How can viola teachers help their students develop into good players? The former Guarneri Quartet violist outlines the most important areas to focus on

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Playing both the violin and the viola is an advantage for students
If you have studied the violin, you should continue playing it when you can. The technical demands of the violin are generally higher because many of the concertos written for it feature a lot of musical gymnastics. The viola repertoire keeps pace nowadays, however, and the demands are every bit as challenging.

A good viola player is creative
It’s a large instrument to get around and fingerings need to be more unorthodox than on the violin. We have to use extensions, otherwise we’d be shifting and sliding all around the instrument. Viola players need to learn to be flexible – it’s not always best, for example, to play an arpeggio the same way as a violinist. You could play the first two notes with a first and second finger, not a first and third.

Students need to find the optimum pressure with the right hand in the lower strings
The C and G strings don’t respond as quickly as the higher ones, and players have to learn to bow into the string, with more weight and pressure. If they don’t automatically switch gears and play with a more ‘into the string’ approach, the sound is fuzzy. It helps to get students playing with the flat of the bow hair too. Violinists can produce a strong sound with only a quarter of it, but violists can’t get away with that.

Vibrato makes viola players different from violinists A faster, narrow violin vibrato can sound pinched on the viola. We have to cover more area and use a wider action.

String quartet playing is educational Viola players can get lost in the ensemble’s sound, usually due to their choices of fingering or bowing – which may, however, work well outside the ensemble. Violists need to learn to project, and often need to use an edgier sound that cuts through, especially in the lower pitches.

This extract was published as part of a larger article in The Strad's May 2013 issue.