Although most of our prejudices about instruments filter down from the current orchestral fashions, there are many situations in which a large soundbox is of no particular benefit, and where a big viola just proves unwieldy. Klezmer, traditional and gypsy musicians tend to favour small instruments, as do classical musicians who are answerable only to themselves!
Viola sizes have never been standardized, and tastes have changed significantly over the centuries. Nowadays a professional orchestral player would be expected to play on a large-bodied instrument, but it’s obvious from the number of exquisite historic small instruments that in the 19th and 18th centuries this was not the case. There are a lot of beautiful small violas out there.
Some of these instruments are now in museums (the relative lack of demand tends to mean the instruments remain in better condition), but many are in everyday use. They are particularly popular with players who double up on violin and viola – the shorter string length makes for easier swapping between the two. Playing the viola is tough on the body, and many older players suffer from tendonitis or other conditions – often a smaller instrument is the best solution to these problems. Players of shorter stature or with small hands also benefit from a smaller instrument, and talented younger players use these instruments while still growing.
We have the best collection of antique small violas available online and can also produce new violas to order in small sizes (38cm and upwards).