December 4, 2012 at 4:10 AMI know this has been brought up in the forums before, but the discussion seemed to be guesswork. This season, our violists are sitting out for personal reasons, so I, a 1st violinist, decided to fill in for them.
I've noticed several differences, and I've never been one to hold my learnings from the world. I've been playing the 14-inch viola now for nearly two months, so the changes are quite fresh in my mind still.
The models I'm comparing here are probably an unfair comparison, but they're what I've got to work with. The violin is a Mathias Thoma European Hand-Crafted Instruments violin, model 441, and the viola is an E.R. Pfretzschner copy of a 1977 Strad.
Size: Not just a violin with a C string
It's a common myth that the 14-inch viola is a violin with a C string. When I picked up my rental from the shop, I myself wondered if I'd just made a mistake until I made some side-by-side comparisons.
The 14-inch viola is the same length as the full-size (4/4) violin...BUT put it under your chin. It's deeper, measuring from front to back. This requires a shallower shoulder pad.
I'm not sure if this is model-specific (it might be), but the viola I'm renting has a more pronounced arch on the front and back panels. I gather this causes the sound to reverberate differently within the soundbox, producing a darker timbre.
A heavy-duty bow
The next thing I noticed is that the bow is heavier. It's a stronger bow that is designed for getting the right force to rub that C string instead of playing delicately on the violin's E string.
While I'm on the topic of bows, I should mention the rosin used is a darker rosin. This is stickier and helps grab the C string. It's really quite amazing the difference the viola bow and dark rosin make, and I'm considering switching to a viola bow for my 5ing.
& 1 & 2 & 3 & 4!
I'll skip talking about the alto clef. If you can make it out, congratulations! You'll be sawing away in no time. But by the time rehearsal is over, you'll definitely feel it. The 14-inch viola will strain the muscles of the full-size violin player.
Your left hand and arm will tire quickly from the heavier strings (especially if you try to play double-stops on the C and G strings). Your right hand and arm will tire from rubbing the strings harder with a heavier bow, especially if you are playing at a volume that lets a single viola compete against a full section of horns. Your neck, jaw, and shoulder will tire from the thicker instrument and any additional unexpected weight from the viola itself. I advise anyone who has a private instructor to consult them for tips on minimizing unnecessary strain.
Pop goes the fiddle!
"Chicken fiddle", if we want to use the technical country term. Trivia - the cello is the "turkey fiddle", and the upright bass is the "bull fiddle".
That aside, accidents happen. I broke a Ging the other night. [Insert violist joke here.] The only strings I had on me were some Red Label strings I bought about ten years ago when a music shop was having a store closing sale-- my good strings were at home. And wouldn't you know it, a Red Label on a viola has a bright sound compared to the other strings it is outfitted with, as should be expected.
After putting the string on the instrument, I took a close look and noticed the Ging was practically thinner than the Ding. Woah. No wonder the left hand is undergoing so much stress-- with a year's experience on a 5ing, I didn't expect the left hand to have stress issues, but this explained it. The viola is outfitted with viola strings, which are heavier and sound darker. Don't try to put a violin Ging on your viola unless you have to!
So....should I just get a full-size viola, a 14-inch viola, or restring my violin?
That's purely up to you. What are you trying to accomplish? In my case, I think renting a 14-inch made sense. I'm basically squeezing "learn the viola" into 3 months (I didn't want to learn new finger spacing just yet) without sacrificing my violin that I use for side gigs. If you are thinking about becoming a full-time violist and have no rush, you might want to try a full-size, keeping in mind it will probably have a better tonal quality and richer sound. Are you just looking for a no-risk trial and can spare a violin for awhile? Restringing the violin might not be a bad idea, and if you decide to simply drop-tune it a fifth instead, be extremely mindful of how firm your instrument is so you don't damage it permanently.
I hope this clears up some of the myths about 14-inch violas and answers any questions people have about how they compare to violins.
My current violin is a Gliga, as is the viola. The viola is a 16 1/2-inch - and yes, the finger spacing is a bit wider, but I find it only takes a minute or two for my fingers to adjust when switching instruments.
You're right about the thickness - in fact, I'm playing the viola with no shoulder rest at all. You're also right about the weight - my left arm quickly gets tired when playing long passages. Perhaps this is a good way to build upper body strength - I know that when I switch back to my violin, it feels positively tiny and feather-light.
I'm starting to get the hang of reading alto clef, although it was making my brain hurt for a while. I'm even starting to play high passages where not only do I have to shift, but the sheet music changes to treble clef. Whew!
I've already played one concert with the local orchestra I found myself dropped into, and am practising for the next one in a couple of weeks. It's fun to come to a loud passage where I can make the viola really thunder (and necessary too, since there's only one other violist in the orchestra).
Often I find myself in informal situations (jams, etc.) where I improvise harmonies. I'm starting to think like a violist now - rather than pretending I'm playing second violin I'm starting to exploit that lower register. It's like adding dark chocolate to an ice-cream sundae.
The nice thing about playing viola is that there aren't too many of us around, which means we almost always have something to add to a group. When I first showed up at rehearsal with the viola, the other players were delighted. It was almost scary, though, like one of those zombie movies where you're surrounded by people slowly approaching, calling you to join them.
There's one more great perk - all that string quartet repertoire is now open to my little circle of violinists and cellists.
I agree with Charlie on the addictiveness of it-- being the only violist right now, it's fun when we get to a passage that needs the viola, like that trill in the opening of Light Cavalry Overture right after the horns do their fanfare. Yes, the orchestra has definitely been appreciative-- it makes me want to actually buy one of these and keep playing it...it will be a shame to have to turn it in after the season ends!
Cheyne, fun story? Do tell...
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