Manchin Zhang shares her wisdom on various aspects of playing the viola, from vibrato to body balance
The balance of the body is very important, especially for beginners. Students should stand with both feet spread comfortably. If they want to, they can put more weight on their left foot as this supports the viola.
Students shouldn’t be encouraged to put more weight on their right foot as this usually leads to a tight bow arm.
Students should relax their shoulders. A lot of those who start on the violin think the viola is bigger than it actually is and stiffen their shoulders and wrists, which can cause pain and discomfort.
To help students get used to the size, especially if they’ve switched from the violin, I ask them to practise in short stints of around 20 to 30 minutes, then rest for 15 minutes and continue. This also helps keep their minds alert.
Smaller-sized instruments have a smaller sound. To help students who use them produce a big tone, I suggest they practise open strings every day with different bow speeds and weights, making a crescendo on the down bow to the tip, and making a diminuendo to the frog.
It’s better to start on the violin and then switch, as many of the techniques are the same. I think the early teenage years are the best time to change.
Students will have had five or six years of violin lessons and will be tall enough and have long enough arms. After the initial switch, students can be afraid of putting more weight on the lower strings, but after a few months of playing open strings they get used to it.
Vibrato is very important in creating a warm viola sound that’s different from the violin. On the C string, students should use arm vibrato most of the time.
It’s also useful to play with cellists in quartets or ensembles, as it helps to get used to the lower pitch. A violist’s vibrato speed is similar to that of a cellist and of course we play a lot of cello transcriptions.