Thinking 'bout some firewood...
Hey viola players out there! It's already one year that I'm struggling with the idea about joining you. First time I tried one of these hunky dinosaurs made by my Luthier, I was lost. Problem is: his instruments are way out my prize range. "Entry level" instruments I tried yet (1-1,5k) did work fine from the technical point of view, but missed the sexappeal of that sound digging deep down into your guts. And he's not on stock with instruments in a prize range I would regard as reasonable (probably around 5k).
I have to go for viola hunting somewhere else. As I observed violas do not sell as easy as violins, at least where I live Violists are rather exotic, and even a very good instrument for a very attractive price may sit in the shelf for quite a long time. But I'd like to maintain the chance for an upgrade later on, if I should run into too much money eventually. So I kindly ask your advice on what I should be looking for, not only concerning tonal quality and craftsmanship, but also other factors that might influence the instrument's resaleability.
Yesterday was the first time in my life I even touched a viola. I was in a Sam Ash music store in New Haven (they mostly sell guitars but have a few stringed instruments and lots of band instruments). I tried a Carlo Robelli (their store brand) viola and liked it a lot. It was priced $899, had a nice deep sound and felt great in the hand. As a violinist I was still surprised how much further apart the notes were on the fingerboard, but I enjoyed stretching fingers and moving left hand to hit them. The wood was a beautiful dark with nice tiger-stripes on the back, a lot like my older violin's stripes. I have zero advice on violas and zero refinement in identifying a good one, but I'll just say there was nothing firewood about it and I am sure that one of these days I will get a viola and add it to my collection of instruments I'm trying to learn. That will be a beautiful day!
The market for viola as a second instrument is in a really bad shape, at least here in Canada. There are simply no good instruments for not too much money.... Used instruments are often bigger than 16,5 '.
Good bow... is already there. Not a really really really good one, but quite a decent one. Good enough.
I already considered an instrument from china or romania, i know one can get a lot of quality for the money. But in the end it would turn out even harder to resell it than a german or french or even a czech one...
Take a look at Luis Claudio Manfio violas because if I was to buy a nice one he has the most beautiful ones I have ever seen. And not just a few but every one of them.
The maker of my primary viola, Charles Woods, won an award for tone for one of his early violas back in (I think) 1994 at the Arizona convention of the VSAAI. He made my viola (his #6) in 1996. He made his "final" viola (according to his local newspaper) in 2016. In all he only made 12 violas in his violin-making career that has included 3 cellos, 12 violas and 86 violins (the last - so far in 2017). He is a retired mechanical engineer who took up violin making as a hobby in his 40s and turned it into a vocation after retiring at 55 (around 1990 or '91).
I got my Ming Jiang Zhu workshop viola a few years ago. Great sound, real nice chocolatey C-string sound. Not super playable but pretty good -- hard for me to judge because primarily I play violin. Much better with Obligato strings (it came with Dominants). Also jujube pegs were replaced with Wittner Finetune pegs. With Cadenza 3-star bow, gear pegs, Bobelock case, Wittner chin-rest and strings probably I paid about $4700 altogether. Viola alone was $3500. Our local luthier Patrick Toole (Toole Studios, Roanoke Virginia) makes really great-sounding, nicely playable violas, but I think they're in the $9k range, more than you want to spend, but a great value for the quality of instrument you're getting -- fully bench made.
I've had a bit of luck purchasing violas off craigslist and at estate sales. The craigslist one was German, paid $175 for it and sold it for $4500. The estate sale one was in my neighborhood. I missed the violins which went for $100 each -- three of them -- and bought the viola for the same price. Sold it for $9K. It was Italian, made by a well known luthier. Hate to think what the violins were because the deceased played in the Sacramento Symphony, had no near relatives and a distant cousin came from back east and basically gave stuff away so he could sell the house in one week.
I do think that smaller violas are easier to sell, for what that's worth. My current viola is 16-3/8" and sounds great, I'm very happy with it. I've been trying to sell a 16-7/8" for some years now - it sounds amazing but is too big for many (most?) players. Next in importance for selling is of course sound, and perhaps aesthetics. It is sometimes hard to know which one plays the bigger role in selling an instrument in the lower price ranges. One viola I know about that is IMO a bargain is a John Honeycutt instrument for sale at Robertsons in Albuquerque. It is 16-3/16 and sounds very nice, and I think it is priced at $2500 and has been there for years. The only problem is that it is not particularly attractive. So, it would not be easy to sell, despite the smaller size and quite good sound.
Thomas, I hear you... Maybe I should focus more on private sales. Especially because I have been really lucky with bow shopping this way, if I had bought bows from the same makers at a dealer I would have had to pay three to four times as much than a did. Only drawback is that one has to travel a lot to try out the instruments. Sure it is easier to walk into a shop and look what they have.
... and if one buys an instrument that was sitting in it's shelf since years, it is obvious that it will be hard to resell again without maximum loss. So if one buys something like that, then only with the guarantee that the seller would take it back in case of an upgrade.
Now then... Smaller violas sell easier. Good sounding and easy to play violas sell easier. Beautiful violas sell easier. Something else? (e.g. price range, origin,... )
I have found that with a 16-inch (400 mm corpus) viola with a 375 mm vibrating string length the left-arm extension and the finger spacing seem to be exactly the same in the viola's 3rd position as in a 4/4 violin's 1st position. The proportionally extra-wider finger spacings in the viola's 1st position and the narrower spacings at higher positions should be very familiar to any violinist who plays in multiple positions.
When I started playing viola one of the first things I noticed was that all of my first-finger-first-position notes were sharp. You'd think with wider spacing the tendency would be to play too close to the nut, but I found just the opposite. I had to re-calibrate my left elbow to find first position farther away from my chin.
Victor, the problem with longer string is that one can hardly play in tune in 1st position; try to play an octave double stop - f you do not have long fingers and wide palms, it would be impossible to do it without injuring yourself. All the jokes about viola players may in fact have some ground - people pick a larger viola and then can not play in tune!
Guess I'm lucky! I now find 1st position octaves easier on viola!
Rocky, I do understand your concerns. But from years long piano playing I'm used to stretching, so for myself it is rather like Andrew said - it feels easier on viola. And mine is 16 2/3 inch / 42,3 cm back length, so not the very smallest one, although I'm not tall.
A few violas later...
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