The viola receives an ergonomic rethink—and weary players give a sigh of relief
Don Ehrlich is used to hearing viola jokes. His admittedly wacky-looking instrument has been called “Viola de Gumby,” and violinist Isaac Stern said that it looked like it had been left out in the sun too long. But for Ehrlich, former assistant principal of the San Francisco Symphony, his ergonomic viola, a Rivinus, is no laughing matter.
“For me, it’s been a lifesaver,” Ehrlich says. “Before this viola, I had a series of injuries to the left side, and they’ve all cleared up.”
In response to players like Ehrlich, some violin makers are taking the traditional viola and turning it into something more playable. They argue that as the viola repertoire has become increasingly virtuosic, the instrument must evolve, too.
Michigan-based violin maker Joseph Curtin calls his redesigned viola the Evia, a shortened version of “experimental viola.” With sloped shoulders and gamba-like corners, the instrument is about a third lighter than its conventional equivalent.
“As soon as you start looking, there are all sorts of possibilities,” he says of lightening the instrument. Instead of using ebony, a dense and heavy wood, the fingerboard is made from mahogany with a harder veneer on top. The back uses another lightweight wood—willow—and a lighter scroll and fittings. A reduced-mass bridge (see related story) reduces weight, too.
“If one reduces the overall mass of the bridge, it has an ‘un-muting’ effect on the sound,” Curtin says. “That works well on viola, especially for projection.”
Stretching the Body
Trying to play virtuosic repertoire on a large, traditional viola, violin maker David Rivinus says, is like trying to win the Tour de France on a traditional steel frame bicycle. Oregon-based Rivinus initially put ergonomics before acoustics, resulting in a radical redesign of the viola. The most well-known of his instruments is the unique Pellegrina, designed to shift the air chamber into places that won’t interfere with playability.
But there were smaller changes, too.
Like Curtin, Rivinus has made the fingerboard lighter, using phenolic resin instead of ebony. The fingerboard is also exceptionally “banked,” or higher on the C-string side of the instrument, so that the player’s arm doesn’t have to reach so far around on the lower strings.
Ehrlich says his Pellegrina allowed him to recover from chronic injuries. Since purchasing his first “Pell” in 1997, he has become close friends with Rivinus, and the two have worked together to improve the instrument’s sound and playability.
The instrument took some getting used to, because he can’t rely on old physical cues. But there are some advantages, such as the instrument speaking immediately, unlike his other traditional viola. “The sound has gotten deeper, rounder, and smoother as I’ve played the viola, and David has made changes,” he says.
When Ehrlich first played the instrument, it sounded like white chocolate, he says. “Now it’s milk chocolate,” he adds, “and getting towards dark.”
Shifting the Fingerboard
At first glance, Dalton Potter’s ergonomic viola seems like a traditional instrument. But look closer, and you’ll notice asymmetrically aligned ribs and a fingerboard shifted to the right, so that the C-string side of the instrument has about 10 percent more of the body and air cavity, says Potter, president of the Potter Violin Company in Bethesda, Maryland.
Potter has sold about 150 of the $5,500 instruments, called the Mastertone Shortstring Viola, which are handmade by independent luthiers in the United States and then varnished in Potter’s shop.
“Stringed instruments are beautiful, but I’ve yet to see an ergonomic viola that is beautiful,” violin maker Robert Spear says. “But I’ve been in this business long enough that I see what has happened to people who bought 17-inch violas from me 30 years ago.”
In designing an ergonomic viola, the Ithaca, New York–based luthier rounded the shoulders and shortened the string length. By shortening the neck and putting the shoulders in the correct proportional spot, he created a viola with a 16-inch body and the string length of a 15-inch instrument.
In the future, Spear may also add geared pegs to his ergonomic violas, which will make tuning easier and the instruments slightly lighter.
The Ergonomic Future
Makers agree that in string playing, looks matter. “The minute you try to do something new or different in this field, you become instantly and painfully aware of how bound we are by tradition,” Spear says.
“I think we’ll see makers like me who have a conservative approach make changes that are enough to attract players, but don’t attract visual attention,” Potter says. “I don’t think you’ll see the unusually shaped things go very far.”
Curtin points out that synthetic bows, which once attracted attention, have become much more acceptable. Nontraditional violas could be the same way. “I think that life can be so much easier for working violists than it is,” he says.
Still, commerce is a two-way street. Makers are reluctant to invest time and money into making instruments that they don’t know they can sell, he says. “It takes curiosity and open-mindedness from players as well as makers [to make these instruments accepted]."
This article, "Ergonomic Violas," is part of the Strings Archive, which you can access with a paid site subscription.
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