Well THIS is Embarrassing!
While I don't post here too often, I do visit frequently to learn from you all. I'm a total beginner in my 60's now. Back in 2012 I decided to learn how to play an instrument. Signed up for viola lessons at a music store and rented a 14" viola. I wish I could play something larger but physically it's just not possible without pain.
I had so much fun that after a few months I bought my own little viola from a violin shop. It's a Peccard "VA-8" made in 2006 from West Coast Strings:
It's just a student level instrument but it has very nice wood and a good setup. It's strung with Helicore mediums. The C string is a little soft and unfocused but overall it's much more playable than the old Sherl & Roth rental. My teacher played it and liked it a lot (or maybe she was just being nice?) It doesn't sound like a great huge viola but I don't expect it to. At least I have a high A under my ear instead of a high E ;-)
The shop where I bought it had several 14" violas. One from the 1850s was lovely but way above my budget. Some were obviously poor quality. Of the four Peccards, three sounded harsh, boomy, hollow. One sounded pleasant, if not as loud. The shop owner (a luthier) played them for me so that I could hear them from across the room. Again, three made me cringe; one was sweet. It was just so different; it seemed like a fluke.
I bought it, in my ignorance paying over 3x more for this instrument than it retails for elsewhere, but I didn't learn that until much later. While I regret overpaying so much, I rationalized that the shop has overhead and if I had bought the viola off the internet it might have sounded awful like those other ones.
All was going great until a few months later when my health failed. I had to put my viola away until recently. I'm much better now and happily playing again. Started over from the beginning, page one.
Here's the embarrassing part: IT'S NOT A VIOLA!
I was reading here, trying to find ideas for my C string. Came across a discussion about violins and violas and dimensions of various instruments. Measured mine just to scratch the itch of curiosity. The ribs are only 30 mm. Shouldn't they be taller?
I called West Coast Strings to ask them what makes this a viola and not a violin. The woman said it's a mistake. The ribs should definitely be 35 mm. Without seeing it herself she can't say for certain what happened, but this is likely a violin (V-8) mis-labelled as a viola (VA-8).
That would explain why it sounded so different from the other violas of the same size and make.
I didn't buy my "viola" off the internet or from a generic music store. I bought it from a dedicated violin shop; from a luthier, no less. Am I wrong to think he should have noticed that the ribs were too short to be a viola?
Everyone says that a violin strung like a viola is NOT a viola, but apparently this is what I have. I don't know what to do. If this happened to one of your students, what would you suggest?
Sorry this was so long. If you made it this far, thank you for your time.
If I understand correctly, the shop mislabeled a viola a a violin and sold it to you. If you were my student, I would suggest you get in touch with the store and ask to exchange it for a real viola. A lot of good music stores have good return/exchange policies. They also made a mistake in labeling it so they might work things out with you based on that. It does make an interesting story though, never heard of that happening before!
if you like the sound its nothing to worry about IMHO
I'm reminded of the old advertisement: "Wow, I could have had a V-8."
I asked this question recently of the experts on maestronet.com. While one of them suggested the ribs of a small-size viola should be somewhat deeper, maybe 32mm, others seemed to think that a fractional viola might be indistinguishable from a full-size violin. Apparently there need be no other differences in the structure, although of course some violas are designed with distinct shapes such as the Tertis model. I was a little surprised to learn this!
First, congratulations on your perseverance, and starting over, even on page 1. Enjoy!
As long as it was your best option soundwise, a violin strung as a viola is by far better than a poor viola you don't like. And there are plenty of lousy tiny violas out there, the smaller the poorer in most cases. Additionally, a violin will be easier to resell later if you wish to. So there are arguments to keep it.
Thank you, all!
Here are two more technical discussions about the Hole in the Heart procedure. I'm just nerdy enough to get intrigued by stuff like this.
I don’t have anything to say regarding keeping, altering, or trading in your current instrument that hasn’t already been said by other posters. But I just want to say that I do not believe for one minute that the luthier was unaware they were selling you a violin. They knew.
Amrita, if the hole-in-the-heart violas have truly kicked butt, there should be lots of them around to try and compare, versus taking the risk of hacking up your own.
Mary Ellen, there are no exact or inviolable sets of specifications for a viola. Some have had even less rib height than typical violins.
I find it curious that as an adult beginner you would choose Viola instead of Violin. Viola is a mostly specialized instrument for classical orchestra or quartets. It will be a long time before your technique gets to the level of a section Viola in even a community/volunteer orchestra. Small Violas never have a good C-string sound unless they are very fine and expensive. Meanwhile, there are many national fiddle styles that do not require an advanced technique.
If you want to get even with the fraudulent dealer you can always flame them online ...
The instrument has a viola label in it from the manufacturer/distributor. The dealer sold it as a viola because that is what the label said it was, so I don’t think the dealer misrepresented it. The person at West Coast Strings thinks it was mislabeled, but can’t be sure without seeing it.
I looked up West Coast Strings on the internet; the page for the model cussed here is: https://westcoaststring.com/violas/va8.html
Amrita, you’re lucky to get a response from David Burgess, a top modern violin maker, if not the top luthier in the world. I would heed his advice.
I experimented with a cheap violin and converted it to a hole-in-the-heart violin. I didn't put viola strings on it, but there was definitely more power in the low and middle range, at the expense of some loss of high frequencies and clarity. That might be a good tonal trade-off for a small viola, but the practical trade-off is having something abnormal and structurally less stable. And irreversible without big $$ pro repair work.
When I was 8 my father moved the soundpost of a violin I had been left by my mother's former headteacher away from the bridge and fitted C, G, D and A strings, and that was my viola for two or three years, after which my father moved the soundpost back to where it had been and fitted violin strings again, and had a viola made for me by Ernest Nunn.
I am so grateful to all of you for taking the time to share the benefit of your experience with me. It is truly an embarrassment of riches. I'm taking your advice to heart.
I think you might like the Vision and/or Tonica C strings. I’ve only tried the full-size versions, but both, when they suit the instrument well, are reasonably powerful and responsive, and also warm.
Thank you, Andrew!
The westcoaststrings.com website lists your viola for $345.00. Is that what you paid, and are you implying that other sellers offer it for 1/3 of that, $115.00? Or did you pay more than their own advertised price? I’m having trouble making sense of this.
My violin, a late 18th c instrument of German(?) origin, has a back length of 14-1/4" and ribs of 33mm (sorry about that mix of units!). The bouts are also slightly wider than one would expect. The only drawback as a result of its size is that the 3rd octave on the E string is difficult to access because of the increased distance between nut and bridge, but that is purely academic as far as the orchestral music I play is concerned. Although there was an occasion a few years ago when we were sight reading a piece by a local composer that had in one passage the 1st violins buzzing around like mosquitos well into that 3rd octave, doubling the piccolo, if you please! Our CM had no hesitation in telling us to drop that passage down an octave. The composer, who was in the rehearsal room at the time, apparently didn't notice.
The violin shop sold it to me in 2012 with a case and bow for $800. The case was problematic and I had a better bow to they took those back for $150 in store credit. Later I saw the same instrument (alone or as a kit I don't remember) selling for about $250 or $295.
Trevor said, “.....the old string hole in the G-peg was significantly larger than it need be......”
Mark, I hadn't thought of that, but it is a possibility given the age of the instrument. Further inspection suggests that the ebony nut is relatively recent; the current strings are a perfect fit in their notches, and I think a plain gut G wouldn't fit without modification to the nut, or even a new nut carved for the job.
Is it possible that the violin was properly converted to a viola? My "viola" is also 14 inches and I purchased it knowing that it was manufactured originally as a violin. However Weaver specifically chose it from his stock, opened it up, carved a new bass bar, changed out the soundpost, and generally converted the sound to work as a viola. It sounds just like all the other violas in my section and most people don't notice that it's a violin until I tell them.
Amrita - my viola uses the Vision short scale C, Vision G & D, and a Larsen A.
Thank you, Krista.
Nothing to be embarrassed about. Actually some violins used to be violas. Arnold Steinhardt’s Storioni was originally a viola and converted to a violin. I have a violin which technically could be converted to a small viola - it’s 14.5”.
There is no standard size for a viola as far as I know. In centuries past people actually played smaller than normal size violas because of their hand size and arm length.
Thank you to Jane Klingsten for mentioning the Richelieu violas we brought to our exhibit at the Stevens Point Suzuki Institute in the summer of 2019. We didn't need to bring anything else because of the amount of enthusiastic attention they generated. The Richelieu violas are indeed made by Vermont Violins in sizes 11", 12", 13" 14" 15" and larger. They are designed to be a proper viola with wider lower bouts, appropriate rib heights and a proportional string length. They sound incredible-like a real viola: $3750 to $5600 depending upon the size.
As a violist who doubles on violin, I (and my young violin students with un-spoilt ears..) enjoy my Nicolas Morlot violin (ca.1820), built like a 14" viola.
Yes, truly thanks again to Jane for mentioning the V. Richelieu violas! I had a wonderful conversation with one of its developers and after hearing a clip of their 14" I'm saving up to purchase one within the next few months.
Behind a lot of this should be the knowledge that the viola is acoustically imperfect. It will always be too small for its range, so you're just talking about choosing one set of compromises over another. If the current axe sounds like a viola and is easy to play, then enjoy.
This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.