When it comes to buying a viola, it is never a one-size-fits-all matter. Unlike the violin, the viola does not come in a standard size. Even among violas of the same size, there might be differences in their sound due to their different details like strings, wood materials and so on. Amateur and professional violists have all encountered problems when getting the perfect fit – size, acoustics, projection and comfort. So how do you go about buying a viola? What should you consider when buying a viola? What viola brand is right for you?
Should I Even Buy a Viola?
The first question you need to ask when looking to buy a viola is whether buying is even the right option for you. In our “Should I Rent or Buy a Viola?” guide, we offer an overview of the costs associated with renting and buying violas to give you an overview of the options.
Violas come in different levels for players on different stages of their learning journey. Many students start out by renting violas for practice until they are ready to own one. Essentially, violas fall under three categories:
- Student Violas: These are for beginners. Young students or players at the early stage of learning the viola are constantly working on the basics of playing, tone production, fingering, bowing etc. Hence, maple (dyed black to resemble ebony) is sometimes used for the pegs and fingerboards, areas that are exposed to more friction. Student violas are mostly machine-made to keep costs low while maintaining tone consistency. Quite affordable. Prices range from $200 – $2,500.
- Intermediate to Advanced Violas: With higher workmanship, the sound of an intermediate viola is also much better. There are more dynamics and stronger projection. The pegs and fingerboards are crafted with ebony and most of the instrument is handcrafted. Prices range from $500 – $10,000.
- Professional Violas: Pure craftsmanship using the finest quality of wood, professional violas exude a rich tone and wide dynamics. Masterpieces like these are expensive. Prices go from $10,000 onwards.
Typically, how much one pays for a viola is how much one can expect from the quality. A viola priced at the extreme low hundreds tends to be “unplayable” while the more expensive ones can balance both playability and sound production better. Of course, the price is not always merely an indication of product quality. Sometimes, it also incorporates the name of the violin maker. As a violin maker’s fame increases, so does the value of the instruments he crafts.
For a detailed analysis on different viola brands, check out our best viola brands guide.
How to Choose the Right Viola
Ask Your Teacher
The first piece of advice given by experts, violin makers and professional violists would be for the student to consult her teacher. Music teachers understand what their students need more than anyone would. They can make better recommendations given their experience and close bond with the students.
The second piece of advice would be to go to a violin shop and test out their violas. Violas are less well-known than violins. Naturally, there will not be a variety of violas as comprehensive as the violins to choose from. Give our best viola brands guide a review before you go to test violas so that you know which viola brands to look for. The selection may be scarce at general music shops but that selection will open up a lot more at a good violin shop. Try not to purchase a viola over the Internet without testing it first. Trying out an instrument in person is crucial. Only then can the student feel if the size is comfortable, the projection far enough, or if the resonance is right.
Here are other factors for consideration:
- The size affects the sound. In the past, violists suffered the weight and bulk of their instruments for the sake of good sound quality. This often led to health problems. Fortunately, in recent decades, a new generation of violin makers has been able to create smaller violas with an improved sound production. The size of a viola refers to the length of its body. It does not include the neck. Adults typically play the 15.5” – 16.5” viola. Still, one should consider the player’s height and arm length when purchasing a viola.
- Chin and shoulder rest, the height of the ribs, the size of the upper bout, neck size, string or scale length all contribute to how big the instrument feels and how well it plays. Comfort matters more than size in the sense that if a violist struggles during the playing experience, she simply won’t play well.
- Responsiveness, resonance, tone, projection. The viola’s sound is mellow and darker in nature. In an orchestra, the violist needs to make sure that she can be heard above the other instruments, hence projection in particular is very important. All of these sound elements will affect a player’s performance, which is why choosing a viola in person rather than over the Internet, or investing in a higher quality viola, is necessary.
- Getting a powerful C string is sweet, but do not neglect the other strings. Ensure there is coherence in sound quality in all four strings. Also, it seems that shorter strings are more comfortable to play at, but longer strings may give a slightly stronger power. It all depends on what it is the player prizes.
- The quality and weight of the bow can affect a performance. Be sure to test several of them out before buying.
To evaluate the violas, test them with different bows, play scales, play different passages (both fast and slow ones), play all strings in all registers, and play with and without vibrato. Check the tone of different violas. Which sounds most appealing? Is it easy to move on the fingerboard? If possible, ask someone else (perhaps another violist or teacher in the shop) to play the viola while you stand across the room to listen. Does the sound project well?
Quality of the Material
The quality of the viola material impacts both the sound and the viola price. Cheaper woods from America and China usually have a brighter sound compared with the warmer and sweeter tones of the more-expensive European woods. The “flame,” or as some say “tiger stripe,” on the back, sides and scroll of the viola affects the viola price than the top spruce grain. A high “flame” content is highly desired for its beauty and is generally indicative of a higher viola price and better the sound as compared to a viola with little or no “flame,” mostly found on student instrument’s. A well-made viola will be able to hide the center crease on the back with the flame. This is one way of quickly identifying quality workmanship.
Strong Viola Flame
Where to Buy a Viola
It is not necessary to buy extremely expensive violas. There are plenty of high quality instruments in the mid-price range that could also be satisfying. The main thing to remember is to purchase from a reputable retailer that has a refund policy and which allows you to try out their instruments. Consult a teacher for recommendations if possible. Other retailers are second-hand retailers, luthiers and, if the Internet is your only choice, Amazon and eBay.
Should You Rent or Buy a Viola?
If you are shopping for a student viola, you will often be tempted to rent an instrument so that there is no long-term committemnt and you don’t have to worry about reselling if the student doesn’t continue playing past the contract period. However, there are several good reasons why buying a viola instead of renting is a good idea:
- Rental fees often add up quickly. Let’s say you have a 12-month rental contract where you pay $30/month. In the end you’ll end up paying $360, when you could’ve bought a new or gently used viola for ~$200. While many music shops will give you rental credit during the contract that could be used to buy a viola at the end of the contract, you’d probably be better off buying the viola outright.
- Music shops will often all you trade up violas you have bought from them or other shops. If you need a bigger or better viola, most music shops will defray the new viola price with the resale value of the viola you bought originally.
- A well-chosen beginner’s instrument that is well cared for will retain its value and usually return a substantial part of its purchase price when sold used or traded in for a better quality instrument.
- Higher-quality violas may appreciate in value over time; their voices “open up” as they age.
- Rental instruments may be a bit worse for wear with nicks, scratches, tape marks on the fingerboard, and come with used strings and an already rosined bow. You’re also liable for any damage on a rented violin.
What Else Do I Need?
For a complete list of viola accessories you will need to buy in addition to the viola, see our Buying a Viola Checklist guide.
- Case: To store your viola, you need a solid case since the instrument is very fragile. If the viola is for a student, a sturdy case is even more of a necessity. Most beginner viola outfits come with a sturdy case, but just in case (no pun intended), there are some great hard viola cases on Amazon.
- Rosin: Rosin is applied to your bow and used to create friction between your bow and viola. Without rosin, your viola would not make any sound.
- Bow: Picking the right viola bow to use with your viola is key. You need to make sure it sounds good, but at a reasonable price. See our guide to buying a viola bow.
- Shoulder Rest: The shoulder rest is optional, but adds a layer of support and comfort between you and the viola.
- Extra Strings: While not as likely to break or fray as violin strings, viola strings do occasionally break. Keeping an extra pair in your case is highly recommended.
The bottom line when buying a viola is to make sure you like it. If it doesn’t sound right, don’t buy it. If it doesn’t feel comfortable, don’t buy. You’re going to be spending hundreds and thousands of hours in an orchestra and the viola needs to fit you. To borrow a line from Harry Potter, the viola chooses the player.