I'm willing to sell my soul, but which violin should I ask for?
May 16, 2010 8:38 PM   Subscribe

MusicTeachingFilter: Simple plan was to learn an under chin bowed string instrument. Didn't realize they were all so different [you-tubes]. Which to start with? What method of teaching? Want to eventually do folk/improvise, seeking sympathetic string sound, but still love classical.

I have said for years that I want to learn Violin/Fiddle, now I have the time to do so. Am 25 with previous "12 years experience" on Piano (which I quit officially about 5 years ago for the worst possible reasons and feel I forgotten everything music related... hope not, but was never really good with theory anyway). I don't have an instrument yet, but that is part of my question.

To wit: my questions:
-of the 4, Which instrument to focus on, at least to start? (leaning towards standard Viola [previous askme] )
-What teaching style? Suzuki? straight to improv/ear training? classical first than folk? other?
-What price range instrument to start with?

I really love Celtic/Irish folk fiddle, and southern folk fiddle (live in NC). I also love classical. And while I like the fast happy stuff, I would die a happy man if I could just once make music as slowly dark, melancholy and beautiful ornamented as around 0:37 to 1:33 in the Fargo Score.

But Silly me, until last week thought every bow string instrument under the chin was just a size of violin. Didn't realize that there were so many variates and that it seems the sounds I am really drawn to are the Hardingfele (like in fargo) and the viola d'amore (btw really like this.) I guess I just really have a thing for those instruments with sympathetic strings. (incidentally those are the one's with the best Myths don't use AEAC#!!)

I am leaning towards the standard Viola because
1) I have already had initial meeting with a teach who teaches it (but i'm not sure of her method/experience)
2) in general I would guess a Viola resources easier to find than the sympathetic stringed instruments
3) I guess (tell me if I am wrong) it is easier to start on one of the standard instruments and then branch to sympathetic strings.
4) I hear beginners on a Viola are not as screechy
5) I know I am the right "size" for viola.
6) Ummm.... I like the darker mellow sound of a Viola better than violin

But I am concerned because:
1) potential lack of solo/folk material on the viola.
2) Can a viola really be "a fiddle?" (in the folk music sense)
3) Would it be easier to learn violin first then viola? Would I pick up better habits/fingering? Does it matter?

The one teacher I mentioned is younger but expensive (relatively). she plays/teaches both Violin and Viola, a plus. But only Classically trained. Is that something to consider from the beginning or just down the line after the basics are learned?

What really concerns me is:
1) She suggested I just buy the cheapest instrument I can find ($200-300 on CraigsList). Which is good on my wallet, but I have read most everywhere else that is a big no-no, you should start on decent instrument so you tune your ear. But maybe she has a point since if I bought a "student instrument" from the violin maker in town it would be like 1200$ and I don't really know what I want yet.
2) I'm not thrilled with the instruction book she showed me. It looked like a kid book and the mush of stuff I remember on Piano which made me hate it. I'd prefer theory presented straightforward in a technical manual or let me mess with the instrument and figure it out with some assistance. But obviously I failed at Piano, so...?


I would be willing to pay 2,000 for an instrument now, but my thought was rent for 6 months and then make a jump to an owned instrument. There is apparently another violin maker in town that rents and has good quality (for rentals) according to another violin (not viola) teacher I talked to.

Finally, just as an aside... I get this fear that (as always) I naturally gravitated towards the most expensive, esoteric, hard to master areas of a field (the sympathetic strings, d'amore and Hardingfele). Should I just give up on those now? or could a devoted hobbyist actually make something beautiful on one of those without paying a fortune and wasting years?

Thanks Hive Mind!
posted by DetonatedManiac to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
In general, you could play any violin/fiddle tune you like on a viola. Violas are pitched five tones lower than a violin, but the strings are tuned exactly the same distance apart as a violin. If you were reasonably proficient on the viola, you could play higher up the neck, but likely you would just play fiddle tunes in a key one fifth down from the original, with the exactly the same fingering and bowing patterns as a violin. You might find it's harder to play fast tunes as a beginning violist, cause in my limited experience violas are a bit slower to speak.

If you like unusual string instruments, you could aim to obtain a five string fiddle (basically a violin with a low C string like a viola's) some day. I used to have an electric one and that low C was like a freakin' chainsaw...

Viola and violin technique are similar so you could migrate from one to the other fairly easily. Many people start on violin and then pick up viola.

As to whether a viola can be folkier, nothing can be folkier than adapting the instrument to hand to the tune you want to play.

Having said that, I think if your ambition is folky music, start with fiddle. Then other people you meet will be able to show you what's what with the minimum of difficulty. You can take up viola for the darker sound afterwards.

Apropos teaching, if you have any ambitions to play classical music, you need classical technique. Personally I was trained for years in classical technique and although I rarely play classic music now I have never regretted the time I spent acquiring it. I find it easy to listen to a recording of non-classical music, maybe watch some video, and ask myself "how are they getting that effect" and then recreate something like it.

Learning to read music and classical music theory are skills that are so valuable to any musician that I often hear self-taught musicians lament their lack of sight-reading skills or their ignorance of harmony, but I never hear classical musicians complain about the time they wasted mastering their instrument. In any case, things may be different where you live, but teachers based in the classical world are mostly the only game in town. Certainly if you want to play viola d'amore, your repertoire will almost certainly be mostly classical and mostly in the form of sheet music scores and you'll need to be able to read and be familiar with the idioms of classical string music.

As to your aversion to kids' stuff: discuss it with your teacher. Maybe she can dredge up something suitable for you. But the sad fact is, you have to walk before you can run. If you aren't playing nursery rhymes, or anodyne tunes that everyone knows then you'll be playing sterile exercises with names like G String Etude No 5 by Professor Killmenow Oldfahrt. It's honestly easier to learn with simple tunes where you know what they should sound like already. Suck it up, accept the shame of playing Mary Had A Little Lamb 100 times a day, aim to move past that stage as soon as possible.

Apropos esoteric bowed instruments: I have no expertise here, but if they have a basically fiddle like technique, I don't see why much of your violin/viola skills won't be transferable. The big difference will be if your chosen instruments' strings are not tuned in fifths. (Violin, viola and cello are all tuned 5ths apart, vs the old viol family, double bass or bass guitar or the lower strings of the guitar which are all tuned 4ths apart. This has huge impact on fingering patterns which you would need to relearn.) No doubt someone who actually plays those instruments will have better advice.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:10 PM on May 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mark O'Connor, a violinist equally comfortable with classical repertoire or fiddling, has developed a new set of violin curricula that might interest you.

Violin might open up more avenues for you to explore and then you can decide to branch out to viola or something more unusual. On the other hand, if you are interested in playing in community orchestras or small ensembles (string quartet, etc.), violists are always in high demand.
posted by Edward L at 9:19 PM on May 16, 2010

Response by poster: i am joe's spleen: Thank you for the detailed response. Let me clarify about the "kid stuff". I am referring to the theory discussion. I don't have ANY problem playing scales, or twinkle twinkle little star, that's fine. But I need some sort of integrated way of having the theory link togeather... that stuff just never made sense to me, but I could do all of the exercises just fine (it was like math), which I think frustrated my teachers and me. I don't want to derail this time.

Edward L, thanks, O'Connor looks interesting will look into it.

Last note... what i_am_joe... said is to the heart of my question: Will starting in Viola over Violin be a stumbling block?

If the first teacher I talked to was a violinist and classically trained (and more experienced as a teacher, not sure as much about a player). She wants to do Suzuki method. better choice?
posted by DetonatedManiac at 9:34 PM on May 16, 2010

I played viola for 8 years as a public school student in a string ensemble of roughly 80. My senior year we had one person switch from violin to viola, so it's possible. Happens dramatically more in university, I understand.

The bigger problem I find is that viola is alto clef. If you only sight read alto clef, this means you're hamstrung trying to move to vastly more common treble or bass clef. Granted it's not that hard to learn, but it's going to be an extra effort you'll have to make and practice to keep sight reading skills intact. I guess that cuts both ways; the alto clef makes it that much harder to transition into viola.

WRT hardware; strings and adaquate resin matter more to amateur performance than 1k versus 2k spent on an instrument. Of course the biggest impediment will be yourself. Firm finger placement and sufficient pressure and velocity applied to with the bow. One thing I really liked were the shoulder risers; they gave you sufficient leverage to hold it upright without hand support. This is crucial to a good vibrato, and to fine tuning (bow with one hand, adjust with the other).
posted by pwnguin at 10:55 PM on May 16, 2010

If you are interested in notation at all within the first couple years, the strict Suzuki method may not be a good choice. They hold off the note-reading until you have beautiful playing position and a *lot* of stuff under your fingers; you'd really develop your ear and probably have fantastic technique, but it would encourage you to depend on your ear for a long while and not learn to read. That said, many Suzuki-trained teachers are willing to compromise on this- really depends on the teacher.

I strongly recommend starting with a classical teacher, or at least with a fiddle teacher who is classically trained- there's kind of a cult of bad technique in fiddle playing sometimes, and while there are certainly great fiddle players who have wackadoodle technique, they're really making their lives harder by refusing to fix it. Also, if you really do want to learn to read at some point, many fiddle people avoid it entirely. If you don't want to, cool....but if you begin with doing everything entirely by ear as you might with fiddle or with Suzuki, you may find that as an adult it's much harder to make the transition to reading than it might be for a kiddo Suzukied-since-the-age-of-3.

Starting violin over viola will not be a stumbling block if you later want to play viola. They are very, very similar. They use different clefs and are a 5th apart, but I can tell you that pretty much every kid I have ever started on viola who previously played reasonably well on violin had alto clef and the viola itself figured out in a few weeks. The only big issue is that if you switched immediately to a viola suitable for your size (probably 16", depending on how long your arms are) it will take a bit for your ears and your fingers to get used to the increased step size between the notes (a full-size violin is approximately equivalent to a 14" viola).
posted by charmedimsure at 11:01 PM on May 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Instead of buying an instrument right away, why not rent? You'll be able to start off on something a bit better than a $200 violin off of Craigslist, that way, and many music stores even have rent-to-own programs.

If you have any interest whatsoever in classical-style violin or viola (along with the folk stuff), I'd suggest starting with a teacher who's got a classical background but who plays folk as well. There's a lot about finger positioning, bow techniques, etc. that can be a little less exact in many fiddle styles, and it's hard to unlearn incorrect techniques if you want to do something more classical or switch to another fiddle style. (Also, though most fiddle is taught by ear, it's really nice to get the sight-reading experience that classical training tends to provide.) However, once you do start playing folk, you definitely want to be working with someone who has experience playing it. A classically trained teacher using sheet music and recordings will be able to help you learn the notes, but you'll sound a little mechanical without exposure to the differences in technique that characterize the various fiddle styles.

You can certainly play solo music and fiddle-style music on a viola. However, if you want to play traditional music, or play with other people, you might find it a bit more challenging (you'll probably need to transpose most of the music down into viola range yourself.) There is a lot more solo material out there for violins, in general - that's the big disadvantage of viola.

Also, yeah, no matter what instrument you choose, you'll still make some nasty screechy noises (just a fifth lower), and you will be stuck with boring songs when you're just beginning. Definitely discuss what you can do to make the beginning part less boring, though: a teacher who's fluent in several styles will probably have encountered easy pieces beyond "twinkle twinkle little star." (This may be another reason not to start out with pure Suzuki. The method can be great in a lot of ways, but the early tunes are really dull, and if that will make you much less likely to practice...) And don't be afraid to ask your teacher for a "technical manual" on music theory if you think you'll learn better that way!

While hardingfele and nyckelharpa are less common, there are groups that focus on them. The Hardanger Fiddle Association of American has workshops for beginners and for people with experience on other bowed instruments, for example, and they have a loan program. Similarly, there's an American Nyckelharpa Association. Seems like these sort of groups would best be able to tell you how hard their instruments are to learn, how easy it is to transition from more common instruments like violin and viola.
posted by ubersturm at 11:22 PM on May 16, 2010

If you like the darker sound of the viola and you enjoy or don't mind playing counter melodies and harmonies in quartets/orchestras, play viola. I've had many opportunities to play in groups above my level because they needed violists; had I played violin or cello, I never would have had the same opportunities. I don't think it makes a difference with regards to technique until you're an advanced player, so if you changed your mind in a year or two it wouldn't make a huge difference.

I would suggest that you rent an instrument from a reputable shop (one that rents primarily or exclusively string instruments) for the first 6 months or so. It should cost $30-50/month, and will allow you to get established with a teacher. Once you trust your teacher and have a better idea of the sound you want out of your instrument, and you play well enough to hear a difference between instruments at the price point that you're considering, you're ready to buy something. The beginning and middle of summer are a great time to start a rental - the shop has everything back from school year rentals, so you should have a wide selection of instruments.

I wouldn't recommend buying something cheap off of craigslist because the repairs/set-up to get something into easily playable condition could be expensive relative to the cost of the instrument, and you might not know what you need. A rental shop will typically replace strings and rehair your bow free of charge as needed, and will allow you to exchange your instrument if you find that it's not the right size for you.
posted by asphericalcow at 11:29 PM on May 16, 2010

Ok, so the joke at the conservatory was always that string quartets are made up of a two violinists, a cellist, and a failed violinist.

When I didn't get the joke, they explained to me that usually the viola player is someone who switched from violin, the violin being harder. Real violists, however, argue that it's simply a different skill set, in some ways, e.g. you need to be willing to play accompaniment, you need to read alto clef, etc. I personally preferred the sound and feel of the viola.

The music ed prof that I did research with on teaching strings to elementary and middle school kids is also a big fan of the Mark O Connor materials.

Especially since you are uncertain about what you eventually want to play, I would agree with the recommendation to rent. This gives you the flexibility to try different instruments out, while still having something to play on that is of reasonable quality. IF you go the route of buying an instrument straight out, make sure you take someone knowledgeable with you to look at the instrument. The aggravation of an instrument that won't stay in tune because of a flaw in the instrument is enough to put off most beginners.

The teacher who is suggesting that you should buy something cheap off of craigslist, I'd be wary of. Although it may just be that she is totally clueless about the used instrument market, I would expect anyone who is a part of the music world to know that crappy instruments are harder to play and therefore not at all suitable for beginners. You don't need a Stradivarius, but you do need a decent instrument.
posted by bardophile at 12:09 AM on May 17, 2010

nthing the recommendation to rent a crappy violin/viola at first. By the time you decide that you really want to continue and choose to purchase an instrument for yourself, you will be delighted at how much better yours sounds and feels than that ratty old rental, which will only augment your enthusiasm.

I'll also recommend simultaneously taking classical lessons and finding some musicians in your area who can teach you old time music and Irish tunes by ear. Then you can figure out which path is more fun for you. And attend the Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention!

With regard to the question about instrument choice, let me tell you that even though I play the Chinese sanxian in an Okinawan pop band, I really owe most of my chops to my training on classical string instruments and banjo. I find it a lot easier to pick up one of the many varieties of folk instruments with more conventional training, versus going in the opposite direction. If you can rent a hardingfele or a rebec, I say give it a shot! But don't buy one until you can play the violin/viola worth your salt.
posted by billtron at 4:46 AM on May 17, 2010

I play violin and viola and for your purposes I would recommend violin. The treble clef will make things much simpler for theory, and it's easier to switch to viola from violin then the other way around once you get comfortable (speaking mechanically). It's also much easier to learn basic folk/fiddle music on the violin.

The Suzuki method is excellent in that it really focuses on learning to play by ear (which is exactly how folk/fiddle players tend to learn), and it trains you to be accustomed to playing in front of people (through group lessons and recitals). I'm not sure that there are adult Suzuki groups in your area though, so you might not be able to take advantage of the group lesson thing (well, I guess you could always join a group of kiddies).

For an adult learner I might suggest that you incorporate some "traditional" training along with the Suzuki so you can also learn to read music (the Suzuki method tends to leave this until a little later).

Above all you will need to have patience as you're going to sound absolutely dreadful for the first little while. If you're committed to daily practise, however, you should make rapid progress. It would probably help if you had some people to play with--say a guitarist, pianist, or other fiddle player. That way you can play very easy parts that sound great as part of the group.

Best of luck!!
posted by Go Banana at 6:35 AM on May 17, 2010

Response by poster: THANK YOU! keep the comments coming but I think you've really helped me make my decision RE: Teacher, instrument, instruction. Thank you for all the other ideas so far too!

I am going to go with all your advice on Violin. I am going with the first teacher I talked to (that is, by the way, the violin only teacher, but who was classically trained but plays mostly folk now, wants to do Suzuki but with sight reading earlier on and who seems more experienced as a teacher). Later I'll move elsewhere as skill level allows.

Once again, I need to remember to stop over-thinking things. This is more where I was as a gut feeling before I started looking into all the other cool, weird instruments. And if Violin vs Viola is not as big a jump then I'll start with the teacher I have the better feeling about.

I would still love to hear more from any folk violists, since I like that sound, and if there are any esoteric string players out there (Hardingfele, Viola d'amore, etc) and how you got into your instrument etc, but more as long range planning, not to immediately jump into them. Thanks!
posted by DetonatedManiac at 8:17 AM on May 17, 2010

The point about viola music being in alto-clef is interesting - I'm not an orchestra-type, so I had forgotten that! But if you're leaning towards folk music, it's not so relevant - folk stuff is generally learned in some combination of by ear (Suzuki style is great for that) and by sheet music that is the melody in treble-clef, and you play those notes or variations on them. Even music that sounds great on viola, or for example if you became a rockin folk violist and got called into the studio to play tracks on somebody's album, would probably be treble clef notation just because that's the most common way to express Irish or American fiddle tunes.
If I were to propose a path for you, it would be to buy a fairly cheap fiddle/violin, and learn to play it. After you've done enough lessons to have the feel of that, and to be thinking of getting a better instrument, borrow/rent a viola and play around on it, see how you like it. If you're still enthusiastic about viola and liking what you're doing on fiddle, look for a 5-string fiddle like i_am_joe's_spleen suggested. You can get a nice instrument that is basically a combination of the two, as your first non-beginner upgrade.
posted by aimedwander at 12:11 PM on May 17, 2010

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