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music viola

some strings attached

WARNING: SERIOUS VIOLA GEEKERY AHEAD!

Don’t worry – strings are not made with catgut!

I’m not one of those ‘equipment nerd’ violists. I blame myself for things that are happening with my instrument until such time as it becomes obvious that it’s not the operator, it’s the tool. I keep the varnish polished, bring it in for checkups. One thing that I’ve been pretty slavish about is strings. On my previous viola, which was an enormous beast with a body length of 17 5/8 inches (almost 45 cm), I mostly used Dominant strings (with a Jargar A string). They took a while to break in, but then they lasted a seriously long time before they would unravel, go false, or break. The only problem with them was that they’d sound amazing one day, and then the next day they would be total trash. Before I switched to Dominant, I used Spirocore stark (large gauge) strings, along with the usual Jargar. My teacher at the time joked that if they didn’t make my viola fold in half, they might sound good on it. They did, but the long string length on my instrument combined with the resistance of the strings made for a slow responding instrument, and it was more tiring to play than it already had been. So, back to Dominant medium gauge I went.

When I purchased my Gabriella Kundert viola in 2003 (can it have been 20 years already??) it was strung with Evah Pirazzi mediums, with a Larsen A. They worked well for quite a few years. I did try a variety of strings over the first few years, but always came back to the initial combination. Over the first 10 years the instrument really opened up and the sound matured it began to develop a stronger wolf tone (an odd sound which results from conflicting vibrations of the sound box of the viola).

In addition to pursuing getting the instrument adjusted by a luthier, I began looking for alternative strings. I tried D’Addario, several of their lines, including their orchestral series. I tried Evah Pirazzi Gold. I tried Dominant. All had various positive aspects, but they all just caused the viola to choke up regardless of how it was adjusted. I slunk back to the basic Evah set.

For a short period within the past two years I put on Obligato strings (from Pirastro, the same maker of the Evah’s), and had ok results. Not great, but ok. I’d made a change for the sake of change, and it met with a resounding ‘meh’.

Just this previous season I’d heard from a colleague in Minnesota who loved the new Peter Infeld PI. The problem: they’re very expensive at list price. I found a set on Amazon at a good discount, and decided to try them. Though medium gauge, they seemed to have a good bit less tension than I’d been used to, and the viola loved them. The sound was good – warm and supple, but still with power – and I thought I’d hit the jackpot. A little over three months later, however, the strings began to fail, once catastrophically. Within two weeks all the strings had to be replaced, one by one.

I was at a loss at this point. Then I heard about a podcast episode from the series The Bulletproof Musician where the host talked with several experts in instrument set up and string manufacturing about how to choose strings for your instrument. Close to the end of the episode during the segment with the luthier, the luthier said that one of the biggest changes that one can make with strings is the one that almost no one makes: go to a lower tension. Most instruments by and large, he said are happy with medium gauge. Some like high gauge. But there are some, even fewer still, that are happiest with low gauge strings.

So this week I ordered a set of my original Evah Pirazzi strings, but in low tension/gauge, along with a low tension Larsen A string. I just put them on today, and it’s too early to tell, but I’m hoping that this will really help my instrument speak to its best. This is what string players do for most of their careers. There are many other variables – types of rosin for the bow, adjustments to the instrument’s set up, chin rests, shoulder rests, tuning pegs, fine-tuning adjusters, tailpieces. It goes on and on. So the next time you see a string player looking at their instrument on stage, they just might be thinking about which of these they are going to change next.

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