Ergonomic & Cutaway Violas

by Marie-Elyse Badeau

0311a Erdesz Violas

A cutaway viola made by Jehpin Liew at Old Violin House

The reactions I encounter when I open my case usually vary from surprise to interest. Ergonomic or cutaway violas, even if more and more popular, still raise a lot of questions. My decision to buy such a viola was motivated by a lot of factors, and I will gladly share them with you as well as giving you an insight on them directly from my viola-maker, John Newton.

At first, the size of my former viola was not a problem, but since I’m rather small and short, with even smaller hands, reaching high positions for a long practice session could be tiring. As I had to buy an instrument (I was using the school’s), I started looking at modern violas, following the advice from my teacher and other students. After I heard from other violists about Iizuka’s and Erdesz’s ergonomic violas, I researched them and learned how this type of viola could work better for me. I was worried at first about a change in the sound, a lesser quality because of the “cutted” part, but since the air volume in the instrument is the same, the quality doesn’t change, whether you have a “standard” instrument or cutaway. The ergonomic violas often have a larger lower body than a standard instrument to compensate, so be careful when you buy a case for those instruments; you don’t want to have a bad surprise!

The convenience of buying a modern instrument can be a wonderful experience. You can actually ask for exactly what you wish in a viola, from the form to small details like colors. After speaking with the maker about my viola and trying the instrument, I realized that it needed some modifications to meet my need. We decided I needed a smaller neck, so he thinned out the neck for me. This can be an option for any instrument and solves a lot of tension problems for the left hand. Even for people with bigger hands, comfort while playing is so important!! Moreover, since the repertoire of the viola often includes fifths in profusion (think about Bartòk or Rosza concertos), we decided to modify the nut of my viola and use a violin-sized one instead. After all, even if our instrument is bigger, our hands are not!

0311b myviola

My John Newton viola

And now introducing John Newton and some more thoughts on cutaway violas!

Violas are often large, awkward, and even clumsy to play. I consider an ergonomic viola to be one that deviates from the standard historical form—highly variable though that is—to enable the user to play it with greater ease and efficiency and with no sacrifice of the expected musical character and quality. A viola of unusual shape must still be able to successfully perform all of the standard repertoire with appropriate beauty of sound, as well as with improved technical ease. There are several modifications that can achieve this, and I have worked through a number of them over the years, in various combinations. To my knowledge, the old master makers never tried these kinds of modifications, other than simple variations in size. The first luthier to seriously attempt this was my teacher, Otto Erdesz, who made a great number of conventional violas before making a radically asymmetric instrument in the early 1970s. This viola had a large cutaway on the treble side to facilitate high-position playing, and he found it so successful that he made a series of them. The solo instrument of his former wife, Rivka Golani, is a well-known and much-recorded example. The conventional wisdom in the craft of lutherie was that symmetry in construction was absolutely necessary for a successful result; there were various asymmetric guitars that were excellent, but the conservatism of the classical bowed-instrument world prevented anyone experimenting with it. I made my first such cutaway viola around 1980 as Erdesz’s student and have been making them ever since. The fear that such radical reshaping would result in wolf notes, unevenness, off-color tone, and loss of power turned out to be completely incorrect. Since my time with Erdesz, I have also been encouraged to make experimental violas through my association with Gerald Stanick, who was not afraid to design and commission such instruments. Stanick came to feel that eliminating the corners was also a useful modification, and one which can be observed (though rarely) in the work of the old masters, including Stradivari. The corner-less outline gives greater clearance to the bow and bow hand, and the shape is structurally stable, in my experience. These two modifications can be combined successfully; add to them a shortened string length and an indented outline at the lower block, and the viola has become significantly easier to play. When an instrument is easier to manage, the player can realize a higher percentage of the potential sound with the same effort. I have built such violas in a number of sizes, from about 15 1/2” to over 17”. I have also observed that players who suffer from physical injury from coping with large, awkward traditional violas can be helped by instruments with these design features. Violas of alternative design are now much more accepted than they once were, and I greatly enjoy the challenge and variety of designing and making them.

– John Newton, Toronto, CAN:johnnewtonviolins@gmail.com

I also encourage you to read those articles and books about viola shapes and standardization:

Viola design: some problems with standardization, by Sookyung Claire Jeong:

The evolution of my viola models, by Hiroshi Izuka

The History of the Viola, by Maurice Riley


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