Viola sizes: Size does matter

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Viola players everywhere know the difficulty in finding the perfect instrument – but how many realise the differences that size, shape and weight can make to playability and tone? William Castle gives a step-by-step guide to finding the one that’s right for you

Any viola player who has ever played an instrument other than their own will appreciate that they come in various shapes and sizes. However, like shoes, violas that are ostensibly the same size as each other can still feel quite different. The reason for this is that although they may have the same back length, which is how we generally categorise viola size, the other dimensions can vary considerably. The classification according to back length may seem like a useful shorthand, but it is an oversimplification which ignores as much useful information as it imparts. To understand why, we need to understand how various aspects of viola size affect the player’s body.

VIOLA SIZE AND YOUR BODY

When you put a viola under your chin, the first thing you are likely to notice is how far you need to extend your left arm to play in first position. The left arm extension is well recognised as being important, and for many players it is the key factor regarding size. This is because holding your arm out is hard, and the further your arm is extended the more effort is required, both to hold the arm up and to move your fingers.

Once you start to play, your attention moves to how far apart your fingers need to be to play in tune. The finger spacing is entirely dependent on the length of the string, a long string length being particularly noticeable when playing in first position and when doing wide double-stops, especially if you have small hands or short fingers…

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