Question for Viola Teachers/Parents


said: Aug 17, 2018
 3 posts


I have a newly turned 7 year old who is going to give viola a try for a few reasons. He has already done 2 years of Suzuki cello.

I am excited to try this instrument with him, and he is very excited, but I am concerned that coming from a 1/4 size cello to a 1/8 size viola is going to be disappointing from the quality of sound/depth department.

I want the instrument to sound as good as it can. I have read all the threads on modifications, and have three questions.

  1. I have tracked down the “hole in the heart” instruments. I could have that done with an Eastman in Washington, or purchase a 30 year old Suzuki brand 1/8 violin and have my local luthier give it a shot.

  2. There is a store in Washington that rents actual tiny violas (versus a hole in the heart violin).

  3. I have heard of the Sabatier brand fractionals from this board, and see they are sold online. Not only do they cost more, but really no buy back/trade up type program if I go that route.

Has anyone here heard all three of these options, is the Sabatier truly so awesome that it’s worth the extra cost, or will options 1 & 2 provide me with 90% of the “best” sound I’m looking for…. ?

Any thoughts appreciated, I have never learned much about violas and it’s a small market/area where I live, so researching options are online only!


Laura McDermott said: Aug 18, 2018
Laura McDermott
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Aurora, CO
15 posts

I have started students on 1/10 size violins strung as violas. Maybe even 1/16 a time or two. They do not sound awesome. Usually, students are on the next instrument before they do much on the C string, but since your son has two years experience on the cello, I would expect that he would do some C string on his first viola. The Suzuki viola repertoire doesn’t use the C string much in the early books though.

What is your teacher recommending?

I have no familiarity with the “hole in the heart” instruments.

The smallest actual viola I have seen or had a student have was an 11″ (equivalent to 1/4 size violin.) It is common for me to see 12″ violas though.

I have heard of Sabatier but never seen one or heard one in person. They sound very intriguing though.

Are you sure your son would be on an 1/8 size and not a 1/4?

Now that I have nothing that is of particular use to you I do have a couple of things that may be of use.

When I was at the American Viola Society Festival in June I got some samples of a new string called Ascente. They are fabulous and inexpensive. The C strings are actually made for the smaller instruments rather than just cut down. These C strings don’t do the whole wa wa wa thing but make a real c string sound.

Also at the Festival was a shop in CT who has been working on good sounding small violas. I don’t recall their name but might have a brochure somewhere. They were very good sounding but they were also $2900—for that I can find something locally that will sound good. I think you would have trade in options.

Laura McDermott

Sue Hunt said: Aug 19, 2018
Sue HuntViola, Violin
403 posts

Don’t bother with the hole in the belly. Everything about the configuration pulls the action to the bass side and the sound post will rattle against the edge of the hole.

Instead, go for the best strings you can find, especially the C string. Finding one that works will make a huge difference to the tone. I like Tonica on the A, D and G.

My favourite C is Correlli Crystal fractional. I have even used them on a 10 ” instrument. On smaller violas, I use another D string instead of the C string, just tuning it down to middle C.

said: Aug 20, 2018
 3 posts

Thank you for the replies and great leads! I am going to go hunt down locations for all three of those fractional string brands, the little 1/8 size Suzuki Violin I found/am trying out has a decent sound, and good strings could only improve it. Alternatively still intrigued by the Sabatier—they are sounding affordable compared to the $3000 ones you mention! :) Maybe when he’s a bit bigger…. :)

Have a great week!

Kurt Meisenbach said: Aug 25, 2018
Kurt Meisenbach
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Violin
Plano, TX
45 posts

I am impressed by your research and the knowledgeable answers that others have provided. These are excellent suggestions and worth following. As a viola teacher, I have now learned several things that will make me a better guide for my students.

One thing to keep in mind is that your son has made the decision to change. He hasn’t made the change because the sound of the viola is lower or deeper—there is probably some other aspect of the instrument—tone quality, size, who he saw playing it, or the context in which he saw the instrument being played that is motivating him.

At a very leisurely pace, I would explore why he wanted to change and if he likes what he is now doing. It’s a bit early to get into the psychology of the violist, but most long-term violists stay with it because it is primarily a supporting role and not a solo one. The job of the violist in a string quartet is to make every one else sound better that they would sound without the viola. This is a deeply satisfying experience that your son will enjoy if he stays with the instrument. Encourage him to play in groups that have other instruments. This will accelerate his understanding of the supporting role.

Sarah Holbrook said: Aug 30, 2018
 1 posts

Yay for more violists! I second the opinion to find a good sounding violin and re-string it. My son started on viola. His first two instruments were 1/10 and 1/8 violins, then he switched to an 11″ viola and now plays a 12″. The biggest improvement in sound comes from sizing up; patience is needed.

I’ve been to three Suzuki Institutes and heard a variety of little violas (and re-strung violins) played by the students as well as the teachers. It seems that the sound on small instruments is approximately 90% technique and 10% instrument. I’ve also looked at Sabatiers many times but they are only as good as the player. I was relieved to hear one in person and realize my son wasn’t missing out.

The “real viola” repertoire starting with the Telemann Concerto in Book 4 is when you’ll start measuring your son’s arms more frequently :). When I see adults playing Largo movements I’m envious of the length of their bows! Sustained notes on small bows are tricky.

You mentioned Washington. If you can attend the Oregon Suzuki Institute next year I highly recommend it! There are a good amount of violists and the teachers are wonderful. It is also a good way to meet people who may be outgrowing their instruments.

Robin Lohse said: Aug 31, 2018
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Piano, Cello, Viola
31 posts

I am passionate too about the viola. Even violin students should try out a viola in their size. It’s a great cross over experience. I do this in my home studio. My son’s reaction to the violin had me look into switching him over from violin to viola. He never looked back. So I researched incremental violas. I first tried to switch the strings over on his violin. I used Thomastik dominants. Msny local music stores had inferior models. I thought i could do better and found a model our teacher liked as well as me. It was a Scott Cao 150 model of which is no longer made. Going forward 20 years I use the West Coast strings Peccard viola in my rent to own program. As I have 6 viola students in my studio. You can hear the diffetence in sound tone . My son went to the Hardt school of music Suzuki institute and there we found many viola students. We went 3 years.

Robin Lohse

said: Sep 3, 2018
 3 posts

Kurt—I think you’re right that there are definite personality differences associated with instruments. For example—I have a son who is a perfect example of a stereotypical trumpet player…. !! I often wonder if he chose trumpet due to personality or if the instrument has helped to shape him…. ? :) My six year old is very laid back, a deep thinker but not really one who wants to be center stage. I’m hoping his laid back personality will make him perfect for this instrument as he grows—we shall see!

Sarah, thanks for those great insights. It is good to start learning some of the background/details etc about viola, as I have been immersed in cello world 100% for the past number of years! I imagine you are right that 90% is the player—darn, all that practice IS necessary! :)

Robin, what part of the country are you in, and is your rent to own program local or do you ship? :) I could add you to my future ideas file folder in the brain…. !

Thanks again to everyone for your support and thoughts, I love how encouraging and helpful this community is!

Pierre Yves Gagnon said: Sep 19, 2018
Pierre Yves Gagnon
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Violin
Oakville, ON
19 posts

I know the Sabatier viola. Their small size violas have very good tone, even the 1/16 size. It’s probably because of their unusual shape. To see what I mean, search Sabatier viola or go to The Sound Post website (a Toronto based string store). The draw back is it is quite expensive and few peoples are willing to spend so much for a small size instrument.

Pierre Y Gagnon

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