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Pauline Lerner

I'm Loving My Viola

July 26, 2011 at 2:59 AM


I have been playing the violin for years, and recently I was seduced by a viola.  (See my blog of Nov. 2010).

I've been befriending my viola, learning to play it, and absolutely loving the instrument.  I've discovered what a wonderful, severely underrated melody instrument it is.

Here is a verbal collage of what I have been doing with my viola in the last few months.

I started to learn about my viola by playing it in different ways.  I played songs I know, practiced improvising with recorded music, and played some of my written violin music.  I experimented by playing music in major, minor, and modal keys.  I tried playing the same tune on the two upper and then the two lower strings of the viola.  I also tried playing in the first position and higher positions.  In these ways, I had fun befriending my viola.

Then I got some good advice from friends.  The most important thing they told me was to use more bow pressure than I would on the violin.

On my luthier's recommendation, I bought the book From Violin to Viola:  A Transitional Approach by Harvey S. Whistler, and it has been a great help.  The very first page of text presents several fundamental concepts which boosted my understanding and the quality of my playing immensely.  I found some of Whistler's exercises very helpful.  

  • C string resonance:  I tried playing scales with sustained tones, cresc., decresc., cresc. to decresc and vice versa using all four strings.  Mastering dynamics has been an ongoing issue for me.

  • I tried 4th finger and open string exs. on p5 (4th finger, then open string, then both together). Keep repeating this to stregthen 4th finger. Ouch!

  • I worked on octave exs. on p. 5. Keep repeating this to strengthen 4th finger. Ouch!
Although my viola is only 15 3/8 inches, it feels much bigger and heavier than my violin.  My left shoulder got tired quickly.  I worked on this by playing with a large, rolled up towel under my left arm.  When this felt comfortable, I used a smaller towel, and then I used no towel.
I found that being a violin teacher really helps me learn to play the viola.  
One day I had a friend watch my bowing, and he told me that I was moving the bow in an arc instead of a straight line.  I knew just what to do because I teach my students how to do it.  I went across the room and stood with my back against the wall, imagining that my right shoulder or shoulder blade was pinned to the wall.  That stance forced me to put my bow in the right place and move it correctly.  I played for a while, focusing on how my bow arm felt and then walked away from the wall and continued bowing -- correctly.  The next time my friend came by, I had him watch my bowing, and he confirmed that I was bowing correctly.
My beginning students work hard to learn to read sheet music, and now I really sympathize with them.  I'm having a devil of a time learning to read alto clef.  I have my students write the note names below the notes in the pieces they are playing.  The first time I tried to write in the note names of a simple exercise in auto clef, it was infuriating and confusing. 
I picked up my viola to play for a few minutes, and when I looked at my watch, two hours had gone by. 
The viola is so well suited to playing with other instruments and to accompanying the human voice.  It seems to weave together diverse sounds into a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts.
Jamming is a big high for me, and I've been playing my viola at jam sessions.  Its big sound works very well in a group of guitarists, other instrumentalists, and singers.  I remember the trouble I used to have playing my violin in some jam groups.  I felt as though it were Pauline vs guitarists.  Not so with the viola.  It has a big sound which carries well.  I've been "fiddling around,"  trying to find the best way that my viola can contribute to the sound of a good jam session.  When chordal instruments are being played, double stops are not useful and rhythm backup is rarely needed on the viola.  I love to improvise harmony, so I do a lot of that.  I also fill in with ornaments when others are playing a long, slow note.  Sometimes someone calls out "viola break," and that always thrills me.
Learning to play the viola has been rewarding and fun. I'll update my account of it from time to time.

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on July 26, 2011 at 3:17 PM

Pauline, it's wonderful to read blogs from you after so long.  You're making the viola sound so enticing--I'll refer back to it some day when I 'm ready to take up the challenge.  I'll be looking forward to more.

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on July 26, 2011 at 3:21 PM

Just read your Nov 2010 blog.  Are you still renting a viola, or did you buy one?  Want to tell us about it? --Fran

From Barry Nelson
Posted on July 26, 2011 at 7:29 PM

Ive been considering Viola, youve helped answer some of my questions . I look forward to more.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on July 26, 2011 at 8:56 PM

I'm glad you liked my blog.  The viola is definitely seductive.  I am renting with the option to buy.  I have already upgraded my viola and bow.  I'm using a carbon fiber bow, and it makes it easier to get the sound I want.

From Hunter Miller
Posted on July 26, 2011 at 11:22 PM

FINALLY!!!!! Violinists coming to there senses........It is werid that your friends said more bow pressure. Did any of them play viola? If they didnt, they might have thought, bigger instrument, more pressure. But viola is werid like that. Every time I have used more pressure, the sound quality just gets works. Try letting the weight of the bow pull  the sound from the instrument. It will help with dynamics.

From Mendy Smith
Posted on July 27, 2011 at 1:30 AM

 Another violinist converted over to the dark side!  My evil plan is working....  ;)

I'm happy you're enjoying it.  Hunter is right, it isn't a matter of "pressure" but of gravity and a scooping of the string.  Think of the bow of doing a sort of soft pizz. stroke.  The pulse or click exercise helps.

Enjoy your Cing!

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on July 27, 2011 at 1:58 AM

Hunter and Mendy, you are right.  It's not about pressing down on the bow.  It's about letting the weight of your arm do the work and scooping the bow into the string.  I find the image of scooping very helpful.

It's fun on the Dark Side.  The viola can play happy music, but with soul.  There is so much to explore.  I'm having fun.

From Sue Porter
Posted on July 27, 2011 at 2:10 AM

Good to hear from you!  Glad you haven't melted away in the DC heat . . . yet.  The Whistler book might help me too.  Thanks.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on July 27, 2011 at 4:37 AM

Thanks, Sue.  The heat here has been really bad.  Someone left a bow in the trunk of their car, and the rosin oozed and turned the bow hair into gunk.  Not a pretty sight.!/photo.php?fbid=10150207109112252&set=a.10150207108857252.317732.18445082251&type=1&theater

Posted on July 27, 2011 at 1:10 PM

Another violinist converted over to the dark side!  My evil plan is working....  ;)

Yes master.....the seductive sound of the viola is beginning to hypnotize humanity.  Soon, many more string players will be slaves to the Alto Clef, and your plan for world wide domination will come true.....

---Ann Marie


From Hunter Miller
Posted on July 28, 2011 at 1:32 AM

The plan is working.......they think they have supperiorty.......while we use the force on them......I love the dark side.........

From Terez Mertes
Posted on July 28, 2011 at 5:37 PM

 Pauline! Good to see you posting! (Although sorry you've been seduced away from the delicate, lovely violin!!)

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on July 30, 2011 at 2:24 PM

 Viola and fiddling are a cool combination!  Are you going to take your viola to fiddle camp?  I'm impressed that you improvise harmony--how great for your musicianship, too.  

I didn't know they made violas in 1/8" increments.  When I was choosing a viola size, I didn't like the way the 15" or smaller sounded, and the 16" was too big and heavy and gave me some head and neck pain, but the 15 1/2" seemed to hit the spot, so that was the size I rented, and ultimately bought.



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