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A bunch of viola questions
New to Viola and have some questions. (Note: this topic thread contains a lot replies of various tips and info about the viola and strings.)
Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 (69 votes) 
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Ash Telecaster
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June 26, 2021 - 7:12 pm
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Hello, 

I am a long time guitar/bassist. I decided to expand my horizons and buy a Viola. I like the tonal range and felt it would pair well with acoustic guitar compositions.

I bought a Fiddlerman Concert. It was expertly set up and came with a great accessory package. I consider it to be a decent instrument and an exceptional value. 

I have found learning to play it is waaaaay harder than I anticipated. It's been a few months, I can play Bach Minuet 1 and 2, and a few others, and can jam pretty freely in first position in the keys of C, G, and D, and their reletive minors and am working on E, which is pretty hard. Haven't broken the vibrato barrier yet. 

I love the instrument and decided I am in it for the long haul. I am determined to get good at it. 

I finally broke down and got a remote instructor, Aubrey Fineout. She's brilliant and super talented. She has a few killer videos on YouTube.

She has been a lot of help but I am still having some issues. She plays one note and it sounds killer. I can't seem to get that kind of tone. I know that a lot of that is technique but I'm thinking about the instrument and contemplating upgrading.

I'm wondering a couple things.

What do I have to spend to get a solid instrument for recording, that I can grow into, and where is the point of diminishing returns?

I was looking at the Fiddlerman Master and wondering if it is likely to meet the need? 

I see a couple Scott Cao Violas on Fiddlershop in my price comfort range. They don't appear to have all the accessories. They also come in 17" where the Fiddlerman Master Max's out at 16.5". I wonder if that extra half inch Will make a big difference in tone. They seem to be a well respected brand.

Why do more expensive Violas only have 1 micro tuner instead of 4?

The geared tuning pegs seem like a pretty good idea. Seems like a no brainer. I'm surprised they aren't standard. Is there something I'm missing?

I see bows costing $500 and more. I have to admit that seems crazy. Like spending $50 for a guitar pick. But I want to give myself the best chance to get great results. How much do I have to spend to get a good bow? 

Strings seem to be an important consideration. Any suggestions for strings? 

Any thing else I should consider?

Thank you in advance for sharing your thoughts! 

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stringy
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June 26, 2021 - 8:31 pm
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The way to get good at viola or violin is years of practice, changing instrument wont do anything there are no short cuts.

I play many string instruments including guitar, and have done for forty years.

Great tone is achieved through years of practice, most people dont need the tuners you mention because part of learning to play, in fact most of learning to play is training your ears.

vibrato is an advanced technique which takes years to learn, personally Iwouldnt even attempt it till you have been playing over a year and learned the very basics.

This forum is a good starting place for you, post a video of were you are at and you will get good advice, dont want to put you off but its not the same as learning guitar.

great people on here who are only to happy to help, and nearly all play many other instruments.

Bit more, bit more, snap #*÷?×[email protected]?#[email protected]

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GregW
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June 26, 2021 - 9:03 pm
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hey Ash and welcome to forum..

As far as a new instrument goes, I have 3 fiddles ..been trying to play going on 5 years now I think it is.  I feel like as far as a new piece of equipment helping.. for me it was a bow that helped.  or at least I felt a differnce.  It wasnt a magical jump in skill or anything but just a noticeable change.  there is no comparison really between a pick and a bow.. I have guitars, havent played near as long as you.  since fiddle pretty much just use them for cowboy chords now.

For me the fine tuners are easier since I stay in first and use alot of open strings.  no requirement to have them though.  I had them added with a composite tailpiece when i purchased.

Strings...same as guitar...your gonna have to find yours.

geared tuners..not sure..maybe weight changing the feel?  Fine tuners seem fine.lol

not alot of help i know but i think if you relate to buying better guitars when starting.. the setup will be the biggest help not the tonewood or who made it whatever.  as you progress you start noticing things different from instrument to instrument just like in guitars.  again..id say think bow upgrade at this point and experiment with different strings about every 6 months if your practicing alot just to try out different makes and stuff..  

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Mouse
June 26, 2021 - 9:04 pm
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Ash Telecaster said
Hello, 

I am a long time guitar/bassist. I decided to expand my horizons and buy a Viola. I like the tonal range and felt it would pair well with acoustic guitar compositions.

I bought a Fiddlerman Concert. It was expertly set up and came with a great accessory package. I consider it to be a decent instrument and an exceptional value. 

I have found learning to play it is waaaaay harder than I anticipated. It's been a few months, I can play Bach Minuet 1 and 2, and a few others, and can jam pretty freely in first position in the keys of C, G, and D, and their reletive minors and am working on E, which is pretty hard. Haven't broken the vibrato barrier yet.

You shouldn't even try vibrato yet. That won't come into lessons until at least a year, and it depends on your ability at that time. 

I love the instrument and decided I am in it for the long haul. I am determined to get good at it. 

I finally broke down and got a remote instructor, Aubrey Fineout. She's brilliant and super talented. She has a few killer videos on YouTube.

She has been a lot of help but I am still having some issues. She plays one note and it sounds killer. I can't seem to get that kind of tone. I know that a lot of that is technique but I'm thinking about the instrument and contemplating upgrading.

She has developed the proper bowing technique. and probably is in a studio with good acoustics.

I'm wondering a couple things.

What do I have to spend to get a solid instrument for recording, that I can grow into, and where is the point of diminishing returns?

I was looking at the Fiddlerman Master and wondering if it is likely to meet the need? 

I see a couple Scott Cao Violas on Fiddlershop in my price comfort range. They don't appear to have all the accessories. They also come in 17" where the Fiddlerman Master Max's out at 16.5". I wonder if that extra half inch Will make a big difference in tone. They seem to be a well respected brand.

The size viola play depends on tour size. There is a size chart online. I use a 15 1/2" because the 16" was too much of a stretch.

Why do more expensive Violas only have 1 micro tuner instead of 4?

It is because more experienced players, or those who can tune with the pegs do not need the tuners on the other strings. The A string in the viola, E string on a violin, are the thinnest and break easily if tuned too tight by using the pegs when you just need to tweak.

The geared tuning pegs seem like a pretty good idea. Seems like a no brainer. I'm surprised they aren't standard. Is there something I'm missing?

Some people think geared pegs are cheating, LOL. I guess when people started using a sewing machine instead of hand sewing, that was okay, but not geared pegs on a bowed string instrument. Geared pegs are GREAT! New technology is there. If you want to take advantage of it and can afford it, go for it. I put them on all my instruments.

I see bows costing $500 and more. I have to admit that seems crazy. Like spending $50 for a guitar pick. But I want to give myself the best chance to get great results. How much do I have to spend to get a good bow? 

Bows are an important part of producing the good tone you were talking about. I bet the instructor also has a really good bow. It is almost better to upgrade to a way better bow. A bowed string instrument is completely different from a guitar and you really cannot compare what is spent on a guitar pick and a bow. Completely different. A good bow is important.

Strings seem to be an important consideration. Any suggestions for strings? 

Strings depend on the tone your want, and what sounds best with your instrument. Two Concert Violas may sound best with two different brands of strings. I have a Concert Deluxe Viola. The strings I have on mine would sound different in your viola. I think the bow used makes a difference, as well as your bowing expertise, mine is not much expertise. LOL

Any thing else I should consider?

Thank you in advance for sharing your thoughts! 

  

I hope this was helpful. I am not an expert.

The Bumblebee Flies!

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ELCBK
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@Ash Telecaster -

Welcome to the Fiddlerman Forum! 

I can tell you're raring to go. 

You mention playing your Viola for a few months. 

Mind saying how many months (strings could be a factor)?  

Temperature/humidity controlled where you mostly practice? 

Aubrey is a pretty awesome violist - nice you can learn from her experience.

You'll get plenty of answers to all of your questions from some of the numerous members here with guitar backgrounds and Viola. 

Glad you've joined us here! 

https://i.pinimg.com/originals/18/21/9d/18219d74b9516c673a11effee5a9c8e1.png

 

- Emily

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AndrewH
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June 27, 2021 - 6:21 am
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On tone and technique:

* Good tone takes a lot of practice to develop. It requires a relaxed, flexible bow hand, and you may have to develop muscles you have not used for anything else.

* How you apply weight to the bow on the string is crucial. It's common for beginners to raise their elbow too high and press the bow into the string, which creates excess muscle tension in the shoulders and can result in a scratchy sound. Instead, the elbow should be in the same plane as the bow and string, or a bit lower if you need more weight on the string.

* Vibrato is not typically taught until you have good basic technique and consistently good intonation, because it requires a relaxed hand and because it can mask intonation problems. A lot of adult beginners want to rush into it because it's something the pros are obviously doing differently from them, but it's really not the secret to good tone as so many beginners believe. Music from the Baroque and Classical eras is performed with very little vibrato, with tone quality controlled almost entirely with the bow.

 

On equipment:

* First, a caveat: I have zero experience with Fiddlerman instruments or bows, because the last time I shopped for any instrument or bow was before Fiddlershop existed. So I can't speak to specifics about what you have, but I think most of the general ideas apply.

* In most cases, when you're in the student range, you can expect to get more benefit from upgrading the bow than from upgrading the instrument. That said, carbon fiber has been a real game-changer in terms of making decent bows more affordable. You can probably get something suitable for any conceivable amateur use for under $300.

* Note that your bow will be an ongoing expense, as it needs to be rehaired from time to time. If you're practicing regularly, a rehair will probably be needed about once a year (twice a year if you live somewhere with large seasonal variations in humidity), and depending on where you live it can cost anywhere from about $45 to $80. This assumes, of course, that it doesn't cost more to rehair your bow than to replace it. But if replacing the bow is the cheaper option, that says something about the materials used in the bow, and I would suggest that an upgrade is very worthwhile.

* About the fine tuners: many players prefer not to have fine tuners if possible, because they increase the weight of the tailpiece which affects the sound. However, because virtually all violin E strings and viola A strings are steel, which is not as stretchy as synthetic or gut strings, they cannot be tuned precisely without fine tuners.

* I personally prefer traditional pegs over geared pegs because, when well-fitted, they can be tuned faster than geared pegs (less motion required). It is also easier to replace strings with traditional pegs. However, geared pegs are a clear upgrade over poorly-fitted or low-quality traditional pegs that stick or slip, and are also much easier to use if you are still training your ears.

* Viola size is highly personal. Most violists try to go for the largest size that they can play comfortably (comfortably is the key word here), and that depends on a number of factors such as arm length, hand size, and body shape. Also, there are a variety of viola shapes that affect playability and tone. Although larger violas tend to sound deeper and project more, it is only a tendency; craftsmanship matters just as much. It isn't too hard to find excellent violas down to about 15". I play a 15.75" viola and, though smaller than average, it easily projects over an orchestra. In fact, many professional violists start their careers on 16.5" or larger violas and downsize to the 15.5"-16" range as they get older.

* Unfortunately, the only way to find the right strings for your viola is trial and error. Because no two pieces of wood are the same, no two violas are the same, even if they are the same model. I see that the Fiddlerman Concert viola commonly ships with Prelude strings; although those are relatively warm for steel strings, all steel strings are brighter than average. If you're trying to find the strings that work best, I would recommend starting with a neutral string near the middle of the spectrum (either Dominant or Tonica). With each routine string change, think about how you might want to change the tone -- you can refer to string charts that are found on several websites -- and after a few string changes you'll probably have settled on something that works well for you. I don't really believe in spending a lot of extra money testing a lot of different strings at once, because routine string changes will get you there soon enough. (Besides, it takes time to break in new strings, so testing a lot of strings at once is very time-consuming.)

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Gordon Shumway
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June 27, 2021 - 9:09 am
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My attempt at a simple explanation of tone (for beginners):-

Whatever hardware you've got, stick with it. Your practice will have far more effect than dollars (a beginner will sound like crap on a Strad). Except maybe if your rosin is very light, get something darker.

First, bow midway between fingerboard and bridge, parallel with the bridge.

Bow steadily (that takes practice).

Use as much pressure from your right index finger as possible (and natural weight from a low right shoulder), using your ears to judge if the sound is good or not. The steadier you can bow, the more pressure you will be able to use before it sounds bad. As you increase pressure from nothing to too much you'll go from whistling to weedy to good to crunchy.

Playing quietly needs a slow, very steady, bow and less pressure (but as much as possible for the bow speed).

Playing loud needs a fast bow and more pressure (as above).

--------------------------------------------------------------------

There's more - you have to angle the bow away from you - ie rotate it so the wood/carbon is further from you than the hair.

Your right wrist has to be flexible like a painter with a brush. You always pull the bow, never push it, even on the up bow.

Good vibrato will improve your tone, but only if your tone is good to begin with. If it's bad to begin with then your skill will be such that your vibrato will just sound like you've got the shakes, especially if your intonation is bad too. Like people have said, perfect your intonation along with your bowing before going near vibrato.

Intonation, tone, vibrato. If you've only got one of those three, intonation will be the one with the least risk of getting rocks thrown at you!

Face to face teaching is really best.

------------------------------------------------------------------

If you're a reader, get Galamian's book Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching.

It's 100 pages. Socrates said "mega biblion, mega kakon" "a big book is a big evil."

Others will scream, "No, read Simon Fischer" so far he has written 1,500 pages and is still going strong. I prefer not to recommend 1,500 pages to a beginner. "you only need to dip into them, they'll say". Problem is you'll need to know where to dip into them.

Subscribe to Nicky:- 

and Fiddlerman

Andrew

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Irv
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The difficulty in tuning a viola lessens if perlon (a synthetic material) is substituted for steel in the string core.  Tail piece fine tuners lessen the distance between the bridge and string end, which tends to dampen overtones.  They also add weight to the tail piece which can mute volume by adding system mass.  If possible, you are better off without them.

If a violinist can do without a fine tuner on the “a” string, one might ask the need for one on the same string for a viola.  Likely tradition.  

I like geared peg and have them for my instruments.  I think the need for them increases as you go up the food chain with string instruments as string tension increases.  They really come in handy on a cello and, of course, are indispensable on a string double bass.

Regarding instrument upgrade, it is generally best to row the rig and, as long as the instrument is in good repair, attempt to achieve best performance with what you have.

Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.         —Frank Zappa

The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed. —William Gibson

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Gordon Shumway
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I assume that fine tuners were invented when the E string became steel. In theory it's the only string that really needs it, but it's convenient to put them on all 4 strings. Pros don't like to be seen with more than one. And of course there will always be the brigade who swear they have a vast effect on your tone. My teacher's view on fine tuners is, if you've got them, use them. 

I have no idea what a viola's A string is made of. I suppose nylon, so no real need for a fine tuner. Tuning with pegs involves "sawing" which wears the strings out at the nut after a while (I've seen photos). Maybe it wears the nut out too, after a longer while. Geared pegs involve less sawing and less damage to strings and nut. You get people who say geared pegs worsen a violin's tone. My teacher has an 18th century viola with geared pegs.

Fine tuners involve sawing at the bridge, but far less of it, but you see stress on the strings there in photos.

I tune my violin once a week when I go to orchestra. During the week it stays in tune with itself.

Andrew

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JohnG
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Thanks for all the great tips in one place, forumites! And thanks to @Ash Telecaster for the intro that started this! I got answers to questions that I didn't even think to ask!

The old curmudgeon!

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Irv
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@JohnG .  Your mendini is not on an even starting line with the instrument of the original poster.  This would not give me any great concern.  The soviet violin of David Oistrakh was not on par with his western contemporaries, and he sold a few albums.

In particular, the set up involving the distance between the strings and the finger board, the curve of the bridge, the fit of the bridge to the top plate, and the thickness of the bridge pay dividends on ease of play and sound.  Not difficult to do, if needed, but I do not know if you are situated to do them.

Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.         —Frank Zappa

The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed. —William Gibson

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AndrewH
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@Irv and @Gordon Shumway , the vast majority of viola A strings are steel. I believe there are a few synthetic A strings on the market, but all of the popular string sets have steel A strings, and all of the commonly substituted A strings are steel as well. Thus a fine tuner is almost always necessary.

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Gordon Shumway
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AndrewH said
 the vast majority of viola A strings are steel

Strange.

Andrew

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Ash Telecaster
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Wow, blown away by all the awesome responses. 

Emily, it's been 4 months...tempus fugit.

I play every day but I don't think the strings are toast yet. I am curious to try different strings now.

As so many suggested, I'm going to buy a better bow. The Fiddlerman bow is probably decent but probably also budget as it was part of a package.

My teacher was suggesting Codabow so I'll try one of those.

I'll hold off on upgrading right now. I probably need to keep sawing away for a while before it makes sense to upgrade. That gives me plenty of time to investigate options.

As far as size, I am comfortable with the 16.5" and would probably be comfortable with the 17" as well.

Thank you everyone! 

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Gordon Shumway
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If you've got a Fiddlerman bow and you've been playing for 4 months, I'd say stick with the Fiddlerman bow. Rather, since it's a kit, stick with the kit. Buying new gear will just be a symptom of frustration with the slowness of the learning process. Maybe plan an upgrade for your first anniversary, but don't dive in now.

Andrew

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Gordon Shumway
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Gordon Shumway said

AndrewH said

 the vast majority of viola A strings are steel

Strange.

  

I was meaning it was strange, since violin A strings are mostly nylon. However, I suppose in the viola's case, tuning the A string with precision to the oboe is easier with a fine tuner.

Unfortunately that's still no reason why the string should be steel rather than nylon.

Andrew

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AndrewH
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It seems I'm mistaken about "all" of the popular viola string brands using steel A strings. Tonica does have a synthetic A. But it is very much the exception. Evah Pirazzi (green) and Warchal brands are offered with the option of either steel or synthetic A strings, though the majority of the online shops I've checked do not carry the synthetic A versions and most of the reviewers who have tried them prefer the steel A.

The use of steel A strings is probably more about upper-register timbre than anything else.

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Gordon Shumway
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AndrewH said
The use of steel A strings is probably more about upper-register timbre than anything else. 

Yes, that makes sense. Of course gut fans will want their say, lol!

I've avoided commenting on vcom, but since you're not a gut fan, I'll say it here - there was a gut fan in my community orchestra until last year. He was demonstrating something, I don't know what, but his notes were so out of tune I didn't even know which ones they were supposed to be. I asked my violist teacher about gut and she said something very rude.

Andrew

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Gordon Shumway
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I suppose someone not in the know might think there's such a vast difference between steel and nylon that mixing the two can't possibly work, but in fact their elastic properties are all that matters, and they are almost identical for any two elastic materials (tensions per gram may be hugely different, but steel strings are much thinner, reducing the weight, so keeping the tension more or less even, otherwise the instrument would break). The difference is in the timbre, as you say, which is only a subtle thing.

Andrew

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June 28, 2021 - 8:24 am
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This thread has some really great information. 

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