Is straining to play a big viola worth the effort?

April 21, 2011 at 01:39 AM ·

Any viola teachers out there?  I'm a long-armed guy with only average-sized hands and I'm struggling with the normal stretches on my 42.5cm viola.  I'm making the effort and often I manage not to go flat, but it takes constant effort whenever I go, say, from C to D in first position on the G string or try to play a major third using two fingers in first position.  The last few days I've felt like I'm taming the beast, but is the enterprise really supposed to be like bear-wrestling?  Would I be well advised -- assuming I don't ditch the whole thing -- to play something smaller?

Replies (32)

April 21, 2011 at 02:11 AM ·

 If you are moving from a violin to the viola, even a smaller viola will initially feel uncomfortable - I made this transition (I now play a 16 " viola) and it was quite a few months before I felt that my muscles had stretched and adapted to the larger instrument. The instrument you are playing is HUGE (16 3/4") and unless you're a really big/long armed person, moving to a smaller size would be wise. My two cents.

April 21, 2011 at 03:13 AM ·

I'm 5'2" and play a 16" viola with comfort.  When I switch to violin on occasion, I feel cramped and play sharp.

The trick is to build up strength with an extended left arm (a tea towel under the arm helps in the first few months) and to widen the left hand at the base joints.  This will give you the reach needed to play in tune (not-flat).  It could take a few months to build it up, but once done, the violin will seem tiny in your hands afterwards.  Scales and the Wolfhart & Kruetzer etudes have many good exercises that would help.

April 21, 2011 at 08:26 AM ·

"Is straining to play a big viola worth the effort?"

The answer is definitely NO!!!

If I were to undertake a career (heaven forbid) as a professional viola player again, I would use a 15 inch viola, and never a 16 1/2 ever again!!

April 21, 2011 at 12:02 PM ·

I had numbing of the left hand and arm due to playing my viola when I first started out.  Then I met a someone familiar with Alexander technique.  They ditched my chin rest for a new one, and switched out my shoulder rest.  I was given instruction on how to stand, hold the instrument, correct posture, etc.  Now I have no troubles at all.

---Ann Marie

April 21, 2011 at 12:24 PM ·

I play viola but not persistently. I started to have pain straight down through the top of my shoulder. I might have eventually developed proper strengths, but decided against chancing this. I traded a violin-shaped 16 1/4 for a 15 1/2 with a wide lower bout. The sound is big & round, and the weight rests differently, so no pain. The fingering feels much more natural for me. Not everyone will eventually be able to stretch the hand in the fashion described above. Your basic physiology is a determining factor. Sue  

April 21, 2011 at 01:20 PM ·

As a non-violist, I am interested in the fact that there seems to be quite a range of sizes out there.  What difference does the size make?  With two violas made by the same luthier in basically the same fashion, would the larger one generally sound better?

April 21, 2011 at 01:32 PM ·

 I used to think that with a viola a larger sound box meant a bigger sound ie. there was more air moving around inside the box so that translated into a bigger sound. Then one day I went into a luthier's as I was searching for a bigger sounding instrument. He said the plates were like a pump, and he put his thumbs in the middle and said there must be a bit of flexibility for the pump-action to work, so now I see it working more like a speaker diaphragm. So to me it seems that the most successfully constructed viola would support the string pressure while at the same time having the flexibility in the plates, so in this case the volume of the enclosure is not necessarily the most important factor.

April 21, 2011 at 02:09 PM ·

As a violist (primarily) who has played many different violas over the years, I would compare the effect on sound caused by size difference to be similar to the difference in sound between a 3/4 violin and a 4/4 violin.  The 3/4 violin might sound lovely, but the quality will certainly be different, and the sound of the bottom string in particular might be a bit more compromised. 

Similarly, building a small viola with a deep-sounding C string is probably quite difficult.   

Luthiers will have their own, more technical answers, I'm sure, but that's my two cents. 

April 21, 2011 at 03:32 PM ·

Peter, Could you please give us some of the reasons for your emphatic "No"?   

April 21, 2011 at 03:36 PM ·

It is absolutely not worth it ..... unless you don't mind wearing your body out prematurely...

April 21, 2011 at 03:41 PM ·

Tom, violins vary, too, in length, width of upper or lower bout, amount of arching in belly, etc., just not as radically or noticeable as w/violas Also some violas are violin-shaped, others less so, by virtue of wide lower bout & narrow upper bout. The viola is just less-standardized than the violin. Up to a point, a bigger viola has a bigger sound. More penetrating, I guess I'd say. But a very good 15 1/2 trumps an OK 16 1/2. It's kind of neat, really. There is experimenting going on with violas and string basses, but not so much w/violins & cellos. Sue   

April 21, 2011 at 04:05 PM ·

Sue - thanks so much for the information.  I know that violins have some variation (I happen to have a Maggini copy which is slightly larger than normal), but have never thought that was particularly important.  HOwever, given the much larger possible variation for violas, I was curious as to the importance.

April 21, 2011 at 04:11 PM ·

Lawrence, there is a real potential for injury, and this type of injury can take a long time to heal.  Do you have a teacher?  If not, is there someone around you could get at least a couple of lessons with?  There may be things you can do to make this easier and more comfortable- making sure your elbow is where it ought to be, correcting the angle of your hand, etc.  Violas, especially ones of this size, are less forgiving.  Technical glitches that you can let slide with a violin can cause trouble with a viola.


April 21, 2011 at 05:25 PM ·

It would be worth injecting into the discussion that the volume of air in the body can only reinforce the sound waves generated by the plates (the top and the back). The bigger the plates (within reason) the more power, not the bigger the body air cavity. The cavity can only reinforce the frequency for which it is tuned. The smaller the air cavity, the higher the pitch reinforced. As violas get smaller, this leads to the diminished sound of the C string.

Notice that none of this has anything to do with the difficulties of playing. That's likely due to the length of the body, which length determines the string length, which determines the neck length. Typically, violists who come to me for a specialized instrument are dealing with obstacles caused by their arm length, hand span, or finger length.

The classical viola is as beautifully proportioned as the violin, and the ratios of width, length, and depth represent a well-thought-out concept. When a luthier begins to alter these dimensions and ratios, he can quickly get into dangerous ground. For a more detailed explanation, go to and click on the tab for "ergonomic viola." Do not play in pain, and don't practice frustrated!

April 21, 2011 at 05:40 PM ·

 OK, so if it's clearly the movement of the plates, is it possible that smaller plates can move further vertically proportionally to their size, to say, match larger plates moving less far vertically? 

April 21, 2011 at 05:43 PM ·

Lawrence Proulx

Peter, Could you please give us some of the reasons for your emphatic "No"?


I can only say that I spent about 30 years playing violas that were about 16 1/2 inches in all sorts of orchestras - symphony, light, chamber, opera - and it was not a nice experience. Damned hard instrument to play, gave no pleasure or reward, and generally unpleasant.

If I were starting out again I would try and avoid the viola and play the fiddle, and if I had to play the viola the bigest size would have to be 15 inches.

Ether that or do something else.

April 21, 2011 at 05:55 PM ·

Hi Lawrence, 

The other thing to consider when 'sizing' a viola is the stop length (distance between bridge and upper bout) as it can vary the string length (distance between bridge and nut) on instruments of the same back length. I just bought a viola (which I can't stop raving about) made by Grubaugh & Siefert (recommended to me by Jeff Holmes,) which is modeled after a Brescian (Gasparo da Salo, Maggini) pattern. The Brescian patterns have f-holes placed a bit higher (and/or are longer) than the Cremonese pattern yielding a shorter stop length, and the potential for a shorter string length (the original ergonomic viola.) My old viola, modeled after an A. Guarneri pattern, had a back length of 411 mm and string length of 378 mm. My new G&S has a back length of 427mm (with a deep, juicy C string) and a string length of 363 mm, which makes a huge difference in 'playability.' Even with a longer back, everything is easier to play, even in higher position playing which often requires extensions. So if you have longish or even average length arms with smaller hands (or big difference in length between pinky and middle finger,) I'd highly recommend finding a Brescian pattern instrument made by a luthier who is aware of the issues a player faces (and is willing to do something about it :) Of the larger instruments I have tried (>419mm) they have all had better C strings, and a quicker response in general, i.e. they were easier for the bow arm to play.
You might also try some setup changes to help reach with the pinky. One strategy I've been trying lately is to bring the fiddle to my pinky rather than wrapping my arm under and around the fiddle. (Check out this discussion and tell me what you think.)


April 21, 2011 at 08:28 PM ·

Lisa Van Sickle, Thanks for your concern about injury, but that's a real can of worms with me.I'll spare you the long story.  I can confidently say, however, that all the problems of headache, neck pain and jaw pain arose with the violin, before I turned to the  viola.  I don't feel as if the stretching of the left hand at the viola is causing any pain: it's just a constant significant effort.  But the pain issues threaten at any moment to stop the whole enterprise -- violin or viola -- dead, which makes investing in a more reasonably sized viola -- as you, Jeewon Kim, suggest -- too wild a gamble.

Robert Spear,  I intend to resist your vertical temptation right to the end.  Just read another article in the NY Times about the ill effects on health of sitting down. 


April 22, 2011 at 02:09 AM ·


Which side are you feeling the pain?  Right or left (or both)?  Since it started with violin and not specifically a viola thing, it could be a tension issue with how you hold your instrument and/or your setup.  I struggled with the same issue for years until I got the right setup for me.  Having your teacher, an AT person, or doctor find the source of the pain and help develop a solution is worth the money. 

April 22, 2011 at 02:26 AM ·

Some players do fine with larger violas, and others don't. All other things being equal, a larger viola (up to a point) has the potential for a larger, deeper, and more complex sound, with more "core".

Andrew Holland made an interesting and pertinent metaphor, comparing the sound of a full-sized violin with that of a 3/4.

April 22, 2011 at 09:19 AM ·

There are some interesting experimental violas out there that aren't so bad to play on. 

Hiroshi Iizuka made his name largely from scooping the shoulders out of his.  Emmanuel Vardi had one and it sounded lovely. 

Ed Maday made one for my wife that is 15.5" or a little less, with a Brescian-looking top (rather flat) but very deep ribs and a pronounced arch in the back.  To the surprise of everyone who's played or heard it, it does sound very much like a viola in spite of its length.

At some point, though, you do have to decide what kind of viola sound you want.  I heard the Takacs quartet not too long ago and was struck by the degree to which the three upper strings blended and sounded distinct from the cello.  Not that the viola was silvery, but it wasn't one of those miniature-cello-sounding things at all.  More mezzo soprano than contralto.  [Did someone on the board say that violins and viola were all Guads?]  Anyway, it wasn't quite what I was expecting, but it wound up being the best quartet recital I've heard in many years.

April 22, 2011 at 09:51 AM ·

"I heard the Takacs quartet not too long ago and was struck by the degree to which the three upper strings blended and sounded distinct from the cello.  Not that the viola was silvery, but it wasn't one of those miniature-cello-sounding things at all.  More mezzo soprano than contralto.  [Did someone on the board say that violins and viola were all Guads?] "


Yes, it was probably me. I know the quartet and the three upper strings all play on G B Guadaninis. The first fiddle (Edward) has a stunning instrument - a bit battered on the belly - but a wonderful sound and easy to play. The viola I realised I had seen long before Gerri ever set eyes on it - because it was owned by Watson Forbes here in London when I was studying with him. It had a huge sound, but I can't recall its size. (Probably 16 inch?)

The cello is a Serafin - a Venetian maker. It has a huge sound too.

Of course it goes without saying that these four musicians would sound wonderful on almost anything, but the instruments they have work very well and produce a good balance and blend. Especially with such wonderful players.

April 23, 2011 at 11:59 PM ·

DO NOT USE AN OVERSIZED VIOLA!!!!! I did it one time for 5 months, and I seriously screwed my hands up. Trust me, I study viola, go for the smaller one. It will save you a lot of pain and fustration.

April 24, 2011 at 01:16 AM ·

I've been making only violas for 6 years now. I made many big (17, 16  1/2) violas, they sounded ok, but I am making smaller violas now and I think they sound as good as the big ones. My viola test driver thinks the same, and we did many tests in the concert room. 

If you can get about the same sound in a smaller instrument the player will prefer it over a bigger instrument. I recently sold two small 15 1/2 violas I made to players of the Gewandhaus Leipzig, they are very tall and their former instruments were very big (more than 17 inches). One of the players told me that  playing Wagner's  Meister Singer (more than 5 hours of playing) was a pain, and they were worried about future problems due to playing big violas.

This is one of my small violas in the Gewandhaus Leipzig:

so, don't struggle with a big instrument. It is good remembering that confort is not only related to the viola body length since rib heigh, weight, string length, model etc. may have a huge influence in confort. 

April 24, 2011 at 03:34 AM ·

That is gorgeous!

April 24, 2011 at 04:35 PM ·

Thanks Stephen!

August 11, 2015 at 05:45 PM · Before this summer, I would have 'pooh-poohed' the idea that someone could get hurt from playing a larger viol; or I blithely thought that 'they should know better'- and (being a man of a certain era) if they weren't big guys, with long arms, and the shoulders to handle the 'real' instrument, they deserved whatever they got.

Well, I'm here to say, I was wrong. I have a 16.5" Tertis style viola, and only played it occasionally, until last year, when I resumed serious study to play it during my 'golden years.' I began to play more regularly, and noticed that 'Bertha' was not as comfortable, or manouverable as she had been, a decade earlier. I often demurred in the HS where I taught Strings, playing my violin using Violin 3 parts, just to be able NOT to play 'Bertha.'

Then, this summer, I attended a 'summer camp' for avocational adult string players. I brought only Bertha, and played her for three days straight. Great Camp, but I was playing for 2-3 HOURS a day. And my wrist and shoulder repaid me for my folly. After the camp, I developed a pain in my Left Shoulder, that was the most excruciating agony I've ever experienced. A month of such pain, multiple chiropractic adjustments, arm isolation, not playing anything (I couldn't even lift my arm to play LH on the piano) and I realized, even warming up, being 'careful' and all the rest, don't matter once you hit 'a certain age.' And my size didn't help. I'm 6'3", with very large shoulders, a 35" arm length on my shirt sleeve, and large 10th-spanning hands on the piano.

Finding out that viola teachers I used to study with, had to retire from Symphony careers because of similar pain; that even players with 'ergonomic violas' suffer from Carpal Tunnel, shoulder issues, and viola elbow (whatever that is) have made me a believer. I now have a copy of the book 'Playing [Less] Hurt.' I'm shopping for a smaller/lighter viola, you betcha.

What I've learned from this experience is that the 'right viola' for your ears, may not be the 'correct' viola: for your body, your wrist, hand, elbow, shoulder, or neck. And NOTHING is worth pain, not even great music. Either find another instrument through which you can communicate, (Piano, guitar, or autoharp) or find a viola that will not give you pain. Life is too short, your body is too important, and Music- yes, even music - is not worth such suffering. Thank God, there are now so many 'ergonomic' viola options out there, one of them should/could be the right solution for you.

August 11, 2015 at 06:47 PM · If you must play a big viola, play it like a da spalla. But doing so will probably get you kicked out of an orchestra in no time.

August 11, 2015 at 10:34 PM · Laurence, don't!

Even on my 15-3/4" viola, the combination of stretched arm and widely spaced fingers is disastrous for the tendons in the forearm ("Viola Elbow" from having to hold down viola strings with the pinky), and for the shoulder and neck.

Luis Manfio makes superb 15-1/2 inch violas with a warm but forward tone. As they are hand made, he would doubtless do one with less than his usual string length of 14.5-14.75 inches.

Robert Spear has an "ergonomic" design with shorter string length, And a warm but clear tone.

Ann Cole has a 2-cornered model inspired by the Lyra Viola in the Ashmolean Mueum, Oxford, England, as does my luthier Bernard Sabatier in Paris. Mine has a 15-3/4" body, with 14" string length, and a deep, broad resonance across the four strings, with no lack of power. He had just finished a 15" version, made of poplar wood, and apparently a great success as it was sold before I could try it!

August 11, 2015 at 10:35 PM · Oops!

August 11, 2015 at 11:04 PM · I can't get over that this one came back to life. I found I had weighed in with questions in 2011. Since the thread initially died, I have started playing viola with a 15 1/2 inch, which works well for me. And, I know a couple of folks in my orch who were proud to have the biggest d*mn viola out there and had a good deal of trouble with injury. I suspect that there is truth to what one post said in that a good 15 1/2 probably sounds much better than a so-so 16 or 16 1/2. The bottom line is probably that unless you are really good and can get top of the line, comfort and avoiding strain probably count for more in how you sound than the shear size of the instrument.

August 11, 2015 at 11:30 PM · It seems by your description that you are struggling with a big instrument, try to move to a smaller viola, 40.8 (16 inches) is a very good size. 42.5 is already considered a big viola.

With time many violists develop problems in their arms and shouders due to playing big violas.

Bear in mind also that body size is not the only thing to be considered, string length, weight of the instrument, rib height, upper bouts width have to be considered too.

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