Here’s the answer: Violins are an instrument with long lead time. They’re not particularly quick — their pitch, in particular, is about one octave below what we’d call a typical piano’s pitch. A good rule of thumb is that when a musician starts playing, the string’s pitch is within one octave of his or her own — so that a player plays an octave higher than his or her own intonation would otherwise dictate. So when the viola starts playing, the violinist is already two octaves away — the note that the violinist plays first must be half an octave higher than what the viola would normally play. You do the same thing when you play the violin.
And that’s where the second piece of important information stops. A piano is one octave shorter than the viola. But, crucially, the difference in the piano’s pitch over its notes is far smaller than its overall pitch difference, which is a whole octave. And, in our case, the difference between the violin’s “top” pitch and the viola’s is a very tiny one. The key to a well-trained musician’s ability is in the timing he or she manages in the execution of any given improvisation — the amount of variation you can accomplish in an improvisational moment. If you play it all perfectly, you’re creating it. You don’t need an expert for this, of course. You can pick it up from hearing someone play it a couple of times or seeing someone do it over and over again.
To answer my question, I turned to two players: my own longtime student (and fellow bassist at The Chace Centre in London, now playing at Sonoma) David Pekosz and fellow bassist and viola player Patrick Martin from London’s Bishops. Patrick has spent the past decade in the UK, and for some reason, David’s ability to play both instruments on both occasions was surprising but unsurprising. I thought their responses might help clarify or even prove my own assertion.
David on guitar and viola:
“So when you play the violin or the violin/viola on the violin, you’re not creating the same sound as when you play the viola. What this means is that you will often hear an unfamiliar sound in a certain tune, as the bass player plays. It’s the same for the violin and viola, because the bass player is playing something that is the same or almost the