how to play the Viola

Learn how to have fun playing the Viola

So you have purchased your viola – but what’s next? Learning how to play the viola will probably be a great start… This portion of our ‘Beginner’s Guide To Learning the Viola’ will start you off in the right route.

How To Play The Viola

Structure of the viola

Before we start playing, we need to know the basic structure of the viola.

The viola has 4 strings; A is the highest, then D, G and C. If you place your 3 middle fingers from your left hand on each string as close to the scroll as possible, then you have found what we call the first position.

Next, the bow. This is made of 3 sections; the Frog, the stick and the hair. If you put your right thumb in the gap between the stick and hair with your four fingers on top of the Frog, then you’ll have yourself a bowhold!

How to play the viola

First steps

In order to hold and start playing the viola, you’ll need a shoulder rest. Attach this to the bottom of your instrument and then place the viola on your shoulder, with your chin on the chinrest. Support the scroll of the viola with your left hand.

Next, raise your bow and place it at a 90-degree angle across the 4 strings of the viola. Allow the hair to make contact with one of the middle strings (G or D) and pull the bow in a straight line, always maintaining a 90-degree angle.

Repeat this process for each of the 4 strings and, hey presto, you’ve played your first 4 notes on the viola!

C major scale

Now, let’s take things up a notch.

You were using your left hand to support the viola’s scroll. Now, let’s move it to the first position at the bottom of the fingerboard, as near to the scroll as possible.

If you put your first finger at the bottom of the C string, this note is D. Then your second finger goes about an inch further up the fingerboard (E) and finally, your third finger goes as close as possible to the second finger (F). Repeat this process on the G string and you’ll have found the notes A, B and C. 

Now take your bow and play the C string followed by the three fingers on the C string, then the G string and the three fingers on it, too. These notes being played one after another is what we call a scale! This particular scale is C major scale, one octave.

Next steps

You’ve already made great strides and can be very pleased with yourself. The next step is to use the bow even more.

So far you’ve used the bow to play single notes, but why not try pushing the bow up as well as pushing it down? This will mean you can play each note of your scale twice.

You can also try experimenting with how much you press the bow down onto the viola’s strings. If it scratches, you’re using too much pressure. If the sound barely comes out at all, it’s not enough. Try to find the sweet spot, where you can hear the note without crushing it with the bow.

How To Play the Viola - Summary

By now, you should be able to:

  • Know the names of your viola’s 4 strings
  • Know how to hold you bow
  • Know how to place your left hand in the first position on the viola
  • Know how to play C major scale, one octave
  • Start experimenting with how much pressure to apply with the bow
  • Play each note twice with the bow going ‘up’ and ‘down’

Now it’s time to improve your technique...

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