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!"
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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