I’ve been scratching around on my violin for the last 30 years. Last week I took a viola to rehearsal and it rocked my world.

Here’s how to go from Treble clef to Alto clef in 30 seconds.

Transposing the notes in your head takes time. All that can be avoided.

Here’s a much faster approach. Imagine that 1st position on viola is 3rd position on violin. You’re done!

For example. Consider a G in treble clef on your violin. A note sitting on the top line. It can be played with your 2nd finger on the top string or your 4th finger in 3rd position on the 2nd string. Right?

Now. Imagine that your violin doesn’t have a 1st or 2nd position.

Pick up a viola, find some alto clef music, and start playing. Stay playing your viola as though it’s a violin without a 1st or 2nd position. Imagine 1st and 2nd are hiding in the scroll beyond your reach.

When you read that note sitting on the top line stick your 4th finger on the 2nd string – in 1st. You are now playing viola. Transition complete. Keep in mind. It’s not a G, but that’s a detail.

To get the hang of it, just try playing violin music and never go below 3rd position. Then do the same thing but in first position on your viola, with some viola music.

The funny thing is. After a few minutes of rocking out some viola tunes this all becomes normal. The brain sort of adapts and forgets about treble clef. Everything falls into place. The strings. The notes. The key. The universe. It all just connects. It’s weird and magical.

Viola is heavy

One thing I’ve noticed about playing the viola after many years on the violin is that it takes a little extra muscle. It’s heavier. The the strings are bigger. Viola strings need to be given more grit in order to ring out.

A lot more pressure runs down from the left hand as well. Holding the viola up is a challenge. As the the ulna pronates the carpal bones and surrounding ligaments take a hit. Vibrato needs more preparation and support.

It’s big. Which means it allows for two very interesting new musical ideas. More sway. Much louder. When I play the viola I’m more chill. I have to move around a little more to get things going.

Playing the viola is like riding a harley. It’s loud. It’s smooth. There’s more of a low rider kind of vibe, which suits me fine.

Politics and opportunity

Interesting. The viola part is much easier. It’s less transparent. There is very little shifting. For the most part, symphony viola is just really easy to play. Which is a nice break if you’re looking for something a little more relaxing.

It’s hilarious to be the butt of viola jokes. It’s sort of bizarre how much rivalry the string section emits. Conversly there is something very humble about the violas. Viola players understand that being top dog isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Making the shift to viola opens up a world of opportunity. Ensembles are always hunting for the latest musician who fell from the violin tree and landed in the viola hammock.

Focusing on the middle line is fascinating.

The position of the viola section is great. You’re right up next to the conductor. You can see all the violins and you get to actually hear the bass. The viola is a loud instrument but it’s also in a range that doesn’t drown out the other instruments.

Yes. It may be true that for the most part the viola doesn’t get the melody but, so what! There is so much more to symphony than the melody.

“Hey, so how’s the viola going? Interesting part you got there? Quavers, quavers, quavers…!”

Next time you say to yourself, “wow, i’ve done that symphony enough times already… ” consider making a change and try it with a viola instead. It’s fun.