How to Play the Viola

The viola is held under the chin, with the player in either a standing or sitting position. The best way to learn how to hold the viola properly is to watch a clip of a well-known violist to see how they hold their instrument. Viola players commonly read music written on the alto clef. The alto clef is rarely used by any other instruments.

Learning how to play the viola is a long process. If you are just beginning to play the viola, it is important to spend as much time as you can getting your posture right first time around - bad habits can be hard to break, and require lots of un-learning! Take your time, relax, get into a good practicing routine. Get to know your instrument and most of all - enjoy the process. If you are finding practicing a chore, move on and have a go at something else. Learning an instrument is always hard work, but it should never be frustrating or upsetting. Remember it's OK to have a break, just make sure you come back to it again later on.

Correct Posture for Playing the Viola

proper violin posture

Posture is very important when playing the viola to enhance the quality of the sound produced by the instrument, and to minimise possible muscle and back strain to the player.

  • Hold the viola and the bow loosely - if you hold either tightly, you will produce a 'tight' or scratchy sound.

  • Keep your joints unlocked (slightly bent) this includes your knees when standing! This helps to relax your main muscle groups when you play.

  • Try to use your tummy to hold you up as you play. If you focus holding your core tight (think about holding your belly button in) then you will produce a more intense, relaxed sound as the muscles in your arms and back will not have to support you as much and will be more relaxed.

  • When you first think about playing the viola, most people think that it will be easier to play than it actually is! To play the viola well requires a lot of time and effort - you must be prepared to put in the quality practice required in order to improve as a violist.

  • To get the scratch out of your playing, instead of focusing on pressing the bow into the string, focus on gliding the bow across the string, like a dragonfly skimming across water. Focus intensely on this and your sound should become less scratchy. Scratch is produced when there is too much tension in the arms and hands, so be sure to relax as much as you can!

  • Don't press down too hard on the strings, even when playing loudly! Be firm, but remember the more relaxed you are, the more this will come through in the tone.

  • Play close to the bridge (about 2 bow width's away from the bridge, or about 2-3cm) this will produce the strongest, clearest sound possible on your viola. Always play with your bow moving parallel to the bridge - sideways movement across the string will cause a wispy sound.

Viola Finger Names

finger placement on the viola bow where to place your fingers on the bridge

For beginner players, the names of the fingers that we refer to are as important to know as the parts of the viola.

The right hand is known as the bow hand (as this hand controls the bow), and the left the viola hand, which holds the viola. The fingers on both hands also have different names to differentiate them from one another. On the viola hand, the fingers are known as the viola thumb, and the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers (from thumb to pinky). You will often see numbers 1,2,3 or 4 above notes when reading written music, these numbers correspond to the names of the fingers you should use to play the notes specified.

On the right hand the fingers are named slightly differently, according to the position that they take on the bow rather than their function. The thumb is known as the bow thumb, the first finger is called the index finger, the middle two fingers are known as the huggers, and the fourth or littlest finger as the pinky. The huggers are named as such because they 'hug' the bow, resting together on the side of the frog. The other fingers are named by their common names, to differentiate them from the numbered fingers of the left hand.

Practical Playing Tips for Beginners

It is possible to play a double sharp/flat on a viola. Unlike guitars, violas do not have fret markings which means instead of only being able to play in semitones, you can play a double sharp or double flat (this is the note in between one semitone and another). However, this also means that intonation is extremely important to become familiar with. A violaist must know to the millimeter where to place their finger in order to produce the right sound - which for a new learner can be very difficult to master.

When you are playing the viola, use the fingers you have put down on the string to guide you to the next note. For example, if you play a C# on the A string, followed by a G on the D string, use your 2nd finger to guide your 3rd finger into the right position. This makes it easier to play in-tune, and will help to increase the speed of your playing also.

Timing, speed, and rhythm are very important when learning to play a musical instrument. If the timing of the notes you play is incorrect, it is probably a good idea to slow down and work on the piece until you can play it flawlessly - then increase the speed. A good tool to help with timing is a metronome. Luckily we have an Online Metronome here at that can help you as you learn to play the viola.

Advanced Playing Techniques

Plucking - Violaists usually pluck the string with the bow still in their hand, using the pad of the index finger to pluck the string. Some plucking passages can be no longer than one or two notes, so practicing making a fast transition between plucking and bowing is important.

Vibrato - Vibrato is where the violaist rolls the finger back and forth on the string to waiver the pitch of the note. This requires a very relaxed hand. Never slide the whole finger back and forth - the technique requires you to roll your finger forward and backward rather than slide the finger up and down the string.

Harmonics - Harmonics are high notes that require only a small amount of pressure on the string. Harmonics can be played either halfway, or quarter of the way down the string, by placing the finger as softly as a feather on the string. Artificial harmonics can also be played by varying the length of the string by placing one finger firmly on the string, and the other finger above the firmly placed one softly to register the required harmonic. Artificial harmonics are used on the violin near the end of the popular piece Czardas, composed by Italian composer Vittorio Monti. On the viola the technique is much the same.

Spiccato - Spiccato is where the bow bounces very fast at the balance point. There are quite a few online tutorials/master classes teaching this technique. It is best to learn this technique by video or in person as it requires demonstration in order to appreciate the complexity and speed of the movement required.

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Comments (14)
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Great Info

Thanks for this beautifully written post with great knowledge.

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the thumb on the bow shown in the photo is improperly placed.

by David Lewis on

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by Ratan Kumar on

The article doesn't mention what is the better all around instrument to get--the violin, viola, or the cello. :(

by georg on

This article is a good article, but it doesn't mention what the open strings are tuned to when plucked. If someone has a viola and wants to play a violin, would that someone be able to tune the viola like a violin and get a violin? Or say someone wants to play a cello but the cello is just too expensive, would someone be able to tune the viola like a cello? :D

by Benjamin on


Thsnk you for the information maybe ill get a lvl 4 on my project thanks so much! :D

by jayden on

Thanks for the info!

by Gerald on
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