As I write this, it is a quiet evening following a long day of rehearsals. The only music continuing is that of the birds outside my window, singing their finale of the day. Tomorrow is a new time for creation, another day of preparation for our upcoming concert series.
In the next two concert series (E and F), I will have the privilege of performing on both violin and viola. Since several audience members have asked me about the differences and similarities between the two instruments, I thought it might be an interesting topic to discuss here.
First and foremost, whether or not one is performing on violin or viola (or any instrument for that matter), the process of making music does not change–our instruments are merely our tools for achieving the phrasing, dynamics, and character which represent the building blocks of music. Just a few hours ago when I was playing my viola in the Mendelssohn Sextet, I wasn’t thinking that I was playing viola; rather, I was playing Mendelssohn and I was but one part of a unique musical masterpiece.
The violin is smaller and has one string different than the viola. The violin has a higher-pitched E-string that is one fifth (five notes higher) above the A-string (the second string of the violin). This allows the violin to play higher pitches and also allows for it to be a dominant voice over the other instruments. The second, third, and fourth strings of the violin are exactly the same as the top three viola strings, and are one fifth apart. They are called the A, D, and G strings. The fourth string of the viola is a fifth below the G string and is called the C string. The notes of the viola are the same as those of the cello except they are one octave different (an octave comprises of eight notes). In a way, the viola is the “switch-hitter” instrument of the traditional string quartet; at times, it supports the violin, while at others, it blends into the cello’s sonorities. Additionally, it is not uncommon for the violist to perform solos as well.
These are not the only differences between the two instruments, however–the way in which each is held varies as well. The violin hold allows for one’s left hand to roam about the instrument freely, while the viola hold is more of a balancing position between the chin, shoulder, and collar bone. It is difficult to play with the same freedom of motion on the viola as on the violin, so it is critical that the viola be held in an optimal position of balance.
Lastly, violists read in a different clef than violinists (a clef is a symbol that is notated at the beginning of each line of music, and is indicative of the its range). Violinists read in the treble clef only, while violists read in both alto and treble clef. To understand the differences between the respective clefs, imagine that reading the treble clef is equivalent to reading English while reading the alto clef is equivalent to reading German. Notes occur in the the same places on the staff, but their pitches are different. So, the primary challenge of switching between clefs is to remained focused and alert throughout the performance.
So, is it harder to play the violin or the viola? It is difficult to judge because there are unique technical challenges inherent in both instruments–but they are both are equally enjoyable to play. I love playing the viola as well as the violin, because I am able to experience chamber music from a fresh perspective. But when you listen to me perform over the course of the next seven concerts, remember, it is not whether I am playing a violin or a viola that is important–rather, that I am one part of the musical masterpiece that myself and my colleagues are performing together. As the sun sets, the music begins….