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Popular Viola Size?


GeorgeH
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15.5" to 16.5" is a common range.  up to 17" is pretty common.  My favorite is about 16" or 407mm.  The design of the instrument makes a difference as well.  Brescian design instruments tend to have shorter string lengths and allow you to play a bigger instrument comfortably.

https://helenviolinmaker.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Transcript-of-talk-to-Lutherie-2006.pdf

https://helenviolinmaker.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Transcript-of-talk-to-Chets-viola-day-Jan-04.pdf

 

These two articles are quite useful I think.

 

DLB

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Thanks for these comments and the references. The viola that I am considering has an LOB of 39.7 cm (15 5/8”) and a string length: 36.1 cm. (14 ¼”). It is a Cremonese model, not Brescian.

I am a violin player, not a violist, so on-the-small-side might be the most comfortable for me.

I read somewhere here that viola size seems be trendy, and swings back and forth between bigger and smaller.

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I would say 16” is the size that is most in demand currently. Taller players will often ask for larger models, although shorter players are more likely to play violas that many would consider too big for them. Last year a customer not much taller than 5 feet came in with a 17” viola she’d been happily using for a rather long time. 

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Around 16.25 seems to be a sweet spot. with a string length of 14.5-14.75 (ideal for most common standard strings). Everything I currently play is significantly larger than that, but I see a lot of good instruments around that size and at some point I will probably downsize to that.

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1 hour ago, GeorgeH said:

Thanks for these comments and the references. The viola that I am considering has an LOB of 39.7 cm (15 5/8”) and a string length: 36.1 cm. (14 ¼”). It is a Cremonese model, not Brescian.

I am a violin player, not a violist, so on-the-small-side might be the most comfortable for me.

I read somewhere here that viola size seems be trendy, and swings back and forth between bigger and smaller.

That might make a convenient size for a violinist who plays viola occasionally. An old friend of mine, Andres Cardenes, played the cornerless 16” viola that Joshua Beyer made for me. He had Josh make him pretty much the same instrument at 15.75”. I even had a piece of spruce I got at the same time and same supplier the one for mine. Andres loves the viola and uses it to play Mozart Sinfonia Concertante and other times he needs a viola. 
 

DLB

 

cardenes-viola-pictures.jpg?w=390&h=

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9 hours ago, Christopher Jacoby said:

The Primrose is 15 7/8" and is sometimes bandied as ideal. I find 16 1/8" about playable for everyone...

Hi Christopher! Please correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the Primrose Guarneri (that he used from '54 on) 41.3 cm (16 1/4" scant)?  As I recall it's the A & H Amati (cut down replaced head) he owned earlier that was smaller (39.8 cm). It was donated by the then-current owner to a local (to me) university many years ago... and Roberto Diaz acquired it from that institution... Is that the one you're referring to? 

That altered Amati model is being used by some makers currently, and seems popular with players desiring a smaller viola, but the size range I most often place is 16" to 16 1/4", though I recently had a 40 cm (15 3/4") Giulio Gigli in my shop that I thought was wonderful.

ex-Primrose Amati as it was 20 some odd years ago

PrimroseAmativlaback (1).jpg

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16 hours ago, Jeffrey Holmes said:

Hi Christopher! Please correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the Primrose Guarneri (that he used from '54 on) 41.3 cm (16 1/4" scant)?  As I recall it's the A & H Amati (cut down replaced head) he owned earlier that was smaller (39.8 cm). It was donated by the then-current owner to a local (to me) university many years ago... and Roberto Diaz acquired it from that institution... Is that the one you're referring to? 

 

Ah! Thank you Jeff. I stand corrected.

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"Too big" or "too small" would be based to some degree on what type of tone you want, as well as how big of an instrument you want to deal with physically.  Naturally, the maker makes a difference as well.  One of the weakest, thinnest sounding violas I've heard was over 17".

I only play the viola for a few days after I finish one.  For several reasons, I only make one model, 40cm, and try to get whatever I can out of it.  One thing that can be gotten out of the smaller size is a little more power on the open C string, due to the location of the air resonance.

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40.5 cm is a good size. (So you can round the figure up to 41 or down to 40. ^_^)
 

But some violists can be pretty opinionated about the size and 2-3mm difference to what they think is perfect might make them reject an instrument. 
 

I don’t know, somehow the most popular size depends also on where you are. I have seen quite different opinions in Japan and in Europe or the US. While in Japan 41.5cm is ‘too big’, it is perfect in the US.

Regardless I found it very interesting to talk to a viola player in an opera orchestra. He was telling me that since he got a small German 39.5cm viola he is a happy man. For him it was always a sort of torture to play a 4 hour long Wagner opera on a bigger size viola.

Soloists on the other hand have the tendency to go for bigger sized violas.

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Mr Cardenes is a beast. Also an amazing teacher where the expectation to hear him work is almost too large.

Depending on the modern string set, I think, that the sound of a reasonable 15.5 inch ( roughly 395mm ) instrument is what might sound like a viola depending on the expectations of most. Otherwise, I am looking far and wide for smaller instruments that sound "viola" like. The c- strings tested are generally broken strings from larger violas, re- tied or cut. Each smaller instrument requires a bit of experimentation. Adults will rarely play something as small as 14" ( 356mm ) but a friend learned to play the unaccompanied Bach a 5th lower.

So for a reasonable price, the 15.5in might be the smaller end of an optimum. And this from the listener standpoint. There are 15in and smaller instruments of various body shapes and rib heights where the player might find great satisfaction in how the instruments sounds and feels to them. And often the joy of playing is for one's self.

I do not have an Amati family instrument of any size, so given a pricepoint, purchased what was considered the best sound that suited many periods of classical music and my somewhat pushy playing style and it was roughly 16 3/8in ( closer to that 415mm. ) The instrument is not easy to play, as it dislikes being "pushed" or forced, but would be heard clearly in most any sections, any octave. The upper bout is a little wide so the Mozart SC is difficult to play with violin like fluidity with my shorter arms. There are little bumps in the shifts unless the chin is placed on the right side ( correct side? ) of the tail piece. I learned it in Eb so play it in Eb. With thinner gut strings or the Cantiga medium lights, it can be tuned up 1/2 step.

That instrument can be voiced to sound warmer but different bows certainly helps. I spent the early years playing ( borrowed ) 16.5in early 20th century Italian Strad- like instruments and survived due to playing only music that people were willing to pay to hear. I played a run of Das Rheingold and could barely walk back to the car at the end of the performances due to the back pain. Sitting was not so bad but walking back with a Gordge- ish case turned me into a hunchback for several weeks looking for carpeted floors to lie on. But having to tune larger intervals and leaps on newer compositions, I gave back the instruments with great thanks. Granted, the older instruments blended better and have had some violinists nostalgically asking about their whereabouts. Sometimes at every rehearsal...

The newer instrument is a maker specific shape and despite the body length the string length is still shorter by a few millimeters for about net shortening of 4-6mm which is enough to mostly play louder and have a range of expression. It can play a really loud pianissimo. The equivalent of a stage whisper. I have to be more precise to voice every pitch, but the maker tolerates my set ups, and rolling his eyes, says with a Rodney Dangerfield drawl, "sounds good on you!" 

I can not get larger examples of the true Tertis models to play well, though have heard many excellent players sound very good. There are many Tertis inspired examples whether true or imagined or mis- labeled, and some have also been very good.  

Many approx. 16" models are excellent at so many price points. There was one 15 7/8" that would have made me into a  bad Michael Tree impersonator and dozens of living maker 16 1/8 and 1/4" that I have learned to played better than the earlier Italians.

And this instrument will be likely be passed on in about a decade because it is still a little too large. I do have to constantly manage the bow and try not to squeeze, unless required, but am generally satisfied with how it allows me to integrate with so many players. It does bite back.

The larger the instrument, the heavier the load. A good shoulder rest should be considered. I play mostly without one, but have a modified Peter Mach model on strenuous programs.

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1 hour ago, GoPractice said:

Mr Cardenes is a beast. Also an amazing teacher where the expectation to hear him work is almost too large.

 

It’s been almost 50 years now but he and I suffered through algebra class together ! He was our concert master and I was waaaay in the back of the second violins. He was always really kind to me.

DLB

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4 hours ago, GeorgeH said:

Thanks for all the replies. I think I am going to stick with violins.

NO No no... try it. I am not suggesting you will like the experience, but it will make you a better violinist. Almost Guaranteed. I have violists play violin and almost all violin students capable of he time to play viola. We'll get Mr Fine to coach you.

Forum suggestions aside, if you have a favorite shop ( do you have a relationships? ) try borrowing some instruments.

To be specific, one's relationship to the violin g- string will change for the better. Playing viola strings will allow you to pull better tone, achieve better slower bow speed control, better arm weight control resulting in better structural support through the back muscles. Better motion?

Also, the re- appreciation of the e- string will make you pickier in what it is that you might want to achieve.

These insights do not occur immediately, but through the duration of practice most of my students continue to play viola with only a handful becoming permanent violin- only types.   

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Don't do that! Playing the viola can be really rewarding. Rather than worry about "popular" sizes for the viola, just find an instrument that you like that you can also play fairly comfortably. It is true that when I was growing up, larger violas were in vouge perhaps because they generally sounded best, and that now people are usually searching for instruments in the 16" and below sizes. I've played on instruments from 15-1/4" (a lovely 1775 Gagliano) to a 16-7/8" John Honeycutt. My current instrument is a 2001 Bronek Cison at 16-7/16" which sounds incredible. I'm 6'1" by the way... 

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I was actually not necessarily considering a viola to be an instrument that I would personally play very often. That would have been a side benefit. I was considering a particular viola by a particular maker to add to my collection. Just as I don't buy any violins greater than 360mm, I did not (do not) want to buy a viola if would be difficult to sell in the future because of its size.

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1 hour ago, GeorgeH said:

 Just as I don't buy any violins greater than 360mm, I did not (do not) want to buy a viola if would be difficult to sell in the future because of its size.

All violas are difficult to sell in the future because of the size ...

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On 4/27/2022 at 11:06 PM, Dwight Brown said:

It’s been almost 50 years now but he and I suffered through algebra class together ! He was our concert master and I was waaaay in the back of the second violins. He was always really kind to me.

DLB

Professor Brown,

If you have a working relationship with Mr Cardenes, my goodness... This is my Kevin Bacon story:

My teacher's associate from their conservatory string department chair, was an anchor for a major orchestra over decades, whose student was someone I worked/ coached with, went to work with Cardenes. They told me that he was the best " teacher/ instructor/ mentor " they had experienced. Of course, initially I was selfishly sad...

Though he was popular in a very critical market, Pittsburgh ( while Cleveland is brutal, ) I was surprised to hear he was leaving. I spent a little time in the Midwest to better my knowledge. I am old because Detroit was one of the cities. So heard that, still hear, that so many loved him.

Love your posts. 

 

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