Which classical stringed musical instrument should I learn to eventually join an amateur string quartet?
February 2, 2007 2:30 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to learn a classical stringed musical instrument and eventually join an amateur string quartet. I'm an adult with decent musical ability and a good sense of pitch, but no background with stringed (especially bowed) instruments. I'd be equally interested in any of the stringed instruments typically found in a string quartet. Which instrument should I choose? Which instrument would make me most valuable to a potential quartet? Are there more adult amateurs playing one than another? Any advice on learning a stringed instrument as an adult?
posted by dan_of_brainlog to Media & Arts (24 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: There are never enough violists, especially among adults. IMHO (I am a trombone player, and my knowledge of strings comes from a quarter of "string techniques for music teachers", so take this with a grain of salt), the viola has a remarkable sound when played well, and if you get into later Romantic quartets (i.e. out of Haydn, Bach, early Mozart), you get to play some really cool parts (Dvorak string quartets tend to have wonderful viola parts).

Other advantages: it's bigger than a violin, and a hell of a lot easier to play in the early stages. I don't know how big you are, but I'm 6'5" with big huge trombone player hands and I had a hard time with the smaller fingerboard on the violin. The viola is more comfortable.

There are also of course the cello and the bass - double bass is a hell of an instrument but you wouldn't be able to play in most small string groups (i.e. quartets). The cello seems to be a load of fun but my experience with it is zero, so I'll leave that to someone else.

I see from your profile that you are from Seattle. I'd suggest getting in touch with some of the professors at UW (where I go to school) and asking them for ideas as far as local amateur groups. Seattle has a thriving amateur music scene, and you should have no trouble finding a good teacher and, before long, some rewarding groups to play with.

Good luck! Email in profile if you have any specific questions, but I don't know how many I'd be able to answer. :)
posted by rossination at 2:39 PM on February 2, 2007

I am a former violist, and absolutely concur with rossination. The viola has a strength and timbre similar to a cello, with the clarity of a violin. It's also, apparently, the one instrument that comes closest to the range and timbre of the human voice.

It's a thoroughly beautiful instrument, which unfortunately is often ignored in favour of the flashier violin. This results in a lack of violists, and a glut of violinists.

Please, learn to play viola. It's incredibly rewarding, and an unbelievably lyrical instrument to play.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 2:42 PM on February 2, 2007

There is a Yahoo group for Beginning Adult Violin Players that was very helpful to me when I started playing violin in my mid 20s.
posted by Ariadne at 2:50 PM on February 2, 2007

I third the viola. It seems to me that it's pretty rare for a musician to pick up the viola at an early age - most start playing in their teens or older, so you won't really be at much of a disadvantage when it comes to physical (brain) limitations to learning a new instrument.
posted by muddgirl at 2:54 PM on February 2, 2007

rossination: The bass isn't usually in a string quartet (two violins, viola, cello). Viola has all the advantages mentioned above, but it's worth pointing out the advantage of playing violin in a quartet: twice the demand. (Whether the supply still greatly exceeds the demand, of course, I don't know.)
posted by mendel at 3:02 PM on February 2, 2007

Best answer: I played the violin for 5 years before switching to the cello at 13 at the pleading of our conductor. I don't regret it at all. Don't play the violin. Everyone plays the violin. It's probably true that playing the viola would put you in the most demand. How big are your hands? Violin is tough with giant man hands. Cello is tough with short fingers.

In my (biased) opinion, the cello is the most beautiful sounding stringed instrument because it's range is exactly where I want it to be. I'm not wasting octaves on sounds only dogs can hear, nor rumbling bass notes that you can feel but can't really hear. Viola is next best. Cello is sexier cause you get to straddle it and feel it vibrating. No, seriously. Also, female cellists are super sexy. That is all.
posted by nathancaswell at 3:30 PM on February 2, 2007

I wish I'd taken up viola (or double bass, except I didn't want to carry it!) instead of violin.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:47 PM on February 2, 2007

you should learn the cello.

(Disclaimer: I am a cellist)
posted by tjenks at 4:18 PM on February 2, 2007

Best answer: If by "equally interested" you mean you're equally able to afford any of them, you're in a great position to focus on cello, which I personally find most exciting in terms of sound... but rossination and others are right that viola is most in demand. The order of need/demand among adult amateurs is viola most needed, then cello, then violin (even though there are two vns in a string quartet, there are definitely more than two amateur violinists for every violist).

In any case, please don't buy the cheapest instrument you can find (ebay is glutted with barely playable string instruments that seem cheap but will cost more than their original price to adjust/maintain -- a good "student quality" instrument will cost a little more but absolutely be worth it).
posted by allterrainbrain at 4:33 PM on February 2, 2007

I play(ed) viola. As a violist, you will always get a lot of jokes and simultaneously always be in demand. It's a lovely, underrated instrument.
posted by scody at 4:41 PM on February 2, 2007

And if you're on the fence about the viola -- oh man, should you listen to our very own Ljova over at music.metafilter.com -- especially this song.

I've been crazy in love since the first time I heard the viola (but I play the guitar and piano).
posted by empyrean at 5:06 PM on February 2, 2007

From an ergonomics point of view, if you gave any issues with back pain or tendinitis, violin and viola will exacerbate it. Cello is a far more ergonomic instrument to play.

I also think it has an absolutely gorgeous sound.

On the down side, it's big and bulky and cheap cellos can sound pretty cruddy and (this is true with violas as well), can have some problems with wolf tones.
posted by plinth at 5:10 PM on February 2, 2007

As an amateur violin player, I nth the viola. You will never be lacking for a seat in a string group or orchestra. In the groups I've been in, cellos outnumber violins among adult beginners.
posted by cabingirl at 5:12 PM on February 2, 2007

Mendel - yeah, I know; that's why I pointed out that double bass might not be what the OP is looking for. Although Dvorak did write some great string quintets... :)

Another note - if you do end up choosing viola, let me know (email in profile); there are some excellent music ed. students here at UW who play the viola who could probably hook you up with lessons for a song (no pun intended). It would at least be enough to get you going and headed in the right direction.
posted by rossination at 5:29 PM on February 2, 2007

Violists and Bassists are rarer and therefore in more demand in my observation. Though the latter would have far fewer opportunities to play chamber music. Somewhat relevant- you might enjoy reading John Holt's memoir about being an adult beginner on cello, Never Too Late
posted by Coaticass at 5:32 PM on February 2, 2007

As another horribly biased violist, and for all the reasons above, I'm going to throw in another vote for the viola.
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 8:02 PM on February 2, 2007

I'm a violist, and I got to Europe twice because I knew enough to tune one (ok, slightly more, but not much). But, it is much more difficult to play than violin or cello (the strings are too thick for the length of the instrument - the viola was originally played on the knee, or in the same position as the cello because it should be midway between the two in size). You need different bowing and vibrato for each string. So. violists tend to play on one string as much as possible (lots of shifting) to keep the tone even.

Cello is easier to play, more expensive (not just initially - look at what strings cost), harder to transport, and, it kills my violist soul to say it, prettier sounding.

But, violists are much nicer people than cellists, in general. We are also more beautiful, gracious, smarter, richer and wittier...
posted by QIbHom at 8:53 PM on February 2, 2007

I'm very interested in this thread. I could have written the question more or less as it stands.

Can I ask for some more detail regarding how long it might take an average adult music student to learn to play tolerably well? How about well enough to join an amateur string quartet?

(I started learning piano at age 31, and after 3 years of lessons I feel I'm starting to be able to play pretty well. I'm not playing Beethoven sonatas or anything, of course.)
posted by agropyron at 10:39 PM on February 2, 2007

agropyon (and OP also asked about the learning process): no matter how precisely you try to define "tolerably well," it's still going to be almost impossible to predict how long it will take for any given student (adult or otherwise) to get there. Speed of improvement depends most on how much time you can devote to practicing (and learning music theory, sight-reading and musical terminology, if you don't already). This is why choosing the instrument with the sound you love most (and not buying a cheapest-possible-POS example of that instrument) is vital to developing.
posted by allterrainbrain at 11:35 PM on February 2, 2007

A friend of mine here in the Seattle area is a cello instructor. Email me (I don't check my email every day at the one linked in my profile, but I do regularly) if you want her name. She's very good and reasonable.
posted by maxwelton at 12:27 AM on February 3, 2007

Best answer: Well, everyone's put in their vote in terms of what's "needed," but I'm going to outline the characteristics of each instrument and let you decide.

Remarkable bowing dexterity. The fact that the bow is longer than the instrument itself means that notes of all durations from long to short are accomplished with no difficulty on the violin. Quadruple and triple stops (playing all four/three strings simultaneously) are possible at a dynamics level of mezzo forte and above, given how hard you have to press to get all these strings ringing. Harmonics up to the 8th/9th partial are doable. The top E string on the violin has an exceptionally ethereal sound, especially played with good vibrato and at high registers. Listen to Tzigane by Ravel for a good example of what the violin can do.

Almost exactly the same as the violin physically, a fifth down in tuning, with a total range maybe a 3rd less than that of the violin. Quadruple stops are possible at forte and above. Has a darker sound than the violin, without having the grounded woodiness of the cello, which to me makes it absolutely stunning. Unfortunately, the majority of writing for viola is uncreative, having it double either cello or violin, or serving as a relatively non-descript inner voice. Harmonics up to the 10th partial are possible.

An octave down from the viola. Versatile as all hell: it can be a bass instrument, a middle voice, or carry the melody, and it is a strong presence in the higher registers (husky and expressive - its size really helps here). Has a good lasting pizzicato. Can usually match bowings with viola and violin, although is technically not as capable of long sustains. It can do harmonics up to the 11/12th partial. Triple and quadruple stops are not idiomatic - they are almost always played as broken chords.

Deep, tuned in fourths, part of the viol family (not a violin - notice the sloping shoulders), with a grumbly tone in the lower registers. Can't really match bowings with the other three, isn't a part of string quartets, but is still amazing due to its having the strongest, most sustaining pizzicato of all the strings. This is why jazz players can do what they do with the bass. Glissando sounds so cool. A quirky instrument, but worthwhile.

As for an opinion...putting all considerations of competition and demand aside, the part of music-making that I find most enticing is timbre. The violin and viola are about equal in their versality in that regard, but to me, the viola wins out given its voice. I often think of it in terms of the oboe d'amore, which is a larger, deeper oboe than the standard orchestra instrument. Well, that's exactly what the viola is: the violin d'amore. There are some great pieces for it, and failing any that excite you, write something! The viola deserves it.

Happy playing, man.
posted by invitapriore at 9:24 AM on February 3, 2007 [5 favorites]

On a sidenote, the "seagull effect" might be enough to consider playing the cello - it's a simultaneous bowing/sliding up the neck. It sounds really cool. :p
posted by invitapriore at 9:26 AM on February 3, 2007

I am a professional cellist, and have to add my vote.
Upsides to the the cello:
Ergonomically very good- no twisting or contorting required, which makes it good for older beginners in particular (I have taught many adult students including a few with arthritis who still managed fine with the cello).
Beauty of the cello's tone- there are very few instruments out of which you can make a beautiful sound the very first time you try. The cello is one.
Versatility of range: As previously mentioned, the cello can play so many roles- it has a deep and rich low range which can provide support for upper voices in an ensemble, and yet can switch to singing melodic lines and play almost as high in range as the violin can (but only when we want to!). Pizzicato notes ring well. Huge range of extended techniques... seagull effect as noted by invitapriore, but also many more.
I am continually amazed (but not surprised) by the number of people whose favourite instrument is the cello.
Cellists tend to be social, uncompetitive, and yes, sexy!

Downsides to cello:
bulky to carry around.
strings cost a lot. (but you can get away with changing them much less frequently than violin or viola strings)
air travel is a nightmare.

My e-mail's in my profile, feel free to contact me with more questions, and I hope you have lots of fun with whichever instrument you pick.
posted by purplefiber at 3:34 PM on February 3, 2007

One vote for viola here.

Learn to play the viola well. The tone is dark and complex, harmonics are rich, experience of playing is enjoyable, and it really is the most valuable instrument in a string quartet.

Learn to fiddle later if you feel the need. (Violinists are a dime-a-dozen).

Avoid the cello. (Unless you're an insufferable prat - if that's the case, cello is really the only instrument you should consider.)
posted by eleyna at 9:33 PM on February 3, 2007

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