An essential part of the symphony orchestra, the viola consists of 4 strings that create tones a fifth lower than a violins corresponding strings. Somewhat larger than a violin, the viola is associated often with classical music. Although they are usually found in string quartets and orchestras, violas are also used occasionally in classic, indie and folk rock music.
Available in numerous sizes, younger players normally trade in their violas for larger ones as they grow and progress with the instrument. It's crucial that a younger player has a viola that fits their stature, for a viola that's too big can lead to troublesome situations such as tendonitis. Violas with a length of 15 inches or more are considered to be 4/4 size or full size.
Normally made by machine, student violas are crafted specifically for beginners. Maple is occasionally used for high-friction parts like the pegs and fingerboards, but it is dyed black to look like ebony, which is normally found on violas. Student violas are quite affordable, and superb for players still in the early stages.
The quality and workmanship of an intermediate viola is higher than a student viola, and they're crafted mostly (if not entirely) by hand. For this reason, they sound better, and in some cases they're even used at more advanced levels. The pegs and fingerboards are typically constructed with ebony, and extensive hand graduation of the violas top and back creates a warmer, sophisticated tone.
For the top of a viola, only straight-grained spruce is used. Since most of a violas sound comes from the top of the instrument, a naturally aged, straight-grained spruce is the only material firm enough to handle the strings heavy attention, and ensure a rich sound. Five years is the minimum age preferred of viola makers, but the longer the natural aging, the better.
To enhance a violas stability and beauty, the sides, neck and back are typically constructed with maple.
To ensure that a viola doesn't feel top heavy, a strong yet light wood is needed for the pegs, tailpiece and fingerboard. For this reason, ebony is the preferred choice.
To enhance a violas beauty and sound characteristics, exotic woods such as rosewood and boxwood are sometimes used for the pegs, chinrests, and tailpieces.
An ornamental piece on a violas top.
Typically crafted from a very dense wood. These are used to adjust string tension, for tuning purposes.
These sit between the nut and scroll to secure the violas pegs. Holes on both sides of the peg box are tapered to make tuning easier.
Normally crafted from a quality hard maple. A lot of stress is placed on the neck. In fact, proper tuning can put around 200 pounds of tension on the neck alone.
Glued at the top of the neck, the strings are pressed against this long, dense and stiff wood. Meant to add strength to the neck and keep it from warping. Quality fingerboards are made from ebony, and scooped inward towards the center.
The viola bridge stays in place solely by tension, and is higher where the lowest string crosses. For proper sound transmission, quality bridges are hand-fitted against the body.
For a freer response, two holds are cut in the top of a viola. This also allows sound to be projected from the instruments interior.
Generally for cosmetic purposes, the tailpiece is made of the same material as the pegs and endpin, but any dense material will do.
These were originally made from animal intestine. Now, tail guts are made from nylon, and are meant to hold the tension from the violas strings into the button, over the saddle.
Located at the bottom of a viola, this small button-like feature holds the tail gut.
Found on the inside of the frame, the sound post delivers vibration from the top to the back, and offers structural support.
A long piece of wood that's glued under the lowest string, inside the frame. The bass bar disperses sound over the violas entire length, and strengthens the structural support of the top.
For proper fit, your jaw should actually rest against the chinrest, and your chin should be close to the tailpiece. Chinrests come in a multitude of heights, shapes and sizes to suit different levels of comfort, and by purchasing a set of longer barrels, they can be easily adapted for the instrument.
Manufacturers employ stringed instrument makers (known as "luthiers") depending on their level of experience. Building a viola is an artistic endeavor as much as it is a scientific one, and it requires a certain level of patience and skill. For this reason, less experienced luthiers normally work on less-expensive, student violas. However, as their experience increases, so does the level of viola they craft.
To prepare the viola so that it plays at its greatest potential, manufacturers employ "setup" technicians. Responsibilities of the setup musicians include adjusting proper depth and shape of the notches at the nut and bridge, the shaping and shaving of various components, precise fit and finish of pegs, and tuning.
To further enhance the beauty of a stringed instrument, a technique called "flaming" is used. Flaming is meant solely to improve the instruments visual appeal, and will not necessarily improve the sound quality.
Constructed from two pieces of wood that are glued together, instrument backs are commonly "book-matched". While this doesn't necessarily enhance the sound quality, it will give the string instrument a uniform appearance.
Not counting a players skill level, the most influential factor of a violas sound quality is the choice of strings. There isn't any definite type of string that all players must use. Every string type has their own characteristics, each of which are more fitting for different situations, from country to orchestral performances. How much the viola costs, as well as an individual's preferences are also big factors.
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