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Is It hard to play the violin, Viola, or Cello? (How to Choose an Instrument)

When working as an orchestra teacher for more than 15 years,

I often got asked by kids and parents, "Is it hard to play a stringed instrument?"

"Which instrument is easiest to play?"

The answer to this question is that some instruments will be harder for some people and easier for others because no two people are exactly alike. Some people have longer arms and so an instrument such as the viola or the trombone might work well. Others have different shape lips and so they might get a better sound on an instrument such as the flute whereas another person might always struggle to get a good tone.

Some things to keep in mind when making a choice:

1) Body type/size - if you are looking to play a stringed instrument and you have very short arms, you will be limited when playing a viola or cello as you might need to play on a smaller size instrument than others when you are an adult. The violin, being the smallest of the string family is the most easily adapted to a smaller build, but I've also had smaller students that still played a smaller sized viola or bass and loved every minute of it and played really well. So, size in and of itself shouldn't be a deciding factor, but if you are leaning towards one thing or another it's something you should keep in mind.

Leah Irby holding her viola, smiling, with trees and the ocean in the background
Holding my viola, this viola is a 16 and 5/8ths size which is quite a large full size viola

2) Do you like the sound of the instrument? This is really important. I didn't know what the viola really sounded like until I was in high school. When I heard someone playing a really beautiful viola solo, I knew that was my main instrument. I had played violin for 5 years already, and I have never given up the violin, but the

viola truly does fit me the best. If you hear someone play the instrument on a really high level - does it make your heart happy? Or does the sound make you want to run and hide? Certain instruments like brass instruments and percussion can be very loud when practicing and performing and some people might not want to listen to themselves when the mistakes and extra sounds come out. Some people like the softer tones of the string instruments and other people think it is too harsh sounding. Again, this is all a personal choice. Listen to a lot of different instruments and see what is most appealing to you.

Leah Irby in a purple top and blue dress, holding a cello, standing near the water's edge
Holding my cello, I have both long arms and long fingers, so the cello and viola fit me well

3) Do you like to listen to (and play) high sounds, medium sounds, or low sounds? Do prefer to be the leader, out in front of everyone and center stage, or do you prefer to be in the background? Or maybe you like to be a little different from the majority of the group, then you might choose an instrument that fewer people play.

  • The violin plays a central part in much of the music and plays in a higher range. The person who would prefer the violin will also be someone that likes to be the center of attention and play the part of the song that is the recognizable melody when playing with other people. All of that said, most orchestra and chamber music also has a second violin part and that will be a bit more mellow, lower in tone, and in the background. So, you can play violin and still be sometimes not in the spotlight. But, it's important that you like listening to and playing the high notes. Recording examples -jazz, classical, folk, (Other high instruments to consider: flute, trumpet, french horn)

  • The Viola like the 2nd violin tends to play more background sounds. It is a medium-range sound with one lower string than the violin. It is held like the violin, under the chin and many people learn to play both the violin and viola as adults so that they can play more parts in a song. But, the person who is more of a violist, would be someone that enjoys helping others and not always being in the spotlight. Recording examples - jazz, classical, modern, viola ensemble(Other medium instruments to consider: clarinet, oboe, french horn)

  • The Cello is a medium-low sounding instrument that can sometimes play the bass line of the song and sometimes have more melody parts in the orchestra. For someone who likes to be in the spotlight some of the time, but prefers the lower sounds, the cello is a nice choice. The cello will definitely play the melody parts more than the viola or bass. Recording examples - jazz, classical, cello ensemble (Other medium-low instruments to consider: trombone, bassoon.)

  • The String Bass is the lowest sounding instrument of the strings. The very recognizable bass sound forms the foundation of orchestra and band music. Someone who has a good sense of rhythm and timing and likes to be noticed for being different. Recording examples - Classical, jazz, bass ensemble(Other similar instruments to consider: Tuba or bassoon or if you like the rhythm of it - percussion)

4)The feel of playing the instrument - with the string instruments, some people like the feeling of holding the instrument under the chin (violin or viola), and others find that uncomfortable. Some like to sit and hold the instrument between their legs (cello or bass) and others find that it feels a bit "pokey" to their legs. Between the string instruments, some people naturally play with a more heavy feel to the bow - then they will be best suited to the cello or the bass. (You can hear them on the violin or viola making more of a squeaking sound.) If someone has a naturally lighter touch, then they are going to sound better on the violin or viola (whereas on the cello it will sound very airy and unfocused.) Some people like to use their mouth to play the instrument in a gentle way such as the woodwinds and others like the feel of the brass instrument buzzing sound you must make to play. Others don't want to use their breath to play and opt for strings, percussion, or keyboard instruments.

5) Try it out -If you narrow your choice down to a few instruments, it's really helpful to go to a music store and ask to simply make a basic sound on multiple instruments. See what feels easier from the start. From many years of teaching beginning orchestra with a fellow band teacher, I helped many children and adults in private lessons get started in choosing an instrument. If a student picked up the trumpet and immediately blew a really high note, I usually knew they would be a good trumpet player. For myself, when I had to learn all the instruments in college, the trumpet and french horn were the most difficult. And when you can't easily make a good sound, I never wanted to practice. Every other instrument technique class I loved. But, trust me, the last thing you want to do is try to play something that is a constant battle for you. One student I taught was doing ok on the violin but seemed a bit disinterested and so I let him play the cello to try out one day and there was an instant change of sound and ease of playing. Another student constantly struggled to play in tune on the violin, but when I switched her the slightly larger viola, she instantly had a better sound and played more in tune. She started practicing more as she got more excited about the sound.

In conclusion - the easiest instrument to play all depends on who you are. There might be a few different ones that you can make a good sound on right away and then it comes down to the sounds and the way the instrument plays in ensembles. I had a few students start on viola only to be super disappointed that they didn't get to play the melody in the orchestra music. If you need help picking a string instrument online or you are ready to start music lessons, send me a message.

I'm Leah Irby and I teach people how to play violin, viola, and cello with ease and optimal setup so that you have a good tone and minimal injuries in the future. Feel free to contact me using the form at the bottom of this page to get online music lessons, or in-person in Herräng, Sweden.

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