Learning how to play the viola can be a fun and exciting adventure, but getting started can be difficult for some violists- especially those who are very young or have never played an instrument before. Whether you’re a beginner violist or simply feel like one after months of no practice, there are a few important things to keep in mind. From warming up to keeping your viola properly maintained, here are some tips for brand new or inexperienced violists to keep in mind as they begin their musical journey.
Warming Up Is Important
Many new violists think they can jump head first into practicing their sheet music, but an essential part of any practice session is warming up. When you pick up your instrument after a couple days of not playing, your hands are cold and you won’t play at your best ability. Warming up is similar to warming up in sports: you’ll be warming up your muscles, fingers, and wrists. A viola warm up can consist of playing scales to stabilize your intonation, running through your bowing technique, or playing some pieces that are fun and easy for you to play. Experiment to find out how long your warm-up should be, or speak with your band or orchestra teacher for sample warm-up exercises.
Choose the Right Size
Most adults, regardless of their size, use 16” violas. In most cases, the bigger the instrument the better the sound, but not all children are large enough for a full-size viola. When measuring a child or young adult for the correct viola size, ask them to extend their left arm fully outwards, pointed approximately at playing angle. Once their arms are properly extended, measure the distance from their neck to the middle of their palm. If the length is 26” or more, a 16” viola is the right size. If the length is 24 ½” or 23”, move down to 15” or 14”, respectively. Finally, if the length is 21 ½”, opt for a student-sized model that’s 13” in length. For smaller children and young adults, the weight and size of a large viola can cause tension and a smaller viola will be more comfortable and easier to play.
Practice Proper Posture
Posture is important when playing any instrument, including the viola. Not only can proper posture enhance the quality of the sound produced by the instrument, but it can also minimize the risk of muscle or back strain. When holding the viola, hold it loosely- if you hold the bow or viola too tightly, you’ll produce a sound that’s tight or scratchy. Keep your joints unlocked and slightly bent, and use your stomach to hold you up as you play. If you focus on keeping your core tight you’ll produce a sound that’s more intense and relaxed as the muscles in your arm and back won’t have to support you as much. Finally, make sure you aren’t pressing down too hard on the strings. Be firm, but relaxed. This will come through in the overall tone of the instrument.
Set a Schedule
If you have trouble practicing self-discipline, setting a consistent practice schedule could be in your best interest. Remember that practicing for half an hour a day will do more for your progress than three hours once a week and that an hour a day is even better than thirty minutes. But, at the end of the day, keep your practice goals realistic so as to avoid overwhelming yourself. While some teachers prefer for their students to practice every day, four or five practice sessions a week should suffice. If you’re having trouble maintaining your motivation, check out our tips for staying motivated.
Everyday Will Be Different
We all have bad hair days, but did you know you can have a bad viola day, too? The truth of the matter is, there are some days where you won’t be on the top of your abilities. When you have a bad viola day, don’t worry- just pick up your viola and play through the songs you already planned on playing. Chances are, if you give it enough time you’ll get into the flow of playing. If you become too frustrated, put the viola down and pick it up later or skip practicing that day altogether. Or, mix it up a little bit! Focus on playing through your favorite songs and forget about the sheet music altogether. Just remember, learning the viola isn’t always easy: there will be days when you’re up, and days when you’re down. Just stick with it.
Keep Your Viola Maintained
One of the most obvious, yet often overlooked, tips is to clean your viola regularly. Wipe excess rosin debris away from the body and strings of your viola after each use. Doing so will prevent the rosin from sticking to the varnish and making the strings sound poor. While wiping down your viola after each use is important, it’s important to avoid using oil or polishing cloths. Although polishing cloths are intended to remove oils from the skin, they can actually leave a gunky residue on your instrument. To effectively afford accidentally tarnishing your instrument, use dry cloths to clean and take your viola to a qualified repair technician as recommended.
Most Importantly, Have Fun!
This last tip is the most important of them all- make sure you’re having fun! While learning to play the viola isn’t always the easiest thing in the world, it should at least be an enjoyable experience most of the time. At the end of the day, play when you want to play- especially if it goes beyond your scheduled practice time. Don’t pay so much attention to the clock, and get some friends together every once in awhile to jam. If you don’t seem to be having fun or dread sitting down and playing the viola, perhaps you should consider switching to a different instrument. After all, the viola isn’t for everyone!
Need advice on essential viola accessories? Check out our article on Cases, Mutes, and Other Viola Accessories.