Learning how to play viola is tons of fun for children and adults alike. Similar to the violin, the viola is slightly larger and has a deeper tone. Since the viola was primarily used to fill in harmonies in earlier orchestral music, not much solo repertoire was written for the instrument prior to the 20th century. During the 20th century the popularity of the viola as a solo instrument increased, although it is still primarily used for harmonies in large orchestra pieces as well as in smaller string ensembles. The viola has also been used in contemporary pop music and it is occasionally used in folk music as well. Unlike the violin, viola is notated primarily in the alto clef, so when students learn to play viola they will also learn to read music in that clef.
The viola is played by drawing a bow over one or more of the four strings on the instrument. By holding down the strings with the hand not holding the bow, different pitches can be produced to play complex melodies. The strings can also be plucked with the fingers, a practice referred to as pizzicato. The viola is held by resting it on the left shoulder and holding it in place with the side of the cheek. For younger players, a foam pad called a shoulder rest is sometimes employed to help support the instrument and prevent strain on the player. The left hand can then move to different positions on the neck of the viola while the right hand holds the bow.
As a member of the string family, the viola’s history is closely tied to that of the violin. The version of both the violin and the viola we play now was developed during the 16th century in Italy. Prior to that, other stringed instruments played with a bow existed in various forms, including the lira da gamba and the lira da braccio. Unlike the violin, the viola has no standard sizing, and it has been constantly developing since the 16th century. The goal has been to keep the instrument as similar to the violin as possible, while still distinguishing it as its own instrument. This has ensured the harmony between the two instruments over the centuries. This article provides more information about the viola’s history as well as offering other information about playing techniques and the characteristics that make the viola’s sound unique.
Since the viola is larger than the violin and the strings are thicker and thus harder to hold down, we recommend that children wait until about the age of six to begin to learn to play viola. They may begin on the violin as early as four, or even three if the child can concentrate for a full 30 minute lesson, and then transition to the viola when they have built up enough finger strength to play the instrument comfortably. Older children and adults can begin learning how to play viola at any time as it is never too late to pick up a new skill!
Unlike violins, violas do not come in standard sizes and so it is important to get a viola that is the right size for the student. Full size violas can range between 14’’ and 16’’, and smaller violas are also available for younger children. This sizing guide can help you determine what viola may be right for the student, and local music stores are also a great resource for finding the right instrument. Your assigned Musika teacher can also be of help in finding a good place to purchase or rent a viola.
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