Obligato and Ebony


Cover credit: JohannStrings

Recently, I've been up to changing parts of my viola. Even though I've been looking around and researching about the topics, the way it rolled out, all of them eventually happened over the course of three days.


Honestly, the tailpiece has been "the target" since day one. I was not astute enough to realize that the fine tuner tailpiece was not really optimal, especially since old school as I am, I prefer wood over composite material on my instrument.

Let me just first say that I think modern technology deserves more critical evaluation than the cognitive bias it receives. And Wittner is doing a terrific job in both its tailpiece and chinrest line-ups. They're functional, lightweight, and decently good looking. I mean, more people should come out and speak up for them. I believe there are more plus points than what we are aware of or willing to accept.

Just that, when it comes to my chinrest and my tailpiece, wood please, thanks.

So, finally, after a short trip to Johann Strings, code name conversation killer v.s. conversation killer (because both myself and the studio owner are conversation killers), I have my wood tailpiece in warm black color and with two fine tuners on my instrument.

It then becomes a very tangibly interesting experience for me to gain a sense of what that piece of wood (or composite material) is doing there. Pulling the four strings over a bridge, it's part of the mechanism that makes a sound. I sincerely feel that the organic material is "living" the task, but I have no way to justify that. Speaking of responsivity, I do feel there is a sensible improvement. The C string effectively reacts faster now (does it make it less of a viola?). I ran into more wolf tones on the higher strings but if I prepare to leave my fingers faster they're effectively reduced.


There was a detour about chinrest. In short, I'm not comfortable with my holding of the instrument and I don't know what is wrong. Worst of the times, it was so bad around the contact point that it's no longer a "violin hicky" but a very bad bruise. I had the bruise around the same area back in the old days with the violin, but it was never that bad. Maybe I never practiced so much – be it or not, now it's a problem.

It's also a problem that is rather difficult to solve because I struggle with consistency. I still cannot consistently reproduce the bruise problem. Sometimes I feel very uncomfortable with my posture, some other time everything seems fine. I also keep changing the configuration of my shoulder rest because apparently I'm not comfortable and don't know what to do, which is really not helping the situation.

After having in mind of the problem for a few weeks and still don't know what can help, I figure I'll just try things. So I tried my best stating what I know, that I think the contact point is bad, that the instrument is sometimes pressing against my neck, the studio owner identified that I need a softer edge along the contact point and he dropped in the Stradivarius chinrest model and it just worked.


The studio owner who has seen me 2 times definitely has opinions against Dominant strings. I'm not impressed by those strings neither, but I insist to change only the tailpiece because I want to hear and feel the difference one element at a time.

Bringing the viola with the new tailpiece home was an interesting experience. At first, it sounded shy again. It sounded very similar to when I just bought it and it was just set up.

But on top of that, the A string sounded really, really weird, worrying, even. It had this kind of split tone that I never heard before. It sounded remote and irrelevant, and hollowly weak. Then on the second evening I noticed that the wounding was already broken on that string, I guess that's where the weird tone was coming from. God says change string.

So I've changed to a set of Pirastro Obligato for viola. The moment they went on, my mind was blown. When I purchased the instrument, it was not just my teacher who pointed out that he didn't like the A string, I also could not comprehend what that A string sound was intending to mean. As in, the C and the G strings clearly know they're on a viola. The A string just felt... confused. And now with this set of strings, the power is shifted to the top side. So convincing that I feel the C string is getting bullied now. Anyway, we'll see.


Viola is such a personal instrument that encourages customization max. Started from the long standing fact that there is not a dominating idea even on the broadest question – how large the instrument should be – the gate of the evil is open and there is no turning back.

Many violas are commissioned and are born personalized. There are many studios and makers who encourage commissioning violas. In fact, I feel it is much more common to see luthiers specialize in viola making (than general violin luthiers) such as this one and this one to go down the commission track. And most amazingly, it works (the other amazing fact being there are makers specialize in violas to begin with). You go in store to try if you like the overall, and then you discuss what you want with the maker in detail, and the maker will create your instrument to order. I'm sure this is much more common in the higher end violin business as well, but the fat chunk of people going after antique violins clearly take away a lot of attention. There are antique violas too but, maybe just too rare to be an effective pool of choice. So I think I know where I might want to find my next viola one day, if any, it's not born yet :)