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Old 09-13-2014, 02:58 AM
Evan_G Evan_G is offline
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Join Date: Feb 2013
Location: Canberra, Australia
Posts: 8
Default Reflections after a year with an alto

It's been just over a year since I had my first lessons on the alto violin, and I thought it might be good to share a few tips and tricks I've worked out over this time for the information of other aspiring altists. My instrument is one of Bob's plate tuned imported models.

Alto case

One thing I wanted to do early on was get a hard case for my alto. By luck, a local luthier in Ottawa (where I was living at the time) stocked some great hard cases for fractional cellos. I found that a 1/8th 'Crescendo' cello case was a perfect fit for the alto, though it is just a little deeper than it needs to be. The added depth is not a problem, though, as there are elastic and velcro straps to secure the instrument in the case. The extra space on top of the finger board leaves room for a larger bow to be stored along the length of the case as well, though I use a protective velvet sleeve to ensure the bow isn't damaged. I've used this case to carry my alto, backpack style, cycling around town and have travelled with it internationally with the alto in checked-in baggage without any problems. One place to get these cases may be found here.


I did a lot of experimenting with bows when I first received my alto. I found a full size cello bow would crush the strings too much and sought in vain for a lighter full size cello bow that worked for me. I did not enjoy using a Coda carbon fibre bow, for instance, which produced some unusual overtones on the alto. In the end I settled for a $90 3/4 wood cello bow, not to save money but because (at least with my beginner's technique) it produced the best sound. I've since tried an Arcus S carbon fibre full size cello bow which worked well but would stretch my budget. One day perhaps...


I love the sound of the Supersentive Sensicore extra long viola strings. The A string is, however, requires extreme tension on the alto and is prone to snapping and makes me rather nervous. The kevlar alto A is better, but still for me the tension is a bit too high. I find the Supersensitive tenor viol g' string, tuned to A as suggested by another altist on Octavivo, works well with a more relaxed tension, but needs to be trimmed to fit the peg box.

I also had problems with the D, G and C strings snapping in the peg box, but this was resolved (for the D and G strings) by having the nut reshaped a bit. The C string is still problematic and until I can have the nut looked at again, I found that the Larsen 1/8 cello D string (tuned down to C) is an okay compromise. Being steel, it is much more resistant to snapping and produces a good tone, but feels quite different and a bit "heavier" than the extra long viola strings.


I've posted elsewhere about how I currently hold the alto. It sounds like there's a lot of variety among altists and I quite enjoy being involved in the early history of this instrument as we work these things out. I hope others will continue to share their discoveries on Octavivo as I find them very helpful.


Definitely cello in the lower positions. While I learnt viola in high school (and unfortunately let it go from about 18 years after that), cello fingering is so much kinder on my hands with an alto. It was not hard to switch.


So far I've had good luck with teachers. In Canada I was taught by a teacher who specialised in viol and cello and she was excellent in helping to work out technique questions with me. After moving back to Australia, I'm now learning from a teacher whose focus is the violin and viola, but who also teachers beginner cello. He is helping me to discover some points of difference between alto and cello technique and come up with alternatives. A teacher with experience with a variety of stringed instruments and a willingness to experiment is a great help and inspiration to keep going.


Last edited by Evan_G; 09-13-2014 at 03:26 AM.
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Old 09-16-2014, 12:59 PM
rjspear's Avatar
rjspear rjspear is offline
Join Date: Nov 2010
Posts: 97

It's been quite satisfying to follow your experiences (and your triumphs) in learning to play the alto violin. It is perhaps not quite the little monster that some have made it out to be-- mostly those who didn't take the time and effort that you did. Congratulations, and thanks for sharing the information.

I'd just like to add that within a month or two I will be posting some exciting news about cases made especially for the alto. I have located a company (Ameritage) in the US that will make cases for me in small quantities. They won't be cheap (as in cheaply constructed), and they won't be hugely expensive to buy. Probably (well) under $300. This will address a huge sore spot within the alto community for those who have found that the Chinese foam cases, until now the only cases I could obtain, do not hold up well under serious travel conditions.

I've also been in discussion with CODA bows about making a bow for the alto, which I suspect will likely work nicely on the tenor as well. This process is not as far along as I am with the cases, but when there's news I'll post it here. Again, the problem is to get a suitable bow at a reasonable price, but I think these guys are up to the challenge.

Work on strings is always an ongoing project around here. I think we have identified the reasons why strings sometimes break in the peg box, especially the low C. I'll let the world know when there's more information.

Keep on posting, Evan. I know it probably feels like your contributions are vanishing into a vast electronic emptiness, but there are lots of players out there who read the posts without replying.
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Old 09-20-2014, 08:53 AM
Evan_G Evan_G is offline
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Join Date: Feb 2013
Location: Canberra, Australia
Posts: 8

Thanks Bob. That's great news about the possibility of a Coda bow designed for the alto and tenor. I'll be very interested to hear more when the time comes as I think I'll want something a little more nuanced than my current 3/4 student cello bow in the next year or so.

As for persistence, I think the thing that has helped me the most is recognising that the alto violin is its own instrument. It's not a viola, it's not a cello, though familiarity with either will help. But the alto has its own voice and its own techniques that come with practice and some exploration. Personally I find it a very comfortable instrument to play and a lot of fun.

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