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String Types by Ryan Fox

String Types by Ryan Fox

Having found an instrument, I decided to try as many different strings to find which set/combination best suited my viola and playing style. It is important to have the instrument adjusted in order to compensate for lower or higher tension strings, but many of these qualities will be apparent on your instrument, regardless. I hope that my experiences and descriptions can help save time and money for those intimidated by the myriad string choices available to us!

I think it’s important to preface this by saying that just because a particular string or combination may work or respond on one instrument doesn’t necessarily mean it will work on another! I remember certain strings working very well on one trial viola and not at all on another. I have, however, found that most of these strings have distinct qualities, sounds, and speeds of response that are easily produced no matter what kind of instrument or bow you have.

Steel strings!:

While gut strings were certainly the most popular until the introduction of synthetics, steel strings were actually available and used—even back in the time of Stradivari and Guarneri. They have evolved quite a bit since then, and I find that the winding of steel strings has an enormous impact on these strings.

My experience with steel strings are as follows:

Larsen A

These strings are of the highest quality but fetch a high price-tag as well.

A: This is probably the most commonly used (for good reason) A-string on the market for violists. The response is easy, sound is clear and brilliant, complex, maintains its integrity in the upper register, and projects with ease. I also have found that they last a very long time and don’t die the sudden and horrible death that Evah Pirazzis seem to. I found it to have the most “core” of any other La as well.

Low-tension A: I found the sound to be a bit warmer than the medium-gauge A, easier in response, but “whiffed” when urged to play loudly in the high register (the second statement of the first-movement’s theme in the Walton concerto, for instance).

tl;dr [too long; didn’t read]: buy the medium tension and don’t worry about trying A-strings ever again.

Vision Solo A

This string is the only steel one of the otherwise synthetic-core set, and I found on many instruments that it was a bit soft (didn’t resist bow pressure like the Larsens), extremely whiny, thin-sounding, and excessively bright. Its redeeming quality would be the amazingly easy response, but for nearly the same price as a Larsen (but sans the quality of sound). I would go with the Larsen any day unless you are dead-set on having a matching . . . uh . . . set.

Jargar A

Like Larsens, these are popular steel strings with cellists, but MUCH more affordable (I think the in-store price A is like $8 as opposed to the ~$26 dollar Larsen [buy online…]). This string is a very good alternative if price is an issue, and the sound is more than passable. It is less colorful and harder to draw out intriguing sounds, but the response is there, and it is not so banal that it would ever cost you a job or anything (no string should). Not my favorite, but matches the

Vision Solo or Dominant sets WAY better than their respective A-strings . . . possibly better than a Larsen would.

Jargar Forte

I cannot see a situation where this much tension would be necessary except for Cello applications. Absolutely seized up and spoke like it was King George the VI.

Kaplan D’addario A

I like the rest of the set, but no.

Passione A

As an alternative to the aluminum-wound gut-core A, Pirastro makes a Chrome-steel A string for use with more modern and demanding repertoire. While the gut A is simply brilliant, it squeaks and cries above 4th position at mf dynamics and simply wouldn’t endure anything like Shnittke, Bartók, or Don Juan. The Chrome-steel A, however, is low in tension like the rest of the Passione set, but can withstand modern repertoire and has a remarkably beautiful tone! Round and colorful, but can attack sharply when asked. A fantastic option if one is looking to try something beautiful and clear, but lower in tension than Larsen or Jargar strings. And it’s not gut-core like the rest of the Passiones, so it’s vegan-friendly

Evah Pirazzi A

There is a definite reason you rarely—if ever—see the signature green and black Pirazzi designation on the a strings of most violists, despite them having Evah D, G, and C’s. They are shrill, high-tension, absolutely SCREAM, and don’t match the intriguing complexity characteristic of the rest of the Evah Pirazzi set. This one is a no-go.

SPIROCORE G

Comes in two different winding options. Don’t go home with chrome. The silver, however, has a . . . sandy . . . quality that I find quite amazing. Response is different than synthetic G’s, but the density of these rope-core steel strings allows more area of the string to be played (pretty far over the fingerboard, actually), which opens up the potential for expanded possibilities of different timbre than most synthetics, and they can certainly pack a punch. The soft dynamics don’t sound vapid at all—even ppp will still have a great core to the sound, and can even withstand the bow pressure of the wild-stallion Yuri Bashmet.

SPIROCORE C

Comes in three different windings: chrome, silver, and tungsten . . . but when people talk about using a Spirocore C, they undoubtedly are referring to the tungsten. It is everything that the G is, but responds 10x better than it or any other C, G, D, or A string I have ever tried. If you haven’t put one on, at least try it—it’s simply amazing. It’s the kind of tone and response where the first time I tried one, I played an open string and just laughed (for some reason). Many older instruments by legendary makers are described as having a gritty, grainy sound, and when pushed, this string will produce that sound. I don’t feel the need to corroborate my opinions with ridiculously credible credentials, but some other people might . . . so here ya go. Lawrence Dutton of the Emerson Quartet actually said: “Every viola needs a Spirocore C (and possibly the G if it works),” Lawrence Power mixes this string with Olivs, Yuri Bashmet is an advocate, as is Gilad Karni, and Roberto Díaz just uses a full set of Spirocores on his ex-Primrose Amati.

It’ll cost you $52 a pop . . . seemingly expensive, but I kid you not, there is a bass player in the Chicago symphony who auditioned on and played his ENTIRE CAREER on the same set of Spirocores.

They last for a while.

The Rest of the D’addario Kaplan set

I first heard these on the viola of a studio-mate and was flabbergasted at how incredibly clear and responsive they were. I mistook the wrapping near the top of the strings for Passiones but later discovered them to be steel Kaplan wonderbeasts. I was disappointed when I put them on my old Italian thing and they didn’t work, but Marie-Elyse sounds great, so these could very well be a cheaper alternative to a set of Spirocores for you to try. Just goes to show that strings are quite melodramatic in their reaction to the instrument they are applied to.

Synthetics!

Dominants:

Really hard to go wrong with these. I haven’t found a single application in which they “didn’t work” on, but some violas absolutely shone with them (a Vuillaume and Storioni, in particular). Easy response, sweet sound once they break in (they sound pretty metallic for two days), great tone, but they don’t carry like Spirocores, Evahs, or have the nuance of gut strings. Both Dominants and Obligatos come closer to gut strings in sound than any other synthetic I’ve tried (I’m not counting Passiones as synthetic for this review). Still favored by Pinchas Zukerman as standard after a brief affair he had with Vision Solos. I would pair these with a Jargar A, however, as the A string is, in my opinion, totally wrong. James Dunham and Ivo-Jan van der Werff (both famous quartet players) used the heavy-gauge version of these before Passiones came around.

Vision Solo:

A remarkably easy set of strings to play, the C and G responding and singing with very little effort required. As you know, I dislike the A, but I particularly abhor the D—I find it to be the most intriguing and one-dimensional string on the market. With half of the set leaving me wanting, I’d personally shy away from these when you also consider that, despite the ease of playability in the low register, the whole set lacks a palette of colors to keep me captivated. Easy to ply, but just as easy to get bored with. I do, however, use these when I have no performances or auditions coming up and just need to learn notes/build left-hand technique. The ease of sound production allows me to focus on other aspects of my playing and to build my technique.

Obligato:

obbligato or music obligato (ˌɒblɪˈɡɑːtəʊ)

— adj

1.  not to be omitted in performance

— n , -tos , -ti

2.  an essential part in a score: with oboe obbligato

[C18: from Italian, from obbligare to oblige ]

These strings are one of the more commonly used sets, and for very good reason. They have a sound that darkens particularly bright instruments and a lower tension than Evah Pirazzis. This may actually make an instrument louder if it tends to be “choked” by higher tensions strings like Evahs or Spriocores. I don’t want to be redundant in my descriptions, so pardon my rightbrainedness and try to use your corpus callosum here. The sound is chewy and chocolaty on a lot of instruments that I’ve used them on, but my ear found their darkness achieved by suppressing particular overtones; making them dark, but not as resonant. Spirocores achieve their loudness in the same way, by utilizing lots of high overtones and getting a sound that is unique and cuts—Obligatos, I’d surmise, do this too, but by favoring some of the lower partials. This leaves a certain flatness to the sound and is my only complaint with these strings. The C-string is amazing in its response I would dare say it is responsible for the idiosyncratic “viola-sound” we all hear in our heads when someone says, “The slow movement of Beethoven 3.” Like their name implies, they can be an essential part in forming the sound you desire and are certainly worth a try. You will see these, Spirocores, Vision Solos, and Evah Pirazzi used more than any other string out there for viola.

Evah Pirazzi:

By a landslide, these dominate the market as the most used string here in the states (and I assume elsewhere). Their sound is brilliant when provoked but have a beautiful kind of plastic sounding aesthetic. They may lack cello-like depth, but I won’t complain—their sound is so unique that it’s the only other string set besides Spirocores that I can hear a recording and say, “Oh, this person is using Evah Pirazzis.” The Larsen A blends great and is almost essential considering how much of a terrible outlier the Evah Pirazzi A-string is. The C-string may be a bit tubby and require some extra effort to get moving, but the sound feels like a pleasantly full stomach and has a great balance between meatiness core and I-bet-you’ve-never-heard-theviola-part-of-this-quartet-before brilliance. Favored by genius performers, such as Kim Kashkashian, her students, viola-makers, Sergein Yap, Joshua Bell (I know, I know, a violinist . . .), and in between Ivo-Jan van der Werff’s time with Dominants and Passiones, he used these as well. As does Peter Slowik. And, like 8,000 other great and aspiring performers. The only real downside to these strings (besides the fact that they absolutely do not work on my viola despite any type of adjustment I’ve had done . . .) is that they die a sudden, terrible, and heinous death. Like an off-switch. “Hey guys, I gave 100% 24/7, so I’m just gonna die now without warning. Good luck in studio class today.” They are also quite expensive. Definitely worth a try if you haven’t—you may just find your ideal string. I, however, had to keep searching as they choked my instrument and wouldn’t resonate or respond . . . and I found that string when I bought my first set of…

Passione:

We are obviously moving on to Gut Strings!!

Passiones are kind of weirdly in-between synthetic and gut, and since no one wants a science lesson in string theory (*crickets*) let’s just say they are very stable versions of gut strings that can withstand a bit more abuse. Take that with a grain of salt, though, because gut strings can’t take much abuse and are incredibly unstable compared to Vision Solos and other synthetics.

However,

The sound combined with the relative stability is unparalleled, in my opinion. The sound they produce—though you can’t play as lazily with the right hand as you can with Visions—is oh-so dark brown! They cut, respond like you wouldn’t believe (when played correctly—they require obsessive attention to contact point and bow speed . . . closer to the bridge, slower bow speed, tighter bow hair, less pressure, you’ll get it), and may feel/sound soft under the ear, but they produce a sound that carries and sounds particularly unbelievable in the audience. If you try them, have someone else play your viola (preferably a violist) and listen to how they sound from afar. You can feel the chin rest and bow vibrating with sympathetic resonance and can create sounds which other strings just cannot. You can support the music you’re playing by evoking colors such as mournful or plaintive, 1950s, Cleveland Quartet, manic, English, dark-brilliance, water, and “whoa.”

You kind of just need to hear them/try them.

Ivo and Mr. Dunham have chosen these as their current string-of choice, and they also occupy

the D and G slots on my viola. (not Ivo and Mr. Dunham . . . Passiones . . .)

Oliv:

Would be my inner-string string of choice if I didn’t live in Houston. The irascible weather and humidity make these highly sensitive strings commit suicide fairly quickly. But their hypersensitivity will allow you to play with equal sensitivity and a truly special sound. Gut strings were used back in the day for symbolic reasons as well as aesthetic. They are, and were, made from lamb (NOT CATS), in homage to the Lamb of God, and to glorify said lamb by playing holy music on strings made out of materials that paid symbolic reverence.

And they sound worthy of the lamb (when Lawrence Power plays his inner-two strings, at least . . .). With projection, resonance, response and intriguing tone truly unmatched by anything else I’ve tried, the sound of these strings will never become antiquated. They do, however, die faster than every single synthetic.

You must, must, must buy the stiff version of these strings—if you do, they will be comparable in power and projection to Evah Pirazzis and can withstand much more bow pressure. Really worth a try, especially on older instruments that were designed for this type of material and tension. I have no idea how they would fare on a Greiner or Zygmuntowicz.

They carry a huge price tag . . . so give them a chance if you buy a set, don’t string ‘em up and throw them out. They require a different right-hand approach but are so much easier on the left hand. They might even be a great option to anyone unwilling to take a break, but who is suffering from left-arm pain.

Eudoxa:

Cheaper, softer, weaker, but for some reason amazing C-string on certain instruments. I found them to be less suitable for playing anything other than Bach, but the C-string (actually a tungsten-wrapped stiff-gauge string called Eudoxa-Oliv), just sounds glorious. They really are not comparable in my opinion to Olivs and were created to be a budget option to Olivs back in the day, but a dear friend of mine uses the C and sounds magnificent, clear, and loud—so yeah, that’s why we try different strings

OTHER STUFF:

Larsen D:

(These descriptions are shorter because my impression of these strings wasn’t terribly great, and I don’t have much to say on them.)

The Larsen D is quite flimsy under pressure (like 3x as bendy as gut strings), one-dimensional, loud, and quite frankly I have a hard time believing it’s from the same company that makes the A-string. They sound great on Celli, but we don’t play those behemoths.

Larsen G:

Better than the D, but equally weird and uninspiring. Seems to just produce pitch, not actual sound/music.

Spirocore D:

Doesn’t have any of the amazingness of the C or G, but isn’t as bad as the Larsen D. It is clear and full, but requires a lot of activity to make it work, to the point of tendon pain after a while. It lacks the unique qualities of the specially-wound C or G, and just kinda sounds like steel with rosin on it. Especially after hearing a gut string, it leaves a general impression of “whuck?” when you hear it.

Helicores:

Felt like noodles under my fingers (they are like half the width of all other strings). Crazy easy response—the entire Houston symphony viola section with the exception of one person was using them for a while (according to a local luthier). Not much else to say though, you can get so much better sounding strings if you’re willing to give up a bit of easy-bow-response.

To conclude, here’s some interesting c-c-c-c-combos used by famous/familiar people.

Roberto Díaz: Spiros

Lawrence Dutton:

Spirocore C,

Spirocore G

no idea for the D,

guessing Larsen A.

~”Every viola needs a Spirocore C”

Lawrence Power:

Spirocore C,

Oliv D,

Oliv G,

Larsen A

(seriously).

Pinchas Zukerman: Dominants with a Jargar A

Kim Kashkashian:

Evah Pirazzi C,

Evah G,

Evah D,

Larsen A.

James Dunham:

Passione C,

Passione G,

Passione D,

Larsen A.

Ivo-Jan Van der Werff: Passiones all across

Joan DerHovsepian

Evah C,

Evah G,

Evah D,

Larsen A.

Gilad Karni: Spiros

Yuri Bashmet

Sprio C,

Spiro G,

Larsen D,

Larsen A.

There are many, many more brilliant orchestral and solo violists out there whom I did not mention SOLELY because I don’t know for sure what strings they are using these days! Just wanted to give examples of what some of our heroes are using 🙂

P.S.

I am using…

Spirocore C,

Passione G,

Passione D,

Larsen A.


Buying a Bow by Ivo-Jan van der Werff

Finding a good viola that suits one’s style, concept of sound, and physical build can be very challenging. I feel that finding a good bow is even more of a challenge. Bows tend to be more subtle in their characteristics; often not so obvious as to what they can do. How many string players have been into an instrument store and tried out bows, not really knowing what to look for or how to try them?

In my experience it is often worth looking at your bow before even considering another instrument. Every now and then we feel a need to “upgrade” and get something that better suits our talents. Often we are right, but, how often is there a financial issue that stops us? Getting a better bow or one more suited to your instrument can be a cheaper option and can often delay that dreaded (but exciting) day when really serious money needs to be spent. I’ve seen many of my students’ instruments sound so much better with a different bow.

So, what constitutes a good bow? I admit to being a bit of a bow nerd. Not that I have extensive knowledge of them, but I just love them. I love the workmanship, the wood, the amazing differences they can make. I’ve been very fortunate to have owned a few beautiful old French (and English) bows. Currently my two best create a problem every time I open the case . . . which one do I use? The problem is really about the fact that they do different things. One is rich and dark, very strong and powerful; great for a composer like Brahms. The other is lighter, not as powerful, but actually can make a bigger sound due to the resonance it creates from my viola. I can’t use it in the same way; it needs a different technique. I can’t use the same amount of arm weight, and it needs more horizontal motion to create the amazing sound.

The first thing you have to understand is that no bow will do everything you want it to. Like any instrument, bows are always something of a compromise. Some are fantastic at legato strokes but don’t bounce easily. Some make a great sound but might not be strong enough. It depends so much on your instrument and you, the player. Some violists prefer a bow with a weightier tip; others prefer more weight at the frog. These things can often come from your particular bow technique. How much are you prepared to subtly change things in order to play a different style of bow?

A good starting point is to think about your viola. Is the sound darker or brighter? If the former, you might want a bow that enhances the treble frequencies; if the latter, then you want a bow that brings out more of the lower frequencies. Ideally, there is a balance between what your viola produces and what a bow can produce on your instrument. If you want a rich, dark sound and your viola already produces that, then what can a similar sounding bow add? Perhaps you can get more color and clarity with a bow that enhances the higher frequencies.

When trying a bow for the first time, ideally have someone you trust listening. What you hear under the ear might be very different even a few feet away. Listen first to the quality of the sound . . . do you really like it? Does it inspire you? Will it help you create a bigger palette of colors? If not, whatever else the bow might do well doesn’t really matter. Sound must come first. If I’m trying a bow for the first time, I like to play whole bows on open strings to see how the weight distribution feels; how the bow resonates through its length. Don’t forget to see how quietly the bow plays. We all get excited about playing loud, and, of course, the bow must be strong and flexible enough to do this, but try playing a real pianissimo on the C string. If the sound is clear right up to the tip, then the bow suits your viola.

If a bow doesn’t do these things, it doesn’t mean it is a bad bow, it just means it isn’t the right type of bow for your viola. When I bought my current viola, the bow that I had been using before (a beautiful Tubbs) just didn’t work well. It was a wrench to part with it, but I learned a lot then about what to look for.

If you like the sound, then try different bow techniques: spiccato, sautillé, martelé, etc. Find where the optimum balance is. Bows can feel so different in the hand. Don’t be put off by this. Like playing a different instrument, we have to learn how to utilize our arm weight. Some bows can take more vertical weight into the stick and a slower bow speed, while some work better with less weight and a faster bow speed.

Cost is an issue and can become a real problem if you have a budget for both a viola and a bow. How much should be spent on each? My advice would be to leave enough to get a decent bow, perhaps 15–30% of your budget. Or, as probably happens most often, one falls in love with and buys a viola first, playing on a lesser quality bow and then, a few years later comes the consideration of upgrading the bow.

Especially if you’ve never considered bows before, do try as many as you can, not just 1 or 2 but 20 or 30, or more. Either go to dealers or try friends and colleagues’ bows just to get an idea of what sound you like, what balance suits you, what weight of stick feels the best (viola bows can be anywhere from about 66–75 grams). If you’re spending $1,000 or $100,000, these are all things to consider.

A final thought is this: I can be ridiculously enthusiastic about bows and want to share their amazing qualities by asking friends to listen. I expect to get a strong reaction. Disappointingly, sometimes they can’t tell the difference from one bow to the next; the differences are just too subtle. This can be frustrating, but the important thing is that if a bow makes you feel you can play better, then whatever someone else might think doesn’t really matter. I liken it to an artist who can create a wonderful painting with just two colors, but if they had three or even four colors, imagine, given time, how that can open up their imagination!

Having given this advice, I have to admit to not following it always myself. With the last bow I purchased, I knew after playing just one note that I had to have it even though I didn’t know whom the maker was and how much it was going to cost me. I just fell in love with the sound straight away!! (After selling another bow and 3 years of payments, I’m happy to report this bow is very nearly mine!)

Comments from Students:

Mr. Van Der Werff has written a great entry on how to assess bows for trial and what characteristics to look for in a bow that would better match one’s viola.

I’m in the process of finishing up an extensive bow search (having tried many bows from different shops/makers, finding what I thought was “the one,” only to have to part with it the week I was expecting to purchase it, and then having to start the search all over again). I agree with Mr. van der Werff that sound and color should be at the forefront in choosing a bow, then feel and playability. If one ends up in the predicament where two or more bows are so similar that friends/colleagues/teachers can hardly pick out the differences, then playability will most likely be the determining factor between those bows, granted that cost is within the same range.

When trying bows, there is only so much you can hear under your ear when playing. What might sound clear and focused to you may not actually be carrying through to an audience further away and vice versa. In an effort to be less of a nuisance to others, I spent many hours on my own playing and recording the bows I had on trial, giving each one a fair chance. After narrowing my choices down to about 3–5 bows, I then played for friends and in studio class to help pick the final one. This was certainly an enlightening experience! Exquisitely crafted bows from renowned makers that felt great and played well ended up not sounding the way I had hoped when paired with my instrument. This is important to remember: don’t let price tag or a bow maker’s reputation pressure you into thinking a bow is the right match. What may be great for you and your instrument isn’t necessarily going to be a good match for someone else. Friends often joke that finding a bow is like a wizard finding his wand. Trip to Ollivander’s, anyone?

Some resources and shops I used to help in my bow search:

Gennady Filimonov, a violinist in the Seattle Symphony and bow dealer, has a great website that I highly recommend browsing through. He lists many of today’s award-winning bow makers along with their biographies. I found it helpful to speak with Mr. Filimonov about these makers and how to go about acquiring bows for trial. Filimonov represents quite a few of today’s top makers but unfortunately did not have any viola bows available.

http://www.filimonovfineviolins.com/Filimonov_Fine_Violins/Welcome.html

Benning violins:

Eric Benning has a nice selection of bows from modern makers that are listed on Gennady Filimonov’s website.

http://www.benningviolins.com

Ifshin violins:

They also have a number of bows from renowned makers.

http://www.ifshinviolins.com

My best advice is to do as much research as possible and scour the Internet. You’ll be surprised to find what bows are on the market and at what shops. Eventually you’ll end up with a number of leads, and hopefully will find some good options. Commissioning a bow from a maker is another option and one I look forward to eventually doing. Depending on the maker, however, be prepared to expect a 3-month to 2-year waiting period.

-Sergein Yap, student of Ivo van der Werff


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

 


How to Find and Produce Your Inner Voice by Ryan Fox

I stopped keeping track at 110; a completely abstract number, yet definitive moment where I realized that finding my dulcet, bratsche doppelgänger would take some time. Trying so many instruments certainly inspired some feelings of “oops,” but when I finally did find my viola “d’amore,” I knew my efforts weren’t wasted.

My 1902 Muschietti viola holds me accountable to my extensive search, and refuses to let me make excuses for my playing. Taking so much time away from my daily scales regiment to find an instrument really impacted my playing—but to allow my technique to take a step back in order to see a once-obfuscated world of potential is a decision I don’t regret.

Many people urged me to settle after about a year spent allegedly spinning my wheels. I feel this would have been an enormous mistake having already dedicated so much time to finding what I knew was out there . . . and I would urge anyone who reads this, if ever in my shoes, to realize that one can be successful despite years of being a viola vagabond. Richard Young of the Vermeer Quartet expressed the feeling that “he couldn’t even walk onstage with the rest of his quartet” as their instruments were probably twenty times the price of his.  He chose, however, to take twenty years of searching over a compromise—and is quite content from what I could gather.

Of course, I hope that if you are searching, that your search won’t lead to as many frequent flyer miles as mine. I would also implore you to consider my advice, as there is absolutely no reason you would want to learn some of these things firsthand. 

First of all, have a definitive amount of money actually set aside. The promises of patrons can be quite capricious, leaving you in a situation where money could, for once, have bought love.  Don’t let that one go unrequited.

I then will strongly suggest that you don’t by any means assume—for any reason at all—that anything you know or think you know about the qualities of and characteristics of instruments applies to violas in any way shape or form. Even other violas. Even among the same makers.

During an orchestra rehearsal at Rice, I heard the concertmaster of that particular cycle demonstrate a passage to the first violins. Her brilliant technique and wonderful touch were transmogrified into music somewhere inside a violin made by Pierre Pacherel. It was, to my ears, empyrean. Being at the threshold of creative possibilities on my old and faithful viola, I decided I would find an alto by this guy, and then continue to better myself.  I found one—but it was just wrong for me in every way. Shallow in tone and murky in response, and it resonated neither my soul nor any other nearby instruments.  A stark contrast to Peter Slowik’s sage viola-judging triumvirate of terms, 1.deep, 2.clear, and 3.ringy! I then learned to not be star struck, as million-dollar Bergonzis and Amatis were quite objectively inferior to the plethora of modern instruments available at prices one can actually count to in one’s lifetime.

So thrilled with the modern makers, I tried a number of violas by Peter Greiner and Sam Zygmuntowicz, eventually commissioning one from Sam. Unfortunately I wasn’t the only one who had a case of “never meet your heroes,” and I still have to wait about three years until it is completed.

By this time however, I had fallen into a state of disrepair both musically and mentally. I would advise others to watch out for this, as it really is something totally avoidable. It is good to have the highest expectations of a tool that sings the glorious sounds, but the line between idealistic and having no idea what is going on can be easily crossed. Rather than seeing the qualities of instruments that I’d been trying, I only could see (hear) the things not present. I even came back to the beloved instrument that I was loaned in my undergraduate years, which was to me a perfect balance of what I wanted and could do without . . . only I played it years later and hated it! This made me see that I had lost all objective decision making skills. After a long, hard look (listen) at what my true desires were, I learned to play instruments rather than impose my style of playing on them. Back on track, eschewing once-serious thoughts of quitting playing, I gave it a final hurrah. $40,000 short of actually owning a Storioni, my sponsor backed out, and I was faced with realism again—but now with the knowledge to find something that would not be a compromise, but a companion I could work with. I found my viola, and just doing so came with such a lesson of its own. I had gone from soloing with orchestras to being incapable of playing excerpts from Mozart Symphony No. 35 at a middle-school level of acceptability. But my search unearthed levels of determination and forced me to persevere through conditions and feelings I thought I never could, and these experiences when applied to my practicing now left me with no barriers but myself. Now, in a week, I can do what previously would take two months. The viola is a part of the equation, but the experience is of at least equal consequence.

I will end this dissertation-of-a-blog by saying that a viola you buy is both a physical instrument of its own beauty and also an instrument that translates your talent, passion, and hours of work into sound. If either side of that dichotomy is treated with nonchalance or flippancy, the imbalance will lead to frustration. I do not even care if all the red-eye flights took a couple years off my life, because a life lived knowing that I didn’t do everything in my power to pursue such a desire as my love of music and performing just wouldn’t be one I could ever have satisfaction in.  After all, music truly is the egregious and the melodramatic and deserves to be pursued with equal conviction.


Searching for the Proper Set-Up by Aaron Conitz

One of the biggest challenges we violists face in playing such (at times) an unwieldy instrument is finding the most comfortable and efficient way to put it on our shoulders and underneath the chin. A number of variables come into play here: How high is your neck? Are your shoulders broad or narrow? Do you have long or short arms? The list continues to grow longer as we search for that perfect set-up with which we can deliver the biggest sound with the least amount of harmful tension.

The two most obvious elements in one’s set-up are the shoulder rest and the chinrest. I believe that these two elements have equal importance and playing around with the various ways that they can individually affect your overall set-up is incredibly useful. The third, less obvious variable that I usually consider is the thickness of the viola. Because no standardized set of measurements exists for our instrument, this element can profoundly affect the products selected as the chin and shoulder rest.

Rather than speak abstractly about the various elements that go into the process of discovering one’s set-up, I thought that I would present a documentation of my own process and experience in finding the right equipment. When I acquired my current instrument, I faced the challenge of finding (again) a new set-up. The viola was a bit smaller in thickness than my previous one and was equipped with a very thin chinrest, mounted on the left side of the tailpiece. I knew that I had a long neck and needed to increase the amount of material (whether it was in the form of a chin or shoulder rest) between my shoulder and my chin, but I also had to factor in the reality that my shoulders slope downward. I figured that because the chinrest was so thin that I would need far more height underneath the instrument to be compatible with my neck length than I was comfortable with, so I decided to also increase the overall height using a thicker chinrest. However, I figured that I should deal with one variable at a time to reach a more accurate conclusion (scientific method, anyone?).

Thus began my search for a shoulder rest. In the past, I had found success with a simple mousepad grip and the Play-on-air methods, but I definitely knew I wanted more height than either of these options could offer, but I also felt that the aforementioned choices cover a significant portion of the instrument, limiting overall resonance. A shoulder rest with raised feet seemed to be the best idea; the question now was which one? Each option came with a host of pros and cons. The BonMusica seemed a bit too restrictive, taking away some of the flexibility I wanted in my shoulder. I liked flat platform style of the Resonans and Wolfe’s, but they weren’t solid enough and felt flimsy and insecure on my shoulder. I turned to the ubiquitous Kun-style rest and, after some experimentation, learned that I liked the solidity of the platform but didn’t care for the shaped wood. I then followed a colleague’s recommendation and tried the Kun Bravo; while the high price tag was initially deterring, I bit the bullet and bought one. Surprisingly, the difference was huge. The contour was much more subtle, and the wood felt more secure than the plastic (and, yes, it is much prettier). I still missed the flat platform that the Resonans offered and decided to start modifying the shoulder rest with some cosmetic sponges and rubber bands. By adding one sponge to the contoured end I was able to achieve a more flat surface—et voilà!—the perfect combination. Depending on what type of shirt or jacket I’m wearing I have to adjust the height of the feet, which the rest does quite easily.

After a few years, I decided it was time to experiment with chinrests. I wanted something that would allow me to bring the viola a bit into my chest so I wouldn’t have to push out my bow arm as much and figured that something mounted above the tailpiece would allow me to achieve this. I tried several center mounted rests and wasn’t quite convinced it would ultimately solve the situation; how about, I thought, something that combined both the side and center mounted ideas. I discovered the Ohrenform chinrest that mounted over the tailpiece with a flat platform (not raised or molded like other models) extending from the tailpiece so that I had both a center and side-mounted chinrest. I was able to place the viola a bit more on my collarbone and have a greater range of movement in my head due to the flat platform of the chinrest.

Through this taxing and lengthy (sometimes seemingly endless) process, I reached a number of conclusions:

•Evaluate your physical needs before considering the options; each of us is physically unique so what may work for “most people” might not necessarily work for you.

•Listen to your body; if something feels strange or uncomfortable, trust your instincts.

•Talk to your colleagues. Your teachers and fellow violists are an incredible resource allowing you to try their own equipment or offer advice.

•Be patient! No matter how frustrated you become, the end product will be worth it.

•Be creative. Sometimes you have to think outside of the box to reach the right fit.