An Introduction to the Viola

by Joanna Storm, Music Educator and Music & Arts Lesson Instructor

Tools for Success


This tool is designed to help students play at a steady tempo and in the proper rhythm. Rhythmic development is key in the growth of every musician, so playing your viola with a metronome during every practice is recommended.

Music Stand (SP) Shop Now >

A music stand is required for proper posture. If the music is not placed at the appropriate height for the student (approximately eye level), this will have a negative impact on their posture. Bad posture also has a negative impact on the student's sound.


A notebook is a great tool for success. In a notebook, the student (or their teacher) can make notes about new terms, what should be practiced and what goals should be made.


Pencils are useful to write in both the student’s notebook and also in their sheet music. It can be useful for the student to mark fingerings and dynamics in their music. It is best to make these notes in pencil in case they need to be changed later.

Polishing Cloth (SP) Shop Now >

A polishing cloth is a soft cloth for wiping rosin dust off of the viola. When rosin dust builds up on the viola, it dampens the sound and the instrument will not sound as good. Too much excess rosin dust can also cause the viola to become sticky to the touch and could cause damage to the varnish.

Rosin (SP) (light rosin only) Shop Now >

Rosin needs to be put on the bow hair before each playing session. There are two basic types of rosin: light (also known as amber) rosin, and dark rosin. If you reside in a humid area, you’ll want to use light rosin. If you live in a dry or arid climate, you should choose the dark rosin. If the area you live in has a large change in humidity during the year (such as the midwest), and you only want to purchase one rosin, you should choose the light rosin.

Shoulder Rest (SP) (foam pad) Shop Now >

This is a tool used to aid in posture and the hold of the viola. While some younger students (five years and under) sometimes do not need one, most older students find them necessary. Shoulder rests come in many forms, from a simple foam pad to a framework with solid padding, and are sized to your instrument.

Tuner Shop Now >

This is an electronic device that can help students make sure their viola is in tune before they start practicing. If the viola is not in tune, the student can be playing perfectly but it won’t matter.

About Your Viola


Pegs are the four black knobs at the top of the viola. They are used for making large pitch changes when tuning.


The fingerboard is the long black piece underneath the strings. Keeping the bow off of the fingerboard will help produce a clear sound.


The viola has four strings. In descending order, they are: A, D, G, C. The A is the thinnest and highest-sounding of the strings, and the C is the thickest and lowest.



The two holes on the face of the viola are called the f-holes. It is a good idea to keep the f-holes uncovered while playing, as covering them will muffle the sound.


The bridge is the piece of wood that holds the strings up and is located between the f-holes. The bridge's feet should be resting flat in order to avoid the bridge accidentally falling over.

Chin Rest

The chin rest is an oval piece of wood or plastic, typically black in color, located to the left of the tailpiece. This is where the player's chin/jaw rests. If your instrument does not have this piece or if it comes off, you should get it repaired immediately because it is not possible to hold the instrument properly without it.


The tailpiece is located just underneath the bridge. All four strings and fine tuners are attached to the tailpiece.

Fine Tuners

Fine tuners are the little screws located on the tailpiece. The fine tuners are used for making small adjustments in pitch. There is no risk of breaking a string when tuning with fine tuners, so it is okay to use even without any training.

Sound Post

The small wooden rod located on the inside of the viola is called the soundpost. The soundpost helps to amplify sound and it also adds to the structural stability of the viola. It can be seen by looking through the f-holes.

About Your Bow


The stick is the long wooden part of the bow. It is important to never tighten it too much. The stick should always curve under slightly (known as a recurve). If the stick is straight or bowed over it will become irreparably damaged.


The bow hair, usually made with horsehair, is parallel to the stick. The student must rosin the bow whenever the instrument is taken out and played. If the bow goes long enough without being rosined, it will be difficult to make a sound on the viola.


The frog is the heavy part on the end of the bow. This is where the player holds the bow.


The screw is found at the end of the frog, opposite of the hair. To tighten the bow, the screw must be turned to the right. To loosen the bow, the screw must be turned to the left.

Scheduling and Measuring Practice

It is important to practice the correct amount. Too little will result in slow progress, but too much can cause frustration and/or injury. Treating playing the viola like playing a sport can be very successful approach. Start practicing a small amount each day and slowly increase the practice amount as the student gains skill.

A frequent question from parents is, “How much should my child be practicing each day?” Using the lesson length is a good place to start. If the student has a 30 minute lesson, it would be appropriate for them to be practicing around 30 minutes a day. Some students have difficulty focusing for a whole 30 minutes, especially younger ones. If that is the case, instead of doing timed practices, students should practice each assigned piece five times each day. This gives them a clear stopping point while ensuring they practice everything their teacher assigned.

Maintaining Your Instrument

Before You Play

  • Make sure your hands are clean.
  • Prepare your practice area and set up your music.
  • Inspect your instrument and bow to make sure nothing is wrong with them.
  • Tighten your bow and then rosin it.
  • If you use a shoulder rest, make sure it is on the viola.
  • Tune your instrument and check to make sure your bridge is resting flat!

After You Play

  • Make sure your case is clear of debris.
  • If you use a shoulder rest, remove it and put it away.
  • Loosen your bow and make sure it is secure in the case.
  • Use your polishing cloth to wipe any rosin dust off of the viola.
  • Put the viola in the case and remember to zip the case up!


  • Sudden and extreme changes in temperature are bad for your instrument. While your case helps slow down these changes, you should do your best to avoid exposing your instrument to excessive heat, cold, humidity, or dryness. Large changes in temperature put your instrument at risk for cracking, separated seams, broken joints, and broken strings.
  • Cold – While it is best to avoid doing so, you can still take your instrument into a snowstorm if absolutely necessary. Just make sure to keep it in a properly insulated case and to take it back inside as soon as possible.
  • Damp – Never expose your viola to excess humidity. Too much moisture will cause the wood to warp and the glue to break down. A well-insulated case should protect the instrument, but if you are going out into the rain or snow, consider covering your case with a garbage bag for extra protection.
  • Heat – Too much heat can severely damage the joints and seams of your viola. Extreme heat can also melt the glue that holds your instrument together. Never leave your instrument in a hot car or store it in direct sunlight.
  • Dry – Wood needs some moisture to keep its shape, otherwise it can become brittle and crack. If you live in or are visiting an area that is extremely dry, you should invest in an instrument humidifier to protect your viola.
  • Earthquake/tornado – If you live in an area that is prone to earthquakes or tornadoes, do not store your instrument near a piece of furniture that might fall (ex: bookcases). A heavy object falling on your viola, even while it is in the case, can cause severe damage to your instrument.

Do's and Don'ts

  • It is easy to break a string accidentally when tuning with the pegs. Therefore, it is recommended that the student/parent not use the pegs until they receive specific instruction from their teacher.
  • It is recommended that student violists change their strings at least once a year to ensure they get the best sound. To make it easy to remember when to change the strings, pick a memorable date for your annual strings change (birthday, Christmas, Independence Day, etc).
  • If your soundpost should fall, immediately loosen all the strings and take it to the repair shop. Never play on a viola without a soundpost. Doing so can cause irreparable damage to the instrument.
  • Never touch the bow hair. The oils on our skin will make the hair dirty. When the bow hair is dirty, it will not make as much sound no matter how much rosin is applied.
  • Never leave your viola alone in the car. The change of temperature in an unattended car can cause irreparable damage to your instrument. Too much heat can cause the varnish to bubble and glue to unstick, while too much cold can cause the instrument to crack. Also, unattended instruments are often targets for theft.
  • Keep your viola in the case when it is not in use. Do not leave it on the floor or a chair, as it could accidentally be stepped or sat on.

Forming Good Habits, Not Bad Habits


Practicing is something that needs to happen every day. Many people find it helpful to integrate practicing into their daily routine. Others find completing weekly practice charts work better. It is important for individuals to figure out what method works best for them. Students who practice daily consistently outperform those who do not, regardless of talent or age.


Students should maintain good posture while playing. Slouching, slumping or resting all one's weight on one foot, etc. lead to poor sound.

Viola Position

It is important to avoid what teachers infamously refer to as the pizza wrist. The wrist and palm should not be touching the viola while one is playing.

Bow Hold

The bow should not be gripped in a fist. There are several different bow holds. The student and their parent should consult with the teacher to find out which one the teacher thinks is most appropriate. The student should check their bow hold regularly during their practicing session.


To get the best your instrument has to offer, you should make sure to follow the proper care instructions. Remember, there is both yearly and daily maintenance, and both are equally important.

Return to Top