Fractional Sizes for Adult Beginners

March 10, 2017 at 07:53 AM · I've been teaching adult beginners a long time now, and have pretty much always done what I considered to be traditional, which is starting them on a full-size instrument.

This works just fine on people with larger hands that can already effectively reach from 1st to 4th finger on a full size instrument, but of course adults with smaller/less strong fingers have significant trouble reaching their 4s without compromising their hand position. And since they lack the fingerboard awareness to be able to jump up to the 4 and back to the 1 with any degree of certainty, they usually spend at least a few months on the violin before feeling OK about their 4s. Even then, I feel sometimes like they compromised the muscular development of the 4s because of starting on such a (relatively) large instrument, whereas people who have played from a young age got to graduate into larger sizes, allowing a more incremental approach.

What I sometimes do with young teenagers who are small for their age is rent them a 1/2 size for a couple of months, then a 3/4 size, then a full size. This seems to work EXTREMELY well compared to how their finger strength would have developed if I'd just started them on a full size. Everyone I've done this with has had surprisingly good results, but perhaps it's just coincidence or some other factor I'm not thinking of.

Even though the traditional advice would seem to recommend a full size for anyone who has an adult-size body, I'm starting to feel like this just isn't useful or relevant for someone starting later in life. Regardless of their arm length or body size, if their 4th finger has to extend improperly to reach its position, I think perhaps they should be on a smaller size violin - even if it's just for a month or two) - until their pinky strengths grows into the ability to validate a larger size.

I tend to think of it like weight training: if you want to lift 300 pounds, you don't start by attempting to lift 300 pounds and repeatedly failing. You start at whatever weight you can utilize with proper form, and only increase the weight as much as you can still use with proper technique. We don't say "well adults should be able to lift 300 pounds so let's start you with 300 pounds." If they're NEW to training, we start the weight low, regardless of their age, gender, height, or whatever. Then we work up as fast as is reasonable.

Do any of you have experience starting adults on fractional sizes so their fingers flexibility/coordination/strength can catch up with their body size?

Replies (24)

March 10, 2017 at 10:15 AM · Hi Erik,

I have found exactly the same!

I have even taught more petite adults and they have stayed on a 3/4 sized instrument as their long-term size. It works just fine, and there are some very good quality 3/4 sized instruments available, so there is not really a compromise in tone.

Occasionally, it is tricky to convince teenagers (or their parents) that they will progress more quickly on a smaller instrument, but once started they are just fine.

March 10, 2017 at 01:59 PM · Wouldn't starting on a 3/4 for longer be better?

1/2 size is usually cramped unless you have tiny hands, and no violin worth its salt sounds good under 3/4 size. :)

March 10, 2017 at 02:07 PM · Great sounding 1/2 size violins are very rare, but they do exist, I had one in my store, sounded like a half decent full size.

March 10, 2017 at 06:57 PM · A.O: It just depends. Some people have extremely tiny hands. But most of the time 3/4 is the correct size (if full is too big, that is).

This is an interesting discussion. I wonder how many other teachers have felt frustrated in the past at an adult beginner's lack of ease on the instrument, but never thought to start them on a smaller size so their finger strength could catch up, while still improving their playing.

I don't think this is traditional procedure, but then again it's not really traditional for adult beginners to exist at all. I think we're entering into a different era, where adult learners are trying out all sorts of things, and violin happens to be one of them. So as teachers we may have to start re-thinking some of our strategies to properly teach this new population of students.

I know some teachers in my area just turn down adult beginners without even auditioning them. I wonder if it's partially because they're not comfortable addressing the specific challenges that adults have.

I had sort of the same situation with a young student who insisted on being taught on a left-handed violin. I was literally the only one who was willing to try, although I did try to talk them out of it initially. But I gave it my best shot and she's actually doing remarkably well! But it's certainly not traditional.

March 10, 2017 at 09:26 PM · This makes me wonder. I'm still having a hard time reaching my fourth on the G, and almost there on the D. A and E are good. This is after working on it for, say, approximately 2 months.

It didn't occur to me to ever try a smaller size; it's definitely untraditional as mentioned.

But it actually sounds intriguing! Maybe I'll try it out when I go to the luthier this week. On the other end of the spectrum, the violas are intriguing too :)

March 10, 2017 at 10:39 PM · G.A.: It's normal to struggle somewhat with 4s, especially on the G. The struggle doesn't mean you need a 3/4 size. The only time I'd recommend this to adults is if they're literally compromising technique in order to reach 4s. It's impossible to say whether or not a 3/4 size would benefit you without seeing how your fingers form.

If you don't have a private teacher, it would be very difficult for you to know whether or not the 3/4 size is a logical choice for you.

If you don't have a teacher, do this: put your 1st finger on a B (on the A-string). It must be on the TIP of the 1st finger, not the pad. Then, while keeping that finger down, reach up the 4th finger to reach an E. Are you able to keep the 4 curved, and still land it on the tip of the finger? Has your 1 been pulled off of the B from the stretch?

March 10, 2017 at 11:59 PM · Edit: the first post was my thinking a few months ago, please see my post after this one. :)

March 11, 2017 at 12:03 AM · I think one of the advantages of the Suzuki books is that the students start out using only 3 fingers and the 2 higher strings - so the 4th finger stretch is not an issue for quite a while while decent playing position is being learned.

I live near Ifshin Violins and would escort my smaller students there to select rentals.I would play through the available instruments and let my student try what I thought were the better ones. My experience 15 - 20 years ago with the 101 series of Jay-Haide violins was that one could more easily find good sounding 1/2 and 3/4 size violins than full size. I reasoned this was because they probably moved the best of the full-size instruments to their higher price categories but there was only one price category for the smaller instruments - but that was only my assumption. This was before they started antiquing some of the instruments and selling them as "a l'ancienne."

March 11, 2017 at 12:45 AM · Hey Andrew, we're pretty close; I visit Ifshins once every few months.

In the newer editions of Suzuki (past 5-10 years at least) they give the option of 4s on every song, including Twinkle.

I generally try to incorporate 4s as early as possible because I find that it forms the musculature of the hand in a way that only using 1,2 and 3 wouldn't. I don't want the 4 to be the odd one out! Besides the muscular development involved with using 4s, I also think avoiding them leads to thinking of the 4 like an auxiliary finger, rather than a primary one.

Of course, using 4s early on is usually only realistic with people starting at least at age 6 (and often 8 years old).

March 11, 2017 at 04:49 AM · I find this super intersering because when I began playing at age 10, I played on a 1/2 sized instrument. When I was 11, my parents did not want to pay for my rental anymore because my aunts old violin turned up. So, I jumped right to a full sized. Although I didn't have a private instructor in middle school, my teacher never advised a smaller size, so I didn't see a problem. When I got to high school and got a private teacher, she immediately commented on my terribly high 3rd fingers and lack of ability or use my 4th. After a bit of thought and discussion, we decided it was due to never playing on that 3/4 instrument, which as a 5'1 female with very small hands could have actually been the ideal size for me. Nevertheless, I still play on that same 4/4 violin however, it took a lot of thought to fix my intonation issues.

March 11, 2017 at 05:03 AM · I'm small (literally 5 feet) and have no trouble managing a 4/4 violin. Odd, kind of. I guess it varies from person to person because every person has a different hand shape, even people with similar physiques.

March 11, 2017 at 05:19 AM · I'm short (5'2") with small hands, and I play a full-size. A 7/8ths is more comfortable because I can manage tenths and other extensions without strain, but I've never been able to find a satisfactory 7/8ths instrument.

When I was a kid, my teachers tended to keep me on the smaller-size instruments as long as possible. This was a mistake, I think, because it was fairly clear I was going to be a small adult and I might have benefited from learning to compensate appropriately at a younger age.

Hand placement and balance is especially important for players with smaller hands. This should be true for everyone but it's more critical when you don't have a lot of extra to work with. The hand is balanced more towards the 2nd finger than the 1st, so it can more readily pivot up and down, and the 4th finger is better supported.

I place my 4th finger almost flat on the string, and I change the shape of my hand for 3rds and whatnot in order to compensate.

March 11, 2017 at 07:23 AM · Ella Yu: How long have you been playing the violin? There are plenty of tiny people who can play a full size violin, but their finger strength was allowed to work up to it over years of playing.

Of course, as you noted, there are tiny people with strong/large hands. And in those cases, they would be comfortable starting on full size.

Lydia: It's hard to say whether them keeping you at smaller sizes hindered your development. I personally move students up in size 'as soon as they can.' By "can," I mean they effectively reach with all fingers without doing anything crazy like straightening the pinky.

In my opinion, it would have been a big mistake on the part of your teachers to move you to a size that you couldn't appropriately handle. The word "compensate" implies that you would have had to do change your form in an inappropriate way to meet that size.

What you might not be considering is that if they had moved you up to the sizes that forced you to compensate, you may have never had the progress that you now might take for granted. You may have struggled to play around such a relatively large instrument that you wouldn't be where you are now.

You should invest more time in finding an excellent lady's size (7/8ish) violin. There's a 7/8 Guarneri Del Gesu I know of that's a bargain at only 700,000!

There's really only so much we can blame ourselves for issues with playing. Sometimes it really IS the instrument (or in this case, the size of the violin).

It concerns me that you place your 4th finger almost flat. How do you possibly play something like the chaconne with that issue?

March 11, 2017 at 12:24 PM · Like this:

March 11, 2017 at 01:52 PM · I was actually moved up to a 3/4 early by a teacher who thought I should learn to compensate, and then moved back to a 1/2 by the next teacher. The right answer was probably somewhere between those two extremes.

However, I will note that a child playing the violin has the advantage of years of development around the instrument, that an adult beginner doesn't have. Grow up with the instrument and your hand span will stretch -- I can spread my fingers much wider on the left hand than on the right -- and you'll end up with looser ligaments at the shoulder as well, giving you a much larger range of motion. So there may indeed be an argument for more careful sizing for an adult.

As an adult, I cannot quite cup the scroll of a full-size instrument, and I cannot reach the tip of a full-size bow without a bit of an arc to the stroke. I place my hand differently for double-stops (and my teacher, a guy with surprisingly small hands, does the same thing).

Instrument proportion can make a difference in feel; for instance, my previous violin was almost long-pattern in size, but it had an unusually narrow neck, making it easier to get around on. My current violin is modeled on the proportions of the Messiah Strad, so pretty "standard".

I've never encountered a 7/8ths that was good enough, affordable, and for sale. A previous teacher of mine played a 7/8ths GB Guadagnini that I liked quite a lot, though, and which demonstrated to me that I'd definitely have an easier time of it with a smaller violin.

(I had occasionally considered the commission of a 7/8ths from a contemporary maker, and that may yet be something that I do in 20 years when I'm less flexible, but I do love my current violin and the likelihood of being able to buy anything else is low. I also have needs in an instrument that most adult amateurs don't have, and that certainly adult beginners don't have, so was very fortunate to be able to find my current violin.)

March 11, 2017 at 02:01 PM · Chaconne is my absolute favourite song. Just wanted to pop in and say that.

And also my tiny hand was a cause of frustration for 4th finger placing during my first 2 years of violin learning. I never did think of "downgrading" to a 3/4 tho.

March 11, 2017 at 02:02 PM · Chaconne is my absolute favourite song. Just wanted to pop in and say that.

And also my tiny hand was a cause of frustration for 4th finger placing during my first 2 years of violin learning. I never did think of "downgrading" to a 3/4 tho.

March 11, 2017 at 02:10 PM · Sometimes, the answer is that you might need a BIGGER instrument than you though.

I used to think that I would need a 7/8 size, but that was because my hand position needed work.

After it got fixed, I realized my long fingers and very wide left hand flexibility felt cramped on a 4/4.

When I tried a 15.5 inch viola for fun, the space felt almost perfect (so I am looking into getting a big Maggini model violin, which are about 14.5 inches vs 14 inches of a 4/4).

When it comes down to it, hand stretch and palm width usually determine your comfortable size (with finger and arm length playing more minor importance): How else do you think tiny Lillian Fuchs played a 16.375 inch viola? :D

March 11, 2017 at 03:40 PM · When it comes to comfort, we have to also consider the shoulder complex, especially the shape and height of the clavicle relative to the shoulder socket, width of shoulder relative to upper arm, the neutral angle of the shoulder blades (whether they sit more forward or back,) difference in length of fingers, and also length of palm, length of thumb, a whole complex of things. The more fixed our idea of a proper playing setup, the less comfortable it will be for those who don't fit that ideal.

March 11, 2017 at 05:16 PM · Erik, I've been playing the violin for several years. There's a gazillion details I could mention, but they're too personal to publicize on an internet forum. This discussion reminds me of viola sizing. Do we follow similar guidelines?

March 11, 2017 at 08:26 PM · I'm technically trained as a violist, so I think that definitely has something to do my flexible views on violin sizing. The fact that violas are available in any range of sizes - while violinists must conform to specific sizes - doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. But it's the way we've always done it, so I think people just get into the mindset of thinking that's the only way.

I've definitely taught violin students who should be using larger than the standard 4/4 size. There's just no way around that truth. I usually try to coax them into viola, but they like the violin. I wish there were a broader range of violin sizes, sized by inch rather than fractions.

Regarding breaking traditional setups:

I always hear the argument "well that setup was good enough for paganini" or "good enough for heifetz" or whatever, and that just makes ZERO sense. Because unless the student is paganini or heifetz - or any other super-star of natural talent and discipline - the point is moot. The same applies to using Perlman as an example of large fingers on a 4/4 size violin (in case anyone was thinking it!).

Jeewon Kim: I definitely consider the anthropometrical details of any given student. We HAVE to, right? Our body is a machine, with limitations on its range of motion. Some factors are trainable and others are not. We can't ask the humerus to be shorter, or the fingers to be longer. So I definitely agree that "the more fixed our idea of a proper playing setup, the less comfortable it will be for those who don't fit that ideal." This is actually the main reason I have about 30 shoulder rests in my studio. Sponges, Kuns, Everests, Comfords, Menuhin-style, etc.... What I've noticed though, is that students do best with less freedom at first, and graduating their way into more freedom as their familiarity with the violin improves.

A.O.: I bet Lillian Fuchs worked her way up from smaller sizes just like I did! (I started on a 4/4 size violin as my converted "viola", then 15", then 16" finally.... but before that I had started with a 1/2 size violin and then 3/4 size..... so I had a huge amount of graduations to lead into that larger size over time).

Ella Yu: We should definitely try to follow the same guidelines on viola. I think it's more common to size adults according to their comfortable viola size, though, as opposed to violin-sizing. Since we don't have the preconception of a "full size" viola, we don't inherently box our sizes in based on age. We simply size the viola based on what the student can use effectively. If they eventually get their fingers stretchy and strong enough to consider a larger size, then they can use a larger size.

I have had students that INSISTED on starting on a 16" or larger viola (despite being small-handed) and their results were.... what one would expect.

March 11, 2017 at 08:40 PM · Gradural work-up to a larger size is not always a requirement though, if one has the finger spread.

Although I have not played viola, I also tried out 16 and 16.5 inch violas by playing tengths comfortably on the C-G strings, despite smallish hands.

The reason that the 16.5 wasn't very attractive was that it was a bit too long for my left arm and slightly wide in finger spacing for my 4th finger.

However, slight problems like these can be overcome, and despite a 16 inch viola the perfect size for me, I could play up to a 17 inch one with no ill-effect (except perhaps excessive weight). :)

March 13, 2017 at 02:11 PM · I think adult beginners should be sized on a case-by-case basis. I happen to be 5'1" with unusually short arms and small hands. For the first three years I played on a 3/4. About a year and a half ago I sized up to a 7/8, but often fall back on one of my 3/4 instruments if I'm tired, or I have to play all day.

It feels to me that the old chestnut "all adults play on a full size instrument" assumes that all adult violinists played as a child and therefore have already established the necessary flexibility. However, times are changing, and many of us are in a position to pursue playing an instrument later in life that we were unable to at the "optimal" time. Thank goodness for teachers willing to take us on and make sure we have the appropriate instrument for our comfort. If I had been made to play on a full size violin, I might have quit.

March 13, 2017 at 02:32 PM · I took off 25 years from the violin, and one of the biggest losses was the flexibility of the left shoulder to allow my left elbow to swing swing underneath the instrument. If you're a small person I can see where you'd need that "swing" even to reach octaves and high positions on lower strings when playing a full size instrument. I'm six feet tall so I at least have the overall size to manage it. Building back that flexibility has been tough. I've actually considered getting physical therapy to learn exercises just for that.

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