Ergonomic Violas: A Look at the Rivinus 'Pellegrina'

April 30, 2013, 11:18 AM · Let's face it: playing the viola can be an awkward proposition.

In order to produce its sonorous low voice, the viola must be physically larger than a violin, so that those long sound waves have space to resonate. At 15 to 17.5 inches (38 to 45 cm) long, the viola can be just long enough and heavy enough to cause great physical strain and technical difficulty.

But what if it were shaped like, say, this?

Rivinus viola

Above, a young violist and budding composer whose name is Sequoyah, holds a "Pellegrina" model viola made by luthier David L. Rivinus, who recently gave a show at Metzler Violin Shop in Glendale, California.

I was unable to attend the show myself, but afterwards, these instruments were the talk of the town among Los Angeles-area violists. Why? Because that lopsided body is not just for kicks; it's part of an ergonomic design that allows for those long sound waves to have their space in the viola body, while shortening certain key distances to go easier on the human body.

Back of Rivinus viola

In fact, the "Pellegrina" is actually 20 inches long at its longest point, but the distance from chin to hand is considerably less than that -- more like a 3/4-size viola. The fingerboard is also banked, or turned sideways, for less torque on the left hand.

Rivinus started developing the instrument 20 years ago, and now there are approximately 75 of them in circulation, including a number played by principal players in major symphony orchestras around the world, such as the San Francisco Symphony.

"Player injuries among violists and violinists are at epidemic levels. For the last two decades I have worked hard to address these concerns, specializing in the problems of neck, back, shoulder, elbow and hand pain," Rivinus said in a press release. "I have developed three models of viola and violin, all designed to bring the string player significant relief and, because the instruments do not exacerbate existing conditions, they assist the player to slowly heal."

Sequoyah, who has been on a long search for his full-sized viola, took home a "Pellegrina" for trial after the show at Metzler Violins. He let me take it for a spin while I was at his house for my son's piano lesson. (His mom teaches my son piano).

Usually, when I raise a viola to my chin, my first thought is something like, "...and THIS is why I don't play the viola." It feels like I'm trying to put a boat on my shoulder -- it's that big and cumbersome to me. I'm 5'4", and though I don't have an officially "small-sized" violin, I'd say my own violin is probably on the petite side.

This one seemed huge, but once it was on my shoulder, it was pretty darned comfy, and not terribly hard to navigate. Wow!

Sequoyah is still looking, but the Rivinis remains under serious consideration, as its price-to-sound ratio was quite good. He found the sound to be even across the strings. It was also rather bright, but it did not crack. And the look? He wasn't sure if his teacher would like it, but he found its unique look to be an asset.

To my eyes, the look is nicely carried through the entire instrument, with details that match the instrument's asymmetry. For example, the tapered tailpiece:

Tailpiece of Rivinus viola

…and the slightly-uncoiled scroll:

Scroll of Rivinus viola

These instruments were also of great interest to Pasadena violist Sharon Ray, who was attracted to the ergonomic design. "I am the poster child for viola-related injuries," Sharon said. "When I graduated from Curtis in 1979, I couldn't play a lick because of pain in my back (rhomboid area), neck (C2-C7), left triceps, and pain going down to my hand and fingers. I was told by two of Philadelphia's top neurosurgeons that I would never play again. That was in 1980."

And for 25 years, she didn't play. Then in 2005, she met a chiropractor who helped her get her back and neck back in shape so that she could play again. She still plays a big viola: "I play a Michael Fischer, the big one, and I wouldn't trade it for anything!" she said. "It's worth it to me to have to swim, lift weights and bands, stretch -- whatever it takes for me to play it. My viola is such a monster that one of my students named it 'Godzilla!'"

Her back feels pretty good most of the time now, but she still goes through periods of pain, she said.

Of the Rivinus viola, "this instrument was comfortable from the moment I picked it up," she said. "I like the sound, but found it lacking power and tone on the C and G string - my personal taste. That being said, I would love to own one in the future."

Does it look too funny to play at a gig? "Yes, I would play one on a gig," she said. "The look doesn't bother me!"


April 30, 2013 at 06:13 PM · Somebody left their ax in the sun too long and it melted.

April 30, 2013 at 06:25 PM · If it works and gets more people to play a string instrument, then I think it is a great idea.

April 30, 2013 at 07:49 PM · looks expensive........

April 30, 2013 at 08:21 PM · They go for around $12,000, which is not bad at all for a bench-made instrument.

April 30, 2013 at 10:39 PM · One of my friends had one; it sounded pretty good, was quite a bit easier to manage, but a couple of conductors were uneasy (read "didn't want it in the orchestra")because it does look odd among 'normal' violas...rather like Dali got ahold of it on a particularly creative day.

Not to mention it requires a custom-made case...harder to travel with. David R. has some less extreme models, too; here's the page of his site with pics

April 30, 2013 at 11:04 PM · I'm wondering about the after-length of the strings. The Frirsz tailpiece has the longest after-length on the lowest string; this one has it on the high string. How does that affect the sound?

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