Ideal viola size?

January 17, 2013 at 03:47 PM · Unlike it's close sister the violin, the viola has always been quite arbitrary when questioning it's size; after all, there is no distinct one-size-fits-most like the violin. However, what do you guys perceive as to be the most standard size for the instrument? As I am upgrading from a 15.5" to a larger viola, I'm slightly curious on what size I should be more vigilant of on the markest. The longest that my hands will be able to handle is probably 16.25".

Yes, I have been posting quite a lot these last two weeks haha.

Replies (25)

January 17, 2013 at 10:00 PM · Personally, my viola is 17" and I could probably go a bit higher to a 17.5" although that would be a bit of a stretch. :D (Very punny!)

Typically, the larger the instrument you play, the better it is. The largest common size is around 17.5". The generally accepted norm is 16.5." If you could easily reach 16.25" and are planning to get a good viola to last you, I would strongly suggest taking the jump to a 16.5" viola. You will get a noticeably better sound.

That being said, it also depends a lot upon your particular instrument. Smaller violas can sound great if they are made well, and a Tertis model eliminates some of the problems with volume and tone. A larger viola can also sound very bad, so it all depends a lot upon which viola you like.

Bottom line: just go for the one that has good tone, projection, response, and playability.

January 17, 2013 at 10:56 PM · We (violists) need be concerned not only about finger spacing, but finger action. Can we hold the strings sufficiently firmly for a clear, singing tone? Can we get a warm, expressive vibrato on any string, with any finger, in any position? All this with an inclined hand at the end of an outstretched arm! Is not intensity of expression just as important as depth of tone? Is a dry, stiff "contralto" sound better than a vibrant, shimmering "mezzo"?

Try Manfio's site: he has 17" and 15.5" violas, all with a fabulous sound! (No, I don't hold shares in his workshop!)

January 18, 2013 at 04:33 AM · From your neck to your fingertips--a too-long viola can cause damage in any of the areas covered by that distance. If you have to hyperextend at the shoulder, you will do damage, just to name one example.

It's not all about size--it's about the one that lets you be most dextrous and powerful....and many smaller violas have wonderful sounds.

There are other significant dimensions to violas besides length: width of bouts (particularly lower, which can 'compensate' for length), body thickness, arching--the variables are many.

At the same time, some 17" violas are easier to play than smaller--each instrument is different.

January 18, 2013 at 06:26 AM · Way back in history there were two distinct kinds of viola, the "Contralto" and the "Tenor". The legacy of that is there are two distinct ideas as to the "true viola sound". Players of concertos such as William Primrose favoured the Andrea Guarneri instruments which are slightly broader in the beam than all but two of the Stradivaris. Players wanting a more 'cello-like sonority would look for a bigger instrument, but would find the 17-inch Montagnanas and such crippling to play - unless played 'cello fashion. A compromise was the Tertis model, which has dropped out of use of late - this aimed at a broad soundbox but a not-to-long body and a comfortable stop.

An internet search will throw up lots of makers who wil now make an "Andrea Guarneri" model. Depending on which particular prototype, the body length is usually about 41cms - a fraction over 16 inches.

Personally, I have never found satisfaction with a viola smaller than 16 inches, but that might just be bad luck.

My own viola is a 41cm. "Strad model" made by Guido Trotta of Cremona - great as a violinist's viola. The same maker embarked recently on a 41cm model similar to the Andrea Guarneris - actually based on the "Mahler" Strad viola which is of similar dimensions to the Amati and Guarneri "Contralto" instruments.

Contact me directly and I could send photos.

A similar viola SHOULD allow virtuoso facility in the playing without sacrificing too much "C" string depth.

January 18, 2013 at 04:50 PM · What is the drawback to a Tertis wide body? Does it make bowing the A string too difficult? Or is it simply an odd tonality for a viola?

Given Lionel Tertis' rep as a viola player par excellance, I would have thought his viola of choice would have become more widely accepted?

I have a 15.5" Eastman VA100 the way to dip my toes into the viola pool...

January 18, 2013 at 05:22 PM · I have a 15.5 and I love it. You have to go with what your hands can do comfortably. Tertis models are great.

I think people generally try to get violas that are too large. I tried a 16.5 and nearly killed my hands from hyperextending.

January 18, 2013 at 05:25 PM · "Given Lionel Tertis' rep as a viola player par excellance, I would have thought his viola of choice would have become more widely accepted?"

I don't know why making this model went out of fashion; but I did find out that Tertis was inclined to fall out with the makers who made the violas for him, in particular Richardson and Saunders. Saunders then worked with Peter Schidlof (of the Amadeus Quartet) to develop a model more like Strad, yet larger than the the classic originals. These attained popularity amongst English orchestral players.

Another factor seems to have been that when making Tertis model violas Richardson was careful to keep the string-length as per the manufacturers recommendations; but then Tertis got someone to produce "official" drawings for him who got that essential factor wrong !!! Presumably some later Tertis models didn't work as well as hoped.

I can see no reason why a viola made according to Tertis' ideas shouldn't work well - the basics are derived from the principles of the Brescian makers, such as Maggini. Tertis made a great "thing" about the centre width, thinking at gave richness to the sound.

When ending my student days It seemed that unless one had a Tertis viola you couldn't get a Symphony Orchestra job - and I disliked the few I had tried to play. So I had to be a violinist instead. Shucks.

@ Kenny Young:- I see that Guido Trotta sent dimensions of the viola I alluded to before. Body 41cm, widths 19.5, 13.5 and 25 cms, rib height 3.85 cms. (neck) and 4.0 cms (bottom).

These might be helpful for you when checking out violas. The Trotta instrument went to the wife of a violinist in the NHK Symphony, Japan - as far as I know she's a satisfied customer because the instrument was accepted and a healthy price paid.

January 25, 2013 at 09:50 PM · The "full-size" Tertis viola has, I fear, a few inherent problems:

- The internal volume is increased by a wide lower bout, and very high arching. This brings the principal air resonance right down to F on the C-string, giving a wonderful depth to the tone, worthy of the "viola tenore".

- But,the body length (20 ins for a "tenore") is "only" 16 3/4 ins, and so various resonances which depend on the length of the body (main wood resonance, and the 2nd air resonance) remain those of a "viola contralto", i.e. nearer F on the D-string.

- Apart from possible interference of having two main resonances one octave apart, there can be a tendancy towards a booming lower register overlaid by a well separated "woody" tone (rather like a french horn doubled one octave higher by a reedy oboe rather than a velvety clarinet..) Also, the very pronouced arching may stiffen the plates and accentuate the woody sound.

Another cause for imbalance is the bridge being too near the halfway point of the body due to the expanded lower bout.

February 8, 2013 at 07:51 PM · I want to think Adrien for this explanation. I have a Tertis model viola with a G and escpecially a D string with a very woody sound exactly as he describes, and now I know why. I am not sure yet whether I like the sound or not, and have spent many hundreds of dollars recently on many different string combinations to try to control the "reediness." It seems like that is just what Tertis violas sound like, and I am either going to have to decide that I really do like the sound or find a different viola.

February 8, 2013 at 10:47 PM · Probably the best viola size is "too big for anyone to hold on the arm or shoulder." Check out the instruments in "new string family" sets that are intended to play in the range and relative tone of the viola. You need a very long endpin :)

February 9, 2013 at 07:57 AM · I have a 15.5" viola (downsized from a 16") and I'm very happy with it. I needed to find a compromise between having that husky roar that a well-made large viola produces and the physical dimensions that would allow me, a player of only 5'8" in height to still reach far enough to play things like octaves effectively. Many makers are able to produce smaller violas that still sound excellent.

One of my former students (an adult), towers over me in the 6'6"+ range. He plays on a 17.5" french viola of exceptionally light weight that has a small neck and the string length of a slightly smaller instrument so despite its massive size it plays comparatively very easily. I can't get over the bout far enough to play the higher arpeggios in Paganini No. 5 though. :P

February 9, 2013 at 08:23 AM · The French viola virtuoso Gérard Caussé plays on an uncut Gasparo viola, with a modern but shorter neck, as in Gene's student's viola.

As this means ecountering the upper bouts earlier than usual, this is a great opportunity to "officialise" special tricks, such as bringing the thumb-tip round the side of the upper bout, or even along the side of the finger-board. I find that this enables me to use my very short pinky to play in the highest positions.

However, this does imply the use of a (sh!) shoulder-rest..

P.S. Matthew, Pirastro's little-used Aricore strings have a smooth, warm tone; they have no "grit", and accept a strong bow stroke.

Also the high arching of the plates means a lowish bridge, with less wood in the top half, as if we had removed a mute; try blobs of Blue-Tack as temporary mini-mutes, and maybe then ask your luthier for a thicker-topped bridge.

February 12, 2013 at 01:31 AM · Thanks for the tips, Adrien! I will give those things a try. Especially curious about the Aricore strings.

February 13, 2013 at 06:22 PM · i'm waiting delivery of a cheapy, gusetto-style viola at 16". i'm a little under 6' in height ("i'm shrinking! ... i'm shrinking") and i've played one of these before, quite comfortably.

February 13, 2013 at 09:43 PM · I hear the ideal size for a viola is either as small as a violin or as large as a cello...

[runs for her life ..... ]

February 13, 2013 at 10:06 PM · ... any questions?

February 14, 2013 at 03:34 PM · Whatever size you feel comfortable playing with.

---Ann Marie

February 15, 2013 at 07:01 PM · Fair enough, Elise! Us violists would love to get viola tone out of a 14" viola; and the 'cellist Yo-Yo Ma has recorded the Bartok viola concerto on a "tenor" viola with a spike: he sings out the high notes with sickening ease..

February 16, 2013 at 10:46 AM · I've played violin and viola and I do not ever play or own a viola anymore. (Phew, thanks for small mercies!!)

But if I was working in an orchestra on viola again I would not use an instrument bigger than 15.5 inches. My viola was 16.5 inches and after playing a complete Ring Cycle in about four days I seriously though about burning it ...

April 15, 2013 at 11:43 PM · I am a maker specialized in violas so I have talked a lot with top players about size, models etc.

I started making many 17 inche violas under Michael Tree's advice. Eventually I adopted a 16 inche model (40.8 cms.) that sounds as good as the 17 inche one.

I sell mostly to professional players that are over 40 years old, play in a good orchestra and already have a good instrument.

When a player is young he may love play a 17 or 17.5 inche viola, but eventually he may develop physical problems (even being tall) or just get tired of playing Wagner's Meistersinger (about 6 hours of music) with a 17.5 viola.

Professional players will switch to a smaller viola that sounds as a big one.

Playing confort is not related only to the body size, string length, upper bouts width, rib depth, weight of the instrument, etc. all that will have an influence in confort.

So now I make just the 16 inche model and, sometimes, the 15.5. I will only make bigger violas under comission. Violas bigger than 16 inche are much harder to sell and resell to.

This is my current 16 inche model, this one is in the Gewandhaus Leipizg with a player who used to play a 17.5 (44 cms.) viola:

April 16, 2013 at 05:15 AM · Has anybody ever owned or played a 14 inch viola that sounded good ?

April 16, 2013 at 05:38 AM · Brian: A friend of mine plays a 14 inch Pederson viola from Robertson and Son's that's quite good. However, I would advise that if you at least try for a 15 inch. Not many 14 inch violas are good and the market is quite small for them.

Manfio: I know you use Evahs on your instrument because most people can gauge the instrument due to their familiarity with the strings. When you see your past clients, do most of them retain the Evahs or move onto other sets (like obligatos, vision solos, passiones, and spirocores)? I've recently purchased a new instrument, so I'm back to square one when experimenting with viola strings.

April 16, 2013 at 11:22 AM · Hi Kenny! Yes, most of them keep the Evahs, sometimes with a Larsen A.

But string choice depends on the instrument, the player's style and personal taste.

April 16, 2013 at 04:22 PM · I play a recently acquired 15" viola from Pederson at Robertson and Sons and am quite happy with it. I am older (62) with lots of joint issues and also a smaller hand. Due to its small size I play it better than my larger one. And since I am miked at church, there is no problem of the smaller viola being heard. Wish I had bought this 10 years ago.

April 19, 2013 at 12:30 AM · Hello, this might have been mentioned and I didn't see it, but I thought I'd through it out there just in case. I'm a high school senior going to a conservatory next year on viola, and while I was shopping for violas, something the luthier said to me, that helped me a lot, was that it is not just the length of the instrument body, but also the length of the fingerboard, and the width of the upper bouts. That's why the 16 3/4 in viola I settled on feels easier to play than many of the smaller instruments I tried out. Hope this helps!

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