Violin too small for me? Help!

October 24, 2009 at 05:07 PM ·

Hi, I'm a rather large violinist both around the middle and with height.  I'm 6'3' with large hands and I've come across a possible problem with my violin.  It would seem that during performances, my half-steps tend to come up a little wide.  My teacher is fairly sure it's not my ear and not preparation and actually thinks that it's the violin.  She suspects that the violin is slightly smaller and with my big hands, it's much harder to play in tune, especially with regards to the half-steps.  Is there anything I can do to my violin to make the half steps slightly larger?  I know I could look into getting a new violin, but I'm a grad student and my income is almost nothing and my parents where not thrilled to hear this news.  Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

PS-My violin probably is a little smaller, which I didn't really notice when I was looking at a new violin two years ago.  But it apparently looks smaller to other people as well, mainly in the lower bout.

Replies (39)

October 24, 2009 at 08:14 PM ·

The soundbox of a 4/4 violin is about 350 milimeters. What`s the string length of your violin (from the bridge to upper nut)?

Perlman has very thick fingers and his intonation is perfect...

 

 

 

October 24, 2009 at 08:32 PM ·

Are your fingers bigger than this? Because he doesn't seem to have a problem: http://blog.lib.umn.edu/amin0037/amin/IP%20strad.jpg

October 25, 2009 at 05:51 AM ·

Ok, let's get one thing straight:  I"M NOT PERLMAN and my experience of learning the violin is completely different than his. I didn't have Galamian  and DeLay as my teacher's and nor did I start violin as early and certainly did not take lessons right away, I didn't start lessons until I was 16.  I'm sorry if this seems a little snappy, but you can't compare a world-renowned soloist who started his career before you were born with a violinist who is still a student at the University of South Dakota...

But, back on topic, I'm don't know the exact measurements of my violin, at the moment it's in my office and my mom is looking for the sheet that will likely have the official measurements on it. 

October 25, 2009 at 06:00 AM ·

Mr. Manfio is absolutely correct, it is an art in itself making room for your fingers when they are extra large.  Few things are as amazing as watching Perlman work the upper registers. J 

October 25, 2009 at 06:34 AM ·

if it's too small, then find a bigger one or learn to mush your fingers.  I have fat fingers and I play just fine in tune (by that I mean I have perfect pitch)  This may be something you just have to work through.  If it comes to getting a new instrument, you might be able to trade in yours and apply the value to the new instrument.

October 25, 2009 at 07:02 AM ·

I've had similar problems with sharping some things with my violins, and unless you have a fractional (7/8 or smaller), I don't think that looking for a bigger violin is necessarily the answer. I have one I bought when I was first starting to learn, and I had very similar issues; I couldn't fit two fingers in the space they needed to fit.
This could possibly  be because I spent a couple decades in the trades working on various aspects of building houses, and my hands can't be described as dainty by any measure.
 

I have found that as I practice and develop, I have a bit of a shifting technique that works well for me, and sometimes I also how I position my hand makes a bit of difference.
One of the most important things I learned was that I do not have to mash my fingers to stop a string; when I try too much finger pressure, each finger becomes so much fatter at the point of contact. When I use a bit less finger pressure, I still get the stop, but I can shove another finger much closer, making it easier to get them close.

Try different things, but as long as your violin is a standard size I would not start looking for one that is larger than average as a goal; later, you may find that trying to limit your selection by size will eliminate a violin choice that is a perfect match for you.

One other option you may consider; for practice, get a cheap VSO, and play with the tail gut length and bridge position (these can simulate the string length of a longer violin, but you may not want to practice on your good violin). See what difference that makes. Often the tail gut is adjustable in length; if not, an adjustable one is very inexpensive (ebay under $10.00).

Hey! I finally found a good use for a VSO!!!

October 25, 2009 at 05:21 PM ·

Saying the violinist must conform to the violin is like saying all our different feet should fit in the same-size shoe. There are some researchers who suggest that the original string lengths of violins were derived from the size of the player's hand, and that the size of the violin body was derived from the string length. Of course, this means that historically we should see violins in many different sizes, which we do. I think the idea that a violin should be [*must be*] ~350 mm in body length only became chiseled in stone as a result of pedagogical demands for a presumed consistency in string length to be played by an average-size, 17th-century  player.

 

October 25, 2009 at 06:19 PM ·

In fact every violin is too small for human fingers, that is to say when we play in higher positions, the contact points are closer together than the diameter of even the slimmest fingers. We need to slide the fingers a little bit aside when placing the next one, dependent on the position on the string. Using a violin with a longer scale would only make such a tiny difference that it wouldn't be any benefit.

I think the solution to your problem isn't getting a larger violin, it's achieving a more flexible and precise finger technique.

Greetings!

October 25, 2009 at 07:31 PM ·

Tobias, I understand what you mean for higher positions but if it was bigger, It would be terrible because some people have a really hard time to strech ennough their hands to reach big distances between 1 and 4th finger in 1 st position or in decimas etc.   This would be impossible on a bigger one. Not to mention that the strings would probably be bigger too (outch for me...)   This is what is sad with instruments (even with slight variations) it's really a bit like a one size fits all and some people are on both limits. 

Anne-Marie

October 25, 2009 at 08:51 PM ·

Anne-Marie,

I know what you mean. But this is the converse problem.

Fortunately a lot can be achieved by constant training, or we wouldn't have any viola players :-o

October 25, 2009 at 09:49 PM ·

Tobias, Anne-Marie: You seem to be saying that the violin should be just one size and are debating whether it should be a larger size *or* a smaller size. My point is that it should be a larger size *and* a smaller size. In the New Family, there is an instrument called the mezzo violin. It is larger than a standard violin but in perfect proportion. Most players do not notice that the string length is longer unless I tell them. It is not very much longer (violists feel quite liberated when they play it), and many players tell me it is actually more comfortable for them.

In the first of the clips below, you can see this instrument in an orchestra (toward the end of the clip). In the second, also toward the end, you will hear a mezzo compared to a standard violin. I think having instruments of different sizes adds much more to an ensemble than might be taken away.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGZl3BN3aZo
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=70gjbrLtDD0&feature=related

I reiterate my point: if you buy a suit from a tailor and it's too small, you would certainly not want to be told that you should go on a diet! There will always be things about playing the violin that need to be worked on, but insofar as possible they should be reduced or eliminated so the player can focus more on the music.

October 25, 2009 at 10:03 PM ·

No, Robert, I  wanted to explain that the hand of the player has to adjust to the size/scale of the instrument.

As a teacher I have to play many instruments, among them the viola and the bass guitar, and it's a matter of training the flexibility of my hands and arms (already done) and adjusting the intonation (always, on every instrument). This is not always easy, but possible.

October 26, 2009 at 01:44 AM ·

Mr Perlman doesn't always play in tune.  A former teacher who was a member of a professional orchestra had Mr Perlman as a guest soloist, and during rehearsal, they had to play a certain section 3-4 times because he was not able to play the high notes on the E string in tune.  Don't get me wrong, Itzaak Perlman is one of my favorite violinists of all time, but his huge fingers are a detriment as well as an advantage.  No doubt, it would be nice to have those fingers for vibrato, but half steps in 7th position can't be easy for him.

I recently upgraded my violin and went from a very large violin, to one that is on the petite side (a Del Gesu copy), and because my hands are not that big, it really made playing a lot easier for me -- especially those 4th finger stretches, and double stops.  My previous violin would be great for someone with big hands and/or fat fingers.  It's not to say that someone with big hands can't learn to play a "standard" sized violin (e.g., look at Itzaak Perlman), but getting a larger violin would certainly make things easier.

To the original poster, I traded my "larger" fiddle to Josh Henry when I bought a bow.  I don't know if he still has it, but it is a really nice fiddle and about as big a fiddle as you will find.  You might give Josh a call to see if he still has it.

October 26, 2009 at 02:08 AM ·

Well, I must say this discussion has given me some new things to think about.
I had always thought you got a violin for the sound, and what you could coax from it; the size was not an issue.

Now, I think that Size Does Matter. I will have to head down to a violin shop, and see how that affects me. I may start thinking about trading in one of mine, and I definitely will think of size when I get my next instrument.

No puns were intended in this post. If you are snickering, SHAME ON YOU!!!!

October 26, 2009 at 05:27 AM ·

Greetings,

I did feel a little sorry for Andrew while following this.  It seems a tad unfair that we can downgrade to a smaller instrument without comment but not the reverse.

Complete non-sequiteur but I went to a concert feauturing one of Japan`s most famous cello soloists who is now in his seventies the other day.  He played a Bach cello suite with a beutiful sound,  intonation , vibrato etc and I wanted to scream by about the end of the first line of the first movement. The rubato was so wayward there was no distinguishable pulse.   I said to a cellist friend afterwards `You know,  when a studnet plays all over the placewe tell them to get a metronome and learn to play in time.  When an old ster does it we get weak at the knees and cry `what aristry`!`

An idle commentary on the unfairness of life in general.

Hope you can find a solution Andrew.

Cheers,

Buri

October 26, 2009 at 07:36 AM ·

 Andrew,

The key words in your original post were "in performance...."

Taking your statement at face value, it means that during practice you CAN fit your fingers together. So perhaps tension during performance is the real culprit here, and not the violin. Let's face it: at your size, any violin may be too small. In order to really feel a difference, the string length would have to be significantly longer, and I doubt any standard-size fiddle can be changed that radically without mucking things up. French violins are often larger and longer, but I doubt it will really solve the problem. As was pointed out, all of us have to smoosh fingers together in upper positions. It's a fact of life on the instrument.

Scott

October 26, 2009 at 11:24 AM ·

In this case, what matters more is string length. A good thing about those who like big violins is that you can buy "oversized" violins (360 mm) for a good price, since they are devalued by the market.

www.manfio.com

 

 

October 26, 2009 at 02:38 PM ·

Luthiers, can something be done with the setup to increase the string length without compromising sound, e.g. adjusting the nut in some way?

October 26, 2009 at 03:58 PM ·

 Luis,

Do luthiers actually make larger sizes on commission? Maybe it would be worth it for the OP, if he intends to pursue a career performing, to have someone build something for him. Of course, you'd have to build him a custom case too. What about the strings themselves?Aren't they engineered to be a specific string length?

Scott

October 26, 2009 at 04:06 PM ·

No, I'm not saying that it should be smaller or bigger. In fact I though I was saying that with any modifications you can do (variations between paterns of violins etc), violin will never be a cello so it will still be approximativly the same size for all!!!  

Anne-Marie

Buri... how true about your artistery thing. In the beginning of Beethoven concerto and Saint-Saëns Rondo Introduction and capriscioso, many go false one one specific note (I don't know why?) and if it was a student who did this, his teacher would kill him... as we can just say it's artistery for the greats...

October 26, 2009 at 04:55 PM ·

I personally have no prejudice againg big violins, but I can`t fight change the market. One of the most beautifull violin sounds I`ve ever heard was produced in a Long Strad by Leonidas Kavacos.

Yes, a big violin can be made under comission, with a longer string length also, and light gouge strings can be used to get the proper tension on the string.  But, as I`ve mentioned above, there are many big violins in the market, since they are rejected by dealers, you will find many on Tarisio auctions.

www.manfio.com

 

October 26, 2009 at 05:10 PM ·

I hope this doesn't sound flippant, but have you considered swapping to viola? I know that there's loads of top violinists around who are taller than you, possibly have bigger hands (although I don't know how big yours are), but if you're starting the violin late, maybe you could save yourself some hassle by switching to viola. However, if you are like me and love the sound of violin then maybe you are reluctant to swap?

Anyhow, in the meantime here is a technique you can try for playing semitones with adjacent fingers. On a long bow, pick any note with any left hand finger. For now let's assume you are playing the note D with 3rd finger on the A string (1st position). Whilst sustaining with the bow, alternate the note with the 2nd finger. Push the 3rd finger out the way with the 2nd, and the aim is to make the note sound continuous, so it's hardly possible to tell that you swapped fingers. When you swap back to the 3rd finger, put the 3rd finger on top of the 2nd, and as the 2nd fingers moves out of the way, the 3rd finger goes down, again in a way that makes the note continuous. Keep alternating like this until you have an almost seamless note

Once you have mastered that, pick any semitone that you have difficulty playing in tune with adjacent fingers. Use the above technique, obviously to a smaller degree, but the important thing is that you are pushing the finger out of the way to accommodate the new one.

October 26, 2009 at 05:23 PM ·

One of my teacher's, dr. Pinell, has a violin that is a bit bigger than the usual full size violin.  I can't recall what his is, but it is bigger.  They are out there!

October 26, 2009 at 05:24 PM ·

Andrew-- There is little room to lengthen the strings on a conventional violin. The process is to move the bridge one way and the nut the other so that the note at the hand-stop at the body is always in the same place. If you just move the bridge down, then all of the familiar note positions will move as well. If no one else needs to play the violin, this might not be a problem, but the player would likely play out of tune on a conventional violin.

Scott-- One of the advantages of commissioning a new violin is that you get a violin that exactly fits your needs. If your chosen luthier is unwilling to alter his model, or tries to persuade you that violins of a larger size are no good, you might need to look elsewhere. Luis is right that there are some very nice large violins out there that are undervalued because of their size (although they're still not cheap). Last summer I heard a large-pattern violin that was nearly the size of my small mezzo. It was built in 1902 and has a Hill shop label in it, but it looks delightfully French. The tone was beautiful! If there is a prejudice against larger violins, I don't understand what it's based on. Certainly not tonal quality.

October 26, 2009 at 06:39 PM ·

There's also the possibility of a 5-string viola. The scale length can be up to an inch longer, and there are a number around that sound very good.  I don't know what price range would be under consideration, but there are some pretty decent ones under $3000.

October 26, 2009 at 07:12 PM ·

Andrew, you said that your teacher "suspects" your violin is small. As a first step, I'd find out if it really is. Even if the body of the violin is a little short, it may have a standard string length, and the vibrating string length is what will determine the space between intervals.

As a second step, I'd explore the advantages of a larger instrument by trying one, and see if it does what you need before giving it too much more thought. If you have a short string length, finding a standard one to try will be easy. If yours is standard already, find a shop specializing in student instruments, or stop by a school orchestra, and try a variety of small violas to see if a larger instrument makes things easier. My guess is that you'll need to go up quite a bit in size before you find much relief, but this would be an easy way to know for sure. Violas can be a little out of whack sometimes, so measure the string length, and don't just go by the body length.

Once we know where you're coming from, and have more information about where you need to go, we can be in a better position to advise you.

October 26, 2009 at 07:44 PM ·

 Royce,

I think you are mistaken--Professor Pinell does not have a large instrument. He just has a very tiny head! Really, ask if you can measure it.

Scott

October 27, 2009 at 02:21 AM ·

Hi, thank you for all of the replies.  It's given me a lot to think about.  Yes...while viola does seem sensible, I really don't like the viola much.  Of course I understand that everyone needs to smush their fingers together, but this was merely a exploration into the possibility of a needing a larger violin/string length.  However, I'm going to keep on working with my violin for the time being.  It's a really nice violin and I beginning to think it's just me not being used to moving fingers out of the way to make room for the next.  Although I will check out the string length on my violin and get back to you all on that...once I find a measuring device...

October 27, 2009 at 03:34 AM ·

Greetings,

Andrew, something you might think about if not already related to the big hands question.  Very often there are two equally viable ways of fingering arpeggio/scale type passages. One involves stretching backwards and contracting the hand sand the other extending or reaching with the fourth finger.   The former kind f fingering suits people with small hands and the latter big.

Cheers,

buri

October 27, 2009 at 04:08 PM ·

So, I just measured the string length of my violin and it would appear that it is no more 235mm.  Sorry I can't be more exact, but I was using a small wooden ruler.  Also, the body length of the violin appears to be normal, appoximately 14inches.  So, does this mean the neck of the violin is shorter if the string length is around 20mm below "average?"

October 27, 2009 at 05:11 PM ·

It's 327mm officially.

October 27, 2009 at 06:07 PM ·

Your violin is nearly 356 mm in length, which is quite normal. Computed string length would be 329.5. Standard length given in Roy's book for vibrating string length is 328. Your strings at 327 are very close, and certainly a mm one way or the other isn't going to change things much. Computed string length for a mezzo (368 mm body) is 340. For a large-pattern violin at roughly 360 mm body length, the string length computes to 333. All these numbers are subject to small deviations since violin makers work in linear measurements when constructing the molds and templates, but have to use measurements taken over the arch when placing the f-hole. Typically, the location of the f-hole notches determines the ultimate string length.

Good luck to you, and I hope this helps.

October 27, 2009 at 07:43 PM ·

I just tried my teachers violin, which is bigger than mine and it made a lot of different in the size of my half and hole steps and she played mine, and could immediately tell that it was smaller than hers. 

October 27, 2009 at 11:05 PM ·

It looks like your answer is starting to reveal itself! :-)

October 29, 2009 at 03:36 AM ·

Yes, it is indeed.  I contacted Givens regarding larger violins and they managed to find one with a significantly longer string length than my current...about 333mm. It's a violin by William Atkinson made in 1888.  Apparently, it sounds similar to my current violin but with great projection, which is something I've been concerned about with my current violin. 

October 29, 2009 at 04:21 AM ·

Atkinson fiddles are quite nice indeed. At first play the sound is deceptive; one of those instruments that really can project but up close sound tight and constrained. Play it for a while and WOW. Mine is a definite keeper...Interesting man too, moved because he was concerned that the air polution was affecting the varnish...

.nopity.gif No Pity image by TGrosjean

October 29, 2009 at 05:39 AM ·

Sam, does the sound open up to you after a while or does it remain that way under the ear?  This violin is a pretty recent Givens aquisition I think, so it has been played recently.  Thank you for telling me this though, it's nice to know this kind of thing.

October 29, 2009 at 11:03 AM ·

Looks like the measurements are getting us somewhere. Since your violin appears to be standard, and your teacher's violin is larger and more comfortable, what is the string length and body length on the teacher's violin, and how does that compare with the one from the dealer?

Here's another possible option, since you're on a budget: If the violin you have now isn't too valuable, you might investigate having the bridge moved to provide more room. Some instruments can sound fine with the bridge in the "wrong" place, as long as other things are corrected to compensate. There are a host of things which would determine whether this is a viable option, beyond what can be communicated easily here, so I'd visit a good luthier to get more information on this.

One large issue which comes to mind is that what we call the string length "proportions" may be off as a result, but they may also be off on your teacher's violin, and the one from the dealer.

October 29, 2009 at 02:45 PM ·

That was considered, but my violin is a little too valuable for me to do that to it.  Also, if this whole thing did not come up, I was actually going to have some work done to make the violin ring better.  I was going to move the tailpiece a little lower because it would seem that the pitches on the other side of the bridge are not what they need to be to create a that ringing sound.  So, the bridge is already closer to tailpiece than it should be...at least according to a couple of people.  Also, I may bring a ruler to my lesson today and see if I can measure my teachers string length...although she didn't seem to think her violin was larger than normal.

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