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How to Switch From Violin to Viola

Hi there, this is Joel Kennedy from Kennedy Violins, and today we're diving into a topic that has intrigued many: switching from violin to viola or even toggling between the two.

There are numerous reasons why someone may be interested in making the transition, and I'm here to offer some straightforward tips to make the process less daunting.

Physical Differences

First off, it's crucial to understand the physical differences between the two instruments. The viola is larger than the violin in both body size and thickness. For example, while a full-sized violin has a 14-inch body, a small viola can start at a 15-inch body size. This variation impacts the finger placement, specifically the distances your fingers need to cover on the viola are greater. You may find it difficult to reach certain notes, and you might play your fourth finger flat.

To overcome this, make sure you warm up adequately—probably more than you would with your violin. Since the viola is physically more demanding, it's crucial to warm up your muscles to prevent any injuries. Scales are excellent warm-up exercises because they not only warm up your hand but also help you get accustomed to the new finger placements on the viola.

Mastering the Alto Clef

Switching from violin to viola also means you'll be transitioning from reading treble clef to alto clef. However, don't be daunted by this change. There are a couple of nifty tricks to make this switch easier.

  1. Letter Names: A simple trick to remember the note name in alto clef is to think of what the note would be in treble clef and then go a whole step higher. For instance, if you see an F natural on violin, it would be a G natural on the viola.

  2. Line and Space Notes: Another rule of thumb involves the fingerings for notes on lines and spaces. If you use the first or third finger for a note on a line in treble clef, it will be the same on the viola but reversed. For example, an F natural on the violin, played with the first finger, will be played with the third finger on the viola.

Quick Tips to Teach Yourself Alto Clef

One of the most effective ways to adapt to alto clef is to use method books you already know from your violin studies. Take, for example, the Suzuki books. Most of the pieces are the same in both the violin and viola versions. So, take a piece you're familiar with and place the viola sheet music in front of you. Play it exactly as you would on the violin but read the alto clef notes. Your mind will soon start associating the alto clef notes with the correct finger positions and string placements. This trick has worked wonders for many of my students.


Switching from violin to viola or playing both can be an enriching experience. It broadens your repertoire and gives you a new perspective on string instruments. Hopefully, these tips have shed some light on making the transition smoother. If you have more questions, feel free to drop a comment below or reach out on social media. I'm more than happy to help.

Happy practicing!