A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne


The viola emerges from the orchestra’s shadows

Adopted by Berlin as its “instrument of the year” for 2014, the viola is back in vogue. Hugh McMaster reports on the pros and cons of taking up the violin’s poor cousin.

Words by Hugh McMaster
Violist Trevor Jones tunes up with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra colleagues Wendy Clark (flute) and Lorraine Hook (violin). PIC: THE AGE

Violist Trevor Jones tunes up with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra colleagues Wendy Clark (flute) and Lorraine Hook (violin). PIC: THE AGE

Sitting between the violins and cellos in a symphony orchestra is a small group of musicians. They look like violinists, and they hold instruments that look like violins, but they sound like cellists. They are, in fact, violists.

Violists – or viola players, as they are more generally known – are a rare breed. Once described as failed violinists, players of the viola (pronounced vee-ola) were long looked down upon as second-rate musicians, which left the instrument languishing in popularity for around 200 years.

But today, the viola finds itself in vogue – not that its revival has necessarily been noticed by the general public.

“I think your average Australian is a bit vague on what the viola is,” says Helen Ireland, the violist in the Melbourne-based Flinders Quartet. “I very often need to explain what the instrument is to people, but I don’t really mind. It adds to the instrument’s allure that it’s less mainstream.”

Emma Ayres, the host of ABC Classic FM’s Breakfast program, who has trekked the world playing her viola, agrees. “We have to accept that the viola is not an attention-grabbing instrument like the violin, cello or piano. And that’s alright, because the instrument is a bit of a secret.”

“We have to accept that the viola is not an attention-grabbing instrument like the violin, cello or piano. And that’s alright because the instrument is a bit of a secret.” — Emma Ayres 

While violists may enjoy the mystique associated with their instrument, poor public recognition of the viola has contributed to its long-standing image problem. The instrument is considered too large for many children, so most violists learn the violin for many years before making the transition. This means many violists lack adequate experience on the instrument when they come to seek work.

The viola – and its relatives within the violin family – developed in Italy from the year 1500. Its iconic violin shape was the result of a series of evolutions in design and form. Physically, the viola is longer, wider and thicker than the violin, giving it a darker, more mellow tone. Contributing to this sound quality is the viola’s lowest sounding string, or ‘C’. The other strings – ‘A’, ‘D’ and ‘G’ – are common to both instruments.


“As a larger instrument, the viola deters younger players,” says Trevor Jones, assistant principal viola of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. “Then there is a question of repertoire, which is fairly limited. So it’s always going to be an instrument that struggles to get numbers.”

Age and maturity are other factors.

“The viola is an instrument that is subtle and not immediately attractive to people,” says Ms Ayres. “It’s an instrument that grows on you, and perhaps it’s more of an instrument that people take up when they’re older.”

While there is no set age to take up the viola, Mr Jones says musicians typically have made the transition during university. “Usually you studied the violin into university, and sometimes you didn’t change until after you’d completed the degree on violin. In my case, I did two years of my university degree on violin [before switching] and I had a number of other colleagues who did the same.”

But this process appears to be shifting.

“There has been an increase in interest in the viola because of the recent availability of small-sized instruments,” says Paul Davies, a Melbourne-based stringed-instrument maker. “The tone of the viola, in particular, is also appealing to younger students.”

The development of new repertoire by contemporary composers, together with the recognition of great violists, is also lifting the instrument’s profile.

“The viola has become a more prominent instrument since the 20th Century, just in terms of the compositions that have been written for it,” says Mr Jones. “Then there are the great historical players: Lionel Tertis, Paul Hindemith and William Primrose. Today, of course, violists have even more role models to follow.”

“There is a very small pool of people playing the viola. And, if you’ve got a small pool, then you can naturally assume that an even smaller pool is going to reach the required standard.” — Trevor Jones

But despite the increasing take up of the instrument by school-age students, many classical musicians are warning of a shortage of viola players in Australia. Young violists, they say, either are choosing not to take a music degree at university or are not of a sufficient standard to gain entry.

The truth probably lies somewhere in-between.

“There are a lot of people at music college who are very fine viola players, but who are probably going to go on and do other things with their skills,” says Ms Ayres. “Getting a job in a professional orchestra is an incredibly difficult thing to do.”

Mr Jones agrees. “The reality is that although there is a shortage of viola players, there is a shortage of players who are at the standard required to enter a professional orchestra.”

In which case, is there a disconnection between instrumental teaching and the expectations of professional orchestras? Emma Ayres, for one, is not convinced. She says only the best players of any instrument will win an orchestral audition.

“I went to the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and, of the 50 people in my year, only about three of us went on to become fully-employed professional musicians. And the RNCM is one of the most highly respected colleges in Europe.”

Economics and a greater awareness of the music industry are also influencing the career decisions of young performers, says Nadine Delbridge-Orchard, a violist from Orchestra Victoria. “Young musicians are looking at the current job situation, where orchestras are in dire straits, and are choosing to follow different career paths.” 

With an orchestral career regarded as the pinnacle of the classical music profession, standards are always going to be high. But many violists are caught in a paradox. Although there is less competition for work compared to other stringed instruments, there are also fewer positions available. Australia’s state symphony orchestras typically only have roles for 180 violins and 72 violas. 

Helen Ireland believes violists should focus on developing their musicality instead of worrying about the prospects of limited employment. “You still need to reach a high level on your instrument and develop your ensemble skills and musicianship to be successful,” she says.

But competition for jobs is acute, and will remain so.


Helen Ireland 

“There is a very small pool of people playing the viola,” Mr Jones says. “And, if you’ve got a small pool, then you can naturally assume that an even smaller pool is going to reach the required standard.

“But in terms of an orchestral career, the standards expected across the board are very high.”

With orchestral positions highly sought after, career advancement is limited, as many musicians choose to remain in the same role until they retire.

“I’ve been in the MSO for 30 years, and there are a lot of players who’ve been there longer,” says Mr Jones. “It’s not so common that players leave their jobs.

“We’ve only got six other orchestras to choose from in Australia, so the choice to go somewhere else isn’t great like it is in Europe.”

But many younger players – including violists – are gaining employment and advancement at a faster rate, mirroring trends seen in other industries.

“There will always be younger players coming into the Orchestra,” Mr Jones says. “But they will look to other things and move on. So there’s generally always a job going in a viola section, certainly in ours.”

Not everyone wants to become an orchestral musician, while some people are simply not suited to the demands of orchestral playing.

“Many people have the ability to get into a professional orchestra, but that doesn’t mean an orchestra is the best place for them to be,” says Ms Ayres. “There are many other roads to becoming a professional musician.”

For violists, one way of developing a career is to perform chamber music. Players gain experience in every aspect of classical repertoire while exploring the unique sound of their instrument.

“Chamber music, I think, is the best place for a viola player,” Ms Ayres adds. “It is the most musically satisfying.”

Helen Ireland agrees. “The viola is absolutely vital in chamber music and really shines in that context. That’s partly why I play in a quartet.”

But a professional career also requires skills that go far beyond reading notes off a page.

“You can pass an audition but then not get through the trial period afterwards,” Ms Ayres says. “There is so much to do with [musical] sensitivity, and how you interact with the other players. Everything you do can make a real difference to your professional career.”

To win an orchestral audition or enhance their industry presence, young players need performance experience. But many emerging musicians, particularly violists, only have limited experience, leaving them in a classic catch-22.


Emma Ayres 

“Looking at Orchestra Victoria’s personnel lists, you see the same casual violists program after program,” says Ms Delbridge-Orchard. “Everyone is much older and has a lot of experience.

“OV did once employ a few violists from the Australian National Academy of Music, but they only played in one program. This could be due to a lack of experience.

“So it’s a big problem. OV’s orchestra manager is not going to employ people without strong orchestral experience. But young players can’t get experience if we don’t give them an opportunity.”

Emma Ayres says young players need six years to build their skills and become well-trained orchestral musicians.

“I just wonder whether the players who are [unsuccessfully] applying for casual auditions with professional orchestras are simply applying too early.

“These people need to do some postgraduate study, possibly away from Australia, and then come back.”

One major factor contributing to a lack of experience in young musicians is the length of time it takes to complete a Bachelor of Music degree. In Australia, the degree (without honours) takes just three years. In the US, it takes four years.

“A Bachelor’s degree of three or four years on its own is certainly not going to guarantee anyone an orchestral position,” says Curt Thompson, head of strings at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. “Students need a lot of hard work before university, during university and certainly after. The issue I see is that the years where one can develop one’s technique are somewhat limited.”

With proper preparation vital for founding a career in music, universities typically employ professional orchestral musicians to develop the technical and interpretative abilities of young players. But what is the result?

“From my perspective, there are some really great young viola players coming through,” says Ms Ayres. “But clearly they’re not quite meeting up with the needs of professional orchestras.”

With orchestras accepting only the most experienced players, it is inevitable that a large pool of musicians will fall short of industry expectations. But are conservatoriums at fault?

“For string players, the years between 14 and 20 are a race to master as much technique as possible,” says Dr Thompson. “In my opinion – and I’m sure it’s an opinion that is shared – those years are where a lot of the ‘die’ is cast.

“So, if incoming students are not already very proficient on their instrument by the time we see them as 18-year-olds, the likelihood that they’ll catch up to be ready for professional careers on the other side of their Bachelor’s degree is greatly diminished.”

For violists, technical development is crucial for career success. But certain physical attributes – long arms and big hands – are required to truly work with the instrument. Then there is a matter of limited repertoire by which players can develop their technical abilities. For these reasons, many professional musicians recommend violists enter the world of music by learning the violin.

“As I tell my students, if they are fluent on both violin and viola, their chances of employment don’t double, they triple.” — Curt Thompson

“My preference would be for students to go through and learn a considerable part of the violin repertoire before they change to the viola,” says Mr Jones. “This is because there is a big hole in the viola’s classical and romantic repertoire. And, if you’ve never played the violin, there is a whole range of repertoire that you’re not going to be exposed to.”

But what about violinists wishing to learn the viola as a second instrument?

“There’s always a need for a good violist,” says Dr Thompson. “And there are a lot of similarities between the viola and the violin. There are certain technical differences in playing them but, by and large, they operate more or less the same way.”

Dr Thompson began a training program for violin students wishing to learn the viola in 2013. The program is based on similar initiatives run by institutions such as the University of Southern California and the Juilliard School of Music in New York.

“At the moment we have half a dozen violinists playing the viola, and many of them are really enjoying it. They’ve also quickly become aware that they’ll be in much greater demand being able to play either instrument.”

Trevor Jones, for his part, believes the program is “the best way to encourage people to take up the viola”, but would like to see similar opportunities offered to violists.

Even if this does not happen, Dr Thompson’s program aims to help young violinists build a robust and versatile skill set that will serve them well.

“There is always a need for great players on any instrument, and there seems to be a greater need for wonderful violists,” Dr Thompson says. “Considering how competitive the industry is, if I were a young violinist going through music school, there is no way you could not benefit from exposure to the viola.

“And, as I tell my students, if they are fluent on both violin and viola, their chances of employment don’t double, they triple.”

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