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What is harder to play, violin or viola?

My question is should be completely agnostic, i.e. no relation to the classical repertoire or any other rep., nor should it be about the string order.

The question is only about what is technically harder due to string tension, tone intervals on the strings, weight of instrument etc.

I play the violin for about a a decade (most time of my work is playing by ear, so I don't care about repertoire or notes), and I like the sound of the viola very much. I want to buy a 5 string viola (with E string), I'd like to know if that will grade up the playing effort.

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"What's easier?" seems way too subjective. However your actual question seems to be "Will I have trouble transitioning to viola?" If you could rewrite to fit the latter question, perhaps with more detail about yourself, I think that would greatly improve the question. –  Matthew Read Jul 8 '11 at 14:50
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2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Adding the extra string will add some difficulty, yes, as the string separation and neck width will change, and some of your subconscious muscle memory may need to be relearned/tweaked to cope with a different string being at the side.

You will also need to relearn note spacings, but I can't see any major differences in difficulty from tension - the difference is similar to that betweeen a guitar and a baritone guitar, not the more extreme guitar to bass guitar.

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I don't think the other string makes any difference, I'll quickly get used to it. My main question was 1) tension 2) intervals - finger spacing, will I have to stretch my fingers much more?' –  Shimmy Jul 8 '11 at 13:35
    
as a violin string is around 32cm and a viola string is around 37cm (although this can vary) there will be a bit more stretch, yes –  Dr Mayhem Jul 8 '11 at 14:01
    
a bit more or a lot more? that's exactly my question. how is a viola in a small size compared to a 4/4 violin size? is there anything like that? –  Shimmy Jul 9 '11 at 22:50
    
Violas go up from 37cm bridge to nut, so that's around 15% increase in length from a 32cm violin. As to whether that is a little or a lot is entirely subjective to you. I don't think it is, but what is important is relearning the muscle memory so your fingers know where to go. –  Dr Mayhem Jul 10 '11 at 14:55
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The main differences I have noticed:

  • Finger spacing/placement while shifting, especially during quick runs and large shifts, can take some adjusting to. Playing double stops greater than an eighth can be pretty hard on a viola, and playing full chords with all fingers where either the index or pinky isn't in first while the rest are is dang near impossible for me. But then again, I've always had a relatively weak pinky.
  • Bowing angles take a bit of adjustment. Not that either is harder than the other, but it's something you'll need to accommodate every time you switch.
  • The strings' tension and distance to the fingerboard is significantly more in a viola. When switching back to viola from violin, I sometimes get caught not having lifted my finger completely off the string. And your fingers can get more fatigued during a performance or drilling runs on a viola.
  • The E string can be painful on a viola. I've used the D'Addario E String for Viola on my 16" (4strings) and I would seriously have to quit playing within 20 minutes because it was too painful. It's very thin and has a high tension; glisses in particular were unbearable. This was at a point when I'd practice 6-8 hours a day, so it's not like my fingers were unweathered. (This is the only thing that would make me advise against a five-string over a normal four-string)
  • In my experience, the E string on a viola has awful responsiveness; I'd sometimes use a whole bow without getting anything (I made sure to rosin well and tried it both with Pirastro's Goldflex (my preference) and Jade Rosin). It also squeaks often and there is very little you can do about it, as I'm pretty sure it's a physics thing related to how thin it has to be in order to produce the frequency of an E and the harmonics it produces.
  • A viola is heavier, will make you tired faster, and will leave you pretty sore after six hours of practice. You most definitely will want to invest in a quality shoulder rest.
  • The bow is larger and heavier for a viola, which makes it harder to do a lot of things, e.g. string crossing, ricochet, and moving notes in presto/issimo. A violin bow feels like a feather compared to a viola's. On the other hand (figuratively), the viola bow's weight makes it much easier to produce a beautiful and solid tone, whereas a violin bow always makes me feel like I have a wimpy tone even with the hair pressed into the stick.
  • I don't know much about playing a five-string, and I'm sure you've made the same assumptions as I would note. The only thing I can say is that in the handful of times I've picked up a five-string viola, it's felt quite foreign (as a normal violist), as the angles between the strings were significantly different.

For your reference, my perspective on the technical differences between playing a violin and viola comes primarily from playing the same violin concertos (mendelssohn, tchaikovsky, bruch, et al) on both violin and viola (transposed a fifth down) after having had been a violist for over a decade: so basically the inverse of you. My experience was that it was much easier to play violin than viola, and it required much less effort. So my guess is that it would require more effort and be slightly more difficult to go from violin to viola.

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