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The pursuit of perfection

Viola making is an art that raises unique questions. Is bigger really better? Should an instrument blend in or stand out? Weask five luthiers what theyhave learnt about making the best instrument possible
Frandsens violas follow classic models, modied to maximise player comfort

Les Ponts de C, Angers, France


range of dimension and tessitura that is possible. ble. In the 1990s, and well into the new century, Imade ade violas that were between 16 inches and 17.5 inches hes in size. The fashion then was for violas that were ere as big as possible, and which would create a sound und approaching that of a cello. Luckily, this seems to have changed a 17.5-inch Gasparo da Sal model sounds ounds gorgeous, but few people are able to play one. To make a viola that sounds good, you need an n excellent model and some well-chosen tonewood. The models I have used have mainly been by Cremonese makers Amati and Guarneri, and Brescian makers Maggini and Gasparo da Sal. These two schools of viola making have very distinct sonorities that both work well. I prefer to use low- or average-density wood that is resonant and well structured. Many other factors also influence the sound. d. The shape, height and flexibility of the arching, for example, are major determining factors. The volume of the sound box is also important. If the ribs are too deep, the instrument will have an unfocused, barrel-like tone that will not carry. On the other hand, if the ribs are too shallow, the instrument will lack amplitude of sound and resonance. I like to consider arching heights and rib depths as a single unit: when the arching is high, the ribs can be deeper, and vice versa.

Its important not to neglect the aspects that influence playing t comfort, and which can make a viola feel smaller than it actually is. These include the weight of the wood, the size and shape of the neck, and a workable neckbody ratio: I favour a ratio of 2:3 for a small viola rising to 2:3.2 for a large one. The perfect 2 set-up is also essential: the pegs must setturn smoothly, and the fingerboard curve must be smooth and in perfect relation to the bridge. The height, curve and string spacing of the bridge must be right and the soundpost must be well adjusted so that the sound emission is even, openandprecise. The challenge is to make an instrument that has a deep, rich sound and at the same time is easy to play in other words, one that is not too big. The smaller the viola the bigger the challenge.



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Sale, Manchester, UK
THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON Ive learnt about making a good viola is to be flexible in my approach. There is far more variation in violas than in violins or cellos, and the special challenge of f viola making is to embrace and enjoythis. Initially I had to lose my fear of making a viola that was smaller than the gold standard of 16 inches or more. When I was a violin making student, the prevailing assumption was as that smaller instruments didnt really eally work. It took me some time to respond spond to players who were asking for smaller instruments, and to rethink my ideas so that I could successfully make violas of any size. Body length is not the only thing that determines how comfortable an instrument is to play. Violas do not have a standard string length, and I find that taking advantage of the possible variations can be a useful refinement as regards playability: if the string length is comfortable, the violist can often manage a larger body size. So I take my cue from Brescian violas, the f-holes of which are set higher up the front than in Cremonese instruments, giving a correspondingly shorter stop. Reduced weight can be achieved through reducing the size of the head, with neat blocks and linings, and this can be vital in saving the player from strain. Ive now thrown out all my college measurements for string spacing and neck shape. Its seldom necessary, unless the player has particularly large hands, to make the neck any wider than for a violin. In fact narrower can be better: because the left arm is straighter on the viola, the hand cant rotate as much, and notes on the C string are harder to reach. A comfortable instrument is no use unless it works, of course. I start by choosing the model carefully I always look for a good width in the C-bouts of the instrument, and f-holes that are not too close together. I like the arching to be quite high and full, but I like the ribs to be relatively low. Ithink this gives a broader spectrum of tone colour and a more focused sound than one finds in flatterarched violas with deeper ribs. Im fussy about the wood I use: usually its either slab-sawn maple or poplar for the backs, which help to give a darker sound. For the fronts I like medium or wide-grained spruce that is low-density but strong, as I find that I can achieve a better-projecting and more responsive sound by making the plates relatively lighter and more flexible than I would do for aviolin.

Michetschlgers violas have generous arching and low ribs, and she has responded to demands for relatively small models by keeping a exible approach to string length



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London, UK
WHEN I MAKE A VIOLA, my main considerations are size, playability, amplification and creating an instrument that has that dark, full viola sound. I favour low-density wood and a body length of 16 inches, because I can fit a playable vibrating string length of play 367mm to instruments of this 3 size. This is crucial to the end sound and for overall playing comfort. Clients of different sizes all manage to handle this ratio of body size to vibrating string length very well. Making a larger instrument than this would i produce a different sound, but pro not necessarily be better, it would wo and d it would be more strenuous to play. The dimensions of the moulds that I use, which were drawn by Geoffroy Mercier, help to achieve the amplification and the dark, rich tone I am looking for. The rib structures are quite deep (3739mm), and the arching heights of the front and back are around 18.519mm. I finalise the archings with a block plane and this makes them quite full. The f-holes on my violas are straighter than the norm: the upper eyes are 50mm apart, and the lower eyes are 23mm from the edge. To produce a good viola, you have to look at the centre of the instrument. I concentrate on the space between the f-holes this is where arching and thicknesses are of greatest importance. Good thicknesses for the front are 3mm in the middle section going down to 2.5mm in the upper and lower bouts. For the back, I find that a thickness of 5.5mm in the centre, going down to 2.5mm in the upper and lower bouts, is ideal. I have found that making the bass-bar more parallel to the centre join of the front improves the tone and amplification. I also use a high saddle and a high neck step to give a flatter string angle. On some violas, I also hollow out the tailpiece. These factors tend to produce instruments with good amplifying power: less bow pressure is needed to produce a good sound. Another way of making a viola more comfortable to play is by making the neck as thin as possible. This and a more rounded upper bout enable the player to go up the fingerboard moreeasily. I cant say I have all the answers: I am still trying to find my ideal viola tone.

The thickness and arching of the wood between the f-holes is all-important to Yann Besson when making violas



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Concord, Massachusetts, US
IVE SPENT MY LIFE trying to make a viola

small enough to be playable while preserving that glorious cello-like sound that really good d violas have. I have experimented with maple and other hardwoods to find warm resonances, and to see what works within the same model. Its not necessarily light hardwoods that give you a warm sound. Its sometimes the denser types, paired with a spruce that has a nice, quick response. I use del Ges as a model, rather than Stradivari. As far as Iknow he did not make a viola, but there are lessons to be learnt from his violins: a wide C-bout in relation to the upper bouts, less of the Stradivari slender-waisted figure. Also, del Ges f-holes are further apart, longer and more open, so theres greater interchange with the air in the room. There are similar features in Montagnanas violins. These are the darkest-sounding instruments of their kind, so I try to transfer that over to the viola. I have experimented greatly with rib height, and discovered that more is not better. You have to reach a minimum, above

which you are only adding problems for the player. The ribs have to be 37mm or 38mm high, or you dont get the air cavity where you want it, but 44mm is not necessarily better than 41mm. I also have a series of b bridges prepared in which the only variable bri is the th width. The results are largely as you expect: the wider ones emphasise the lower would e frequencies and the narrower ones emphasise the treble frequencies. You are still limited by the bass-bar placement in how far you can go, but you can vary it a little bit. F-hole placement is an important part of creating a viola that is warm to play and still powerful enough for ensemble playing. The space between the upper eyes should be at least 48mm for all violas, and usually more. The central portion of the spruce top, defined by the f-holes, is the first area that the bridge excites. If this area is too small because the f-holes are too short, or positioned too close together, a more soprano voice will be created. In addition, the f-holes must lie well in the arch. This will happen naturally with a wide-waisted model that has a full arch.



Bonn, Germany Ger and London, UK
Greiner aims to give his violas a sound colour that lies between that of the violin and cello


viola is. With th the violin, its much more viola there are two general clear. With the vi directions. Some have overtones like a good cello or a good violin, sounding exactly in between betwe the two. On the other there are viola players who hand the go fo for a more nasal sound, like a bassoon. Some people really real prefer this sound. They only onl want this darkness, to kill all the overtones. This nasal nas sound comes from an overtone area at around o 1,000Hz. Having a strong 1,00 1,000Hz 1,000H overtone would be the deat death of every good violin or cello, which ideally have dominant overtones in d theregion 2,0004,000Hz, th but with the viola it b is accepted. The violas that Iprefer and try to build have the maximum amount of overtones, as a a good violin would

have. The sound colour should lie between that of the violin and cello so that when you have a string quartet playing down a scale there would not be a break when the viola starts. I make 16- and 16.5-inch h instruments, but the tone Im looking for has nothing to do with the size only with the overtones. I dont just trust that just the wood, or the size, or the shape will bring the result. I have to work on the finished instrument to bring out the overtones that I am looking for. The size of the body could affect whether or not you have a dark C string, but what projects the sound is having the right overtones. To influence the overtones I can do many things, including changing the thickness of the plates, changing parts of the bridge and fingerboard, and moving the soundpost in the traditional manner. Every single part of the instrument gives you an opportunity to change the sound. Of course, the 16.5-inch instrument is better sounding when you are close to it, but it is difficult to play, so the 16-inch model is a compromise. When you are in the concert hall it is only the overtones that influence the sound, and these are not dependent on the size of theinstrument.


To read The Strads viola issue from June 2001, which includes a report on a Finnish technique enabling fractional violins to be strung as violas, subscribe to The Strad Archive at



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