How Do I Know When to Recommend Sizing Up Violas?

November 1, 2019, 11:22 PM · Hi!

I'm part way through my first year of teaching public school, and I have some students who seem to be on violas that are too small.

How exactly do I know what size they should be and when to size them up? Obviously I would send them to the violin shop, but one boy is short and skinny, but has super long arms. He's got a 13" viola right now. It seems too short, but he said a 14" feels too big, and the music store fit him with the 13" (not the local luthier that I normally recommend, he's renting from another music store because Mark, the luthier, is out of rentals! Long story but there was a store that closed so he's the only one in the general town area).

Just wondering what to look for, arm length or a mix of shoulder/arm/hand size? I'm assuming it's a bit different than violin, where I typically have them stick their arm out to see where the scroll sits to get an idea of when they should visit Mark or wherever they got their rental.


Replies (14)

November 2, 2019, 7:03 AM · I don't know about sizing violas either, but I know how my own 16" viola feels different from my violin. So maybe one approach is to size them for violins (hand cupped around scroll, etc.) and then figure on the viola being a little bigger for the child in the same way that a viola would feel bigger to you.
November 2, 2019, 8:42 AM · My inclination would be to select a viola with the 3rd position the same distance from the player's neck as the first position on the appropriate violin.

For a person who played a 4/4 (approx. 14" corpus) this would imply a 16" viola. If this is too big scale down until it fits.

My reasoning is that this gives finger spacings with the same ratio to arm extension (and elbow angle) as playing the violin - and it works for me.

But this is just a starting-point idea. So what explains the 18-inch violas and the people who are able to play them?

Edited: November 2, 2019, 11:47 AM · I was told the player stretches his/her hand out to the side, lays the viola out on that arm with the bottom rib touching the player's neck; the player must be able to wrap his/her outstretched hand around the viola scroll. If the fingers can't wrap around the scroll, the viola is too big.

I can play a 16". The people who play 18" violas just have longer arms, I guess!

November 2, 2019, 12:25 PM · Choose sizes of Violas the same way we choose sizes of Violins; a combination of arm length, spread of the left fingers, width of the finger tips. The angle of the left arm in first position should not be more than 90 o . A perfect fourth between fingers 1-4 should be easy. The finger-tips should not be wider than a half-step in first position. It is better to use an instrument too small than one too big. My opinion is that Violas smaller than 15 1/2 sound awful, so wait until they are fully grown, using the 4/4 Violin, and use the 14 inch Viola as a transition instrument for learning the clef. Since you inherited a pre-existing string program, you may not have that option.
November 2, 2019, 1:11 PM · I asked this in a viola forum and I found out that a lot of viola teachers size youngsters the same way they would size a violin to stay on the safe side, although full size violas are a different story. To try and give students a more viola feel, some teachers may find out which violin size suits them and scale up one size from that. For example, someone who uses a 3/d violin can use a 14" viola, but going any bigger than that is dangerous.
November 2, 2019, 11:21 PM · Hm thanks everyone!

I rehearsed the Mozart oboe quartet today (my oboe recital is next Sunday!) and I asked my violist. She said that the scroll should be right at the heel of the hand when the student sticks his arm out straight in line with the instrument. If it's in the palm, it's too big, but if it's at the wrist, it's too small.

According to that, I size at a 15", which is what I got. I must have gotten really lucky, because my viola sounds lovely, and she agreed! It just needs a Larsen A, of course! I tried a 15.5, and it felt monstrous. I play a 4/4 violin though.

November 3, 2019, 8:18 AM · I generally size violas the same as violins for students. The reason for sizing violins the way we do is to avoid injury to students, so violas should be sized the same. I like to size where the scroll sits right at the end of the wrist (when the arm is held straight out. I size smaller for kids with narrow shoulders (even if they have long arms) because the weight of the bigger instrument is often too much for them. I might be inclined to move up a hair sooner for viola than violin (just because often the kids outplay their instruments in terms of sound before they grow taller), but I don't push it by much.
I think very advanced students and professional adults can size a little differently. I personally play a "too big" 16 3/8 viola (I'm 5'4", but have broad shoulders) with no issues, but I only moved up to this size after finishing school and am very careful to avoid injury. I would never recommend that a student use a viola of a similar relative size.
November 3, 2019, 9:13 AM · Thank you Ingrid! The student in question is extremely lanky, though he's still short. His arms are a mile long, and he has long, skinny fingers. He obviously hasn't had his pre-teen growth spurt yet. He's probably ready for a 14" then. I've adjusted his setup with a Kun shoulder rest and a Flesch (with the hump) as he was bending his neck in a bad way to reach the chin rest. He still has posture work to do (may try to have his lesson group stand next lesson instead of sit) but the change in setup is a bit better.
Edited: November 3, 2019, 6:03 PM · Kristen, in the case of your student moving up to a 14" is pretty reasonable given his arm length. Having long fingers helps a lot, but another important factor is the width of the palm. Some people might have long fingers but narrow palms which means they still can't reach the farthest.
Edited: November 3, 2019, 11:44 PM · Not to terribly stray too far off topic, but if you ever want to purchase a 5 string viola, then it may help to buy a size or two smaller. When I got a cheap 17.5 viola a half dozen years ago- I just wanted a big body hoping for a big sound. The size is not particularly a problem. Yet when I bought a 5 string the same size a couple of years after, I then found that it seemed too big, as the fingerboard was wider and harder to get my hand around. Five strings are a bit of a set-up pain, but if I wanted to get another one I might go for a 15.
November 4, 2019, 6:15 PM · Ella, that's a good point. I haven't had a good look at his palms but I'll have to look next week! The poor kid got a 1/2-3/4 shoulder rest and now he's gotta move up and get a different shoulder rest... Part of me wants to spare his family the trouble and not recommend he move up until later in the year. I told him to get a full size because they're adjustable but his dad didn't read my email!

Nancy, I had briefly thought of a 5 string violin for church, but I can't make a good enough excuse to get one, lol! They're too expensive. I can always just have a violin and viola tone on my multi effects pedal and swap when I need more cello-like tones (not that my viola sounds like a cello but the C string rather than the E string).

December 2, 2019, 9:38 AM · you should punch small violas, kick mid-sized ones, and stomp big ones. always assume violas are bigger than usual when sizing one up.
December 2, 2019, 9:58 AM · I'm curious what you recommend for adult violinists transitioning to viola. I've occasionally contemplated taking up playing some viola, just to gain a basic education on the instrument and to be able to pinch-hit in chamber music. Thought about getting a rental for a bit. My hands are small and my arms are short (by the cup-the-scroll test I should be playing a 3/4 violin, and a 7/8 is meaningfully more comfortable than a 4/4, though I use a full-size violin anyway).
Edited: December 2, 2019, 10:46 PM · For adult-sized violinists transitioning to viola, I do not recommend starting on anything bigger than 16", as bigger violas can be unwieldy. In my opinion playing a 16" viola as a small stature person is very risky because your left arm will be close to straight in first position, which will cause nothing but trouble. Plus, violas can be heavy so you really gotta be careful when sizing. Violas can be sized a little bigger than violins, but avoidance of strain is absolutely critical. If you have short arms and small hands, do not go above 15.5" especially for your first instrument, 15" if you're really small or want to be careful. Good violas under 16" are harder to find, but many do exist.

Also, when shopping for violas especially as an experienced player (iolinists count), pay extra close attention to other dimensions like neck dimensions, string length (determines spacing between notes), and the weight of the viola itself. Viola dimensions are not nearly as standardized as violins e.g a 16" can have a narrower neck and shorter string length than a 15.5" making the 16" the easier one to play.

On a personal note, I'm 5'2" and play a 15.75" viola. I play a 4/4 violin with no difficulties. I have medium-to-long arms for my size and smallish hands, and my viola is the largest size I can handle without risking an over-extended arm (that's why I would not likely play a 16"). I can manage the spacing but it can be a bit of a stretch sometimes. I can totally manage without strain. All that said, I know some others will struggle.

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