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How I Made My Vertical Viola by  Tom Vohr

This is an article about how I made my vertical viola. I first got interested in a vertical viola when my hands were giving me a problem playing the Viola. My string teacher mentioned something about a 20+ inch Viola that was an alto violin and showed me a picture that got me interested enough to look into the history of the vertical viola.

I went online to look up the history of the vertical viola. I found that the vertical viola is also called an alto violin. During the 1960s an instrument maker named Carlene Hodgins reasoned that a Viola played vertically could be made larger. She came to the conclusion that a larger viola will produce better sound. Based on these principles she designed a viola about two 1/2 inches longer than the regular viola. This new viola was intended to be played vertically like a cello. It also allowed cello players to play an instrument that was tuned one octave higher that of the cello.

The fundamental acoustic principle underlying the alto violin is that the main body resonance of the wood of the instrument should match the second-highest string, and the main cavity resonance of the air the instrument should match the third-highest string. On a viola these strings are D and G, respectively. The standard viola is too small to achieve this matchup of string frequency to resonance frequency.

After some investigation I found that if I want to play a vertical viola, I would have two choices. I would either have to purchase a fully handcrafted, very expensive instrument or I could go with the idea that a cello would be designed roughly the same as a viola except played an octave lower. With this reasoning I decide to find a small cello and overcome any adaptation problems.

I started with a 1/8 cello and found my viola strings too short. I needed to find long enough strings to fit my new alto violin. I found a small company located in Florida that makes strings for the violin octet. They were almost long enough for my new project but I was missing about an inch. After consulting with a violin company I found I could get long enough tailpiece hanger for the baby cello.

The next problem I had was to realize that by changing the dynamics even a little bit, my bridge needed to be reshaped for the new instrument. I talked this over with my luthier and found that he was willing to make me a new bridge for this project.

After stretching and moving things around, I was finally able to get everything in alignment. I bowed my first scale on the new vertical viola. Using the 1/8 cello version is quite a challenge because it just a little on the long side for the alto violin string. I did find however that the tone was much deeper and the quality of the viola was very rich and in perfect pitch.

My next attempt at the vertical Viola was to use a 1/10 cello and I found that this was a more accommodating fit with the strings size and also with the bridge.

I sold my 1/8th cello vertical viola. I still play the 1/10 vertical viola. I have the satisfaction of designing my vertical viola as well as the enjoyment of playing all of my stringed instruments.

Tom Vohr

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