The Vertical Viola Project
I haven't done anything relating to the vertical viola for a number of years now. However from time to time people get in touch with their experiences, so I've published some of these below. My own blog entries are further back.
If you want to contribute anything, please do get in touch - it would be great to hear other people's vertical viola experiences!
I have played the cello since 5th grade, now 52 years ago. In the last year I have become interested in fractional cellos. I bought a 1/4 cello and converted it to a baroque fingerboard, and I love the more intimate yet rich sound. It is wonderful. I then learned that some people have taken a very small fractional cello (1/10 or 1/8 size) and strung it with extra large viola strings to make a vertical viola. So, I bought a 1/10 cello on eBay and did just that. I love the sound of it. I have always loved the sound of a viola, and the thing that is great about using a 1/10 cello body is that the body is twice as deep, which means it has added volume and resonance yet it is still within the range of traditional viola size (17.5" body). It also gives me the advantage of playing the viola in a vertical position. I find that the violin/viola position is awkward since I learned how to play the cello vertically. I'm really just beginning to work with it, and I have no intention of giving up the cello. I recently bought a 5 string cello (I love to blow people's minds) and have played it in the community orchestra. I love to experiment.
Thanks for your post, and keep up the experimentation. That's the only way that new and original things happen!
Rocky Hill, CT USA
"Blessed Cecilia, appear ....to all musicians, ...and inspire: Translated Daughter, come down and startle Composing mortals with immortal fire." [W. H. Auden, from 'Hymn to St. Cecilia, Benjamin Britten]
What an auspicious day to begin entries on this blog: the feast day of St. Cecilia, patron saint of Music!
Well, my Vertical Viola arrived from Canada a few days ago. I have searched long and hard this last year, for an instrument that will allow me to continue playing viola in my 'dotage' - i.e., in my sixth decade. After trying numerous 'ergonomic' and varied-sized violas (all played in the violin/horizontal position) the pain in my left wrist was still there, and seeming to increase the more I played. I made it through my first Orchestra concert since college, with a lovely community orchestra, but the fear of that stabbing pain in my left hand, made my desire to just 'go with the music' almost impossible. It was the last straw.
I realized (in my analysis of this problem) that typing and playing piano (i.e, horizontal activities) did not hurt; so I eventually deduced a Vertical Viola was in my future; but only after a number of events pushed me, kicking and screaming (literally) in the direction of learning an entirely new technique/approach to viola playing. Let me explain.
My motivation to go the route of a VV, was confirmed while driving across country with my son this summer. Earlier in June, I had attended a String Camp for Avocational Adults. While there, I slipped and hurt my shoulder/wrist in the shower, then continued to play for the closing concerts. I drove home, and the next week, my son and I started our trek across country, having some 'guy time.' While he spent his week at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, I daily tried to practice viola, even after the injury earlier that month. Even though I had a lovely time at a B&B, and only practiced about an hour a day, I did 'something' that caused pain toward the end of the week- a LOT of pain! (Eventually, my son had to drive the entire way home- through three states). While I sat in the passenger seat, my shoulder in such pain, I thought I was about to pass out. To be honest, I've never had such pain in my life.
Once home, the chiropractor and I discussed what had 'gone wrong' in my body, and, after a month of twice-weekly treatments, (at first, I couldn't even lift my left arm up to play the piano) she and I concurred that, while playing the piano and typing on a keyboard (such as on my Mac) never made my wrists hurt, after this bout of pain, we needed to focus on what has caused this injury. My shoulder injury was all but gone, but my wrist still hurt. What was the culprit? We figured out that the torqueing of the left wrist, which is necessary to play both violin and viola, was the cause of my pain!
With the issue in my shoulder resolved, all that was left was figuring out how my wrist could avoid, as much as possible, stressing my lunate and scaphoid bones. With regular chiropractic adjustments, work to strengthen/lightly stress the muscles and ligaments around the wrist area, and (most importantly) removing the torquing, I hoped it would work. I began to see a way out, when I read David Rivinus' analysis of why he developed the Pellegrina Viola: cf. http://www.rivinus-instruments.com/DesignConcepts.htm the section under 'fingerboard banking.'
By total coincidence, the last 'regular' viola I played, was one of Mr. Rivinus' Pellegrinas- he let me try one out, to see if it could 'solve' my problems. While it did lessen the issues, it did not free me from my pain. David was most understanding when I had to return the instrument. His creation of the uniquely shaped Pellegrina has been a solution for some- but, in my case, not all, violists who deal with pain.
Now, having played violin while learning Suzuki methodology, I noted that, in playing a violin, my wrist did not hurt. But, trying to play my own viola- whom I affectionately named, 'Big Bertha' (a 16.5" Tertis model instrument) my wrists did hurt. So, size was a consideration. But (as so many have said) a small viola is no viola at all. While Rivinus' instruments gave a 'resonating chamber' of about 20 inches. So, I reasoned, what instrument is that size, but is not played under the chin? Literally by process of elimination, I was reduced to this brute fact:
That in order for me to continue on the viola, I had to abandon the upright, uptight holding of a refrigerator-sized piece of wood on my shoulder- no matter how ergonomic- and I would have to go to a modified cello position.. and instrument of at least 20" in length/resonance chamber size.
Luckily, there is such a thing out there. The Vertical Viola!
Again (as if sent from above) I got an email from a musical instrument dealer I had corresponded with months earlier, who was trying to sell (believe it or not) a Vertical Viola of about 20" he had 'inherited' from a Canadian maker named Chandler!
I was at the end of my rope. So, after numerous emails, I bit the bullet, bought the viola, and it arrived late last week.
Well, from the vantage point of three days of limited playing, I am glad I have made the switch. After adjusting to the size of the new instrument (VV's - at 20" in size- are 'monster sized' for a viola, but actually only the size of a 1/8 size cello) and, adjusting/finding a comfortable end pin length (I actually put a Britten Opera score under the end pin, in order to raise the VV to a playing height where my legs cleared the 'C' indents on each side of the VV) I started with open strings, and half note/quarter note bows.
While the sound is EVERYTHING I COULD EVER WANT IN A VIOLA, the entire 'physical sensation' of the VV is completely different from the standard viola. What what was most interesting to me was that I was using COMPLETELY DIFFERENT MUSCLES to play the VV, which I never felt, when playing one under the chin! But, best of all, I have NO wrist pain. None. (I also am now religiously doing muscle stretches prior to every practice session, but it is the POSITION of my hand/wrist that is making all the difference. Vertical rocks!)
My daughter, (who played cello for a year in the String Ensemble at the High School were I was working) concurred with my observation about the back muscles. I literally felt as if I was doing calisthenics in my upper back- something I've never felt, in playing regular viola. I had to remember to relax, and work at a supple, and relaxed RH bow hold, a lowered right shoulder, and ignoring the cognitive dissonance, as I pulled across the fingerboard while bowing the A string, instead of pulling down and utterly away from the other strings, as in standard viola; In other words, the exact opposite sensations for down and up bows- a bit of a mind boggle there.
Tomorrow is my first 'real' lesson with a Cello teacher, who is willing to give it a go with a VV student!
I'll see if my observations are correct, or if I'm all wet, or just merely new to this VV stuff, and simply over-analyzing (which I tend to do- could you tell?!).
After a period of being really tied up with my work, and playing my normal viola in a few gigs, I resumed playing the vertical viola, and for the past few weeks I've been taking it to Alderley Edge Orchestra rehearsals. So I'm intending to play it at their next concert, which is on Saturday, 31 May. Remember that one of the other viola players there also has a vertical viola, so I'm pretty sure this will be the 1st in the UK for an orchestra with two vertical violas!
Concert is at Alderley Edge Methodist Church, 7:30PM if you're interested in coming along.
I took my vertical viola to the rehearsal last Thursday and got Tod the alto violin owner to have a look at it. He didn't think it sounded all that great, particularly in the bass, and suggested I change the strings. So I reused some of the cello strings I already had, now I have the upper two cello strings as my lower two, and viola strings for the upper. (I probably ought to buy new strings though).
Next, I took the instrument to my luthier Philip Archer, and got him to adjust the soundpost in favour of the lower strings, which made a small improvement, but he too said the strings are the problem rather than anything else on the instrument.
Meanwhile, I now have a cello bow - on loan for a fortnight - so I should make a start on learning right-hand technique!
I've not done much with the vertical viola this past couple of weeks, due to a combination of being busy elsewhere, and waiting for the cello to be ready (I finally picked it up just a few days ago. It sounds really good by the way!), so I can have a couple of cello lessons and learn how to bow.
But anyway, this evening I went to rehearsal at Alderley Edge Orchestra (with my normal viola), to find that one of the cellists in that orchestra was playing a vertical viola! Well as you can imagine, at first I couldn't believe my own eyes. It is a genuine NVF Alto that he had made some years ago, and decided to play it in the orchestra starting only the previous rehearsal (which I missed) due to there being insufficient violas and plenty of cellos.
So as you can imagine, I had lots of questions. I had a brief play on the instrument, and the LH fingering was even more stretched out than on mine. I didn't have enough time to really get to play it, so it was difficult to judge the sound quality. Tod (the player) is still very much learning to play, of course he has the advantage of coming from the cello (though the disadvantage of having to switch to alto clef!), so I'm sure the acquaintance will be very beneficial for both of us.
I think I can say with reasonable certainty that Alderley Edge Orchestra will be the only orchestra in the country with two vertical viola players!
It become clear pretty quickly when attempting to play the vertical viola, that a cellist's bowing technique would be required. Consequently a cellist friend of mine has kindly agreed to give me some lessons. But he wants me to learn on a full-size cello - so I have acquired an instrument, which will hopefully be arriving next week. What I have already learnt though is optimum position of the bridge - and therefore the bow contact-point - is just above my knees.
Left-hand fingering is interesting. It appears to be possible to use both cellist's and violist's fingering. The former, of course, presents no particular problem, other than the fingers being closer together, though I'm not a cellist (yet). Viola fingering works surprisingly well, although just as beginners often find on the normal instrument, the 4th finger is a stretch on the lower strings; here it is even more so, and I suspect might not be usable in conjunction with a "back" 1st or 2nd finger. That said, shifting is easy enough, and 3rd and 4th positions are comfortable.
This web site and blog will document my exploration of the concept of playing an alto-register violin family instrument between the knees. I will write more about the background and reasoning for this separately, but in summary: I have played the viola, in an amateur capacity, for several years. Constantly I am asked to play louder. Recently I played double bass, and also had a go at the cello, and found the between-the-knees playing position to be more comfortable. I became more interested when I learnt of the alto violin member of the New Violin Family, and specifically of Yo Yo Ma's use of this instrument to play solo viola repertoire.
Not being able to afford to commission a luthier to custom-make a true New Violin Family Alto, I had to do some lateral thinking...so I bought a child- size cello (LOB 22in), extended the end-pin with a cannibalised music stand, and managed to find some extra-long viola strings that (just about!) fit the instrument.
So far, I have done little more than put the instrument together, and begun the experimentative process of learning to play it. Interestingly it sounds nothing like a viola - more like a cello at the bottom end, and a violin in the middle and upper register (this of course, may be a good or bad thing depending on the music being played).
I will be attempting to keep a blog of my progress on this site. If you read it and find what I am doing interesting, please do get in touch.