Understanding Viola Size

 An expanded version of an article published by The British Viola Society, February 2015

 

For any viola player, deciding what size instrument to play is of fundamental importance, but there is still much confusion and misunderstanding about the different aspects of size and how it may relate to sound. The main cause of confusion is because we generally only use the measurement of the length of the back to differentiate between instruments.  However, with only a little more information about the other variables we can get a much better understanding of viola size and how it affects the ease of playing.

 

The size of a viola is usually given as the length of back measured over the arching from the side of the button to the centre line at the bottom. Violas of between 16 and 16 ½ inches [40.6 to 42 cm] are considered as medium size, with small violas sometimes being as short as 15 inches, [38.2 cm] with large violas occasionally reaching 18 inches. [45.7 cm] Although the back length probably is the most important factor, there are other variables which have a great bearing on how big an instrument feels.

 

From a playing point of view, the main manifestation of viola size is how far you have to extend your left arm in order to play in first position. To get an idea of the importance of the left arm extension, without holding a viola, if you lift your hand so your fingertips touch your shoulder, and then very slowly move your hand away from your body, you will notice that once the upper arm moves past the vertical position, the tension in your biceps starts to increase, most noticeably when the upper arm is around 45 degrees to the vertical. This is region where you need to hold your arm to play the viola. Although you might not be aware of it, there is also an increase in tension in your shoulder and back. If you then twist your hand round and pretend you are playing a violin and then move your hand away and pretend to play a viola, as your arm extends further from your body you will also notice that it becomes progressively more difficult to move your fingers.

It’s not just the back length that’s important

Just knowing the back length of a viola does not tell you how far you are going to have to extend your left arm; it is the combination of the body length and the neck length. You might think that there would be a standard length for viola necks, but that is not the case. Unlike the violin, viola necks are neither a standard length, nor are they consistently proportional to the body, and the different models vary so much that you can, for instance, have a 15 ½” viola with a longer string length than a 16 ¼”  viola, whereas two instruments theoretically of the same size [having the same length of back] may have necks that differ in length by 10 mm or more.

 

To see why this is the case, and the effect it has on playing comfort, let us consider two models of viola. The first is an Andrea Guarneri model, the other a Maggini model, both of which have a back length of 16 1/4”. [See below]

 

If you look at the Andrea Guarneri, the position of the bridge, the f holes and the c bouts are relatively low on the instrument. The relatively low position of the bridge means that the part of the strings overlying the belly [the body stop] is relatively long. The viola maker then has to decide how long the neck should be. If this was a violin it would be simple; the neck length compared with the body stop [the distance from the bridge position to the edge of the belly next to the neck] is always in the ratio of 2 : 3. With a viola it is quite possible to do the same thing, and some instrument makers do in fact use the 2 :3 proportion, so in this case the neck would end up at 148 mm. But when I make this model I always use a neck length of 140 mm, violin makers allowing themselves to vary the neck length/body stop ratio on violas from 2 : 3  to 2 : 3.2 . The reason I use a shorter neck length is because the extension of the left arm is that much less, so the same ‘size’ viola feels smaller and more comfortable.

Andrea Guarneri model

Maggini model

With the Maggini model however, the position of the bridge, f holes and C bouts is significantly higher up the instrument. This means the body stop [the distance from the bridge to the belly edge next to the neck] is significantly shorter than on the Andrea Guarneri. If I was to make the neck the same length as the Andrea Guarneri, the overall string length would be rather short. One effect of a short string length is that the strings are at a lower tension when tuned to the correct pitch, and therefore the downwards pressure on the bridge is also lower. Although viola strings work at a range of lengths, there is a range beyond which the strings are working outside their ideal parameters. So with the Maggini model I increase the neck length to 148mm. Nonetheless the overall string length is still shorter on this model than on the Andrea Guarneri.

Which is more comfortable?

So the question for the viola player is which instrument is more comfortable, the Andrea Guarneri model or the Maggini?

 

For the left arm, the Andrea Guarneri requires less extension, and because the bridge is also nearer your body, the bow arm is also nearer your body, which also makes it easier to play. The Maggini model however, does have a shorter string length so your fingers are closer together. So, if you have relatively long arms but short fingers this model would probably suit you. If, as is more common, the limiting factor is the extension of your left arm, then the Andrea Guarneri model would be easier and more comfortable to play.

 

Why then, would anyone other than those with short fingers choose to make or play a Maggini model? The answer is in the sound, the Brescian models such as Maggini tending to have a different quality of sound, more reedy, somewhat broader and less sweet. Within the wide range of viola sound, some viola players prefer this sound, and if you are big enough to play it comfortably, that is fine.

Small Violas

For many people a viola of 16” is just too big. I know of so many cases of painful necks, bad backs, aching arms and stiff shoulders to be convinced that playing a viola that is too large for you will cause you problems. That is why I have put considerable time into developing small violas, refining details to make them easy to play whilst producing a proper viola sound.

 

Just as with medium sized violas, there is a variation in size with small violas. They may be as short as 15”, or nearly 16”, but the variation in neck length and string length can also make an enormous difference between instruments with the same length of back. For example, take my two most common small violas; a Pietro Guarneri model of 15 ½” and an Anselmo Bellosio model of 15 ¼”.

 

With both models the extension of the left arm is less than with the 16 1/4” Andrea Guarneri model, because the back is obviously shorter, and the neck is a little shorter too. The string length of the Pietro Guarneri model, however, is only 6mm shorter than that of the Andrea. Viola strings tend to work better with a reasonably long open string length, which is one reason I like this model, as the f holes are fairly low so the string length can be maximised without having a long body or a long neck. The low f hole and bridge position also mean that the right arm does not need to be extended forward as much. However, for those with small hands or short fingers, this string length can still be too much, which is where the Bellosio model is useful.

 

With the Bellosio model, the body stop [the distance between the bridge and the edge of the belly, just next to the neck] is 10mm shorter than the A Guarneri model, 7mm shorter than the P Guarneri model. However, I do not make the neck length proportionally shorter, to avoid making the overall string length too short.

Comparison of Viola Size and Models

Model

Length of back

neck length

Open string length

Body stop

Distance of nut from the player’s body [back + neck length]

Distance from bridge to bottom of instrument [back length minus body stop]

Andrea Guarneri [16¼]

412

140

369

222

552

190

Maggini [16¼ ]

412

140

357

210

552

202

Pietro Guarneri [15½ ]

394

139

363

219

533

175

Bellosio [15¼ ]

388

138

354

212

526

176

 

 

 

Examining this table shows how the different factors work together. The second column shows how I keep the neck lengths of the different models fairly constant, to avoid having too short a string length. Because the body stop of the Maggini is so short I could make the neck longer to increase the open string length, but that would also increase the left arm extension, too far for most people. Notice how the open string length of the Maggini is actually shorter than the ‘smaller’ Pietro Guarneri, but the left arm extension at 552mm is 19mm greater. The last column shows how much you have to extend your right arm forwards to bow the strings. Because of its high f-hole position, the Maggini’s bridge is 12mm further away from the player’s body than the Andrea Guarneri, and 27mm further than that of the Pietro Guarneri, whilst the bridge of the Pietro model is very slightly nearer the player’s body than the shorter Bellosio.

 

 

 

In practise, this is how the various size variations may influence you as a player. If you have reasonably long arms and medium sized hands, the Andrea Guarneri would be worth considering, but if you have long arms with small hands, the Maggini might be better. If you have short arms and medium sized hands, the Pietro Guarneri would be a possibility, whilst if you have short arms and small hands, the Bellosio model would be a good choice.

 

 

Large Violas

There are some people who are big enough, with broad shoulders and long arms, to be able to play a big viola. For those few, if you find a viola that you like the sound of, and you can play it comfortably, that is fine. Depending on the other variables such as neck length, my inclination is to say you need to be over 6 feet tall, and broad across the shoulders if you want to play a viola much over 16 ½” in length. Although there was a tendency to play large violas in the middle of the 20th century, the improvement in strings has enabled a good sound to be produced from violas with a shorter string length, so even if you can play a large viola, you might like a medium sized one just as much.

Conclusion

Ultimately it is for each individual player to balance the sound they want to produce with an instrument that is comfortable to play. At one time it used to be said that to get a good viola sound required a big instrument, but improvements, particularly in string technology, have changed that perception. It is also the case that many older small violas weren’t much good. Inevitably these factors caused many violists to play instruments that were too big for them, often causing back, shoulder and arm problems. Nonetheless, it is easier to make a good sounding viola if it is over 16 inches long, particularly in respect of the C string, which is one reason why there is greater choice amongst instruments of this size.  However, just because it is hard to make a good sounding small viola, [so many violin makers don’t bother trying] that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

If you are thinking about getting a new viola, as far as size is concerned, there are three things you need to know about your present instrument and any you intend to try. These are the back length, the neck length and the open string length, with the body stop measurement as an optional extra. Adding the back length and neck length together will tell you how far you will need to extend your left arm. From this measurement, if you subtract the string length you will know how much your right arm will be extended, and the open string length will of course indicate how far apart your fingers will need to be.

Although these measurements will help you compare instruments and to understand why they feel different, what they do not tell you is whether the instrument is heavy, whether it has a comfortable neck, how easily it responds, or of course, what it sounds like. To find those things out you will have to play it!

 

 

 

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