recommendations for modern viola makers

April 5, 2019, 1:39 PM · I live in Georgia and was wondering if anyone knew of any makers in the southeastern united states who have made great violas and if anyone had some recommendations. i would be looking for the instrument I would be auditioning to college with so i have a bit of time for looking thanks for any help.

Replies (30)

April 5, 2019, 1:44 PM · One thing you can do is check out all the Violin Maker's organizations and competitions you can find and get some names of those who have done well.

I have instruments made by two people who had violas that did very well in such competitions --even though my own violas and violins bought from them might not be up to their best standards. But they are pretty "OK" anyway - at least according to others who have played them. And they did not break the bank!

Edited: April 5, 2019, 4:36 PM · Go to Maestronet and look at Louis Manfios bench page because these are the prettiest ones overall by one maker that I have seen. There is also a few sound samples of them which I enjoy listening to.
April 5, 2019, 4:42 PM · Check out Robert J. Spear, Ithaca NY. Not southeastern, more mid-atlantic, but not too far afield. Traditional violas, as well as his ergonomic pattern.
Edited: April 5, 2019, 5:11 PM · Kelvin Scott in Knoxville TN has won many awards, makes beautiful violas that are reasonably priced, and he happens to be a genuinely nice guy. We have one of his cellos. Edit: once you have the viola make sure you shop for a nice bow.
April 5, 2019, 6:00 PM · Southeastern US? Check out Patrick Toole in Roanoke, Virginia. He has made some lovely instruments. I think he sells some of them at Davidson Violins (Davidson NC).
April 5, 2019, 6:12 PM · John Newton, Toronto https://www.johnnewtonviolins.com
A disclaimer: John is my close friend so I am naturally biased. His customers, many of whom are professional viola players in Canadian orchestras can provide a reference.
April 5, 2019, 7:00 PM · Thank you so much for all the replies I will certainly do my research on every name listed and go to some competitions. As well as of course my local shops ( well really the one shop in my area I enjoy) and also Stan I will deffintley get in touch because Knoxville is only about 3 hours from my area so it’s not a bad drive. And I especially appreciate your disclaimer Rocky but actually I’ve been doing some research on John already but as he’s so far away haven’t really found it worth it to contact someone so far but maybe I’ll get around to it now when I begin reaching towards my very serious final phase of shopping.
April 5, 2019, 7:59 PM · Mark, as far as I know, he is willing to send you an instrument for a trial. Please note that, apart from high quality of his instruments, the exchange rate works very well in your favour.
April 5, 2019, 8:42 PM · Toole is not yet well known as a maker so I bet you will find his instruments quite competitive in price. Like possibly under 10k.
April 5, 2019, 9:50 PM · And there certainly isn't any guarantee that second tier modern viola makers are any better or as good as top grade 100 year old antiques which are in a similar price range, worth considering.
Edited: April 6, 2019, 7:51 AM · If one is prepared to spend $10,000 on an instrument, my guess is that there are a lot of options including some newly-minted instruments and antiques. A few years ago, though, I remember a thread on here about why shops tend to have very few (often zero) antique violas for sale. I remember offering the theory that there was a period a few decades ago when violinists were buying them so they could learn the clef and get more gigs. But I don't really know if that's true.

Aha! Found it.

https://www.violinist.com/discussion/archive/28279/

April 6, 2019, 8:05 AM · In the Midwest in Indianapolis, not south, but I love my Theodore Skreko viola! I've played several of Ted's violas over the years and they are all great instruments. He's won several tone awards for violas at VSA competitions and will ship and instrument to try if he has any in the shop.
Another option might be to go through a large established shop such as Carriage House/Johnson Strings or Robertson's violins and either make a trip or do trials through the mail. This gives you the option of a bigger selection and more options for trade-in if you decide to upgrade later.
April 6, 2019, 8:42 AM · I have a fabulous Bill Whedbee viola. He lives in Chicago. I've heard he's mostly making cellos lately, though, and he may be out of your price range. Most of the better shops throughout the country will mail you 2 (or more) violas to try -- modern or not. I would give that a try unless you absolutely love a particular maker. I ended up buying mine through Robertson in NM, all by mail.
Edited: April 6, 2019, 11:20 AM · Mark I'm assuming you have a rough idea about what modern makers ask for a commission. Carriage House and Robertson have violas listed in price ranges, as a start.

Rocky's right, for his quality and level of experience, Newton's pricing is astonishingly reasonable. We talked with him when we were shopping for a viola, and played one of his instruments from the 90s that Carriage House had.

Lyndon is right, a good 100+ year old viola may be the best value going. But it's pretty slim pickings. Look at one of the big Tarisio sales and compare the number of violins offered to cellos to violas (same with bows).

I think it's a pretty nice benefit when your maker is in driving distance and will be there to offer advice and stand behind his work.

April 6, 2019, 12:30 PM · I hear you Lyndon and agree. The only challenge might be the ergonomics of viola - with a commissioned one, a player can ask for certain level of customization. With an old one it is take it or leave it.
April 6, 2019, 12:47 PM · Threads like his often turn into a hump-fest for instruments people chose themselves (even if they only tried three), or are interested in selling.

There are lots of spectacular contemporary makers out there, maybe 50 right now. Include dead makers, and the list grows larger.

April 6, 2019, 3:54 PM · Here my two cents about choosing a good viola, as a viola maker and 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. With most violas you will change your bowing and nothing will happen.

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.

April 7, 2019, 2:46 AM · And the above shows why it's good there are makers who "specialize in violas", to quote a really weird post further up.
April 7, 2019, 6:10 AM · Right on Mr. West.
Edited: April 7, 2019, 8:35 AM · I would like to quote an excellent article by Laurie Niles, the editor of this site, about the importance of having a good instrument as soon as possible.

"Your violin is your teacher, too: So get a good one.

As of this month, I've been playing the violin for 30 years. My violin anniversary is February 18, to be specific. I know because I started on Melanie Mayer's ninth birthday, as did Melanie. She reminded me every year. So wherever you are, happy birthday, Melanie!

I've been playing on an excellent violin now for one year, and it has opened my mind in ways that nothing else could in the 29 years before.

That's right, my nine years of violin instruction before college, four years in college, two years in graduate school, years of performing in dozens of orchestras, solo recitals, not to mention literally thousands of hours in the practice room – none of it taught me what a good violin has taught me.

One sees this phenomenon in small children: the child with a quarter-size violin who is ready for vibrato, for example. The child can do vibrato, even, but neglects it because he or she can't see the point. Then the child gets a larger violin that resonates, and suddenly vibrato makes sense and he or she can learn it.

The highest violin technique makes sense only on a fine instrument.

I've been looking back at pieces I played in college and reading the notes my teachers wrote in the margins. At the time, I played on a German factory violin given to me by my grandmother; it had been in her attic. For all her good intentions, though, it was a squeakbox.

"More tone!" implores my teacher from the page of a Brahms sonata.

"SUSTAIN" in the last movement of the Saint-Saens concerto.

"Darker sound on the G string" was a comment in a Bartok piece.

Even "LOUD" at the end of the Andante melanconico in Intro and Rondo Capricc.

Certainly there were requests that had more to do with the player than the instrument ("Stand straight! Relax left hand!") but I also saw much begging for a sound that simply was not possible or that took such heroic effort. I worked and worked and worked to make those things happen, and still the results were marginal. I barely have to do anything to make more tone, or a darker sound, on my current violin.

Without having ever played a fine violin, I did not even understand the completely different plane of playing available to me.

I understand now why some conservatories and universities make fine instruments available to students. I used to think that if one played well on a bad violin, one would be way ahead of the game when stepping up to a better one. That if one was "spoiled," playing on a Strad in college, one would never figure out how to make do with something lesser. It's not true. If one plays on a fine instrument, one knows what to seek in any instrument, and one also knows its importance.

All those years of fighting a bad instrument cause frustration; they block out what could be; they prevent the exploration of one's fullest potential as a musician.

I am grateful to at last have an instrument that allows me this; even if I'm destined to be a very late bloomer! But I would implore parents, schools and young musicians themselves: get the best instrument you can. Get the one that will awaken you to your fullest potential!" (LAURIE NILES - VIOLINIST.COM).



https://www.violinist.com/blog/laurie/20072/6496/

Edited: April 7, 2019, 8:59 AM · "Get the best instrument you can" is good advice. We just have to remember that some folks can't easily afford a fine instrument AND weekly lessons. Here in the US, the 50 states are subdivided into counties. You can type the name of your county into Google along with the phrase "median family income" you will get back a number courtesy of the Federal Census. In my county, which includes a state university (i.e., lots of professionals), that number is $49,712. That's FAMILY income. These are families trying to send their kids to summer camp while saving desperately for college. For a family of 4, below $25,750 is the Federal definition of poverty.
April 7, 2019, 11:52 AM · "Get the best instrument you can" leaves a lot up to conjecture. Would this be the most expensive instrument you can afford? The best $5000 "bang-for-the-buck" instrument you discovered upon playing 500 of them (and one of these could be very good), or one which only cost 50 thousand dollars that beat everything you had tried, within your budget range of up to 5 million ?
April 7, 2019, 1:53 PM · Good point David!
April 8, 2019, 9:48 AM · I always wonder how do those ergonomic viola by David Rivinus sound.
April 8, 2019, 10:01 AM · Pablo Alfaro in Atlanta
Edited: April 8, 2019, 6:14 PM · I am too catherine!! And also I have played on one of pablo alfaros’s violas and it was very well made and sounded quite excellent
April 8, 2019, 1:34 PM · Neil, I seem to have ruffled a few feathers. I've deleted both responses - business can proceed as normal!
Best of luck.
April 8, 2019, 10:20 PM · Fair enough, Martin. I gave mine the heave-ho as well.

Regards, Neil

April 20, 2019, 8:11 AM · May seem too obvious, but since no one has mentioned it, finding a viola that you will really love is extremely personal-- partly your playing style but then also your physical limitations, tonal preferences, and priorities. I found it helpful in my searching to try a number of instruments to get a sense of what I wanted but also to get a realistic sense of what is possible. I will also stick to trying to answer your question; presumably you have decided for a good reason not to consider modern makers outside the southeastern United States, or instruments available from violin shops, but if you are possibly reconsidering then that would expand your options quite a lot.

As far as makers in the southeast, I second the recommendation for Kelvin Scott-- amazing violas and a very nice guy.

I have not tried one, but I heard someone in a chamber music concert playing a viola made by Kurt Widenhouse sounded stunning and in my opinion better than a viola played in the same ensemble by a maker who charges >2x as much. Depending on where you are in Georgia, Charlotte is not very far away and Kurt is also very nice, would probably know if anyone in the area has one of his violas.

There are actually at least a couple professional violists in the Atlanta area who seem to be doing pretty well playing a Stephanie Voss workshop viola (I was surprised to learn this...). If you live in Georgia then you are probably familiar with Voss violins. Again have never played one, but might be worth asking Stephanie Voss if there is a way you can try a viola that she has made herself to see if you would be interested in commissioning one. She at least seems to have a very good reputation among other dealers.

Good luck!

April 20, 2019, 9:31 AM · If you're coming to NC to meet Kurt Widenhouse, also consider stopping by John Montgomery's shop in Raleigh. Both he and the other luthier in his shop Brian Kelly have recently finished violas I believe.


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