Viola & small hands

Edited: August 19, 2018, 11:56 AM · From another thread I did not want to hijack...

Andrew Hsieh
Edited: August 18, 2018, 8:32 PM · ...whereas I have the shortest fingers of any adult I know, and I primarily play viola

Andrew, my hands may be bigger than yours, but many female violists have larger ones. And my viola is 16,5", so eventually we're in the same boat. How the hell... Will it ever be possible for me to place the first finger in "half position" and having the second finger in normal first position? I'm struggling with a short passage in Bruch 8 pieces op. 83 / Nr. 1 and have no idea how to fix that, or what else I should train on. (Or simply use 3rd finger instead of 2nd?)

Anyone else from the viola section with tiny hands, feel free to put your oar in...

Replies (37)

August 19, 2018, 12:11 PM · I once knew a petite violist that used a large Viola. I noticed that she invented her own personal fingering system- almost cello style. Some violin technical writer advocated that the "natural" spacing of the left hand should be: whole step between 1-2, half-steps between 2-3 and 3-4. In general, Violists should avoid stretches and extensions, shift positions more often, use the in-between, half-positions more often, and use enharmonic fingering more often.
August 19, 2018, 12:33 PM · Hm. This would make 10 times shifting within 7 bars, if I count sifting to the "half positions" as well, and still 8 shifts only counting the "real ones". Is this an acceptable rate? And it still doesn't feel relaxed at all, this damn C sharp!! (But at least it works somehow... but needs some polishing!)
I apologize, since I know I should get professional help with these issues, and I see that I will definitely need some occasional viola lessons besides my violin lessons, but for here and now every input is welcome...
August 19, 2018, 12:36 PM · Maybe some chello lessons would help... LOL
August 19, 2018, 12:44 PM · I'm only slightly below average male height (5'7") with average arm length for that height, I just have very short fingers. (My fingers are about the same length as those of a friend who is 4'10".) I play a 15.75" viola.

I haven't played Bruch's 8 Pieces, so I just looked at the viola part.

If you're referring to the G#-B in measure 14 of No. 1: I have no trouble reaching on those notes without shifting. Your left hand position may be preventing you from reaching; violists with small hands have to move their left elbow more.

That said, if I were to try to stretch, a good vibrato would be difficult. Depending on context (looking beyond Bruch here), I would consider three options:

1) Shift from half-position to 1st position, which would be my most likely choice unless it's in the middle of a fast passage or a longer half-position passage.

2) Use 3rd finger. This is my choice for fast tempo or if I'm staying in half-position afterward.

3) Play in a higher position on the string below, if the notes before and after are comfortably playable that way.

With the Bruch, I would actually choose option 3. The fingering I'd most likely use, given my hand size, is: I'd start measure 12 in 2nd position, shift to 3rd position (3rd finger) on the A at the end of measure 13, play the G# with 2nd finger, and then go up to 4th position and use my 3rd finger on the B.

Edited: August 19, 2018, 12:45 PM · I don't see a C# anywhere in the piece that would force you to stretch between 1st position and half position.
August 19, 2018, 12:50 PM · Oh, I see it now. Measure 78. I would use 3rd finger on the E and then shift to 3rd position on the next note. Then I'd stay in 3rd position until it goes back down to the E on the C string.
August 19, 2018, 12:57 PM · I don't see the need for 10 shifts in 7 measures; I would do either 5 or 7 shifts in measures 78-84. (I'd consider shifting down to 1st position for the A in measure 81 and then going straight back up to 3rd, in order to avoid the same-finger string crossing.)

But at that tempo, I don't consider 10 shifts in 7 measures (if necessary) to be unreasonable. I've just given you my thought process on shifting; I make stepwise shifts to accommodate small hands, and that can mean a lot of shifting.

Edited: August 19, 2018, 2:40 PM · One way to cut down on the number of shifts is to do the "crawl" or "glide" shift. When moving only a 1/2 step, extend or contract a finger by a half-step, then let the thumb and the rest of the hand and arm float into the next position While the next note is sounding.
Bass players shift about every other note.
N.M.-- I would count changes of a 1/2 step as "real" shifts.
My mental position system is this: 1/2, 1, 2, 2 1/2, 3, 3 1/2, etc.
Edited: August 19, 2018, 3:55 PM · Joel, doesn't this depend on if one just stretches down with the first finger leaving the hand in 1st, or if it's a "real shift" to half? In G#-H on G string I manage to do the first, doing the same on the C string with C#-E I need the latter.
I wasn't able to absorbe the crawling and gliding completely,but I'll give it a second thought tomorrow, with viola in hand.

Andrew, indeed it's measure 78ff what I meant. Using the 3rd finger and then immediately shifting to 3rd is an option I couldn't figure out by myself, but it's cool! I still have to do a string crossing on the same finger to reach the F# in measure 79, but at least it's in 1s finger that way instead of the 4th which it would have been if I stayed in half position.
I also do the shift back to 1st and immediately back to 3rd again in measure 81. It's much more relaxed than clenching two strings with one finger in order to get that quint. On violin I would have considered to do so, especially because my teacher instructs me to do so (or maybe he just doesn't like my shifting?), but on the viola... It's such a different animal!!!

For today, thanks a lot to both of you!

August 19, 2018, 4:01 PM · "Crawl" or "glide" shifts are a staple for me -- I think my comments on measures 12-14 suggest this.
Edited: August 19, 2018, 8:32 PM · I don't have any extra advice, but I do commiserate with you. I have small hands for my size but am drawn to larger violas. If I had an extra few thousand I'd be all over that Ritter Viola corilon has in stock - 47.5cm! Damn!
August 19, 2018, 10:54 PM · Maybe you should check out Pellegrinas violas, they’re like playing violin but with sound quality of a viola
Edited: August 20, 2018, 3:25 AM · I too am a violist with stubby fingers.

Indeed I do far more conscious semitone shifts on viola than most violinists. The thumb can even stay put for a brief up-&-down semi-shift, though.

For quick passages, the fingers must drop on the notes, not grope for them, and my hand must open like a fan, even if the index is playing on its side.
For singing phrases, with or without vibrato, the hand can do constant micro-shifts to provide necessary weight on curved fingers.

And as Trevor says, we can adopt 'cello-like fingerings with more "real" shifts. I find the slower response of the viola allows this.

And like Joel, I define positions by semitone, not by the written notes ore keys.

August 20, 2018, 6:01 AM · My teacher was small and had small hands. She adopted the Dounis method of having the left thumb near horizontal. She did find the Walton to be the most difficult viola concerto, whereas some others reckon the Bartok is more difficult (The Schnittke came out some years after her death).
August 20, 2018, 6:55 AM · What is the string length in your viola?
August 20, 2018, 7:09 AM · 37,5 cm = 14 3/4 " So not exceptionally large but rather average.
August 20, 2018, 7:12 AM · But I do admit that even the C# on its own gives me a lit if tension, no matter how and where I place the instrument. I hope this will improve over the next months, otherwise there will be injury, on the long run...!
Edited: August 20, 2018, 7:40 AM · Ok. Playing confort is not only related to the size of the instrument and string length. Other fators as upper bouts width, rib height, weight, feeling "under the chin", and also the response of the instrument (if you struggle or not to produce the sound) are very important too. Perhaps a smaller viola would help, mainly in the in high positions of the C and G strings. A thin and narrow neck, like a violin neck, would help too.
August 20, 2018, 9:26 AM · The thin and narrow neck is something I was looking for, but couldn't find "in stock", and for commissioning a new instrument it wasn't exactly the ideal moment, especially from a financial point of view. Playing restless, the rib height and feeling under the chin is better than okay, I was rather having problems with lower instruments which I had to raise with a shoulderrest or foam pad, and then the whole construction became a bit too high. However... The upper bouts are okay. On C (and eventually G) I'm struggling with above 4th position, but rumor has it that a violist does not need to go there regularly. On D and A its just fine up to 7th with "an acceptable amount of distortion".

To be honest, I did not have the chance to try out many different models before purchase. Maybe a dozen violas from basically 5 patterns. The few smaller ones (41 cm or less, vibrating string length 36,8 or less) I found disappointing, sometimes loud but always lacking the warmth and richness I was looking for. In the end I did not only choose the one I most liked by sound, but it also has a sentimental value for me. And I'm still hoping to adapt to this size.

If I eventually ran into some money, I'd definitely approach you, Luis, since I guess with a dedicated viola maker things might be easier to discuss than with someone who builds one viola now and then every five years. But I think you don't have violas on stock but sell them as soon as you have finished them, do you?

August 20, 2018, 9:30 AM · ... I met one smaller viola, maybe a year ago, about 39,5 cm back length which sounded really beautiful - not strong, but warm and rich. Unfortunately it wasn't for sale, and it might have been out if my financial reach anyway...
August 20, 2018, 9:45 AM · String manufacturers often use 37 or 38 cm vibrating string length for their "standard" vibrating string length.
René Morel built his violas with a VSL of 37.5 cm (14.75"), whatever the body length, to make it easier to switch violas, and to get the best tone out of "medium" strings.

After an excruciating bout of Viola Elbow, due to strain in the 3rd & 4th fingers combined with the extended arm, I have gone from 36.5 to 35.5 cm (14") VSL similar to Robert Spear's Ergonomical violas. The lower tension even allow more overtone vibration in my standard Tonica strings. I can always use tougher strings if necessary.

Edited: August 20, 2018, 12:19 PM · Adrian, I follow Renè Morel's ideas, they appeard in a STRAD magazine I think in 1994, in an article about viola making.

Nuuska wrote "On C (and eventually G) I'm struggling with above 4th position, but rumor has it that a violist does not need to go there regularly.". I don't agree, many of the pieces in auditions for viola positions will require that, mainly the Bartok Viola concerto.

Yes, finding a small viola that sounds good is hard. Sometimes I make a 39.6 cms. (15.5") viola with a 375 mm string length. Here one of them in action with Kim Uwate, Karen Dreyfus chose this viola to her student Kim in NYC:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VM9WaMBT8yI

Edited: August 20, 2018, 4:03 PM · To answer your question: "Will it ever be possible for me to place the first finger in 'half position' and having the second finger in normal first position?" I cannot give a direct yes or no answer without seeing your hand, but I would generally avoid that type of stretching, especially on viola because of inconvenience. It is good to be able to stretch that much, as it is easiest to play certain passages this way. However, it often makes much more sense sometimes to use 3rd finger for this type of passage instead.

I'm a small, slender-handed violist with long fingers. I play a 15.5" viola. I'm not sure what the vibrating string length is, but my guess is that it's between 36 and 37 cm. I'm not willing to go bigger, as playing anything bigger would cause me to over-extend my left arm to the point that it is nearly straight.

Regarding playing viola with small hands, the exact technique is going to vary from person to person due to the individual neck dimensions and string length of the viola in relation to the player's hand size, shape, and flexibility. I think the key is to open the hand up from the base joints and reach as far as possible without hand strain. This goal can be achieved by using one or a combination of the following methods: changing the position of the thumb (across index finger, across middle finger, between the two fingers, behind index finger and towards the scroll), wrist closer to the neck, edge of palm higher above the string, micro shifts, alternate fingerings.

Ironically, I can use most violin fingerings on viola without much difficulty or strain. I have my hand in a relatively fanned-out position with my thumb in the most natural position for the context of the music. I will occasionally use micro-shifts or alternate (more cello-like) fingerings.

One thing you can do to ease high position play on viola is placing your thumb on the side of the fingerboard. This is especially true when playing up high on the C and G strings. High positions on the C and G strings is sometimes utilized in repertoire, but not as often as on violin.

August 21, 2018, 2:53 PM · Ella, how I envy you for having long fingers! X-)
Edited: August 21, 2018, 6:38 PM · Yes, although having long fingers is certainly an advantage, I have slender hands, so I still run into some difficulties. It's to the point that octave playing is fairly difficult on the piano (not violin and viola so much), though it's way easier than before. I'm a growing girl, so I hope my hands will become big enough to comfortably reach an octave.

Ironically, most extensions are not a problem on the violin, and most violin fingerings are doable on the viola without strain or difficulty. The only time I ever use alternate fingerings is in half position on the lower strings. I might play thirds with 1st and 4th fingers instead of 2nd and 4th fingers (1 and 3 aren't a problem). That's about it with regards to alternate, non-violin fingerings.

August 22, 2018, 2:52 AM · There is an interesting document somewhere on my computer comparing Flesch's fingerings with Galamian's in unaccompanied Bach, Kreutzer etc.
These differences seem to correspond to Flesch's stocky hands and Galamian's more spidery ones.
August 22, 2018, 3:51 AM · WAS Galamian good at catching flies?
August 22, 2018, 4:15 AM · ... uuhm, why?
August 22, 2018, 11:40 PM · Just want to put my two cents in - violist with super small hands here.

I think what makes a difference is your setup - chinrest/shoulder rest position. This frees up the shoulder and arm to support movement of the hand when shifting. With a less supportive, more 'static' setup, the hand/fingers are working harder to move around. I spent the first year of my degree without a shoulder rest, to learn how to support the viola correctly between the chin and collarbone. I learnt how to streamline my energy and use gravity to assist shifting.

I believe it making it work - using the natural power of the body and environment, in order to play the most beautiful viola possible :-)

August 23, 2018, 9:18 AM · Thank you, Amy - I share your point of view. A free and relaxed posture is even much more important here than with the violin, not only for the ability to play but also to keep away from the physiotherapist.
And if there are some super super small handed folks being able to play chello or double bass, then someone like us with only small to super small hands should manage the viola!
Shifting is not an issue so much, this is very well manageable. And playing my viola (relatively high ribs) with a SR isn't possible at all anyway for me. Only thing I'm wondering about us the CR. Do you think it might be worth switching from a Guarneri model to a centered model - would it make reaching the lower strings easier or not so much?
Edited: August 23, 2018, 1:09 PM · I totally agree with Amy that posture is very important. That is one of the key things I worked on when transitioning to the viola, as well as finding a chin- and shoulder-rest combo that suits my physical build best. You need to be free and relaxed while maintaining some security. The other important factor is the angle of the instrument, which affects your left arm position, how easily you can reach the lower strings, and your bow angle. With violin, many players hold the violin pointing more to the left. Because the viola is longer, it is more viable to hold it pointing more in front of the player. On chinrests.com, I found an interesting trick that can help players determine the best angle for the violin or viola based on their physical build without assistance:
1. Place the instrument in solo rest position (not orchestral rest position on the knee). Point the scroll to where the wall and ceiling join.
2. Stand with feet firmly planted on the floor, knees slightly bent and flexible, legs shoulder width apart, back straight and centered over the legs, shoulders down and relaxed, neck roughly straight, and head slightlly down.
3. Place the tip of the left thumb in the curve of the neck in roughly fourth position.
4. Reach comfortably up and over the lowest string (G on violin, C on viola), wrapping the tips of first, second, and third fingers easily and lightly under the fingerboard. Pinky is placed on either of the lowest two strings according to comfort.
5. While keeping the left hand "glued", place the instrument on the left collarbone.
6. Turn the head slightly to the left.
7. Place the chin where it naturally falls.
8. Release the left hand into first position.
9. You have now found the ideal angle to hold your violin or viola at.

If you are determining the optimal placement of the chinrest for your physical build, now is the time to check the position of the chin, namely the left side. Where does it fall in relation to the tailpiece?
10. If the chin falls to the left of the tailpiece, consider a chin rest that sits completely to the left of the tailpiece. If your chin is very close to or on top of the tailpiece, consider a chin rest that sits mostly to the left of the tailpiece but has a notable extension over the tailpiece. If your chin falls to the right of the tailpiece, consider a center-mounted chinrest.

With regards to how cellists and bassists manage with small hands: Cellists use a totally different fingering system compared to violin and viola due to the stretch required, and bassists use a different fingering system compared to cellists (and violin and viola players too).

Edited: August 23, 2018, 1:42 PM · Funny that you mention chinrests.com -- I also happen to have one of the most heavily customized chinrests they've ever produced, because I also have a very short neck. Before this summer, when I got a Frisch & Denig chinrest, I was unable to place a viola between my jaw and collarbone at all, despite already having one of the lowest chinrests on the market. I now use a half-centered chinrest that is lower than my tailpiece; a center-mounted chinrest is impossible for me because I wouldn't be able to get it low enough without removing the tailpiece entirely.

I think custom chinrests are well worth considering, at any rate. For me it was the only option.

August 23, 2018, 1:51 PM · Embed Claudio's video from above.

August 23, 2018, 2:34 PM · Andrew, is it possible to see a picture of your CR?
Edited: August 23, 2018, 6:32 PM · I'm curious, Andrew H. Do you use a shoulder rest? If so, is it a standard shoulder rest or a sponge/pad/cloth thing?

I'm not trying to suggest anything, but it seems like many short-necked violists in particular do not use a shoulder rest due to the excess height despite using the lowest setting on both sides, and even if they do, it's usually a thin sponge/pad/cloth thing. It seems like chin rests can only go so low without causing too much trouble.

August 23, 2018, 7:38 PM · I do use a shoulder rest. If I try to balance my viola on my shoulder without one, I have to place it much higher than I would with a shoulder rest, and my fingers can barely reach the C string at all. Because of the shape of my shoulders, playing without a shoulder rest reduces my range of motion. Basically, I have the exact worst body type for playing a violin or viola -- both a short neck and extremely short fingers -- which is why I need a heavily customized setup to make it work.

I use a Mach One shoulder rest with shorter Everest feet, which I think gives me the minimum possible height for a hard shoulder rest; it also sits at mid-shoulder so it doesn't interfere with putting the viola on my collarbone.

Also, before I got my current chinrest, it didn't matter whether I had a shoulder rest or not, I couldn't squeeze my viola in even without a shoulder rest.

Edited: August 24, 2018, 8:31 AM · Just noticed that I messed up the measures of my two violas.

1. The "good one": back 422mm, vibrating string length 368mm, Guarneri CR
2. The "cheap one": back 435mm, VSL 375mm, some kind of half centered CR.

Re-thinking once again following your suggestions, I added a cuneiform piece of foam (cut from an old mattress) which only supports the left side of the instrument on the shoulder, but doesn't add height. The wood still rests safely on the collarbone. This adds a little bit of tilt and stabilization. The positive effects are:
- The C-string is now easier to reach in 5th position and I even manage to crawl up to 7th.
- I can add a bit of weight from my head now if necessary without tilting the viola to the left, which enables me to shift down without lifting the scroll. (I still do it to an almost unnoticeable amount since it is still helpful and protects me from clamping the instrument)
- I feel much more relaxed and my left shoulder and arm doesn't hurt anymore after an hour of practice or do.

Another step further...

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