16.5 violas

June 5, 2016 at 03:16 PM · I'm planning to buy a new viola and I really love the tenore sound of big violas, should I buy one with 17" size or a 16.5"?

Actually I play a 16" but is kind of short for me, but I'm scared of buy a17" and be not able to play it

What do you think?

Replies (35)

June 5, 2016 at 03:38 PM · Make sure you have a week trial to try out the larger size because you might realize you get more fatigue stretching for the longer scale.

Also while on average larger instruments have more impressive bass or tenor, its not always a rule, you might possibly find another 16" with the tenor you are looking for, or easily find a 17" that is lacking in the tenor. Bass production has as much to do with plate thicknesses and construction as it has to do with actual size IMHO.

June 5, 2016 at 04:31 PM · A 17" might sound lovely, but you will have difficulty getting rid of it when you decide to move on to something else.

16.5 is big enough. Really, it is.

June 5, 2016 at 05:22 PM · Duane is right on. I was talking to a pretty well known dealer recently and he said that most people are asking for c. 16" violas and not much bigger. So is Lyndon. I once played on a 15 and maybe 3/4" viola by Grancino that had a huge sound.

June 5, 2016 at 05:37 PM · Great sounding violas come in all sorts of sizes. You should try a bunch and see what makes the best sound and not worry as much about the size. However, beware of the really large instruments for the reasons others have stated. If you really want one, don't get it unless you can try it out for a period of time.

June 5, 2016 at 07:23 PM · I played on a 16.5 inch viola. But if I was born again (which is very unlikely) I would never work professionally in an orchestra again with anything bigger than a 15.5 inch viola - absolute maximum.

Players have proved that instruments of this size can, in the right hands, have a huge sound.

June 5, 2016 at 08:11 PM · I will try some violas of all sizes beginning from 15.5" to 17.5"; I played a 16.5" viola of a Friend and seems to be the right size for me, but as I said, I will try another sizes (including the Monster that my teacher plays, a 17.7" one). Thank you all for your suggestions.

June 5, 2016 at 08:55 PM · How tall is your teacher, seeing as he can do acrobatics on a 17.7 viola?

June 5, 2016 at 10:17 PM · The vibrating string length is just as important as the body or total length. There are many 15.5" violas with a vsl akin to that of a 16" or 16.5" violas. I have long arms but short fingers, qnd I play a 15.75" viola with a 14" vsl, similar to a 15" viola.

If the strings are too long for our hands, we either have to shift th hand slightly between each note, or else stretch dangerously; either way clarity of articulation is compromised.

June 5, 2016 at 10:17 PM · Not to mention what I call "viola elbow" (as in tennis elbow), where the combination of the extended arm plus the overworked 4th finger leads to excruciatinp pain in the outer corner of the elbow.

The viola strings have wider vibration the violin strings and need the fingers to hold them noticeably more firmly. (Those who don't agree with that are probably holding their violin strings too hard!)

June 6, 2016 at 12:59 AM · My teacher has avarage height, but he has REALLY long arms and fingers; he has so big fingers that he can play his viola and still curve his fingers, make double stops and play fast with minimal stretching. I think he is awesome.

June 6, 2016 at 01:04 AM · A bit puzzled why a 16" is "a bit short:" all violins are considerably shorter, and some of the violin 'greats' were/are 'great' in stature, too. A viola can certainly be too large for a player, but sound & playability guide your choice, not dimension.

June 6, 2016 at 01:18 AM · Taller people, or more accurately people with longer arms and fingers can comfortably play larger violas, and larger violas CAN have or often have sonic advantages. Shorter people are generally recommended to play the bigger size they can be comfortable with, for some this might even be as small as 15".

The really surprising thing is there are oversized violins up to 14 1/4" but practically no one recommends them, not even for people with long fingers and arms. Go figure.

June 6, 2016 at 10:05 AM · I have strung a 15.75" viola as a violin to show my slender-handed students how best to play with small hands..

June 6, 2016 at 05:02 PM · Playing confort is not only determined by size. String length, weight of the instrument, rib depth, how wide it is and other variables play an important role too.

June 6, 2016 at 05:02 PM · Double post

June 7, 2016 at 10:18 AM · It depends on your physique.

I've had a couple monster students in the 6' plus range who look like they are holding violins. One player I worked with was 6'4", had massively long arms and long fingers, and comfortably played a 17.5" viola! The shop in Paris he got it from was happy to divest themselves of an instrument they had sitting in there for longer than most of the staff...

However, we've gotten much better in the past few decades in recognizing just how much damage we can cause by overdoing it with the viola sizing, and demanding that people play on something bigger than is healthy for the sake of "the sound" isn't going to amount to much when the violist gets hurt and can no longer play. I used to play a 16" instrument but went down to a 15.5" after having to play some really long gigs. If you can get a 16" that sounds just as good as something bigger, why play anything bigger? ;)

Oversize violins are a pain to play; try one with Saint-Saens Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, or anything with lots of tenths in it. I have what is considered a very small full size violin and I appreciate it so much, it has made many things a lot easier to deal with.

June 7, 2016 at 10:44 AM · I still can't see why an oversize violin for a large person is any harder to play than a regular size violin for a smaller person, its just not logical. Usually we're not talking about more than 1/4" difference in size, and the sounding length is usually not longer than 13". What's the big deal about?

June 7, 2016 at 11:01 AM · Gene

Yes, I wholeheartedly agree. If anyone has played the full Ring Cycle of one Richard Wagner on the viola (with a 16.5 or larger instrument) you will think seriously of getting something which is 15.5 or smaller. The thing is, the violins have a rather easier time of it as they play less than the violas, cellos, and basses. But the cello's and basses don't have to hold the instruments up!

And larger than normal violins do seem a touch harder to play than the standard size, and a quarter of an inch can make a difference. But you have to be a player to understand these subtleties.

June 7, 2016 at 11:36 AM · A large viola can be played "'cello fashion". It's called a "vertical viola".

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vertical_viola This is not fantasy and, yes, I do know someone who does this. There's always been a problem that between the contralto viola and 'cello there's a big gap in the string ensemble. Though there were very large "tenor" violas way back in the Stradivari era (e'g' the 48cm "Medici" strad instrument) they fell out of use. I think Carleen Hutchins proposed the readoption of such a large "vertical". viola.

June 7, 2016 at 11:45 AM · David - with an instrument like that one could afford to risk the extra couple of pints in the pub, as it stands on its own feet, which after that many pints, the player cannot ... I now know why cellists can drink so much and still get away with it ...

June 7, 2016 at 11:53 AM · There is the viola da spalla, or violincello da spalla that is played not quite under the chin but with a strap going around the neck, it looks kinda like a 1/8 size cello;


June 7, 2016 at 01:54 PM · Getting back on topic, the OP should try all available sizes, but remember that there may be a penalty to pay later in life with a very large viola, and it may be hard to sell as well. Even 16.5 inch violas and smaller are hard to sell at the moment. People do not seem to want violas, can't think why.

June 7, 2016 at 08:32 PM · The vertical viola is very interesting, but is not a viola, is An alto violin, of the New Violin Family, that is very interesting too.

June 8, 2016 at 05:55 AM · @Francisco:- "The vertical viola is very interesting, but is not a viola, is An alto violin.."

I do not understand what you wrote. I think you must be referring to Carleen Hutchins' violin family but the vertical viola my friend plays would be of "tenor" size. Violas traditionally tend towards either contralto or tenor, I think.

You probably know already but Lionel Tertis attempted to get a more "tenor viola" sound in an instrument very slightly larger than 16.5 inches. He designed his own model. He had found his 17.125 inch Montagnana viola too big. The viola in the link is 16.625 inches. This model was favoured by orchestral players in the UK for a long time.


If you found a viola like this you might be satisfied.

June 8, 2016 at 06:40 AM · Hutchins vertical viola is 20", with a spike..

Beware of poor imitations of the Tertis Model. The authentic Richardson ones are perhaps better than later Saunders models, which have a longer string length

June 8, 2016 at 06:57 AM · During my early days of Symphony Orchestra playing the Saunders violas were highly thought of, but by then he had collaborated with Peter Schidlof (of the Amadeus Quartet) to develop a model based on Stradivari but larger.

I don't know the dimensions of these - I once emailed his son Jacob and asked for information but he couldn't provide any.

I did read once that Tertis got someone to produce "official" drawings presumably based on the Richardson experiments but this person got the string length wrong, departing from the manufacturers' recommended lengths. This might have contributed to Tertis falling out with later makers of his violas !!

June 9, 2016 at 03:55 AM · Oops, sorry for the confusion, I didn't know about the kind of viola that your friends play, I only knew about the alto Violin. And yes, I have read about the Tertis Model viola and I would like to try one, but in Mexico is a little hard to find one, but I will try.

June 9, 2016 at 08:41 AM · Caution :- no viola player should shell out for a tortoise model !

June 9, 2016 at 11:13 AM · Perhaps they are only for slow players? Often slow viola players are afraid to come out of their shell. (Or players that have been put out to grass, or even worse , have become conductors ...)

June 9, 2016 at 01:11 PM · The terms Alto & Tenor Violin usually refer to experimental instruments, often in the 19th century; Contralto & Tenor Viola refer to ca 16.25" and ca 17.5-18" violas. In the case of Stradivari, there are 10 contralto violas in working order, but only 2 tenors. Most Gasparo da Salo and Andreas Amati violas are tenors; most Amatis have been reduced in length, which of course modifies their resonances, as well as ruining the harmony of their outlines.

June 12, 2016 at 11:36 AM · BTW, when I said that Richardson TM violas seemed to many folks better than Saunders ones, I am refering to string length, not to workmanship. I met Saunders, and his violas are superb..

June 13, 2016 at 02:15 PM · I think what the OP is talking about was tonal distinctions between the various viola sizes. I have done a lot of design and construction work with violas large, small, ergonomic, and vertical, and my observation, fwiw, is that larger usually does mean louder, but more in the lower register where the resonances support the lower notes better. Small violas are usually more powerful in the upper register because their smaller sizes tend to favor the upper notes. Plenty of exceptions, of course, but I hope the viola world never adapts the "one size fits all" status of the violin.

June 13, 2016 at 02:52 PM · Francisco, the alto violin and the viola are both alto-voice instruments. They are tuned the same and read the same clef, but the playing technique distinguishes them since the alto violin is played vertically on a pin. Hutchins and her colleagues did not know of the historical precedent with the confusing name "tenor" viola, and her altos were larger because she initially followed a scaling theory. Had she been able to work another ten or twenty years I think her vertical instruments would have been reduced in size to something closer to the classic tenor violas of Strad, Amati, and Stainer, as mine did after listening to musician feedback for fifteen years.

June 13, 2016 at 04:52 PM · I noticed on his website that Robert Spear's Alto Violin is narrower than Ms Huchins'. Also his "ergonomical" viola has a good balance between the upper and lower bouts, unlike the Tertis Model with its big fat bottom and slender shoulders.

My two violas are 15.75": A narrow "Strad" shaped JTL with a slightly nasal tone, and the other inspired by a Da Salo 2-cornered "Lyra Viola" in the Ashmolean Museum (UK): wide lower bout, almost no waist, and wide (if sloping) shoulders. Despite its greater volume, its long Da Salo style F-holes keep the air resonance up at B/Bb, but with more power and 'spread" than the JTL. Without the extra length, it hasn't the tenor viola sound, but is more of a warm, plummy contralto. The Wide middle and upper bouts seem to me to spread the warth of tone over the upper strings too. String length only 35.5cm (14"). A great success!

June 13, 2016 at 08:34 PM · Actually I'm testing a 17" viola and isn't very difficult, I could even say that is comfortable; I'm also reading about the New Violin Family and I am especially interested in the Alto Violin

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