Ramble, student with short pinky, short arms, trying violin sizes

Edited: June 8, 2019, 3:24 PM · Hi everyone, I'd love to hear your opinions on the topic of short pinkies and ways of coping. I have already watched videos and read up on this topic and learned a lot. I just bought a very cheap 3/4 violin so that I could have at-home experience of this size, and it's been surprising. I find that it's definitely better for reaching with the 4th finger, but didn't expect to feel so cramped with the bowing. My arms are short, but it's still awkward bowing on the E string without hitting the "corners" of the violin. Going back through adults playing the 3/4 on YouTube, I now see the same cramped effect and they do seem to avoid the E string.

I tried both my long bow and the short one that came with the 3/4. The short one seems much too short, but oddly comfortable at the same time.

I also got a shock at how easy the strings are to press down compared to my full size violin (also cheap but with good sound). Am I not supposed to have heavy calluses on my fingers? I thought this was normal, I know I had them when I played guitar.

So, at first play, I thought, this is it, I now have the confidence to upgrade in this size. Now I am all doubt again.

I can only just reach the right note with my 4th finger, so when I am playing, I am very likely to miss it and have to go back. I have to hold my left fingers and thumb at an odd angle built around on what is going to work for the pinky, and if I forget to set that up from the start of a piece, I will mess up later when it's needed.

I hear you say "so don't forget", but how can I know if this is the best approach overall? Perhaps I would be better off to rework the fingering and choose my pieces carefully.

They said to practise 3rds, and I can do those okay now, I even like them. I can't go from 4th back to 3rd finger in tune so I substitute the 2nd finger.

I also learned that my finger is not particularly stunted, it only seems that way because the knuckle of that finger is set very low down on my hand. In other words, the palm slopes away suddenly.

Also I learned that having a disproportionate pinky, with a locking top knuckle, is harder than simply having small hands.

Anyway to cut it short, I think I am going to have to find ways to compensate for my short pinky on a 4/4, rather than play a 3/4. And since I am on Suzuki book one still, I am not equipped to decide how to do that, going forward.

Any comments you have in response will be appreciated, there is so much to discover!

(PS I am female in my 50s, have played piano and guitar by ear but no formal training in anything and learned only basic music reading in primary school)

Replies (26)

June 8, 2019, 3:48 PM · I think it is more a problem of proper technique than the violion size. There are some 4/4 violins that are on the small size, such as 350, 351, even 349 mm.
Edited: June 8, 2019, 7:06 PM · Lesley - I feel your pain, literally. I've short arms, as well as short pinkies and quite a lot of arthritis in both hands - especially my left fingers. So I've a few thoughts after working with this for just at 7 months (returning after a 45 year hiatus from playing).

1. Are you working with a teacher, and if so, do they have experience working with adult beginners? This is really important if at all possible, and also, from what I understand, learning to use the 4th properly is hard for everyone.

2. Regardless of our hand construction, our joints and extension muscles are not likely ready for the mechanics of using that 4th finger at the beginning, and we can certainly strain our left hand if we try to push it too hard, too soon. I know that I certain did, strained my left thumb twice (had to take a couple days off). There are a couple of exercises in Suzuki 1 that help the 4th finger pattern.

3. Left hand tension is our enemy - and yes - it's really hard to relax our left thumb properly - but we must figure that out. Still working on this one myself.= - and I've noticed that the more tense my left hand/thumb is, the harder it is to use the 4th in any way.

I tried out a 7/8th violin for size and found even that to be too cramped, but things do seem to finally be working out for me regarding my 4th. Good luck on your journey!

June 8, 2019, 5:39 PM · Tried a 7/8 model yet? So-called ladies violins. Not so easy to find them, but this could be a good compromise.
June 8, 2019, 6:11 PM · Lesley,

You are among many who have a short fourth metacarpal, some are professional violinists. I have noted that you are using/being taught Suzuki. My experience tells me that Suzuki doesn't put an early emphasis on posture and position deciding to work on the flat left hand later because they don't plan on the student using the fourth finger.

It is important to make sure that when you hold the violin your palm is nearly parallel with the neck/fingerboard and your wrist is straight in line with the bones in your forearm. Perhaps you already do that and find the stretch a bit difficult and tending to pull your first finger out of position. Over time, I developed the stretch as well as knowing to make sure my thumb is exactly on the same plane as where my first finger belongs. So, work on keeping your thumb in the exact location and practice stretching your fourth. In that way the first finger always returns to the correct plane.

Next, to change strings, you move your elbow so as to keep all your fingers on the same plane. Not easy but, with practice and attention to detail, changing strings doesn't pull your fingers out of position. Again, my experience with Suzuki trained young musicians makes me think that they don't focus on using your elbow instead of twisting your wrist.

Lastly, you attempted that move from a 4/4 to a 3/4. That is a big jump. If you want to use a fractional violin, try a 7/8. I met a professional at a concert recently and noticed that she was playing a 7/8. At the post concert gathering I mentioned that I noticed that she was playing a 7/8. She got a bit defensive and insisted that "It's a small full-size." The reality is that she is playing professionally with a really good 7/8 which, to the untrained eye, isn't any different and the sound was great.

You can probably play a 4/4 if you work on correct hand and body posture, making sure to move your elbow to change strings, and work on keeping your thumb in position aligned with the first finger (which is important in all the positions from half through fourth). If you really want a smaller instrument try a 7/8 instead of a 3/4.

June 8, 2019, 6:14 PM · I second the 7/8 suggestion.
Edited: June 8, 2019, 6:20 PM · It is ridiculous to assert that Suzuki teachers don't plan on the student using the fourth finger. It's used in book 1 repertoire.

The OP's description suggests to me that at least part of the problem is hand position and adaptation to the hand size. If your hands are small, the thumb should be placed across from the second finger. An violin with more petite proportions, including a slightly narrower neck, will help.

My size makes a 3/4 more appropriate (the cup-the-scroll test makes that clear) but I play a full-size anyway.

It sounds like your current full-size is badly set up, with an action that is too high, resulting in too much effort to stop the strings.

June 8, 2019, 6:31 PM · Lydia - what is the "cup the scroll" test?
June 8, 2019, 7:01 PM · One thought: it may be worthwhile to work with a teacher who plays the viola. On a viola, most people's hands are too small to use the same left hand technique as a typical violinist. But it's possible for someone with small hands to use a large instrument. I have never met another adult with shorter fingers than mine (I mean all five fingers and I've compared my hand with people as short as 4'8"), but I mostly play viola. If you have a small hand, Lydia's advice on thumb position is good. It may also be useful to curve your wrist so that your hand points inward more; this is common among violists.
June 8, 2019, 8:00 PM · Good advice above. I've read a lot of posts about small people and playing full-size violins, and I've come to the conclusion that some can cope with strategic techniques while others can't do it so much. I really think it has to do with not only the size of the hands but also the finger length, joint flexibility, overall hand shape, palm size, etc. Besides the suggestion to place the left thumb across the middle finger rather than the index, smaller-handed people can also experiment with placing the left thumb more on the underside of the neck, which makes reaching easier. The palm should also be more parallel to the neck than for a larger person. For shorter arms, a more centered chinrest may be helpful. It might seem odd, but the position of the chinrest relative to the tailpiece as well as your overall chinrest and shoulder rest setup can affect your ability to reach for notes and such to some degree. A more centered chinrest tends to angle the violin so that it points more in front of you rather than out to the side, which makes reaching the tip easier, and the violin also tends to sit higher on the shoulder, which makes it easier to place the hand in a more open position and reach for notes. For people with longer arms, a more side-mounted chinrest is a better choice because a chinrest that is too centered chinrest brings the violin into a position that makes the player more cramped. A side mount brings the violin more to the left, giving long-armed people more room to bow at the frog. That said, some people have hands that are small to the point that playing a full size violin is almost impossible. I once met a woman, whose quite short with very small hands, and I compared hands with her and found out that her hands are a lot smaller than mine. I already have pretty small hands; I don't have any problems playing a full size violin and can even play viola relatively problem-free, but I can just reach an octave on the piano. This lady's hands are so small that she would not be able to reach a octave on the piano, nor would she likely be able to play a full-size violin. The bottom line is that you're just going to have to try lots of technical solutions and see what works for you. You may need a smaller violin or not.
June 8, 2019, 8:04 PM · And oh, Catherine, the cup the scroll test goes like this. Place the violin in playing position, stretch your left arm to reach the scroll, and put your fingers around the scroll. If your fingers go around the entire scroll and into the pegbox, the violin is the right size. If they don't quite go into the pegbox, the violin is a bit big. If your fingers are really far in the box, the violin is too small.
June 8, 2019, 8:20 PM · And in general, in the cup-the-scroll test, your arm shouldn't be fully extended -- there should still be a relaxed bend at the elbow.

With my arm at full extension, I can reach just far enough to be able to turn the pegs for tuning, but not enough to anchor my hand so I can gently push a peg in as it is being turned. I can't cup the scroll of a full-size, much less reach into the pegbox.

June 8, 2019, 9:03 PM · Thanks for the description and, not that there is any surprise, my violin appears just a little large for me. I can cup the scroll and almost reach into the pegbox. Good information, thanks!
June 8, 2019, 10:06 PM · Lesley, what do you mean by "cramped with the bowing"? If you are hitting the corner of the violin when playing on the E string, should it be a problem of the bridge cut? Also, how does the adult on youtube with 3/4 avoid E string? Are they just shift and play high positions on A string?

Strangely enough, I have come across a teacher that doesn't like adult playing fractional violin, even if his student had rather small hand. Funny enough, he never noticed that she was using a 3/4 violin and was complimenting her violin. Until one day she mentioned that it was a 3/4, his attitude changed completely. I guess since there are more quality instruments made in full size, if you can manage it, there is always advantage (even in the future) to go full size.

June 8, 2019, 11:53 PM · Sivrit, when a violin feels small, the right arm tends to swing outward or the elbow becomes a bit folded, which results from a lack of room to bow at the frog. This results from a violin that is relatively small for the player. If the player is holding the violin pointing more in front, holding it farther out to the left will give them more room to bow at the frog and they will feel less cramped. A more side-mounted chinrest works well in this instance.
Edited: June 9, 2019, 12:01 PM · Dear Lesley, here is a ramble back to you :-) This has been said many times on this forum, but you should learn to position your hand based on a comfortable pinky. Then stretch back with 3rd, 2nd and 1st fingers. Don't fix your wrist and let your left hand position itself so that this is possible. So, no more "reaching up" with that 4th finger, but instead, "reaching down" with the other fingers!

You can do exercises like this: suppose you want to play the decreasing melody E - D - C# - A, starting with the fourth finger on the A-string. Place a nicely rounded pinky on that E. Keeping the pinky in place, now try to place the 3rd finger one tone below. To test intonation, with these two fingers down, play E, then lift pinky and play D. Start again until this sounds right, so you can play repeatedly E-D-E-D-E-D just by lifting and placing the pinky. You can now add the C#, same principle. To end our "melody" with the A pinky on the D-string, we first practice instead E - D - A (pinky on D-string, not open A-string). So, place E and D as before, play E, lift pinky, play D, and with the pinky still hovering above its spot, now place it on the D-string, which is where the A is. Try to keep that 3rd finger D in place. Once you get a feeling for this, try to add the C#, while still having pinky on A and 3rd finger on D. If you can do that, even try to lift and replace the third finger while keeping pinky on A and 2nd on C#. When you finally have all this under the belt, you can play our goal melody E - D - C# - A as follows: place pinky on E, 3rd on D, 2nd on C#. Play E, lift pinky, play D, prepare pinky so that it now hovers over the D-string, lift 3rd without disturbing too much the pinky, playing C#, finally place that pinky and finish with the note A.

This kind of painstaking exercises develop a supple hand with soft fingers, it will take a while but this is what you should strive for. You can vary the above exercise with C natural instead of C#, this is much more difficult as you have to reach the 2nd finger down quite a bit. You can also keep the C# but add the first finger on the B-note. Also, on other strings, etc.

Obviously a good teacher, in case you don't have one yet, will help you tremendously. Because it may be too early for you for such exercises. Ideally this must all be guided by a good teacher.

June 9, 2019, 2:40 PM · Wow thank you all for the wonderful replies, it seems like every one has something I can use, and last night my practice went much better, on the 3/4 violin! (I never told you, but it is painted PINK which I think is why it was available at such a low price.)
Where to start....

I don't have a teacher but have found one about 15 mins drive up the road that I think could suit me. I am the one who wrote in about a broken ankle a couple of months ago, so this has held me back driving.

Thank you for the comment on strain, I am thinking, perhaps get used to using the 4th finger on the 3/4 and work up to a 4/4 later. It's very comfortable on the 3/4, the sound isn't as good but motivates me to improve my bowing and accuracy.

I will look into the thumb tension idea, as a Feldenkrais student that does mean something to me thank you

I'd love to try a 7/8 and did look into it earlier, but this is a small country the size of Denmark and there are almost none available, for example a 7/8 has never been sold on our ebay. I could possibly buy one overseas later on though.

Sivrit, maybe just my impression, but the adults playing 3/4 violins on the YouTube seemed to be playing the E string notes on the A string. They are male, their arms are longer than mine. I was only paying attention to whether they could manage the fingerboard (yes they could) so I didn't notice how cramped their bowing was the first time I watched.

The advice to keep the left hand flat, I had forgotten, made a big difference right away at least on the 3/4.

Suzuki does indeed teach 4th finger quite early, but I definitely needed more help for my body "specifications"

Yes I now think there is something wrong with the action of my first, also inexpensive violin, the 4/4, in terms of pushing the strings down. I don't think I had ever even touched a violin before. I'm now planning a trip to a shop an hour away by train, to handle their violins in person and gain some more experience. Learn by doing.

Viola teacher, also a good idea which I will file away, not a huge choice here but someone must teach it.

Ella, your comment on shifting the angle of the violin worked for me, I had moved my playing to the forward position for the 4/4 to cope with the shorter arms, and forgot that it was just an option. Moving the 3/4 to the side took away the cramped feeling.

Jean, thank you for your response, I didn't expect to understand the exercise on first reading, but you put it so well, I did! And I loved your tone :)

To sum up, I think I will stick with the pink violin for a while and just hope no-one catches me playing it. It's just so comfortable. I also know that adults can shift between 3/4 and 4/4 violins and still keep their intonation, which I had not been sure of until I saw those videos.

Thank you all for your kind support with this.


Edited: June 9, 2019, 4:33 PM · Glad the comments were helpful - still wrapping my mind around the videos you saw of men with longer arms playing 3/4 size violins. Of course they had problems with the E string - but the larger question is why they were playing a fractional size to begin with. A rhetorical question, certainly.

They do make lovely sounding 7/8th size violins. My violin shop has a used master-level 7/8 violin for sale that has a lovely sound. It was a custom order and the purchaser didn't like it as much as she thought she might.

https://fiddlerman.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Dexterity-Exercise-on-the-E-string.pdf has a set of dexterity/strengthening exercises for the E string, and he has similar for the other 3 strings, but really they all look the same. No reason you couldn't work with this pattern on the other strings if you want to try it out. I tried them but moved to other exercises my teacher suggested. I just ignored the slurs as that wasn't my reason for using them.

June 9, 2019, 4:53 PM · I will try the exercises, thank you!

I can answer why a grown man would play a tiny violin on YouTube!
I believe the videos were to demonstrate violins that were for sale :)
I had searched on "adult plays 3/4 violin" because I wasn't sure if the string spacing on a smaller violin would be manageable for an adult.

Edited: June 9, 2019, 5:43 PM · https://www.corilon.com/shop/en/violins/item1469_1.html

Not really a cheapo, but if it fits into your long term budget, this one would seem quite nice...

7/8 models aren't often to find, but if then there might be a chance to negotiate about the price since their market isn't very huge as well.

June 9, 2019, 5:50 PM · And keep your eyes open also in 4/4 models. There are some even smaller than the 35cm 7/8 I mentioned above, which aren't officially declared as 7/8.
And, as it was mentioned before, a slightly narrower fingerboard might do the trick as well. For me, the 1.5 mm between my two mainly played violins definitely make a difference.
June 9, 2019, 7:12 PM · Thank you Nuuska, I will keep an eye out. A quick search revealed there are zero 7/8 violins for sale (or even discussion) in New Zealand, so it would have to be overseas. Violin tourism, I am sure that's a thing :)
Edited: June 10, 2019, 1:24 PM · I also have the short 4th finger. I have modified my fingering system for the high positions; the 3rd finger reaches farther than the 4th up there. I don't use the 4th f. if the 3rd is on the string, but I will do the 1--4 extension.
There are several factors in fitting the player to various sizes of violins and violas. 1) Arm-length; the angle at the elbow should not be more than 90 o . 2) Size of the hand; 1--4 perfect fourth should be easy, not stretched or cramped. the 1--4 augmented 4th should be easy. 3) Width of the finger-tips; The half-steps in first position are about 11mm or 5/8 inch apart. If your 2nd and 3rd fingers are wider than that it will be frustrating to play half-steps in tune at the beginning levels. I don't know how Perlman plays in tune (!) Agreed with Jean D.:---
After a beginner learns to use all 4 fingers, I frequently have them re-calibrate their 1st position: on the A-string, 4th finger on E,curved, then put the thumb where it is most comfortable, then pull back the other fingers to D, C#, B, tuned to the adjacent open strings. The thumb usually moves forward, opposite the second finger, and it might look like you are in second position.
The sizes of the violins are very close, but the differences feel large to the player. The standard 4/4 violin has a body length of 14 inches, the 3/4 is 13 inch, the 7/8 is 13 1/2. The Guarnerius model and some of the 17th century violins were a little small, 13 3/4 inch. For the Violist, the string length is of equal importance as the body length, but that number will not be indicated on the label or description. It will be very difficult to find a 3/4 violin with good G-string tone.
June 10, 2019, 3:29 PM · I recommend calling whatever shops are available in your area, as they often do not keep their inventories up to date (nor full inventory lists) on their websites. It's worth it to give them all a call.

I think I said this on another short pinky thread, but I played on a nearly-long body violin for many years and I managed to use my fourth finger. I'm currently playing on slightly smaller than standard 4/4 violin (355mm), which is a better size for me overall.

My two pinky joints lock at various inopportune times, and I cope with it. Even with my tiny fourth finger, I can play fingered octaves. I have to lift my first finger to play extensions in first and second position. It's taken time, and conscious effort, but me and my fourth finger are getting there.

We all adjust to the uniqueness that our bodies provide us with - whether it be fat fingers, short pinkies, or whatever.

Your teacher should be able to guide you on this journey - and whether or not you should be using a 4/4 or a 7/8, or whatever size.

June 10, 2019, 10:36 PM · Lesley, as I can show you, it is eventually not necessary to go for a 7/8. Here is an example from the same website where a full sized violin has a significantly shorter back length than the 7/8 I showed you.

https://www.corilon.com/shop/en/violins/item544_1.html

This doesn't automatically imply that the vibrating string length is also shorter, and the fingerboard narrower, but usually it should be - first as a matter of proportion, second because this clearly was a custom made instrument for one specific player, and I would be surprised if Mr. Gadda who was a man who knew what he was doing would have given birth to such a weird instrument with short body and long neck...
But it's is also not necessary to spend that much money. If you can find a 4/4 which is rather on the smaller side, any l8thier will be able to narrow the fingerboard a bit. If this is necessary at all.

June 11, 2019, 10:38 PM · I also have small hands and short pinkies, although my right pinky is slightly longer than my left. I'm playing viola now but my problem has always been my bow hold. As one of the posters suggested, a teacher who works with adults can be very helpful. I have also been helped by Fischer's "Basics": he makes it clear that everyone's anatomy is different and has suggestions as to what might be modified. And, having a teacher who has an open mind and is willing to experiment and listen to the student is especially valuable.
June 12, 2019, 2:27 PM · Joel, thank you, this should be useful as I go forward :)

Pamela good point about phone enquiry with the shops, there is a big one an hour away by train.

Nuuska, thank you!

Francesca, I would love a copy of that book one day, it looks good thank you :)

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