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Karen Allendoerfer

A tale of two violas

May 7, 2007 at 5:27 PM

I enjoyed viola shopping, and now I have not one viola but two, and neither of them is the one I planned to bring home. The place was a bit of a madhouse on a Saturday morning, too, and my 3-year-old got bored and started running around the room while I was trying to play.

I went in search of the Eastman 305 viola outfit, which came highly recommended and was reasonably priced. I was all set, I thought I would get it. I thought I'd be done.

And then, surprisingly, I really didn't like it at all. Everything about it wasn't a good fit for me: the color (much too dark), the sound (too bright, with an edge, not mellow enough--if I wanted that, I'd get a violin), the bridge shape (too flat--kept hitting strings that I hadn't planned on, but she said "the bridge was carefully shaped to match the fingerboard").

They had two other instruments for me to try, an older Eastman model of similar price but more attractive appearance, and a Rudoulf Doetsch, for about $500 more. Naturally, which one did I keep coming back to? The Doetsch.

On one hand, I feel a little manipulated. Wouldn't it be a standard sales technique to put a slightly nicer instrument next to the other two, have it stand out as clearly better, as the "best in class," and thereby tempt the poor sucker (I mean, customer) to spend the extra cash.

But oh well, I'm tempted anyway. The Doetsch is really lovely, lovely color and sound. After playing 3 Bach movements on both it and the OK Eastman, and some solos for young violists, I asked the saleswoman to play something for me too to see if the Doetsch projected or was just too mellow/muted from a distance, and it didn't seem that way. On the contrary, even when she was playing, the low notes were richer and smoother. And projected well. The OK Eastman's were a tiny bit scratchy. I hate scratchy.

There's good accessory news. The Coda Aspire Carbon Fiber bow was great. Indeed, viola bows can actually be easy and smooth to use, and "handle well". Bye-bye brazilwood! And I don't think I need to spend any more for a higher end carbon fiber bow. This one is just fine as my "second last" bow.

And the blue velour interior Bobelock case is also lovely. At first she said, "oh, I think I have a new green one I can get you." "Uh, no. No green!" "But this one is a nice dark green . . ." "Um, please, no green. Blue?" "Here you go." Ahhhh . . .

Information about Doetsch instruments on the web is sketchier than about Eastman instruments. They aren't available on eBay or any cheaper from any other on-line source, and I want the service, expertise, and convenience from the shop anyway, not to mention the trade-up possibilities.

So now I have the Doetsch in the blue case and the OK Eastman in the old green case, on trial for a week. The Doetsch sounds better in my rec room too. I *can* afford the extra $500, and even my husband heard the difference between the two instruments ("less screechy" was his verdict). I think he can be convinced. He even said, "maybe you should just buy the Doetsch and be done with it."

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on May 7, 2007 at 6:16 PM
I agree. Just buy the Doetsch. Follow your heart, and you won't go wrong.
From Anne Horvath
Posted on May 7, 2007 at 7:41 PM
Hey Karen,

One of the shop guys I know is really into the Doetsch instruments. I have only heard the violins (well, being a violinist, I just don't care about violas!), but they are nice. His web page price for Doetsch viola outfits is $2,000, if that gives you some price point perspective.

Also, what is wrong with green cases? My main case is green. A lovely rich Hunter Green. Very suitable for feline nap spot!

From Richard Hellinger
Posted on May 8, 2007 at 12:17 AM
lol, When I bought my new case I had a choice between red and green.. I got red. I just don't like green (exspecially forest green, which was the only green the case came in.)

When I was bow shopping, I asked for a coda bow to try out. Of course (like the sales tactic you mentioned in your blog) they brought out the $200 aspire and the $700 classic. Of course I wanted the classic.

From Mendy Smith
Posted on May 8, 2007 at 5:03 AM
I know time is of the essence and with a 3 year old, challenging to really shop. However, try to play as many violas as you can get your hands on in your price range before choosing one. Take favorites home from the shop and try them for a week. The longer wait will be worthwhile.

Final advice - don't be afraid to try the larger violas (16" +). The size can make a difference in the sound quality, but you have to watch for the comfort factor. If it otherwise sounds great but seems too large under the chin, try it with a different chin-rest/should rest set-up. I'm 5"2' with small hands but handle a 16" fine.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on May 8, 2007 at 5:38 AM
Karen, it sounds like you’ve got good two puppies to play for a while now:)

One thing though I don’t get it is that why is the appearance of a viola important? It’s probably entirely a personal thing, but if you see one that is less attractive than this Doetsch but better sounding and for the same amount of money, would you go for the other one? Just curious…

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 8, 2007 at 11:00 AM
When I was renting I first rented a 16" for about 3 months, and then I exchanged it for a 15.5" and rented that for another few months. Based on that experience, I decided I preferred the 15.5".

I'm 5'4" so I'm not tall either, but I have large hands for my height, and I could play the 16". The intonation wasn't a problem (at least after I practiced for a while), and I could reach the 4th finger without stretching uncomfortably, but somehow the 16" still seemed too big. It was heavy enough that if I practiced for more than about half an hour I started to get the old back tension and pain from clamping down too hard with the chin, my entire arm and wrist froze up, and my vibrato became non-existent.

After playing the 15.5" for a while, that problem seems to have gotten better. I still have to work on vibrato--always will, probably--but it's there. And, switching back and forth between viola and violin is a little easier with a smaller viola. I hadn't been sure that was going to be important to me, but it is. It makes sense, Mendy, since your second instrument is cello, that you might gravitate towards a bigger viola.

My experience with the rentals was that there was a big difference in sound between 15" and 15.5". I tried some 15" and just was not interested, because of the way they sounded. I'm surprised that a half inch makes such a difference, but it seems to.

Yixi, about the appearance, I agree it shouldn't be important. I think if I found an instrument that sounded beautiful but was ugly in appearance, I would get it anyway. And I do think the Doetsch is the only one I've played so far that I like the sound of better than my homely rental "buddy." That's the main reason I'm tempted by it, not so much its appearance.

But there is something about appearance of an instrument that helps motivation. If I like to look at the instrument, I'm more motivated to take it out of the case and practice it. Shallow, I guess, but at this point in my life with the limited practice time I have, every little thing helps.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on May 8, 2007 at 2:41 PM
Being shallow is the last thing would come to my mind when I think of you, Karen. Appearance does have an important role in our life. I’ve been making one-of-a-kind clothing and accessories for the last five years or so and I know how nurturing pretty things can be. When it comes to a music instrument, I guess I’m so obsessed with the sound that I usually just ignore the look. But that could all change. I might go completely crazy the next moment I see a beautiful violin.
From Richard Hellinger
Posted on May 9, 2007 at 2:25 AM
I think everyone has an ideal violin appearance. Mine is light amber color, with even tight spruce grains on the top and a 2 piece medium flamed back.

Though when it comes to tubas I don't care what my instrument looks like. My instrument has about 25% of its laquer and looks like a pile of junk. But my concert tuba (school one) is a yamaha (vs. my holton, the ugly one) and I hat the yamaha.

From Richard Hellinger
Posted on May 9, 2007 at 2:28 AM
lol... I don't Hat the tuba, I Hate it...
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 9, 2007 at 10:54 AM
Yeah, I really like the 2-piece flamed back also.

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