself and progressing as a viola player.

Joining a Viola Ensemble

Joining a viola ensemble or orchestra is an exciting opportunity for violists to enhance their musical skills, collaborate with other musicians, and perform in a group setting. In this section, we will explore the process of finding a viola ensemble or orchestra, auditioning for ensembles, and provide some useful tips for playing in a group.

Finding a Viola Ensemble or Orchestra

Finding a viola ensemble or orchestra that suits your musical interests and skill level is crucial for a fulfilling musical journey. Here are some steps to help you find the right ensemble:

  1. Research local ensembles: Start by researching the ensembles in your local area. Look for community orchestras, youth orchestras, or chamber music groups that specifically include violas.
  2. Consult your music teacher: Seek guidance from your music teacher or private viola instructor. They often have valuable insights and connections within the local music community and can recommend suitable ensembles.
  3. Attend concerts: Attend concerts featuring viola ensembles or orchestras to get a sense of their repertoire, performance quality, and overall atmosphere. This can help you determine if a particular ensemble aligns with your musical preferences.
  4. Network with other musicians: Connect with other violists or musicians in your area. They may have information about ensembles that are currently seeking new members or can provide recommendations based on their own experiences.
  5. Online resources: Utilize online platforms and forums dedicated to classical music and viola playing. Websites like Violinist.com, ViolaSpace, or social media groups can be a valuable resource for finding viola ensembles or orchestras.

Auditioning for Ensembles

Once you have identified potential viola ensembles or orchestras, the next step is to prepare for auditions. Here are some tips to help you navigate the audition process:

  1. Review audition requirements: Carefully read and understand the audition requirements provided by the ensemble. This may include specific repertoire, scales, sight-reading, or excerpts from orchestral works. Be sure to prepare accordingly.
  2. Practice with accompaniment: If the audition requires a prepared piece, practice performing it with a pianist or accompanist. This will help you develop a sense of timing, dynamics, and ensemble playing.
  3. Seek feedback: Seek feedback from your music teacher or private instructor during the audition preparation process. They can provide valuable guidance on interpretation, technique, and overall performance.
  4. Stay organized: Keep track of audition dates, times, and any additional requirements. Make sure to arrive early on the day of the audition and bring all necessary materials, such as sheet music, resumes, and a well-tuned viola.
  5. Stay confident and focused: Auditions can be nerve-wracking, but try to stay calm and focused. Remember that the panel wants you to succeed and is looking for potential, not perfection. Trust in your preparation and let your passion for music shine through.

Tips for Playing in a Group

Playing in a viola ensemble or orchestra requires more than just individual musical skills. It involves collaboration, communication, and a deep understanding of your role within the ensemble. Here are some tips to help you thrive in a group setting:

  1. Listen actively: Pay close attention to the other musicians in the ensemble. Listen to their phrasing, dynamics, and intonation. This will help you blend in and create a balanced sound as a group.
  2. Follow the conductor: Always keep your eyes on the conductor and follow their cues. The conductor’s role is to unify the ensemble and provide guidance on interpretation and ensemble playing.
  3. Communicate with fellow musicians: Engage in musical discussions with your fellow violists and other instrumentalists. Share ideas, interpretive choices, and listen to different perspectives. This collaborative approach can enhance the overall musical experience.
  4. Be flexible: Be open to adjustments and changes during rehearsals. Sometimes, the conductor or fellow musicians may suggest alterations to improve the overall sound or interpretation. Embrace these changes and adapt accordingly.
  5. Maintain discipline and professionalism: Arrive on time for rehearsals and respect the rehearsal space. Be attentive, focused, and prepared. Show respect towards your conductor, fellow musicians, and the music itself.

By finding the right viola ensemble or orchestra, successfully auditioning, and developing the necessary skills to play in a group, you can embark on an enriching musical journey. Remember, joining a viola ensemble is not only about honing your individual skills but also about creating beautiful music together with fellow musicians. So, embrace the opportunity, collaborate, and enjoy the experience of making music as part of a team.

Performing on the Viola

Overcoming Performance Anxiety

Performing on the viola can be an exhilarating and fulfilling experience, but it can also come with its fair share of nerves and anxiety. Whether you’re playing in front of a small audience or a large crowd, stage fright can creep up on anyone. But fear not! There are strategies and techniques you can employ to overcome performance anxiety and deliver a confident and captivating performance.

One highly effective method to combat performance anxiety is through proper preparation. By practicing your pieces thoroughly and becoming intimately familiar with the music, you can build confidence in your abilities. Take the time to break down challenging passages, work on intonation, and refine your technique. The more comfortable you are with the music, the less room there is for anxiety to take hold.

Another useful tactic is to incorporate relaxation techniques into your practice routine. Deep breathing exercises, meditation, and visualization can all help calm your nerves and center your focus. Before taking the stage, take a few moments to breathe deeply and visualize yourself performing with confidence and ease. By incorporating these techniques, you can reduce anxiety and increase your overall performance quality.

Additionally, it can be helpful to reframe your mindset and approach performing as an opportunity for growth and self-expression rather than a high-stakes event. Embrace the joy of sharing your music with others and remember that mistakes are a natural part of the learning process. By reframing your perspective, you can alleviate some of the pressure and tension associated with performance.

Memorizing Music

Memorizing music is a valuable skill for any violist. Not only does it allow for a deeper connection with the music, but it also enhances your stage presence and frees you from relying on sheet music. While memorization can be challenging, there are strategies you can employ to make the process more manageable.

One effective approach is to break the music down into smaller sections and focus on memorizing one section at a time. Start by practicing each section slowly and deliberately, paying attention to the fingerings, bowings, and rhythms. Once you feel comfortable with a section, gradually increase the tempo until you can play it confidently from memory. Repeat this process for each subsequent section until you can seamlessly perform the entire piece.

Another helpful technique is to engage multiple senses while practicing. Visualize the fingerings and bowings in your mind’s eye, and try to feel the physical sensations associated with playing each note. By incorporating visual and kinesthetic elements into your practice, you can strengthen your memory and improve recall.

It can also be beneficial to practice away from your instrument. Take time to mentally visualize the music, imagining yourself playing each note and phrase. This mental practice can reinforce your memorization and solidify your understanding of the music.

Stage Presence and Communication

Performing on the viola is not just about playing the right notes; it’s also about connecting with your audience and conveying the emotional essence of the music. Stage presence and communication are crucial aspects of a captivating performance.

One way to enhance your stage presence is through body language. Stand tall and engage your entire body while playing, using gestures and movements to express the music. Maintain eye contact with your audience, allowing them to feel a connection with you and the music you’re playing.

In addition to body language, effective communication can be achieved through nuanced dynamics and phrasing. Explore the dynamic range of your instrument, using crescendos, decrescendos, and varying articulations to shape the music and evoke emotion. Pay attention to the subtleties of the music, emphasizing the delicate moments and bringing out the power of the climactic sections.

Furthermore, engaging with your audience through verbal communication can create a more intimate and interactive performance. Take a moment to introduce each piece, sharing insights or personal anecdotes that deepen the audience’s understanding and appreciation of the music. By establishing a connection through words, you can create a more meaningful and memorable performance experience.

In conclusion, performing on the viola is not just about playing the right notes; it’s about overcoming performance anxiety, memorizing music, and effectively communicating with your audience. By employing strategies such as proper preparation, relaxation techniques, and visualization, you can conquer performance anxiety and deliver confident performances. Additionally, by utilizing techniques like breaking down music into smaller sections, engaging multiple senses, and practicing away from the instrument, you can enhance your ability to memorize music. Finally, by focusing on stage presence, body language, dynamics, and verbal communication, you can create a captivating and memorable performance that resonates with your audience. So embrace the stage, take a deep breath, and let your viola sing with confidence and expression.

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