Looking for a New Viola

August 10, 2015 at 08:45 PM · I am an undergraduate viola major currently in music school, and I have been hunting for a new viola for several months. I have checked out every violin shop in Los Angeles area, and have had much difficulty finding instruments in my size that have a beautiful sound and are less than $40,000. I can play up to a 16 1/4" viola comfortably, or a 16 1/2" viola with a shorter string length.

My teacher has recommended I check out the Chicago area for shops and modern makers, which I will begin doing this Fall. Also, he recommended Tetsuo Matsuda as an example of an excellent modern maker that sells instruments in my price range.

Does anyone have experience shopping for instruments in this range, or experience having instruments shipped from the Chicago-based violin shops? It seems like there's an awful lot of trust involved when asking for an instrument to be shipped to you without much knowledge of how it sounds. Also, any recommendations of modern viola luthiers would be greatly appreciated.

Replies (27)

August 10, 2015 at 10:48 PM · You might want to check out Manfio too.

August 10, 2015 at 11:38 PM · If you told us your price range, it might help. You also might want to check out auctions. As a former professional violist who was a colleague in my non-music job always said, if you go to a dealer rather than an auction, you are likely to leave a lot of money on the table.

August 11, 2015 at 12:15 AM · Second for Manfio. Here is his web

August 11, 2015 at 12:17 AM · I invite you to consider coming to Canada and purchasing instrument here. Canadian $ is at its lowest in many years now, and you can buy a master-level instrument plus a great bow for less money than in the States. The quality of workmanship is at the same or better level.

I can recommend 3 great viola makers; one in Montreal and 2 here in Toronto. If you do not want to travel, some of them might be willing to send you the instrument across the border.

Send me a personal message and I will be happy to reply with their contact info.

August 11, 2015 at 12:18 AM · www.manfio.com

August 11, 2015 at 02:18 AM · A friend of mine went violin shopping in Toronto. The prices were listed in USD!

Try Manfio indeed.

August 11, 2015 at 02:35 AM · Kevin,

your statement is true for at least one shop in Toronto, where I stopped purchasing strings and accessories because or price gauge; I do not remember their price dropping when exchange rate was 1:1 with US $! I am not surprised if violin dealers bind their price to US$.

While Manfio is a fine maker and his work worth considering, there are also fine makers here, and they DO NOT charge in US dollars.


August 11, 2015 at 04:58 AM · A former student of mine majoring in viola performance just picked up an amazing instrument from this gentleman, and it's quite a bit less than the top of your budget.


August 11, 2015 at 09:33 AM · At the 40,000 dollars level you are paying for the name more than the instrument. Fine siunding instruments can be found around the 10,000 mark.

August 11, 2015 at 04:54 PM · Tom: My price range is up to $40,000, but if I can get something cheaper I would prefer that.

Adrian: Yes, $40,000 is just my top limit. If I can get something that sounds good for much less than that, that would be ideal.

Wow, so many recommendations for Manfio. He saw this thread himself and sent me an email, so I will do my best to try one of his instruments. I can't travel anywhere because my professor at school has to approve of my instrument before I make a purchase, but perhaps I can get some Canadian instruments shipped for trial.

August 11, 2015 at 05:33 PM · I'd take your professor and go visit Manfio...

Total win! ;)

August 11, 2015 at 06:58 PM · For 52,600 CAD you can by a great viola, fabulous bow, airplane tickets, weekend in Montreal, and save more then 50% for your scholarship!


Isabelle Wilbaux, luthier

Eric Gagne, bow maker


John Newton, luthier (no web site yet; he is too busy carving some great violas)

Itzel Avila, luthier

Disclaimer: I have no financial gain from recommending these makers.


August 12, 2015 at 02:19 AM · Why don't you go for a drive to San Fran and try Grubaugh and Seifert? Heard some good instruments there a few years ago. Also, we have a family member that likes her Douglas Cox (Vermont)viola. I think Terry Borman might still have a viola that has been reported by another member of the family as very nice. All of these in your price.

August 12, 2015 at 10:25 AM · Yes, the Bay Area might be a reasonable next step.

If you want to try the Chicago area, I'd recommend taking a trip there. There are enough makers and dealers there that you could spend several days trying instruments. Probably easier and cheaper than repeated shipping, and it's nice to be able to try many instruments in a short time frame. It's easier to accurately remember the sound of an instrument you played an hour or a day ago, than one you played two weeks or a month ago. And if you suspect, after trying many, that one stands out, you can revisit that one with the fresh memory of the others for context.

August 12, 2015 at 05:33 PM · Thank you everyone for your lovely responses and recommendations!

A trip is out of the question for me. I can't bring my busy teacher with me, and since he's very picky and wants only the best viola for me, I'd likely be making many trips back to the places I got the instruments from. This would be too costly for a student like myself.

August 12, 2015 at 05:42 PM · Many dealers will send instruments on approval for a week or two. That opens many options, and allows your professor immediate contact.

(is s/he not helping with ideas?)

August 12, 2015 at 07:43 PM · You could narrow the selection down to a few favorites during the trip, and then have them shipped to you.

Having things sent out-of-the-blue, sound unheard, and with a very picky teacher, is quite a stab in the dark, unless you know that the maker or dealer has a very high success rate.

August 12, 2015 at 11:41 PM · A good friend and colleague here has played in the studios and won a number of auditions for orchestras on an instrument from William Harris Lee that he was able to find for under 20k.

If your teacher is truly that picky about an instrument, he/she needs to get involved with the process, or refer you to a colleague that is enough of an expert to assist you, or be less selective if they are unwilling to help in this case.

A teacher's job in helping a young musician develop a career should involve more than just teaching them to play the instrument.

August 12, 2015 at 11:41 PM · [duplicate post]

August 13, 2015 at 12:07 AM · No offence to your teacher, but you need the similar declaimer you got from me; too many a teacher benefited from some sort of commission in these transactions. When buying an instrument, the best input you can get is from someone who is neutral; a fellow student, musician, even someone with no music background but with good listening skills.

The process is quite subjective and it is impossible to put a $ value to such a personal item as your viola.... the essence is in forming, developing and nurturing your inner perception of viola sound, and then searching for a match. It sometimes requires years of searching and trying literally tens or hundreds of instruments. When you are ready, the instrument will appear.

Nobody else knows what that internal auditory image is, and only you can tell if a viola is right for you.

August 13, 2015 at 02:31 AM · Marjory/Gene: My teacher is being helpful but is also very busy. I wrote this thread so that I could find out which viola makers are reputable, so that I know what to look out for when I ask for things to be shipped to school. He has many recommendations, but I thought it would be good to do some research myself as well.

David: Yes, it's tricky. That's why I want to find a maker with a high success rate.

Gene: William Harris Lee is a great shop! Many of my classmates play their instruments, so those violas are definitely a possible option.

Rocky: My teacher is a trustworthy person, I assure you. Thanks for your concern though.

August 13, 2015 at 10:43 AM · Here my two cents about choosing a good viola, as a player.

Avoid monochrome instruments. Look for many colours and contrast, you can have that only when you have a good dynamic range.

With a good viola you can work with the bow to create colours. In most violas you will change your bowing and nothing will happens.

With a good viola when you draw your bow from the

fingerboard towards the bridge increasing the weight you will notice a big change in volume and colour of the sound. Just good instruments offer that.

The viola must not choke when you play FFF near the bridge.

Avoid hollow sound, look for a focused sound.

Clarity is important too, when playing quick passages the notes should not mix.

Check the instrument in the upper regions of the C and G strings. You may not be using the 7th positions of the C string now but as you start studying more difficult pieces you will have to do that. Just good violas will sound good in high positions of the C string, in general you will have many wolves and rasped notes there.

Playing confort: not only the size matters here but also string length, upper bouts width, rib height, weight, feeling "under the chin". Try to play in high positions of the C string.

Look for a quick response too.

August 13, 2015 at 11:42 AM · Luis,

excellent description!

...and exactly what my (student) viola is not....perhaps an instrument like this?

1615 Amati viola "La Stauffer", played by Anna Serova


August 13, 2015 at 12:00 PM · Thanks Rocky! I met Anna Serova here some week ago for some viola test drive, she produces a beautifull, powerfull sound on her contemporary viola too.

August 13, 2015 at 12:32 PM · Trying a few Manfio violins should be no problem. Gas up the Falcon and you can be in Sao Paolo in a few hours. On a more serious note, now that you have specific recommendations from the experts who responded here (I'm not an expert), you can call some of the shops within driving distance of your home and see whether they've got any of those makes.

August 13, 2015 at 12:35 PM · Ha! No need of that Paul! That's why we have dealers!

August 13, 2015 at 02:58 PM · Elizabeth,

If you haven't found one by about March of 2016, I might have one built by then (I'm very slow). On the plus side, I'm within driving distance and relatively cheap.

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