I wish I had kept count of the number of times a pupil has looked at me with a perplexed expression when I ask them if they’re aware the violin and viola are two entirely different musical instruments.
I have often found myself bigging up the violin’s larger string sibling, but I secretly enjoy every second of it because there is plenty to shout about! So why can most young children (aged 4-7) inform me so confidently about the violin, yet know absolutely nothing about the viola? It seems that it all stems from school.
Children are encouraged to learn the violin (over the viola) because it’s the smallest of the string instruments and makes it the most popular choice for smaller beginners. Its prominent position within the orchestra also means that children spot it quickly and take a shining to it.
But because the viola is so similar physically to the violin, children often mistake it for a large violin rather than an entirely different musical instrument and they think the cello is next in line in the string family.
This isn’t being helped by a situation in schools, where some music services only offer children music tuition on the cello as an alternative to the violin. So for those who may have been interested in the viola, it’s not an option for them to learn it in school anyway – they have the choice between the violin or the cello. It is worth mentioning that this is happening with the woodwind family too (flute and clarinet being positioned over the oboe and bassoon) however this makes a little more sense, as the oboe and bassoon are notably more expensive instruments to purchase or loan.
In our music classes this year we’ve played a wide variety of musical games to help develop the children’s’ listening and aural skills. Within the first term, the youngest of our children (age 4) can confidently listen to pieces of music where the violin, viola, cello and double bass perform together and distinguish which instrument is which, from listening to their sound alone. They love describing what each instrument sounds like and defining how they differ from one another.
While half of the room adore the sound of the violin and its virtuosic melodies, the other half of the room get just as excited by the deeper resonance that the viola makes. Just like the instruments, every child is different and they know what they like and what they don’t – especially at four years old!
Given the choice in school, half of those children would choose to learn the viola over the violin but with no introduction to it, they are none the wiser and deprived of the opportunity. Each of the string family has its own unique story to tell and it’s important that in school young children get the opportunity to learn about all of them.