Well THIS is Embarrassing!

September 5, 2020, 7:13 PM · 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:

https://www.westcoaststring.com/violas/va8.html

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.

Replies (38)

September 5, 2020, 8:07 PM · 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!
September 5, 2020, 8:15 PM · if you like the sound its nothing to worry about IMHO
September 5, 2020, 9:35 PM · I'm reminded of the old advertisement: "Wow, I could have had a V-8."

I agree with Lyndon. If you like the sound, it's fine. And the thickness of a "real" viola does make it more awkward to hold. So you might as well continue to learn on this one, and later if you want to transition to a "real" viola you'll be making the same step that many violinists do, quite successfully, instrument-wise.

Edited: September 6, 2020, 1:19 AM · 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!

https://maestronet.com/forum/index.php?/topic/346730-is-it-a-big-violin-or-a-14inch-viola/page/4/

Unfortunately the discussion then degenerated into a spat about whether all dealers are crooks...

September 6, 2020, 6:21 AM · First, congratulations on your perseverance, and starting over, even on page 1. Enjoy!

Second, is the shop where you originally bought the instrument still open?

September 6, 2020, 7:58 AM · 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.
September 6, 2020, 12:44 PM · Thank you, all!

Once we're back in a mask-free world I'm going to take my "viola" back to the shop just to show the owner and ask him what he thinks.

I am really annoyed at the mark-up I paid. I "get" retail. I was in retail myself for many years. But this was excessive IMO. Even the woman at West Coast Strings was appalled at what I paid. I don't expect the owner to give me any money back, but I just want to tell him. If he's willing to exchange it and has something I like better, I'll consider it.

================================

The odds of me finding a really good, rich-sounding viola at this size are very slim, and physically I'm unable to go bigger. I've thought about Shar's Carlo Lorenzo or even the Sabatier. But rather than buying a new instrument someday that might be only marginally better due to the limitations of physics, one idea I'm toying with is that "Hole in the Heart" surgery on the top plate.

There is a luthier in Bellingham, WA who is experienced in this procedure. She's only ever done it on fractional violins. She's never done it with a 14" but said it should work well to give it more bass, clarity and volume. The big downside is if the results aren't good, it's irreversible. But if the results ARE good, I would have something that actually sounds like a viola instead of like a violin with a C string.

There was a discussion about this at fiddlerman.com :

"For those with an interest, check out the December 2000 Strad Magazine article entitled: “Too Small to be Beautiful?” starting on page 1350. The “dark horse” 60£ Chinese fractional violins with the 35£ hole in the heart modification kicked butt against Sabatier amoeba-shaped violas and Tertis viola clones (among others) in a blind sound test with 60 music teachers and makers. All entrants used donated Corelli Crystal strings."

https://fiddlerman.com/forum/breakroom/anyone-have-december-2000-strad-magazine/#p96989

"... The article is entitled “Too Small to be Beautiful?” starting on page 1350. The Sabatier viola did not fare well. Clones of the Tertis viola were not that well received either. The “dark horse” 60£ Chinese violins with the 35£ hole in the heart modification kicked butt. All of the entrants were fitted with donated Corelli Crystal strings. It was the funniest Consumer Report style article I have ever read."

=====================

But OMG it looks scary!

https://fiddlerman.com/forum/fiddle-violin-repair-making-and-set-up/hole-in-heart-fractional-viola/

She also suggested trying Tonica strings before trying surgery. That I can do! I don't know how to change the strings myself, but I've ordered a set of Tonicas.

September 6, 2020, 1:04 PM · 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.

https://maestronet.com/forum/index.php?/topic/322973-through-the-heart-viola/

https://maestronet.com/forum/index.php?/topic/322456-thru-the-top-soundpost/

September 6, 2020, 1:27 PM · 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.
Edited: September 6, 2020, 1:49 PM · 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.

There are so many things in the fiddle world which have claimed to kick butt at one time or another, only to fade into obscurity.

September 6, 2020, 1:51 PM · Mary Ellen, there are no exact or inviolable sets of specifications for a viola. Some have had even less rib height than typical violins.
September 6, 2020, 3:20 PM · 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.
Maybe you just like the sound of the Viola. that's OK. You are in good company. Violin high E string notes, 3 inches from your left ear, can be hard to take.
Maybe that "14 inch" Viola was once a school instrument. When student orchestra directors need more viola players, they always do, that is a cheap way to move a full size violin student over to viola.
September 6, 2020, 4:52 PM · Joel-

My "viola" was new when I bought it, not used. I'm only doing this for fun, to make some noise in a too-quiet house and maybe keep my brain from going senile as I get older. I love the process of learning, but will probably never play for anyone but myself and the cats. And I just like the viola more than violin.

When I was a child I was forced into guitar lessons. My brother was a musical prodigy (drums) and mom needed to park me somewhere while the genius was in lessons. She signed me up for guitar. I was awful, the "GSO" was awful; it made my fingers bleed. I HATED it. Quit as soon as I could. Didn't pick up another instrument until I was in my 50's when I picked up that little rental viola. I loved it immediately.

There are no words for how much fun I'm having. This is WAY more complicated than guitar. So many moving parts to attend at the same time. It's like riding dressage compared to western saddle.

September 6, 2020, 9:58 PM · If you want to get even with the fraudulent dealer you can always flame them online ...
September 7, 2020, 1:46 AM · 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.

Of course, I am assuming the label is authentic and placed in the instrument by West Coast Strings.

Edited: September 7, 2020, 4:11 AM · I looked up West Coast Strings on the internet; the page for the model cussed here is: https://westcoaststring.com/violas/va8.html

A few things immediately jump out when you read and click around on the site: It is sprinkled with typos (e.g. "accesories") and grammatical errors ("It's wonderful viola at very reasonable price.").

This does not look like the presentation of an organization with attention to detail.

However: There is no mention of size but they claim to have fractionals for this model all the way down to 1/16. Given that fractionals are for smaller size people it would seem reasonable to reduce all dimensions of the instrument when sizing a fractional, so maybe it is legitimate that a fractional viola would be just about the size of a violin all around. If I remember correctly the ribs on the 3/4 violin I started out on were less than the 4/4 my parents eventually bought for me.

Edit: "cussed" in the first paragraph should read "discussed". I wonder if I typed it that way or if there was some other typo and the spell checker came up with this creative correction.

Edited: September 7, 2020, 8:27 AM · 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.

It’s not uncommon for violins to be restrung and passed off as fractional violas. Some of them are selected because they sound better strung as violas.

That said, even well known dealers like Kenneth Warren and Sons have had to settle lawsuits against them for such practices of price gouging, and inflating appraisals. For your sake and the next person’s, I hope that you do ask for a refund or suggest you’ll write a review of West Coast exposing their sales tactics. If mentioning you’ve asked for advice here, doesn’t give them incentive to make it right, I hope this post is a warning to others to avoid buying from West Coast.

While I’m not a violist, I did get a chance to hear and play a fractional V. Richelieu viola at a music conference last summer from Claire Givens,a dealer out of Minnesota. It truly sounded like a viola, and had the proportions. I was surprised at the price for the sound, but it may have been promotional - Claire had just invested in a sizeable amount of Richelieu inventory. I believe the violas actually come out of the Vermont Violin shop. One of the three shops listed can probably ship you a few for a trial. Here is more information on them.

https://www.vrichelieu.com/fractional-instruments

And a list of dealers who carry them:
https://www.vrichelieu.com/partners

Good luck!

September 7, 2020, 8:41 AM · 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.

I agree with Lyndon... if the low ribs work better that what the specs say they should be, I wouldn't bother to argue. For the violas I build, I use much shorter ribs than "standard", and I think it works just fine.

Website typos and grammatical errors seems extremely common where most of the workers are Chinese, but I wouldn't necessarily say that those errors alone mean much about their business practices or products.

September 7, 2020, 10:40 AM · 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.
But what I should say, and don't think I have said before, is that the tone of the violin was affected for a time - It was quite some years before I realised it was no longer a dark toned violin, and I could profitably have used Eudoxa rather than Golden Spiral.
September 7, 2020, 11:29 AM · 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.

With regards to West Coast Sound's sales tactics, I'm more upset with the local dealer. I think the violin was mis-labeled at the factory by accident, but the local luthier who played it and sold it to me should have known better. I understand what Lyndon and others are saying, that if it works, it works, and I might just keep it, but taking into account that it was also egregiously overpriced, I feel like I was gouged. However, they're just about the only game in town for repairs and such, so I can't afford to offend them.

Decided not do the 'Hole in the Heart'. I don't want to take the chance of ruining what I've got. There's just something about the way it looks that makes me feel sad for the instrument...

Conceptually, the V. Richelieu viola is exactly what I've been looking for: A purposefully made, acoustically optimized small viola. Thank you, Jane, for those links!

In the meantime, can anyone suggest a C string to try? It currently has Helicore mediums and I've ordered a set of Tonicas. Thomastik makes a Vision C that would fit. Any idea how that would compare to the Helicore C? Any other suggestions?

Thanks again!

Edited: September 7, 2020, 1:11 PM · 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.
September 7, 2020, 2:02 PM · Thank you, Andrew!
September 7, 2020, 2:28 PM · 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.
September 7, 2020, 3:03 PM · 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.

Getting back to the subject in hand, the Eudoxa G on my violin has a good solid tone, which makes me wonder if it had ever been used as a viola. It has been in my family since 1850 and there is no evidence of its use as a viola. Except ... a few weeks ago I had the original ebony pegs seen to. The small ends were projecting too far beyond the pegbox, thereby placing the string holes in the wrong location, making tuning by peg more awkward. My luthier shortened the pegs by about 1/4" and drilled new string holes in the correct positions, thereby curing the tuning problems. When I returned home I changed the D and G strings and while doing so noticed that the old string hole in the G peg was significantly larger than it need be, as if it had been drilled a very long time ago to take a viola C. Next time I visit my luthier I'll ask him out of curiosity if the violin would work as an effective small viola - not that I have any intention of using it as such.

September 7, 2020, 4:39 PM · 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.
Edited: September 7, 2020, 6:04 PM · Trevor said, “.....the old string hole in the G-peg was significantly larger than it need be......”

Could it have been drilled to accommodate an unwound gut G-string?

September 8, 2020, 3:22 PM · 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.
Edited: September 8, 2020, 8:10 PM · 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.

Edited to mention that I use the Vision "C" short scale string.

September 9, 2020, 10:46 AM · Krista-

That's very encouraging to hear about your viola. Seems like most people think it can't be done, and I bet you're a lot more comfortable than the other players in your section.

I tend to doubt that this one has had any special post-factory treatment besides perhaps a soundpost adjustment but I'm going to ask the luthier about it when I go back there. Perhaps some adjustments like yours had could improve the low end on this instrument, too.

Thank you for the Vision C rec. That's two, now. I'm going to try a Vision C with my Helicores, and also a full set of Tonicas to see which I like better. May I ask what your other strings are?

I hesitated to tell the board how much my viola normally retails for. With all the great players here and their expensive instruments, it's embarrassing. Makes it sound like a VSO, but honestly it isn't. It has blocks and inlaid purfling. Ebony pegs that fit and a well-carved ebony fingerboard. Good aged spruce and flamed maple. Nice varnish. Good tailpiece. It rings. Fundamentally, it's a well-made workshop instrument.

September 9, 2020, 3:38 PM · Amrita - my viola uses the Vision short scale C, Vision G & D, and a Larsen A.
September 10, 2020, 10:46 AM · Thank you, Krista.
Edited: September 10, 2020, 4:24 PM · 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”.
September 17, 2020, 5:00 PM · 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.
September 26, 2020, 9:58 AM · 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.
September 26, 2020, 12:24 PM · 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.

BTW for a 14" (or less) viola, I choose a high tension C-string, and violin G, D, & A, to have sufficient tension .

September 28, 2020, 11:26 AM · 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.

Adrian, may I ask specifically what high tension C-string you use? Do you use the violin G-D-A of the same make, or something different? Krista has recommended Vision short scale C, Vision G & D, and a Larsen A. Understanding that every instrument is different, I'd be interested in your experience as well.

I just switched from Helicore to Tonicas and like them very much. I like the Tonica C better than Helicore's.

September 30, 2020, 8:56 AM · 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.

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