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Favorite small viola model?

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4 hours ago, David Burgess said:

Probably my favorite viola of all time was a Zanetto.

You sir, are a man of great taste :)

Seriously though - what's wrong with violin making that we slavishly copy instruments just because they are pure and exist on a Strad poster, when the people in the business of sounding good are going for completely different models that makers barely dare to touch?

I am soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo boooooooooooooooored of Conte Vitale copies, and I'm yet to see one that convinces me that the maker is paying real attention to the original - mostly because the critical information just isn't out there. Is that wrong of me?  

 

 

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19 hours ago, David Burgess said:

Probably my favorite viola of all time was a Zanetto.

Have you made copies of this?

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I had success back in 2008 making a 15-1/4" viola for a professional musician who had physical problems which needed attention.   First of all, I advised her that, by its very nature, a small viola is not a professional viola and the expectations for the viola sound must be kept realistic.   She had tried all the major Los Angeles shops with no success because of her unusual demands.   First, the instrument must be small.  Second, it needed to have a violin size neck.  Third, and most difficult, it must sound like a viola.   I explained that I could make a viola fitting her physical needs but that I couldn't guarantee that it would sound like anything other than what it was.    I told her that all of the tricks in the book had been tried with little significant success in an instrument that small.   Nevertheless I offered to make the instrument and keep it for sale if it didn't satisfy her needs.    I'm glad to say that she has been playing it now for nine years and is very happy with how it turned out.   Here are some photos:

First, to maximize airspace I chose a da Salo Model for its broad width.   Then I modified the upper bouts to extend the shoulders just a bit (with the players permission).  Second, I used a rather large Scroll/pegbox on the violin size neck.   I believe the mass helps the low end response.    Third, I lowered and flattened the top arch a mm.   (top was 17 and back was 18 1/2).   I also flattened the arching on the back towards the bottom a little.    I scaled the fingerboard and bar and f-holes to fit the proportion.   I reviewed my transcripts of Rene's talk on viola and decided that he was referring to full size violas (over 16" perhaps or even down to 15 5/8" and up) so I set the string length at 358mm with a mensur of 141/217.

The varnish was Magister and, as you can see I had some severe "burning-in" on the top, despite having taken the precaution to wet the wood first.   The saturation is well over the top on this photo however and the customer actually liked the finished look.

Just some thoughts on all the considerations and this one turned out very acceptable to at least one person, the buyer!    Haven't made the instrument again...why would I?   

 

Good luck.  JB

 

 

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18 hours ago, Ben Hebbert said:

You sir, are a man of great taste :)

Seriously though - what's wrong with violin making that we slavishly copy instruments just because they are pure and exist on a Strad poster, when the people in the business of sounding good are going for completely different models that makers barely dare to touch?

I am soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo boooooooooooooooored of Conte Vitale copies, and I'm yet to see one that convinces me that the maker is paying real attention to the original - mostly because the critical information just isn't out there. Is that wrong of me?  

Couldn't agree more. The Conte Vitale is a very difficult instrument to copy given the errors present in the original (the middle bouts are not symmetrical -- one side is quite a bit wider than the other) 

I really wish there were more plans available like the Zanetto mentioned above. Call me a blasphemer but I actually like the Strad CV form.

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It is a pit that lutherie books are too "Stradcentric". It would be nice a book with 25 good sounding violas, by different makers and schools, in the format of the two volume Biddulph's book on Del Gesù, that is, good photos plus plans and usefull information for makers.

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21 hours ago, thirteenthsteph said:

Holy.... I liked the Brensi viola (and I love the way it looks... that Melvin Goldsmith copy! :o ) but then I heard the Zanetto viola... Wow. Incredible. 

.... Yup!

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Too funny that someone posts asking for advice on small violas and we end up discussing large violas ...

Jim_B's statement "First of all, I advised her that, by its very nature, a small viola is not a professional viola and the expectations for the viola sound must be kept realistic." is in my opinion something of a received idea, and perhaps reflects a lack of experience of good small violas.

Yes the tonal characteristics of small instruments are going to be different, but the idea that a great sound, suitable for a leading player, requires a large body - well, it's just prejudice.

Roman Spitzer for instance plays a Storioni around 39cm - he sounds pretty good! I know another Storioni in the Oslo Philharmonic that's also great. There is no requirement for all violas to sound the same ...

Here's an excellent model from James & Henry Banks at 38.2cm

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Just for what it's worth, I received last week an enthusiastic review about a 38 cm early 19th Mirecourt viola, about seven years (!) after the sale, something like never ever heard such an overwhelming full tone, fine colouring into the most delicate pianissimo,  etc. Not an instrument which is usually regarded as something special, is it?

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I shouldn't think there is any irony in it at all. 

Over the years various people have observed that a bent front, potentially thinner produces a quicker response, and other beneficial acoustics that work well in the viola. Helen Mitchetslager has really been the most forward thinking contemporary maker on this, and I can certainly confirm from older smaller violas that have these characteristics that they - in my experience - work well beyond expectations, so to understand this more fully, we should look at other instruments that are similar and question why those work too. Brenzi and Linarol violas all exhibit the same general characteristics, and as we see from this discussion also work well beyond expectations, so by asking pertinent questions, perhaps we can get to an answer about violas generally and that inform small violas in particular. We may, for example, find that a miniature Brenzi is an experiment worth making in terms of finding a favourite small viola. I suspect there is a strong chance of that. 

 

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Don't a lot of makers base models on Brescian violas (Da Salo, Maggini, etc.)?  I know of a maker who makes makes violas based on violas of Storioni and Ceruti.  All rather different from the usual Guarneri or Amati models.

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There is a trend towards small violas, perhaps. 

My best viola test driver in NYC mentioned to me that a good number of his students is consisted by small Asian girls.

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1 hour ago, Ben Hebbert said:

I shouldn't think there is any irony in it at all. 

Over the years various people have observed that a bent front, potentially thinner produces a quicker response, and other beneficial acoustics that work well in the viola. Helen Mitchetslager has really been the most forward thinking contemporary maker on this, and I can certainly confirm from older smaller violas that have these characteristics that they - in my experience - work well beyond expectations, so to understand this more fully, we should look at other instruments that are similar and question why those work too. Brenzi and Linarol violas all exhibit the same general characteristics, and as we see from this discussion also work well beyond expectations, so by asking pertinent questions, perhaps we can get to an answer about violas generally and that inform small violas in particular. We may, for example, find that a miniature Brenzi is an experiment worth making in terms of finding a favourite small viola. I suspect there is a strong chance of that. 

 

Ben, could you give a bit more of technical details about how doing that? How thick would be the spruce? How wide would be the bent strip? Thanks!

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1 hour ago, Ben Hebbert said:

I shouldn't think there is any irony in it at all. 

Over the years various people have observed that a bent front, potentially thinner produces a quicker response, and other beneficial acoustics that work well in the viola. Helen Mitchetslager has really been the most forward thinking contemporary maker on this, and I can certainly confirm from older smaller violas that have these characteristics that they - in my experience - work well beyond expectations, so to understand this more fully, we should look at other instruments that are similar and question why those work too. Brenzi and Linarol violas all exhibit the same general characteristics, and as we see from this discussion also work well beyond expectations, so by asking pertinent questions, perhaps we can get to an answer about violas generally and that inform small violas in particular. We may, for example, find that a miniature Brenzi is an experiment worth making in terms of finding a favourite small viola. I suspect there is a strong chance of that. 

 

The size of the room makes a grave difference in how a viola is perceived.

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If a person was to go off the reservation a bit Helen M. does small cornerless violas.  The Chanot=Chardon Strad violin would be a good model to scale up.  Keeping the center bouts wide is another of H.M.'s  thoughts on viola design.  I think she is right on the mark, but I have no real scientific evidence to support it.

DLB

 

https://helenviolinmaker.com/trade-secrets-making-the-ribs-for-a-cornerless-viola/

https://helenviolinmaker.com/making-violas-reconciling-size-and-sound/

https://helenviolinmaker.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Dartington-talk-transcript-with-pics.pdf

 

This last link really gets to the heart of the matter and is one of the best articles I have read on the subject.

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56 minutes ago, martin swan said:

Given that there are plenty of historic small viola models that really work, why scale up or down a model of a totally different size?

 

Given that there are plenty of historic instruments that really work, ... why bother making any more? 

I think more accurately - as my post suggested - is the importance of being informed by what works and creating ideas around that which may respond to the requirements of musicians. 

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2 hours ago, MANFIO said:

Ben, could you give a bit more of technical details about how doing that? How thick would be the spruce? How wide would be the bent strip? Thanks!

I uploaded Kessler's work on viol construction. That's as good as it gets... 

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24 minutes ago, Ben Hebbert said:

Given that there are plenty of historic instruments that really work, ... why bother making any more? 

I think more accurately - as my post suggested - is the importance of being informed by what works and creating ideas around that which may respond to the requirements of musicians. 

For me the starting point for making a viola of say 38.5cm would be to find an existing viola of 38.5cm that sounded spectacular and then copy it quite closely in terms of wood density, arching, thicknessing and construction method. 

If a Helen Michetschlager instrument of 38.5 with a pressed top sounded best then that would be the one to copy.

But to scale down a Linarol to 38.5 would seem strange to me, like making a Cannone copy that was 35.9.

Anyway, I don't have any big insights here - I was more reacting against Jim_B's idea that a small violin cannot by definition be a "professional viola", and that when under duress to make a small instrument one was somehow working in the dark, and that it was necessary to re-invent the wheel. 

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7 hours ago, Blank face said:

Just for what it's worth, I received last week an enthusiastic review about a 38 cm early 19th Mirecourt viola, about seven years (!) after the sale, something like never ever heard such an overwhelming full tone, fine colouring into the most delicate pianissimo,  etc. Not an instrument which is usually regarded as something special, is it?

That looks amazing to me, I'd love to hear it as well.

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So sorry to diss the "little guys."  I didn't say they sounded bad just that they probably won't hold up in a quartet of professional players.   That was my customers chief complaint after examining 15 1/2 inchers at the other shops.     Call that prejudice if you wish but it's a reality of which that I am well aware having worked on many, many violas in my shop and built many myself.  But can you name me a professional string quartet with a violist playing a 15 1/4" instrument?   Could be, I guess, but not normal.    Again, I answered the gentleman's question and gave him an example of a very successful small viola.    Most important, it is sold and making music for a professional player.   Does it have the voice of say, the 16 - 1/4 da Salo's or Brothers Amati I normally make - no - and that was my point.  Again, I have a happy customer and a very nice sale.   I wasn't expecting the instrument to sound as big as it did but, what the heck.    I guess, maybe I am prejudiced after all, but I'm gonna stick with my "biggies".  B)

--J

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I think a Quartet is a rather specific application, in that there is already a lower violin part, and the viola is very definitely trying to bridge the "colour gap" between violin and cello. I understand why quartet violists feel the repertoire demands bigger-bodied instruments.

However, smaller instruments are much easier to get around, generally have better projection, and are often much more articulate - in a way they are better suited for solo repertoire. In this context I think you'll find quite a few professionals using smaller instruments.

In an orchestral section, there is definitely a competitive prejudice towards the biggest instruments possible, but actually a mix of tonalities is probably a good thing for the overall sound of the orchestra.

As the Helen Michetschlager article so lucidly argues, we are increasingly aware of the real damage that playing a large instrument can do. People who play for hours at a time day after day should be encouraged to play on a size of instrument that is relaxed for them. The modern viola player is generally female, often under 5'6 ... 

People are moving towards smaller instruments. We certainly sell plenty, even to professional players!

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Great thread going here folks! But it's really made it confusing for a person getting ready to make their first viola. I was planning on using the Bros. Amati 1615 Stauffer as my model but know I'm second guessing that choice. Should I reconsider or go for a smaller model? Opinions please. Thx.

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26 minutes ago, Mike Spencer said:

Should I reconsider or go for a smaller model? Opinions please. Thx.

We have already had a lot of great opinions from folks who really know, so it really depends on what you want to do.

If you just want to make a viola and sell it, I'd go ~40 cm.  Likewise, for a soloist who wants quick response and projection, small-ish works good there too.  For a quartet where the violist needs to sound as non-violiny as possible, maybe bigger.  Or if you're aiming at a symphony player where there is size prejudice.

Personally, I'm just going to make the smaller ones and concentrate on making them sound good.  They sell, and there's less wood to deal with.  I have only made 3 so far, at a rate of one every 2 years... so take that into consideration too.

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