Essentials for the Viola Player Learning at Home
Are you locked away at home with plenty of time on your hands, on holidays with little to do, or isolated for other reasons? Learning the viola at home can be a great way to pass the time; it’s also healthy for your brain and your soul. Here are some tips to help make the process enjoyable and effective.
First things first - you’re going to need a viola!
Here at Simply for Strings we offer new, second hand and rental options. Read our guide to buying vs renting, or check out our viola price guide, so you get a better idea of what to expect in every price.
In order to have an enjoyable learning experience, you’ll need to purchase or rent a viola that has been professionally set up by a trained violin maker, with a correctly carved bridge and good string height to ensure ease of playing. Learn more about the Simply for Strings Professional Set Up here.
If you have purchased a beginner viola, we do recommend upgrading the strings if your budget allows. Most beginner models have very basic strings: fitting a slightly higher grade string set will open up the potential of your instrument to give a more pleasing tone and better response, making the learning process much more enjoyable and rewarding. A poorly set-up viola with lower-grade strings is probably the main cause of all the ‘dying cat’ jokes!
Comfort and correct technique are both affected by posture, and you need a suitable shoulder rest. Here at Simply for Strings, we offer free consultations with violists to help them find the perfect setup. They often experience pain in their neck and shoulder whilst playing, which is something you definitely want to avoid! Solutions are always found by identifying exactly the right chinrest and shoulder rest for their body shape. If you aren’t able to visit for this assistance, the most popular styles of shoulder rest are Kun (and the FOM Kun-style cheaper alternative), Wolf and Everest. Read our starter’s guide to posture here.
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Rosin is made from resin - yes, that’s right! Sap extracted from fir trees, melted down, purified and some extra special ingredients specially formulated for you to rub on the hair of your bow. Learn how to use rosin here. It makes the bow hair sticky enough to create a lovely sound when you pull it across the strings. Without rosin the bow will make no sound. There are many different styles of rosin and many secret recipes. Read our ultimate guide to rosin.
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Your bow needs to be in good working order, which means plenty of hair, in a nice straight ‘ribbon’; a good curve to the stick when unwound; and when you tighten it to a reasonable tension, the distance between the middle of the stick’s curve from the tightened hair should be approximately the diameter of a normal HB pencil, or the tip of your pinky. If the bow has lost its spring or the hair is loose and uneven, it would be advisable to invest in a new bow.
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Tuner and Metronome
It’s obviously a lot easier to practice your new viola when it’s in tune! Tuning is a skill that takes years for players to develop, but we have a few helpful tips in our post all about it! (Nearly all violin tips are transferable to viola - just don’t forget you have a C string on a viola!) An electronic tuner is a good investment, as it can help you keep your instrument in tune between lessons. Likewise, a metronome is very helpful when practising, to teach you about playing in time and keeping a good beat.
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For correct posture (preventing sore back, damage to spine and neck, and to make sure you can play properly in tune) you need to be standing upright and looking straight ahead, not craning your neck down to look on a table. Depending on the lighting in your room, you may need to consider a music stand light. We use the Aroma Music Stand Light, which also acts as a clip to hold the pages open.
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If you are in an apartment, or have a baby needing lots of uninterrupted sleep, you may wish to use a practice mute. These reduce the sound substantially and make it kinder for those around us. There are three types to choose: rubber, metal and rubber-coated metal. Read our guide to mutes.
If you have a child learning at school there will be a tutor book already selected. These are a great place to start, and some have excellent instructions included on the pages. Some are more particularly designed for a teacher to use his or her own teaching style and simply have a good selection of educationally sound progressive music, with the teacher expected to give the information in other ways. If you are hoping to learn on your own or with minimal guidance, we suggest choosing books with plenty of explanations and diagrams on the page. These include but are not limited to: Essential Elements, String Basics, and Sound Innovations. Shop Viola Beginner Method Books.
If you are seeking to do most of your learning at home, many of the method books also have CDs included or access to online accompaniments, and some even include free access to the Smart Music interactive practice software.
Many teachers are now offering online lessons. You just need an internet connection, a tablet or computer with speakers and built-in microphone, and you can set up easily. Your teacher will help guide you through positioning your computer so they can see your posture.
We hope this guide has been helpful for those looking to start learning the viola at home! If you have any questions, or just want to have a chat about all things viola, give us a call or send us an email. We’d love to help you get started on your very own musical journey!