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Choosing a Viola

by Dr. Robin Kay Deverich

Should I rent or buy?

Renting or purchasing are both good options for those who are beginning the viola. If you’re buying a viola, it is essential to find and use a reputable dealer, music store or viola maker. It is strongly recommended that you enlist the help of your viola teacher or an advanced violist to help you choose a viola that is well-made, has a good tone and is worth buying. There are many poorly made violas out there, and price isn't the best way to determine the quality or sound of an instrument.

Before purchasing an instrument, it's a good idea to test and compare several violas before making a final decision. If you do decide to purchase online or through mail order, carefully investigate the company’s return policy to make sure you're able to return the instrument if you aren't satisfied with it.

What size viola should I get?

Although violins and cellos have standard sizes, there are no standard sizes for full-size violas. Full-size violas range from 15”-17” with typical sizes being: 15,” 15-1/2,” 16,” 16-1/2” and 17” with 16” being the average (some hand-made violas can be found in sizes such as 16-1/4,” 17-1/8” etc.). Sizes for smaller violas include: 11,” 12,” 13,” 14” and 14-1/2.” Viola sizes are determined by measuring the length of the back of the viola (excluding the neck, scroll and end button).

A knowledgeable instrument maker, music dealer or viola teacher should be able to help you find the right size viola for you or your child. Generally, most adults and teenagers use a 15" to 16-1/2” full-size viola (17” is typically a custom size), and children use viola sizes ranging from 11" -14.” Instead of purchasing a small viola, some beginning violists string violins as violas (the body length of a full-size violin is comparable to a 14” viola). As a general sizing guideline, when you hold the viola and place the chin rest under your left jaw, you should be able to extend your left arm under the viola and curve the tips of your left fingers around the end of the scroll, while maintaining a slight bend in your left elbow. If your fingers can't reach the end of the scroll, a smaller sized viola might be appropriate. Again, a violist or knowledgeable music dealer should be able to assist you with finding the correct size.

Are Viola bows the same size as violin bows?

No. Viola bows are slightly shorter and heavier than violin bows. They also use a wider band of horse-hair. Fractional sizes are often used to describe viola bows, and the following bow sizes correspond with viola sizes: 4/4 bow– 15-16.5+” viola, 3/4 bow – 13-14” viola, 1/2 bow – 12” viola, 1/4 bow – 11” viola.

I have an old viola. What’s my viola worth?

The best (and only) way to really determine the value of a viola is to take it to one or more reputable viola makers and have an expert look at it in person. They should be able to tell you in a matter of moments if it's worth much. Many inexpensive, machine made instruments have fake “Stradivarius” labels inserted in them, so a label often has little meaning.

Just a few of the many factors used in determining the value of an instrument include: whether or not the instrument is machine or handmade; who made the instrument (if it's handmade); the country or region the viola was made in; the age of the instrument; the sound quality and condition of the instrument; and previous repair jobs. Numerous other factors are also utilized, but again, only an expert can properly evaluate the worth of your instrument.

If the instrument does appear to be valuable, you may want to get several opinions (there are unscrupulous dealers out there). Music dealers generally charge for written appraisals (often used for insurance purposes), but they should be able to give you a rough verbal estimate if you're interested in selling or "trading up" (similar to buying a car---the value of your viola is applied to the purchase price of one of their violas).

Visit our Music Store for a sampling of violas, bows & cases.