So you want to learn the viol?
A guide to the Society’s resources for beginners
Whether you are completely new to music or you already have experience on another instrument, learning to play the viol is easier than you might expect. The VdGSA has compiled a list of advice and resources to facilitate your first steps on the viol and make it an enjoyable and fulfilling experience.
Why should you learn the viol?
It’s hard to describe how much fun it is to produce the wonderful sound you get drawing the bow along the string. Even greater is the experience of playing with others, exploring the vast repertoire of consort music, which is how music for viols is often called.
In seventeenth-century England, many aristocratic men (and some women) learned the viol as part of their social education. Families and friends would gather to make music together; much of the great repertoire of English consort music was written for this kind of gathering. The imitative polyphonic style of this music emphasizes the equality of every player and creates a conversational atmosphere.
The viol is perhaps unique among musical instruments for how easy it is to learn and how many pieces were written for it that are technically easy but musically complex. Prior experience playing a string instrument may help but is by no means required. The viol is accessible as a first instrument to any person, at any age. Those with physical limitations may find the viol more approachable than other string instruments as they require very little strength to play and come in several sizes. Skills transfer easily between different size viols.
Trying out the viol
Not sure you want to take the plunge? There are several ways to dip your toe in and see if you’re passionate about playing the viol. The Society offers a free week-long class for beginners every summer at our annual Conclave (instruments provided). During that same week, we also offer a free online class for beginners. We can be found at the exhibitions of early music festivals in Boston, Berkeley, and Indiana, where you can meet enthusiastic viol players and try out an instrument. You can also contact one of the many local VdGSA Chapters to see whether you can attend a playing session.
Obtaining an instrument
The VdGSA offers an affordable rental program to facilitate easy access to instruments. Ready to buy your own viol? Check out our classifieds page for used instruments or our instrument makers and dealers page if you are interested in a new one. Both used and new instruments are available in all sizes and at many price points. If you have a teacher or viol player you trust, they can be helpful in navigating the many options for purchasing an instrument. After one year of VdGSA membership you will be eligible to apply for the Grants-in-Aid program which can be used to fund instrument and bow purchases (in addition to many other projects)
While not essential, having a good viol teacher will help you get started on the right foot and make progress. VdGSA members have access to a directory of viol teachers across the country—including those who offer online lessons. If lessons seem too expensive, consider applying for the Society’s Private Lesson Subsidy program, designed to increase access to private instruction. A series of Teaching Videos produced by the Society are available on a variety of topics and aimed at players of every level. There are also many published method books for the viol, including some by teaching members of the VdGSA.
Finding your community
Across the U.S. and Canada, groups of all levels get together to play consort music. You will find in viol players some of the friendliest, most welcoming people you will meet. Many people find that their viol buddies quickly become friends for life. Once you’ve started playing viol, be sure to connect with other viol players in your area through a local VdGSA Chapter or Area. Many chapters meet regularly to play consort music and some put on regional workshops or fly in teachers through the Society’s Circuit Rider program. You should also join the VdGSA (if you haven’t already) to stay connected to players throughout the North American continent.