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Violin_2018

Selecting and Buying Viola

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Hello,

I have been playing violin for about 9 years and play in school and local/regional orchestra concert settings.  The violins I used are of older European vintage (>100 years) from French/Germany.  This summer, I am looking to start learning viola as well to expand by horizon.  I am looking into getting a 16.5" viola with warm/rich tone with strong projection mostly for solo audition setting.  My budget is $2000 or below to get a ready to play condition viola.   

In researching,  it would seem that there are a lot more sellers and choices/selections for violins than viola.  Being new to viola, I like to get some advice on a few reputable sites that viola players typically get their instrument.   In terms of getting a viola with warm/rich tone with strong projection, are there any particular brand/model I should focus on?  Would one I be better off looking for viola from older European vintage (aged) vs newly made ones (e.g. Carlo Lamberti Tertis Viola from Shar Music)?  Are there choices that offer the best value?

I appreciate any other suggestions.

 

Thanks,

Violin_2018 

 

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19 hours ago, Violin_2018 said:

I am looking into getting a 16.5" viola with warm/rich tone with strong projection mostly for solo audition setting.

It really sounds like you should visit a violin shop and try instruments in person.    Even if you have to travel a ways, it could save you lots of time and the hassle of finding, trying, and returning instruments by mail.   Plus, if you find something you like at the shop, you will be supporting a "local" business, you can see meet the folks selling the viola, and be assured they will continue to help maintain the instrument.

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Your only good option is to go to a good shop that deals in a range of instruments in that price range.  For $2,000 you should be able to find something decent at 16.5".

If you're interested in eventually upgrading, you might find 16.3" a more easily re-sellable size.

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Have you played a 16.5" viola? That's a pretty big instrument for a lot of people. Go to shops and play instruments. Don't restrict yourself to 16.5" instruments. Find a size that's comfortable, and then look for sound. Keep in mind that the proper choice of strings can have a big effect on sound.

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On 7/19/2020 at 11:47 AM, FiddleDoug said:

Have you played a 16.5" viola? That's a pretty big instrument for a lot of people. Go to shops and play instruments. Don't restrict yourself to 16.5" instruments.

And when trying violas in a shop, don't restrict yourself to a certain price range. Everything you try will contribute to your knowledge, including those which are out of your price range.

I will never be able to afford one of the better Stradivaris or Guarneris (versus one which is now only a shadow of how it originally was, incorporating the opinions and personal styles of every repair person who worked on it), but I've learned a lot about both construction and sound from having had access to the more original examples.

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20 hours ago, Violin_2018 said:

I am looking into getting a 16.5" viola with warm/rich tone with strong projection mostly for solo audition setting. 

It is not clear how/why you have apparently settled on the 16.5" size.  Is it from actually hearing and/or playing them, or "bigger must be better"?  

I don't have vast experience with violas, but it is my observation that "strong projection" is more easily obtained in the smaller body sizes, while the larger ones might have a certain "big body" sound but lose some ability to project.  I only build slightly under 16" violas, with the intent of maximizing projection for a soloist.  And smaller size and weight are less stress on the player.

In your price range, you're pretty much restricted to Chinese or Romanian instruments, or perhaps some older things of uncertain condition.  I'd look at the Gliga (Romanian) line; I have no experience with their violas, but I've seen a few of their violins that I thought were pretty nice.  Others' experiences may vary.

But first I'd suggest (as others have) to play a lot of different violas to get familiar with what's out there and what you can live with.

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All,

Thanks for your replies and suggestions.  I called around locally yesterday and there are limited choices but at the time, I was only inquiring about 16.5" viola.  I think there may be extra choices with 16" viola.  Also checking with another shop further out that my teacher recommended and waiting to hear back. 

Regarding the 16.5" viola choice, I was mostly going with the information outlined in the following site and in discussions with my violin teacher.  From the best I can tell, Viola is considered full size once it is over 15.5" but the definition of full size is also dependent on arms's length.  In my case, I am measuring 27.5" on arm's length and still growing.  I held a 16.5" trial viola on hand in first position and the teacher commented that the position is comfortable and arm posture looks correct.  I played with the 16.5" viola and is comfortable.  So, the 16.5" seems to work for now and help "futuure proof" if my arm grows longer. 

https://www.fiddleheads.ca/shop/violin-sizes-viola-and-violin-size-chart.htm

For the price range, what are the key differences between Chinese or Romanian violas in terms of build/make and the sound from a user perspectives?  Anyone particular brand/model I should avoid?  For the price range, it looks like I am looking for a level up from student viola, more like "intermediate" viola.  

Thanks,

Violin_2018

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At $2,000 you are very much still looking at student instruments.  Intermediate Students.

As everyone else seems to be advising you, don't limit yourself to trying 16.5".  (I don't usually judge by arm length, so I'm not exactly sure how large a person you are, but I disagree a little bit with the general attitude here that 16.5" is "big".  I think, in the viola world, anything between 16-16.5 is "normal" and that back length is somehow only somewhat related to playability.)

And after you narrow it down to an instrument or two, take the instruments out on trial for your teacher to try (or even better, ask your teacher to go shopping with you).

I also emphasize David's advice to try instruments "all the way up".  After you try several instruments in your price range (showing you're serious), ask the shop to show you some of their fancier instruments for fun.  You should notice a big difference between the instruments in the $2,000 range and the instruments in the $15,000 range.  Telling the difference between $2,000 and $5,000 or $15,000 and $30,000 instrument is a fun game and very educational.

Some shops that specialize in your price range won't have fancy instruments.  And shops that specialize in fancy instruments might not have a wide range or intermediate student instruments for you to try.  If you have access to more than 1 shop.  Visit as many as you can.

PS- I can't generalize about Chinese vs. Romanian instruments.  I think your best bet is to find a shop with a good luthier working there who is able to inspect and properly set up these instruments.  A good luthier could have a source in China or Romania that none of us have heard of...

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23 hours ago, Stephen Fine said:

Your only good option is to go to a good shop that deals in a range of instruments in that price range.  For $2,000 you should be able to find something decent at 16.5".

If you're interested in eventually upgrading, you might find 16.3" a more easily re-sellable size.

When I saw this comment, Stephen, I instantly thought of you, and because viola is such a variable sized instrument, I was very interested in what thoughts you have on size.

I have some colleagues who play violas that are under 16, but most of them seem to like 16 1/4. Is there a “most common” size?

Paul Silverthorne’s viola is 17 3/4. It’s the biggest viola I’ve ever seen in person, I have no idea how he manages to play it.

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Plenty of tall people play violin without a problem so I wouldn't worry about having a viola 'big enough'. As others have mentioned just try a bunch of them.

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If your budget is limited, then best advice is to get an instrument that you acknowledge as being temporary. That’s something you can resell fairly quickly for your original purchase cost when you choose to move up.

by all means play the best violas, regardless of size, that you can get in your hands. It is fruitless to describe how an instrument sounds, one must experience it personally. And by playing great instruments you will, and the difference between mediocre and good will become apparent.

you'll also develop a sense of what you like. Jay Haide instruments are excellent choices. I’ve never played a bad one. But they have a very bright setup that doesn’t really appeal to me. Bill Lee instruments have a warmer setup and also sound splendid. By playing good or better instruments you’ll get a sense of what you like and will be better prepared to explore.

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10 minutes ago, PhilipKT said:

I have some colleagues who play violas that are under 16, but most of them seem to like 16 1/4. Is there a “most common” size?

Paul Silverthorne’s viola is 17 3/4. It’s the biggest viola I’ve ever seen in person, I have no idea how he manages to play it.

I think someone like Manfio might have the best sense of things and I think he's addressed the topic before, but, yeah, I think that 16 3/8"  (416 mm) is the sweet spot.  A lot of people would love a great 15.75" viola, but I've played only a few of those with truly excellent sound.  As I mentioned above, playability seems more to do with instrument geometry and maybe weight than the back length.

There's a danger with large violas (and perhaps in viola sound construction in general) tending towards an unfocused "boomy" or "hollow" sound.  There's a danger with small violas tending towards a compressed "nasal" sound without power.  Somewhere in the middle, these tendencies meet to create my ideal viola sound: sweet, nasal, but with power across registers.

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29 minutes ago, PhilipKT said:

Jay Haide instruments are excellent choices. I’ve never played a bad one. But they have a very bright setup that doesn’t really appeal to me.

I think this would vary with how they were set up, who did the set up, and the string choice they made.

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26 minutes ago, Stephen Fine said:

A lot of people would love a great 15.75" viola, but I've played only a few of those with truly excellent sound. 

Interesting comment... and reinforces my decision to only make that size.  The trick is to get "truly excellent sound"... but I like a good challenge.

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46 minutes ago, Stephen Fine said:

I think someone like Manfio might have the best sense of things and I think he's addressed the topic before, but, yeah, I think that 16 3/8"  (416 mm) is the sweet spot.  A lot of people would love a great 15.75" viola, but I've played only a few of those with truly excellent sound.  As I mentioned above, playability seems more to do with instrument geometry and maybe weight than the back length.

There's a danger with large violas (and perhaps in viola sound construction in general) tending towards an unfocused "boomy" or "hollow" sound.  There's a danger with small violas tending towards a compressed "nasal" sound without power.  Somewhere in the middle, these tendencies meet to create my ideal viola sound: sweet, nasal, but with power across registers.

You said you have a Becker Sr. What size is it?

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29 minutes ago, Wood Butcher said:

I think this would vary with how they were set up, who did the set up, and the string choice they made.

Yes of course, but every Haide I’ve played was set up for a very bright sound, presumably because they perceive that that is the preferred sound these days.

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21 hours ago, Don Noon said:

Interesting comment... and reinforces my decision to only make that size.  The trick is to get "truly excellent sound"... but I like a good challenge.

Please!

21 hours ago, PhilipKT said:

You said you have a Becker Sr. What size is it?

14" - I purchased the Becker (which is from the first couple years of the Becker & Son partnership) a few years ago, a decade after my "Widhalm" was stolen in NYC.  It's been a delight to play violin as a mature musician.  It's so much easier than viola and there's a lot of repertoire I didn't get to as a teenager.  I'm getting ready to record a little bit of violin Bach; I've been working to upgrade my audio/video studio recording capability, testing should begin this week.

 

My viola is an Emilio Celani, 16 3/8".  (My Baroque viola by Christopher Bollman after the 1592 Bros. Amati is 17.75")

I've also raved on here about my student's viola by Alessandro Tossani, 16 3/8".

And, years ago, at a viola Congress, I played a roomful of student violas and thought a line offered by Julie Reed-Yeboah was quite lovely and very consistent.  If I recall they were master-made instruments offered for $8,000 (or 7? or 9?) and then copies of that instrument for $4,000 (or maybe they were 3? or 5?)  I think they were 16 1/4", maybe 16 3/8".  I forget.

 

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25 minutes ago, Stephen Fine said:

Please!

15" - I purchased the Becker (which is from the first couple years of the Becker & Son partnership) a few years ago, a decade after my "Widhalm" was stolen in NYC.  It's been a delight to play violin as a mature musician.  It's so much easier than viola and there's a lot of repertoire I didn't get to as a teenager.  I'm getting ready to record a little bit of violin Bach; I've been working to upgrade my audio/video studio recording capability, testing should begin this week.

 

My viola is an Emilio Celani, 16 3/8".  (My Baroque viola by Christopher Bollman after the 1592 Bros. Amati is 17.75")

I've also raved on here about my student's viola by Alessandro Tossani, 16 3/8".

And, years ago, at a viola Congress, I played a roomful of student violas and thought a line offered by Julie Reed-Yeboah was quite lovely and very consistent.  If I recall they were master-made instruments offered for $8,000 (or 7? or 9?) and then copies of that instrument for $4,000 (or maybe they were 3? or 5?)  I think they were 16 1/4", maybe 16 3/8".  I forget.

 

Ok, I thought your Becker was a Viola.

The Brothers Amati you mention is the one that Paul Silverthorne plays. I’ve seen it several times in person and it’s huge. I’m not sure it was originally a viola.

How easy is it to switch back-and-forth between such a large range of instruments?

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34 minutes ago, PhilipKT said:

Ok, I thought your Becker was a Viola.

The Brothers Amati you mention is the one that Paul Silverthorne plays. I’ve seen it several times in person and it’s huge. I’m not sure it was originally a viola.

How easy is it to switch back-and-forth between such a large range of instruments?

Silverthorne plays RAM's 1620 Brother's Amati.  But it's the same 17.75" as my copy of the Ashmolean's 1592.  Goodness!

Mine is quite comfortable to play with the short Baroque neck...

I've never had trouble switching back and forth between instruments.

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2 hours ago, Christopher Jacoby said:

I think the line from Julie was the Meteny/De La Dyle. We carry them at Potters and they are quite good for the price.

Sounds right.  Thanks.  Glad to have the name.  (Are they 16 1/4"?)

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Here my two cents about choosing a good viola, as a maker and player.

Avoid monochrome instruments. Look for many colors and contrast, you can have that only when you have a good dynamic range.

With a good viola you can work with the bow to create colors. In most violas you will change your bowing and nothing will happen.

With a good viola when you draw your bow from the fingerboard towards the bridge increasing the weight you will notice a big change in volume and color of the sound. Just good instruments offer that.
The viola must not choke when you play FFF near the bridge.

Avoid hollow sound, look for a focused sound.

Clarity is important too, when playing quick passages the notes should not mix.

Check the instrument in the upper regions of the C and G strings. You may not be using the 7th positions of the C string now but as you start studying more difficult pieces you will have to do that. Just good violas will sound good in high positions of the C string, in general you will have many wolves and rasped notes there.

Playing comfort: not only the size matters here but also string length, upper bouts width, rib height, weight, feeling "under the chin". Try to play in high positions of the C string.

Look for a quick response too.

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By the way. why we use the metric system for violins and the Imperial one for violas? Violas should go metric too, I think.

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14 hours ago, MANFIO said:

By the way. why we use the metric system for violins and the Imperial one for violas? Violas should go metric too, I think.

I agree! But hey, you and Gabrielle Kundert are the only ones ONLY building violas:D

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