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Viola Players Have the Last Laugh

Viola Jokes don't discourage us from filling in the harmonies and living a quiet life in the orchestra pit

by Rhiannon Nachbaur of Award-Winning Fiddleheads Violin Studio


“Why is a viola better than a violin?”

“The viola burns longer.”


As a viola player myself I've heard hundreds of viola jokes and have earned the right to retell them ad nauseam. This violist ain't touchy about viola jokes and I'll even squirt milk out my nose when told a particularly nasty one I haven’t heard yet.

What I find more frustrating than viola jokes is how many people don't even know what the viola is! It's bad enough to be ridiculed, but far worse when no one knows you exist! When prodded with the violin vs. violin joke opener, my inner music geek is compelled to ramble the viola gospel. "The Viola is the ‘Alto’ voice of the violin family, hence is tuned a perfect fifth below violin."

Blank stares await the real punch line. I need to get out more.

In truth the viola is much like a violin, so much so that many symphony goers simply think they're just more violins. Visually the technique is identical to violin playing: held at the left shoulder and bowed up and down, but with more broad movements as the viola is slightly larger than a violin. A larger instrument allows for a longer string length and increased body /sound chamber to allow the low notes to reverberate properly.

For violists, size really does matter because slapping viola strings on a violin just doesn't sound as good.

So, what's the difference between the violin and viola?

Simply put, the viola is like a slightly larger violin who's high E-string was replaced by a low C-string on the low end. This is pretty much all that separates violin from the viola.

So what, it's a bigger, lower-pitched fiddle? Why all the nasty ridicule?

“Why are viola jokes so short?”

“So Violinists can remember them.”

The viola is like the quiet middle child: ignored by its parents and overshadowed by its other, more active and successful siblings. A fate worse than “playing second fiddle,” viola's role in a symphony or string quartet is to provide middle harmonies (aka, the leftover, gristly scraps of chords no one else wants to play) and rarely plays the melody, or the "tune."

“How do you get a violin to sound like a viola?”

“Sit in the back and don't play.”

Even visually the viola is neglected. We can hardly see them on stage tucked between second violins and cellos and facing their instruments away from the audience. They get less air-time than first violins and cellos and spend the most time taking breaks from play than any other section of the strings.

This leads to the solo issue. There is not much solo repertoire written for viola, which has long been viewed as the “strong, silent type.” The lack of repertoire is most likely due to its mellow, deep tone, which, being less bright and projecting less than the violin, was believed by composers of the day to be less suited to virtuoso display. Hence the viola is rarely showcased and has to resort largely to adaptations of violin and cello repertoire to get any attention.

“How do you get a violin to sound like a viola?”

“Play in the low register with a lot of wrong notes.” 

Difference between Violin and Viola - How do I read that darn alto clef?A gap between viola and popular acceptance among musicians is the elusive alto clef. See, violin, flute, piano, guitar, trumpet, soprano, recorder, clarinet and even harmonica are written in the treble clef. That's the pretty music symbol even non musicians have come to associate with music. Tragically, viola is pretty much the only instrument to use the alto clef and only violists can read the darn thing, so it keeps many musicians from picking one up and learning to play viola.


It’s like the notes are written in a code no one else wants to learn to decipher. More tragically (and poetically for these martyrs), violists are like a dying out race whose language is dying with them.

[Cue melancholy violin solo rewritten for viola in the alto clef with a few mistakes here and there]

“What is the difference between a violist and a savings bond?”

“Eventually the bond will mature and earn money.”

No matter how bleak the plight of the violist may be, the viola is still an absolute necessity in orchestral and string ensemble playing. You can’t play a symphony without the viola section.

Oh sure, you can draft some third violinists to play the part, but they can’t play the low notes and get that throaty viola tone. This is where opportunity knocks and gives the meek violist an amazing advantage over gobs of violinists.

“What do you call a Viola player with half a brain?”


Simply put, it’s a matter of supply and demand. There are gobs of violin players in the world and a startling shortage of violists. For example, in ten years of teaching over a hundred violin students I’ve only worked with three viola students.

You don’t have to be a PhD to figure out the best way to get accepted into a music school or conservatory is to know how to play viola and read the alto clef.

“What's another name for viola auditions?”

"Scratch lottery.”

Picture this: There are 25 violin spaces and 2 viola spaces available in a first year music program. 300 violinists and 2 violists have applied. Even a viola player can do the math and see it is pretty much guaranteed the two violists will make it in without much fuss from admissions staff.

“Violinists are a dime a dozen” turns into, “Invite two more viola playing friends and save up to 50% off your tuition! Call now!” The same speaks for scholarships available to violists only. They’re rare, but they do exist.

  Difference between larger Viola and Violin beside it.

Shown a Zhu VA-909 Viola (Left) and Zhu VN-909 Violin (Right). The Viola is a 15" Tertis model and the Violin is a 4/4 size (14") Guarneri model. Fiddleheads sells these fine instruments (Violas by special order only) from the VSA award-winning maker. Click Here

“Classified Ads: Established string quartet seeking two violinists and a cellist.”

Carry this concept forward to getting a position in a group. I had the privilege of playing at a music festival at the Provincial level simply because a string quartet was short a viola player. I’m sure I never would have made it into the group as a violinist as the players were beyond my level, [yes, I am a humble beneath this boastful exterior] but I was the only gal around who could read that pesky alto clef! [So much for humble...]

Symphony auditions don’t even seem as rigid for violists. “You play viola? You can sit here,” was pretty much the response I received when inquiring with the Kamloops Symphony. I joined the immense viola section of two other violists for one concert and managed my way into the first violin section where I stayed content for the rest of the season.

It is very apparent that there is far less competition involved and violists do have an edge.

“Did you hear about the violist who played in tune?”

“Neither did I.”

I don’t intend to imply that as a violist you can get away with being a mediocre player. Far from it; you must have a command of the instrument which is both strong and sensitive at the same time. You must also have a feel for the instrument, which as legendary violist and conductor of Canada’s National Arts Council Orchestra, Pinchas Zukerman, explained to me in an interview [yes, I know people in high places].

“The bow application is different on the viola,” he said. “A slightly slower bow application is used on the viola because it's heavier and easier to control.”

Zukerman also said, “Hearing the sonority of the instrument made me want to play the viola.” And this is where many players are attracted to the viola. That wonderful, low C-string that reverberates in your bones.

“Why do Violinists switch to Viola?”

“So they can park in handicapped spaces.”

I loved the viola before I even knew what it was. It was in my second year of violin back in middle school when I bought the Dover edition score to my favourite piece of music, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 by J. S. Bach. Imagine my disappointment when I saw the solo parts written in a strange, alien clef. Another victim foiled by the alto clef!

My public school orchestra teacher kindly loaned me a rather beaten-up student viola and I learned the awkward alto clef over the weekend so I could scratch out even the slightest bit of the music. I was hooked on viola from then on.

I've since worked to convince many of my violin students to switch to viola, citing the many wonderful opportunities mentioned above. It's got to be done! Viola players are just hard to come by otherwise. In my years teaching only one viola student learned viola before violin, the rest were violin transplants. The unforeseen anomaly of the first-time string player starting on viola is perhaps the only case of a violist who took up violin later.

  Difference between larger Viola and Violin beside it.

Jimi Hendrix performs for Dutch television show Hoepla in 1967. He must have forgotten his viola in the boot of the car.

Photo by A. Vente. Source: Beeld en Geluidwiki - Gallery: Hoepla

“What do you call someone who hangs around musicians a lot?”

“A Viola player.”

Who knows their reasons behind playing viola, but many amazing and well-respected musicians have played the viola over the centuries including J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Schubert and violin virtuoso Paganini.

Czech composer Dvorák considered becoming a professional violist but instead pursued composition where he wrote pieces which gave the viola a far more active role. I played his "American"Quartet in the Provincial Festival and thoroughly enjoyed the many viola solos. The piece even starts with the viola playing the main theme! Melody for viola! Incredible!

Some composers even preferred viola over violin, such as Mozart who was said to have performed the Principal Viola solo at the premiere of his then ground-breaking “Sinfonia Concertante.”

And some greats had their musical start on the viola. Jimi Hendrix, perhaps the 20th century’s finest and most innovative rock-guitarist started his musical career at an early age on the viola! No kidding. Woodstock would have been a lot classier with a baroque-style viola solo 14 minutes through "Purple Haze."

“Why did the violist marry the guitarist?”

"Upward mobility.”

Okay, so smashing a flaming Fender is way cooler than playing the viola. Heck, you may loose a teeny bit of sex appeal and overall charisma when you take up viola.

But it's not really of much use when overshadowed by all the pasty-faced, double-chinned sexpots in the violin sections.

“Why is the violin smaller than the viola?”

“It's an optical illusion. They’re actually the same size and appear smaller because the violinist’s heads are so much larger.”

In the end, it’s not really the life of glamour and fame enjoyed by violinists. As the showy violinists clamber for a chance in the limelight, the humbled violists abandon any delusions of glory and accepts their fate with a healthy mix of zen detachment and humiliation.

Ahh, but inside every viola player is a daring rebel. An individual who has broken away from the establishment. You see them slogging away in the bowels of the orchestra, playing our unique middle harmonies with knowing grins on our smug, pallid faces.

“We're absolutely essential and we know it.”

Let the violists have the last laugh.


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Comments for "Viola Players Have the Last Laugh"

I found your site with a random google, and I'm glad I did. I'm 28... and have found myself going through somewhat of a musical renaissance. I've recently picked up piano, electric bass guitar, electric guitar, classical guitar, and cornet. Hey, diversify or die, right?

Well, now I've got a hankering for a high string. I had been planning on snagging a violin to start, and maybe get a viola later, but after reading your page, "Viola Players Have the Last Laugh", I am inspired to start with the viola. Thanks for the info.

- Paul, Kalamazoo, MI

I'm attending Shasta High School as a freshman (9th grade). I'm in two Orchestras right now plus I'm in the pit in a musical for my High school (only two violas tried out). I play the viola and I just read your article on violas. I loved it.

Everything you wrote was true and It's nice to have some one talk about it. And no hard feelings on the viola jokes! I find them very funny! A viola fan,

- Kacha, Redding, California

Hello, Rhiannon! I came across your site by accident.... by reading your viola jokes... Fiddles are one of the three  greatest shapes, in my opinion. But I digress..... reading about violas conjures all sorts of things.

"What's  the difference between a viola and  an onion?" "No one cries when you chop up a viola."
"What's the difference between  a  viola and a trampoline?" " You have to take off your shoes to jump and down on a trampoline."

I enjoyed reading some of your writings, they are impressive.   You've  got a wonderful sense of humor. Loved the "Red Violin."  Your site has been bookmarked and I'll explore some more.  Your site made my night.

- Russell, Winnsboro SC (Incidentally, Rhiannon and Russell have become very good friends after this first correspondence)

I love it! I'm actually married to a violist....

- Laurie Niles [of], Pasadena CA

How about Kegelstatt Trio and Romanian Melodies? A violin wouldn't sound right there, would it? Fun reading.

- Ihnsouk, Haverford PA

You took the words right out of my mouth!

- Fellow Violist [Mendy], Hillsboro, Oregon

You are so right about viola shortages: they are few and far between her in the Conservatory, so much so that any who make it to middle grade are moved into the youth orchestra..violinists have to wait another 3 years and compete before they get in...

My daughter plays the clarinet and wanted to play the viola as second instrument. Unfortunately, the piano is the compulsory 2nd instrument for all woodwind & string players here.

Someone told her that the reason she liked the viola because it had a similar sound range to the clarinet. I don't know if its true, but she certainly would have more opportunities with the viola than with the clarinet (ach, just those 2 places!!) If only I had known all this a few years back...

- Parmeeta, Bilbao, Spain

I'm just learning to play the viola as an adult after studying the violin as a child and adolescent, and I think I fit better as a violist than violinist. I prefer ensemble playing to solo playing, but even when it's just me I like hearing myself play the viola better than the violin. Something about the E string right under my ear was giving me a headache.

I was actually planning to cut the cord to the violin and play viola only, but I've been having second thoughts lately. First, I played a piece in church that sounded better on the violin, so I kept it on that instrument. Then, I started realizing I would miss some of my favorite violin pieces. And I like coming back to the violin after playing the viola: the vibrato feels so much more natural then. Maybe some of us are just "doomed" to play both instruments!

- Karen, Belmont, Massachusetts

What a wonderfully well written piece ! I love the viola, though I've never had the pleasure of trying one out. I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed the read !

- Eileen, Ashford Connecticut

I had just now gotten through your article and read some other comments, and found out that my new instrument that I'm going to learn (I'm pretty much a universal musician) viola. I play many, many instruments. I can play all of the brass instruments (not soprano trumpet though.) and all reeds, woodwinds, and strings. Now viola. I said to myself "Why wait? If you get some good job opportunities' by doing what you love, then DO IT.

Enough about me, I just wanted to say that your story was very inspirational to me. I've been teetering on a decision on playing either the bass tuba, contrabass clarinet, bass trombone, or the viola, and I know now that I'll choose the viola, and I'm very glad that I chose it.

Thanks for the read. A humble fan of yours,

- Rusty A, Dresden, Ohio

Violas: even more expensive and obscure and harder to explain to anyone who already questions my sanity. But damn, they look and sound so sweet.

And your article was both hilarious and convincing. Perhaps in my next life when I have more time for these expensive hobbies..........sigh.

- Jeremy, Summerland, BC

I LOVE that article you wrote about violas! I've sent the link to several people.

My favourite joke is "How do you get a violist to play pianissimo tremelo? Mark it 'solo'" Haha! Because that's ME!!

Most of my teacher's students are aged 5-10 years old, and I get SO nervous even playing in front of them on our student recital nights! We've got our first one coming up on Sunday evening, I'm going to play an excerpt from the first movement of the Brandenburg #3 -- mostly the fast stuff so I can hide my 'tremelo'!

Ah well, it was never my goal to be a soloist. I much prefer to be in the 'essential' part of the orchestra.

- Nancy, Halifax, NS

A Viola is like sipping a fine Cognac brandy liqueur (Grand Marnier or Benedictine), or a Scotch (Drambuie- has honey with spice and herb flavorings) while sitting in front of a warm fireplace.

- Glen, Dallas, Texas

I found your article very enlightening and pretty funny because I was that one kid who picked up a viola back in third grade and everybody always looked at me like a violin want to be. Always frustrates me when people tell me how long I've played my violin when I play a full size viola.

I've been the only violist in each grade since third grade up unto my senior graduation last year. All my teachers always told me that playing a viola was something specia. I started to pick that up my first year of high school when I was still the only violist compared to the over 9000 violins.

I recently took a break from my instrument after I graduated to get situated with work and now im back into it and it feels great. People still give me the whole violin stuff but now I'm transferring the music from Violin clef to viola clef and everybody thinks its sounds amazing.

This article helped me realize the opportunity I have been given with being gifted to have only played the viola and nothing else. Thanks for posting this article!

- Robert, Baltimore Maryland

Hello "Viola"-Rhiannon Nachbaur,

I really enjoyed your article and the humorous way you presented the little known wonder of the string family, whom I call, Ms. Viola. I call her that because there are actually women who are named after this wonderful instrument.

Here's an example of how true your article on the viola is. I once placed an ad for some string players for a recording. A string quartet member answered. When I told the leader that I needed two violas, a violin and a cello, I was told that was going to be difficult. Demonstrating how hard it is for us man folk to find, the elusive, Ms Viola, I've written a piece entitled,"While Viola Plays Cello Suffers", where the principal players (obvious from the title), are Ms. Viola and Mr. Cello.

Again, I enjoyed reading your insightful and informative article on Ms. Viola. I hope you don't mind me calling you that, since you're female and all. Smile.

- Put, Your R2M Bass Player:

I read your article and felt compelled to write. I first picked up the viola at the age of 11 and was taught by violin teachers and one flute teacher who got stuck with me when no one was willing to take on the challenge (Or knew the alto clef) I didn't last long. I gave the violin a shot, but it never felt as RIGHT to me, so my viola career died an early death.

I found this article while doing research into local places to learn the Viola. I'm happy to say I will be starting up again at the age of 25 with a Violist for a change, and I can't wait.

- Joanna, Somewhere on the Web

I just read your article on violas and really enjoyed it. I am researching the topic, because I want my 9 year old daughter to play viola, not violin. (I am a french horn player - the viola of the brass.) As you point out, there should be more opportunities for her to play in groups outside of school, and it would give her a unique perspective on the orchestra experience. Also, your joke might help her keep a sense of humor about it all. Thanks for the good read!

- Daniel, Shrewsbury, MA

You make me want to start the viola even more! I really wish I could, but I really cannot afford it now, money and time wise. But when I do, I will definitely seek your help to pick a viola. If I need anything for my violin, I will for sure let you know. Thank you!

- Veronica, Regina Saskatchewan

Your Article on violas is magnificent. I'm a Freshman in High School and I'm considering becoming a professional violist. I've been playing the viola for five years now and this article made me more motivated to follow my dream. thanks!

- Ava, NY


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