The Evolution of My Viola Models

By Hiroshi Iizuka





MAKER  Hiroshi Iizuka
5 Schiller Avenue
Narbeth, Pennsylvania 19072




During my apprenticeship with Soroku Murata in Tokyo, we were asked to reproduce several baroque instruments to increase our experience and knowledge about the history of violinmaking; this included making Viola Da Gamba, Viola D’amore, Violone, Pomposa, Lira Da Braccio, etc.. Building these instruments planted seeds in my head toward thinking about different shapes for stringed instruments. Even before this time, when I was training in guitarmaking, I worked for a guitar-maker who specialized in making a tenor guitar for a classical guitar orchestra. In order to play the higher voices in the orchestra, the director of a guitar music institute had designed an unusual guitar; one in which the left upper shoulder was “cut away” to better play in the upper positions. So, even during the beginnings of my career in instrument making, I saw glimpses into my future. Later, when I started to think about making violas, my familiarity with “other” shaped instruments helped steer me toward what would eventually become my viola d’amore style viola.

In my first attempt at a “different” kind of viola in 1979, I based the model completely on an actual ornate viola d’amore. The main difference was that I used the modern set-up, including setting the neck the modern way. Another alteration was that I put an indentation at the bottom in order to make the body length shorter, as is seen with the lyra da braccio. Additionally, I altered the upper shoulders so that, instead of just sloping downward like a typical d’amore does, there are small “humps” or shoulders on both sides by the neck. This way, when a player goes into the 4th position, the left hand can “hit” a reference point. However, cut-away or sloped shoulders diminish the air volume. Therefore, to compensate for this loss,

I increased the lower bout size/width. Not having violin-style corners makes this change of form possible.

After the completion of this first so-called d’amore style viola, I felt that, although it was satisfactory in terms of playability and functionality, there was room for improvement acoustically. In 1982, I changed the design. In order to create a darker tone quality, I altered the outline of the lower bouts to increase the air volume. The shape became simpler, almost da Gamba like . Also, I designed ff-holes closer to modern style ff-holes, but with a slightly old fashioned look. The reason for this ff-hole change was in order to incorporate the modern acoustical principals of the violin family. Baroque instrument ff-holes and their placement are, although interesting and beautiful, not acoustically advantageous. They are usually set too wide apart and sometimes they are simply holes from which some sound will come out. Modern ff-hole style is better suited to louder, more responsive sound production. To get the most action around the ff-hole area or breast area, a certain number of winter grains must be cut in order to, in a sense, weaken the top. This increases the action of that area. Unlike my first d’amore style viola that had ff-holes in the shape of a flame and which were spaced very far apart, my current model’s ff-hole “eyes” are around 50 mm apart.  Higher register notes are especially affected by the modern style ff-hole placement. Obviously, ff-hole location alone cannot produce a good sound. Bassbar shape and placement and the function of the soundpost also have a large influence. I believe that some instrument maker(s) of the 16th century figured this out and made changes from the baroque form eventually to an almost perfect, modern acoustical form.

It is important to note that one cannot widen or change the outline of the instrument too much, because one must follow basic acoustical principles. If the shape is contorted too much beyond the traditional violin form, the sound will be dark, with a sluggish, muffled response. Areas that are too far away from the center of the instrument cannot vibrate instantaneously. If one creates exaggerated bout areas, the air resonance is trapped there and does not readily come out of the sound holes. Also, if the ribs are too high in an attempt to increase air volume, the instrument will have a slower response. It is vital to balance acoustics with aesthetics.

Not only taking the body into consideration, in 1986 I decided to make another change to the typical scroll by putting a hole in what would be the center of the windings. Not only is the scroll’s weight lessened this way, but it also gives the appearance of a ram’s head.

          In 1993, I designed what I call the “rubenesque” model viola. This instrument has the traditional violin form but has an indented bottom in order to keep the body length short. The compromise I made was to shorten the corner length, yet slightly increase the width of the lower bouts. It’s almost imperceptible, but I also very slightly distorted the symmetry of the model by reducing the shape of the right shoulder and the left lower bout for playability’s sake. The same asymmetry can be said for the lower left bout on my d’amore style model.

There are many challenges to custom making a viola because of the great variety of dimensions one has to consider. One example would be that, when making a viola for someone over 6 feet tall who might have relatively short fingers, one should not assume that the typical 17 inch viola with its’ usual string length is a viable option. I might make the string length somewhat shorter for this particular customer. Can a violist who is less than 5 feet tall play a decent-sounding viola? I believe it can be done with a 15 ½ inch body length and by using suitable materials. Recently, I am planning on challenging myself by making a 15 inch viola for a professional violist.

I make violas that are from 15 ½ inches to 17 inches in length, with various string length combinations. Of the 260 instruments I have made up until this point, 146 are violas. There are 78 in the d’amore style, 26 in the rubenesque, and 42 conventional violas.

© 2010 Adriana Linares. All rights reserved.