Viola vs. Violin: Finding your Viola Sound by Jutta Puchhammer-Sedillot

The ACHT STUDIO started off the spring semester with a special treat – last week was the annual “Jutta Puchhammer Week” at the Juilliard School! Viennese-born violist, Jutta Puchhammer-Sédillot, is currently a full-time professor of viola and chamber music at the University of Montréal and is on the faculties of several festivals throughout the world. She is known and loved internationally not only for her exceptional performing and teaching, but also for her boundless energy and charming, unique persona.  The ACHT Studio benefitted greatly through her residency this year; her stay included a presentation, three days of one-on-one lessons, and a final masterclass. The following post contains a portion of Jutta’s presentation from the first day of the residency.


What is a REAL viola sound? Have you ever asked yourself this question?  Hector Berlioz – one of the first great composers to take interest in contributing to our now extensive viola repertoire – described this sound as, “profound, melancholic, mournful, passionate, dark, big, rich, warm, and velvety.” If you ask me, there are a number of factors which play a role in the creation of such a sound…


1)  Let the viola be itself!

Fact: The viola’s proportions are “off” when compared to the violin.

– The instrument is 15-17 inches long when, for optimal string length, it should actually be 21 inches long.

– The ratio of thickness to length is much lower than that of the violin. It is almost the

same thickness as the violin, and yet many inches longer, which often creates issues with wolfs and delayed responses – BUT also creates a remarkably more resonant low register on the instrument (Something violists should take pride in and enjoy!).

– The strings are thicker than those of the violin. This automatically causes the response
to be slower – which subsequently means much more energy is required in order to
overcome the initial inertia of the viola. (I’ve actually been told that the response is as
slow as a bass! The only way of overcoming this? Becoming a master of articulation!)

– Because the body is bigger than a violin, the decay is also longer; this is a fact which

means the instrument is absolutely unforgiving of bad intonation. It requires that a violist plays with intonation that can mingle perfectly with the “old” sounds of previously
played notes which still resonate within the instrument.

– Because of these disproportionate proportions, the middle register of the viola has

trouble instigating vibrations in the wood and air within the instrument. This results in a less-resonant, more “problematic” register.

All of these characteristics added together create the viola sound, although one with less projection, less tonal brilliance and less focus than violin, it is nevertheless an incredibly beautiful sound.


Handling your viola:

– Let the instrument ring freely! Your viola hates pressure, but loves arm and finger

weight. Can you feel the string vibrate? Can you feel how your left hand with the left arm support absorbs, plays with, and rides on these vibrating waves?

– Demand what you want from your instrument, but always be sure to listen. Your viola will spit back or ignore you if you do not respect it. It is a delicate little thing – but so lovely! How fast can it respond? How well does it respond to bowspeed, to a shape in the bow stroke, to a stronger or softer bowgrip?

– Dig in. Dare to go to its core sound deep down in the string, but get there without
pressure. Nobody likes to be strangled! What is the maximum weight your viola can
handle? The minimum weight it can handle? The most resistance? The least?


2)  Know a few tricks!

Bow grip, balance, left-hand adjustments – all of these are different and specific to each
viola and necessary for violists to know in learning how to handle their unique instrument.

– Viola position: This should be, ideally, within a 45 degree angle in front of you. It should feel “handy” to play!

– Height of viola: This should be close to the violin hold (although, it might look to be

lower, since the viola is longer) – balanced between the shoulder upon which it is resting, the left arm (supported by the lower upper-arm muscles, and with freedom in the shoulder
socket), and finally the left hand through support of the thumb (not gripping!).  A hold which is too low decreases clarity of sound.

– Left hand fingers: Fingertips should feel weighted and able to sink into the fingerboard (feeling like they are sinking into a comfortable sofa).

– Left hand position in relation to the fingerboard: The base knuckle line should be above the fingerboard so that your fingers can simply drop down onto it. (Something worth noting: since the viola fingerboard is larger than that of the violin, smaller hands tend to lose height when playing the viola.)

– Left hand balance: It helps the hand to rotate back and forth between being balanced
on either 123 or 234. The “left out” and unbalanced finger should remain close to the string
and ready to be borrowed. Using this system of constantly rebalancing will keep you from
injuring yourself.

– Fingerings: Simple fingerings are often better. Open strings and first position sound lovely! Higher positions lack speed of response. Half positions should be welcomed
(especially for smaller hands). Extensions are perhaps “artistic” but rarely feasible on the viola. Enjoy the different characteristics of each string and choose fingerings accordingly: phrases with similar characters should stay on the same string. If you would like to “brighten up,” go to a higher string, or “mellow down” by going to a lower one.

– Vibrato: In order to be audible, vibrato should be wider (but not necessarily slower) on the viola than on the violin, coming from further back on the finger-pad. Practicing a wide range of vibrato amplitudes in combination with a wide range of speeds can help you find the sound you seek in relation to level of expressivity you desire.

– Right-hand thumb position: The thumb should be positioned between the 2nd and 3rd fingers for “equal” hand balance in order to optimize arm weight without pressing.

– Bow-grip: This should be firmer than that of the violin. Think of the amount of support needed to give a firm hand shake with good energy – with your fingers as suction cups
(Thomas Riebl); if the hand is too loose, then the sound becomes fuzzy (Primrose).  It might also help to imagine what it feels like when holding a knife to cut meat or bread, when
holding an iron to press silk or linen, or a can when watering flowers, a pitcher when pouring a glass of juice, a hammer hitting a nail (or destroying an object)… The grip is firm, but
loose, according to what you have to do.

– Bow-weight: This should be increased on a viola, but should through natural arm
weight and gravity rather than downward muscle pressure (this destroys the sound!).

– Bow-distribution and speed: First, play much more in the lower part of the bow; this
allows for easier access to arm-weight, since your arm is closer to a 90 degree angle. Second,
go for a slower bow-stroke while maintaining arm weight; this increases energy in the sound through allowing for more resistance as well as more momentum on a thicker string (which automatically has a slower response).

– Bow-attack and release: Bow attacks of shorter notes (collé or spiccato) need to be

started ON the string (because of the slower response of the thicker string), and released

for clarity.  Attacks from the air do not allow enough time or create enough energy to get the string resonating clearly. Most strokes begin with resistance and then release into an adequate adjustment of bow-speed and weight.  N.B:  For spiccato, the bow reacts to the string and often does not even need to leave the string as long as the stick bounces
energetically above the hair (eg. reverse smiley for sautille).


3)  Be truthful about your feelings and find the inner, unique “YOU.”

– Playing the viola is beyond showing off. It is about showing your musical imagination and the emotions that the music incites within you.

– Sincerity will make all the different for an audience; they will be grateful to you for sharing your gift and pulling their imagination upward from merely what’s on their next day’s shopping list.

– Act out your music! The best actors make you believe that they are truly moved to tears
when experiencing certain situations.  If you step into your musical character 150%, the
public will believe you. Whether you choose to be heroic or in pain – music holds it all; you
get to decide when and where you become what character.  And just like actors, even if you
are not in the mood for stepping into a certain emotion, you still have to jump in 150% and
make the audience believe in the sincerity of your actions.  When feeling sad, bring your
tears to the verge of flowing; when feeling happy, be jumping up and down ready to burst
with joy!

– Believe in your uniqueness. Only you hear the way you do and only you perceive

certain notes in a certain way.  On the page, a phrase might look the same to two different

people, but when one colors it in his own way, that phrase becomes unique to that individual.

– Dare to go there! Step far into your emotions; it will be worth every step. You will leave
the public speechless and forever grateful!  If you give of yourself and share your inner and
utmost imagination through the viola sound – with all its millions of levels of expressive
possibilities, there will be nothing left to say. You can never make a fool of yourself if you
are truly sincere.



How to find new viola repertoire:

Follow leads!

– Check out the sources below.

– If you can’t find the music, interlibrary loans might be your best option in getting parts.

– If you like a particular period or heard a piece by a composer you loved – Petrucci library might have more material for you.

– If you speak different languages, search for lists of viola compositions in that language (such as

– If you speak French, search for F. Lainé.  This is a very interesting source to discover the existence of certain works.


Franz Zeyringer : « Literatur für viola » book, edited 1985. Founder of Austrian viola society and former professo rat Granz University., plus update 1984-2001. most complete complete
collection statement.



Website for free downloading :

Petrucci Music Library- everything free of copyright, more than 100 years old.

Primrose International Viola Archive (PIVA)


Myrna Layton, Public Service Supervisor- if you have questions- contact her. myrna_layton@byu.edu


Riley, Maurice.The History of the Viola. Vol.1, 2nd édition., rev.. Ann Arbor :Braun-Brumfield,


Lainé, Frederic. L’alto. ref 50532, édition Anne Fuzeau, classique, 2010


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