Trying Out the Viola

Bob Kreutz is your guide as you learn what a viola is, how to properly hold the instrument and bow, and what it sounds like!

Equipment Considerations:

All string instruments are sized to the player, and the viola is no exception. In general, students entering the sixth grade will begin on a 14″ viola but occasionally students may start on the smaller 13″ viola, and rarely, students may start on a 15″ viola. An improperly sized instrument will be frustrating for the player and inhibit their musical development. Their teacher or your local music store will be able to offer guidance on what sized instrument is appropriate, so utilize these resources.

Accessory Considerations:

Shoulder Rest! All violas will require a shoulder rest (or for the smallest fractionally sized instruments a sponge). This is crucial for learning proper posture and technique in holding the instrument. If you are renting your instrument, this is typically an additional one-time purchase (not included with your rental) but is an essential accessory.

Rosin! Rosin is typically provided with the rental of an instrument, though upgraded brands are always available for purchase. This sticky substance is petrified tree sap and is applied to the hair of the bow to create friction between the bow hair and the strings. This causes the strings to vibrate, creating sound. No vibration, no sound, so rosin is quite important! Rosin will eventually be depleted through normal use and will need to be replaced.

Tuner! Violas go out of tune through no fault of the player and must be tuned every time they are played. The best way for a beginner to learn this necessary skill is using an electronic tuner. There are many brands and options of tuners, but by far the most popular are ones that can clip on to the scroll or the bridge of the viola. They provide an instant readout for the student so they can quickly and correctly tune their instrument. This item is a one-time purchase typically not included with an instrument rental.

Strings! Strings are the lifeblood of the viola. There are many brands and varieties of strings from steel core to synthetic core to gut (yes, really!) strings. Student level instruments will almost always come with steel core strings due to their relatively inexpensive cost and durability. Having said that, all strings eventually break or wear out, so while these should be considered fairly durable, they are an ongoing expense. Strings are sized to the instrument, so make sure you are purchasing the correct ones for your viola. Some teachers will recommend always having a full replacement set on hand in case one needs to be replaced, so check with your teacher for clarification.

Maintenance Considerations:

Violas are made of wood, an organic material, and are therefore affected by atmospheric conditions (temperature and humidity, specifically). Extreme highs or lows of either of these can be damaging to your instrument. What will typically happen is that the viola will crack or a seam (or multiple seams) will come apart. All of this is fixable by a professional repair technician or luthier. The tools and glue used are very specific so not only are home repairs strongly not recommended, they can possibly damage the instrument beyond repair.

Viola bows are almost always strung with horsehair, which will eventually need to be replaced. How often depends on the level of use, with top level professionally having their bows rehaired several times a year. Beginners should not need this done often at all, but if you think your bow might need new hair consult with your teacher or local music store for guidance.

Financial Considerations:

Given the sizing considerations inherent to string instruments, it is strongly recommended to rent or rent-to-own any string instrument until the player is large enough for a full-sized instrument. This will assure you have not purchased an instrument that will eventually become obsolete. The good news is that violas tend to be one of the more affordable instruments to rent, so the out of pocket expense will be reasonable moderate as possible while your player grows.
Step up and professional instruments and bows can (and will) start in the low thousands and rapidly increase from there to purchase new, so if viola is an anticipated life-long pursuit this long-term expense must be taken into consideration.

Fun Facts:

Though it resembles the violin, the viola’s sizing and tuning are different which gives it a deep, rich sound. Viola sheet music is written in alto clef (rather than treble clef like a violin).