Breaking in a new (very, very old, unplayed) viola

October 29, 2021, 9:51 AM · Hi Everyone,
As you may have gotten from the title, I now have an old instrument, a Peregrino di Zanetto viola from approximately 1570-1580 (could be anywhere from 1560-1600, but most likely from that decade). It isn’t mine, but I will be able to play it for many years, if I wish.
General info : the viola was huge, and was reduced to about 15.5in/40cm about 100 years ago. The instrument was since again enlarged, about 2.2 cm more, and the work that has been done was wonderful. The instrument was not enlarged in width again, just lengthened, but the corners and c bouts/f holes remain original.
As a result, it is rather narrow and slightly square in profile. It also has many patches and repaired cracks, but was very thoroughly restored by a great Luthier in 2000-2002.

The instrument has been played little in the past 40 years, and most likely longer as well. Any ideas on things that may help open up the sound? It is changing quite regularly, and improves almost day to day, but still feels quite tight and constrained in the lower register. It projects wonderfully, but Is missing some of the deep bass I am used to with my Otto Erdesz.
It is getting played between 2-5 hours a day, between practice and my job as a symphony violist in Germany, and I try to play loud, chromatic scales as well as dissonant intervals and chords to make the instrument vibrate more.
Any ideas would be appreciated, and though I am aware it will take at least a year for the instrument to open up, and possibly more, due to the restorations being seriously played on for the first time, I am more than happy to put some time in so that the viola opens up faster.

Replies (15)

October 29, 2021, 10:49 AM · I think most people would say what you are already doing is what needs done. However, my own feeling is that it is not the instrument "opening up" so much as the player acclimating to its peculiarities and learning how to extract a better sound from it. If I am right then there should be no artificial means of accelerating the process.
October 29, 2021, 11:16 AM · My violin is a c.1775 instrument that wasn't played for a long time, but had just gone through a restoration when I got it. It was weird, how it seemed to have all this power, but it would sort-of yell at me. But there were moments where it was wonderful. I went to the luthier who said--no matter what this violin sounds like, you have to play it for a couple of months, hours every day, before I will deal with it. I don't agree that bringing the sound out was my task, exclusively, because the sound would come out, but it was like riding a sonic bucking bronco. I think the parts had to come together, maybe humidity from proximity to me from playing... I'm not sure. Anyway, I did as I was told, came back in eight weeks, had a new bridge cut, and-- it was wonderful! My impression is that there was still settling for a couple more months but then-- worth the wait. Good luck, this must be a very cool viola!!
October 29, 2021, 11:27 AM · I am with Paul on this one. It takes time to get used to an instrument and to learn how to "tickle" it just right.

I just don't see a plausible physical explanation for the idea that a wooden box would change its character by being exposed to acoustic stimulation.

Edited: October 29, 2021, 12:00 PM · What strings are you using? And what is the vibrating string length?
October 30, 2021, 7:59 AM · Pics? Sounds fascinating.
October 30, 2021, 11:24 AM · The best way to break in a new or unplayed instrument is to play in the high positions, especially the lower 2 strings. These high positions are normally very resistant to playing, which is exactly why you need to work them. Close to the bridge with a lot of pressure. Most instruments are “tight and constrained in the lower registers”—the ones that aren’t are the black swans that cost fortunes, or if they are very open in the bass have other faults like poor treble.

From much experience I can tell you it will take time, maybe several years. Also, the change will be very gradual and you may not notice it. But it will happen.

What the instrument is ultimately capable of is a different matter. It may never equal the depth of your other instrument, and the fact that it hasn’t seen much playing over the years combined with the many attempts at modification may indicate a certain level of frustration on the part of previous owners. Really good instruments tend to get played, and those exhibiting weaknesses tend to languish in the case. A great example is that Strad with rounded corners that, while certainly novel, was still limited.
There’s a reason it’s been passed around more than you’d expect with a Strad. Josh Bell and others used it but eventually found it lacking.

October 30, 2021, 1:08 PM · Thanks for the replies, everyone. The many loud notes on lower strings have been played regularly for the past two weeks, and as I said, it is seeing both heavy operatic and symphonic use.

The instrument was simply in the hands of people who didn’t play for many years, and was then set up under high pressure, which choked the sound completely and was certainly frustrating for its players. I had a luthier who works with old Italian instruments daily, and only restores, work on it, and with its current setup, new bridge and soundpost, it really seems to be another instrument. Change is gradual, but seems to be coming rapidly, though how much is my knowing the instrument, and how much is actual change, I don’t really know. It certainly produces a lot more sound than it did a few weeks ago.

Image is here :

October 30, 2021, 3:40 PM · Chris, this rare and expensive viola may or may not turn out to be better than your Erdesz.
Edited: October 30, 2021, 3:44 PM · David has articulated my thoughts rather succinctly. It's easy to be seduced by an instrument's antiquity into thinking it should be capable of great things if only...
Edited: November 3, 2021, 7:53 AM · Interesting-looking axe, but as has been pointed out, violas-- in particular-- can be remarkably good or bad even more independently of pedigree and cost than violins might. Otto Erdesz made the viola my wife used through conservatory and career, and it was a real ass-kicker. Too big for a small person to remain healthy while playing, but nonetheless a fantastic instrument.
November 1, 2021, 1:56 PM · There has to be a reason (or reasons) why there are luthiers who specialize in violas. It's definitely not just a big violin.
November 1, 2021, 2:53 PM · Beautiful instrument! I had the opportunity to play on a Zanetto viola for a short while a few years ago - it was one of the best instruments I've ever played. I just wish that I could have afforded it! And I agree with what others have said - not only does it take time to get used to the instrument and the nuances of playing it, but finding the right strings, maybe ultimately a new soundpost (if needed), etc. all takes a couple of years.
November 3, 2021, 8:52 AM · Perhaps you can rig up a wheel with a horsehair loop to keep playing the strings on your viola in a soundproofed box in your absence, varying the pitch with a curved cappo? My feeling is that steel strings may be the most suitable for this job, though not for playing once they've done their bit playing in in.
November 7, 2021, 1:16 PM · If the set up is good, the strings are good for the instrument and new, this viola should be sounding open RIGHT NOW. Don't expect for a mirable.
Edited: November 7, 2021, 5:49 PM · Manfio, I have read the accounts of a number of artists who wrote about how their long-unplayed old Italians took a long time - maybe even years - to really open up. You seem to suggest that this may just be a myth?

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