Shopping for a viola is a wonderful and exciting time filled with fantasies of love at first sight or play with your new life partner.......a new instrument. Unfortunately the reality of this journey limited by budgetary restraints, geographic hurdles ( where to go and how to get there to find "your" instrument), and who do I trust. Since music, I would assume is your chosen field if you are reading this blog, then this pursuit of a new voice, and of course that is of course what we are choosing here, can be a very emotional one.
This in my opinion, is the biggest trap of all, which to to pull the trigger on a purchase with a large sum of money on a decision that is based on your feelings. One should follow advice that people get from real estate gurus, don't get emotionally involved with your purchase. Liking a potential new viola and even loving it is a very important thing, don't get me wrong, but in the snake pit of dealers and "dealers" you could be fertile ground for half truths or just hyperbole about shiny brown "old Italian" viola.
First you must first know what you want in a new instrument. This goes far beyond " I want a dark sound" superficiality. Knowing what you want or need only comes from playing many violas and I mean MANY violas!!! You must play the cheap horrible ones, the expensive ones, and all the in betweens ones. As in relationships, "Love at First Sight" does happen, but don't count on it happening to you. If you think it did, you are wrong! Even if you are one of the lucky ones when it does happen, walk away from it for weeks or months and try many other instruments. Your first love will be there waiting for you, despite what the owner tells you.
When you find an instrument you potentially love, get lots of opinions. Seek out the worst insults!!! It is must better to hear the worst case scenario BEFORE you buy it. It will be easy to find people to trash this potential new viola of yours because rival dealers do this for sport.
Here is a short list of considerations that I tell people when viola hunting.
1. How's the size? I DO NOT recommend a viola over 16 1/2 inches even if you have a huge arm span. It will be VERY difficult for you to resell this instrument. I know that selling this new instrument is the furthest thing from your mind but it must be a prime consideration.
2. How easy is the instrument to play? I just don't mean in comparison to the "party favor" you play on now. Check it against many other instruments.
3. How even is the tone? Many viola shoppers fall for a "chocolately dark round sound". This great for playing Bach in your bathroom, but isn't going to be able to deliver Don Juan or Mid-Summer Night's Dream when you are trying to win a job. Make sure the C through the A string have a consistent timbre.
4. Avoid odd ball shaped or looking violas. I would say that Izuka shaped models are the exception to this. You don't want to be know for the viola shaped like a mangled hub cap or a viola covered in decoupage. A common luthier method to to make a viola body large while making a small string length or moving f-holes and the bridge in extreme places. Again be mindful of the potential for reselling this viola. You don't want a mutant viola that is going to be hard to unload.
My final advice is to BE PATIENT!!!! It is easy to but a viola and hard to sell. The longer you get to know what your needs are, including your likes and dislikes, the more informed consumer you become. Music is a business and so is instrument dealing. Caveat emptor...