Why Bigger Is Not Better for Student Violins

October 8, 2018, 10:06 PM · If you are wondering if it's all right for your young student to play on a slightly-too-big instrument, the answer is: "No!"

violin too big

If you made the mistake of renting or buying an instrument that is too big, should you actually take it back and get a smaller one? Yes! After 25 years of teaching, I have become adamant on this point, and in the last month I have actually sent several students back to the violin shop to get a smaller violin.

Why is it so important? After all, larger violins tend to sound better, and the child will eventually grow into the larger size.

Here are some of the reasons your student will struggle - and may even want to quit - with a too-big violin:

Finger and arm placement

A too-big violin changes both the curvature of the left arm, making it straighter, and the placement of the left fingers, making them unnaturally far apart. This simply throws off the mechanics of playing the instrument. The student will be widening the arm and fingers to an exaggerated degree as he or she adjusts to a too-big violin, and that makes it harder to play in tune. The larger violin will also place the bow farther away because the bridge is farther away. This will cause one of two things: either the student will push the right shoulder and arm unnaturally forward in order to draw a straight bow; or it will mean that the student simply bows crookedly because it's too difficult or painful to push the arm so far forward.

There are always adjustments in getting a new violin, but they are much more natural and aligned with a child's growth, when the violin fits properly.

The weight of the violin

This might actually be the most important consideration: A too-large violin is also too heavy, and this literally can be a "pain in the neck" for your child. Holding up an unnecessarily heavy violin or viola can cause muscle strain in the neck, shoulder and arm. The heavy pull of the violin also can cause the student to adopt a droopy position. The slouching position can last well beyond the point when the student actually "grows into" the violin. I once observed a master class in which the very experienced British violin teacher Helen Brunner was working with a teenage student, and she identified the problem immediately: "Did you have a violin that was too big for you when you were younger?" she asked. Sure enough, the student answered, "I did..." and there were a whole host of problems to address that stemmed from that.

So it is very important to have the proper size violin, and it is better to err on the side of the violin being slightly too small than being slightly too big. So how do you know if your young student has the right size? You can double-check by using this chart to measure your child's neck-to-the-wrist and determine the correct size.

With the exception of high-quality shops that specialize in fractional violins, such as Shar Music in Ann Arbor or Potter Violins in Md., the personnel at violin shops can not always be relied upon to properly measure a child for the correct-size violin or viola. A busy school teacher can also sometimes assign the wrong size, as well. Often the quick method is to have the child grab the scroll, and if they can grab it, it's the right size -- this method is imprecise, at best.

I would even say that if you are a petite adult, and your neck-to-wrist measurement is under 21 1/4 inches, you might consider looking for a high-quality 3/4- or 7/8-size violin. They do exist, they are just a bit harder to find!

So to sum up: if you somehow wind up with a too-big violin, don't hesitate to take it back and get the right size. No need to complain or assign blame for the error, simply go about making it right. You will be glad you did!

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October 9, 2018 at 04:10 AM · What is the difference between playing a violin too large for you and playing a viola? Not a facetious question. Just interested in the mechanics.

October 9, 2018 at 05:28 AM · It’s a good question! I teach only violin - any violists or teachers who could answer? I think possibly you still go with the same size/instrument measurements until you grow beyond those...

October 9, 2018 at 08:02 AM · Same principles with viola: we choose the size that allows the player to be as comfortable as possible while also giving satisfactory sound. Erring on the small side is the smart choice, whether for violin or viola.

In fact, I've gotten good result starting small adults or small teens with 3/4 size violins until their hand frame develops nicely. Otherwise we can risk having them compromise form in the same way a child would compromise their form with a too-large violin.

October 9, 2018 at 11:14 PM · Great article. I've noticed that many violin teachers go by the scroll rule when determining the right size of violin, and it is quite accurate. Of course, measuring is fine too. If you do wind up buying a violin that is too big but can't take it back (that happened to me once because I bought online), get a smaller one and keep the larger one for later. Although it is best to err on the small side if a child is between sizes, those with chubby fingers and/or wide hands could consider going on the larger side, and there generally aren't any problems. If the violin is quite long for the player, the player could adopt a violin hold in which the scroll points almost directly in front of them to make reaching easier. I've also heard of many small female violinists who use 4/4 violins. The violin may be too big for them according to rigid sizing rules, but they adapt their technique in interesting ways to make things happen, and it actually works.

In terms of viola sizing, it is very important to maintain comfort and technical ease, so don't play a viola that's too big for you. Violas are meant to be a little oversized, but not too much as to compromise technique. Personally I do not like to use the scroll rule for viola because I find that it restricts you to smallish violas unless you are quite big. The exception is when sizing kids for violas in which case I will follow more violinistic sizing guidelines. To determine the right size of viola, I tend to prefer checking the extension of the arm in first position, and the viola is the right size as long as your arm has a good bend and the viola is otherwise comfortable. I also don't like using the neck-to-wrist measurement for viola sizing for the same reason I dislike the scroll rule. For viola I prefer a neck-to-palm measurement. Some sizing charts even suggest a neck-to-base-of-fingers measurement, but I find that too extreme.

October 10, 2018 at 06:01 PM · I completely agree with Laurie. Thank you for this article!

A smaller instrument is not only easier to play, particularly at a time when everything the child or young person is learning is tricky, it also encourages good technique, notably the fall of the fingers from the base knuckle. An instrument that is too big encourages unnecessary tension, both in the left hand, in the right hand and in stance and balance too.

I do send instruments back when they are too big and always point out to the parent that it is both cheaper and much less time consuming to get the technique right from the start. Sadly, often bad habits seem to persist well into advanced playing and I can sometimes tell when I take on more advanced players, whether their issues are down to playing on an incorrectly sized instrument in their early years.

October 10, 2018 at 10:23 PM · "... we choose the size that allows the player to be as comfortable as possible while also giving satisfactory sound." Well, in respect of my viola, I definitely chose sound over comfort. My viola's size simply is the limit what I hoped to manage with my petite fingers. And after a few month I'm wrestling that beautiful chocolate brown creature by now, I cannot stop wondering how far I could already adapt to this - not only technically, but also physically.

But yet, I'm an adult. Can't expect the same amount of self motivation from a growing youngster... But for a child supposed to play the viola I guess it's extremely hard to find something appropriate. No wonder why almost everybody starts out on the violin!

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