The beauty of learning to play the violin is that the instrument comes in many different sizes. There is practically a size for every child! Granted, the 1/64 size violin is probably more suited to being bronzed and hung from the rear view mirror of a car like a child's first baby shoes. For a very small or very young child who is taking his or her first violin lessons, this tiny violin is a treasured possession to the child and a frequent reminder to the child's parent of the treasured gift that music lessons will give to the parent and the child.
How does a teacher or parent size the child to determine which violin size will best suit the child?
I recommend that parents seek the advice of the child's teacher first and foremost before making any purchase or rental decision. The teacher may have a preferred method of sizing the child, as I do, and the teacher would therefore appreciate that the parent seeks direction from the teacher. There are many different ways to determine a child's violin size, and I have seen some tools on the market that are designed to help the sizing process. I do not use these tools, and I do not use special fingerboard tapes that have the finger spots already marked on them. My reason is very simple. All violins sizes vary.
Just because a violin bears a label that it is a ¼-size violin does not mean that the violin would fit the typical ¼-size violin student adequately. There are variations within the general size labels. There are "bigger" and "smaller" ¼-size violins. A child may do very well with a smaller ¼-size but have a great deal of difficulty playing well with a larger ¼-size violin. For this reason, I ask my parents to follow my "system" of sizing the child. I demonstrate my instrument sizing method to the parent in the studio during the child's lesson or at a group class when there are many violin sizes available to try. If the parent goes to the violin shop and I cannot be there (which is usually the case since we live in a rural area about an hour's drive from the violin shops), I know that I have been careful to instruct the parent in my preferred method of sizing the child. I have also made sure that the violin shop understands exactly how I wish my students to be measured for a violin sizing.
When I place the violin under the child's chin and stretch out the child's violin arm as far straight out as it will go, I would like the center of the violin's scroll to reach the child's wrist. If the violin is a little bit too big, then I opt for a smaller size. The child should not have to "grow into" a violin size. That "grow into" philosophy might work well for clothing sizes, but it does not work for violin sizing. If a child is asked to play for a time on an instrument that is too big, the child will develop some very bad posture habits, such as turning the violin elbow outward instead of under the violin, or tilting the head to the right as if to see "around" the violin. I have one such student now who had been playing on a violin that was too large for over a year. Now that he has come to me, and time has dutifully passed, we are still working two years later on correcting the incorrect posture alignment problems that arose during the "too large" phase.
After checking that the violin and arm length are a good fit, I then hold the violin flat across the student's upper chest and take a look at how the instrument fits with the shoulders. Ideally the instrument should appear as if it "fits" between the shoulders rather than looking as if the instrument dwarfs the child. Some children are from sturdier, stockier family designs, like rugby or defensive football linemen in the making. In these cases, sometimes a smaller instrument would be easier for the child to maneuver his or her muscles around. Measuring the violin across the shoulders would reveal this possibility if it exists.
Tall Students. A very, very tall student may pose an additional sizing problem because the student’s neck may be rather long. In this case, the student may have to scrunch the shoulder up and squeeze the chin down to get a good "fit" in the violin hold. This is quite uncomfortable for the student and may lead to neck and other muscle problems down the road. The first remedy this student might try is to use a taller shoulder rest. The problem is that by building up underneath the violin to fill in the empty space, we are also raising the height level of the violin. A violin that is too high in relation to the rest of the body will also cause muscle problems and unwanted muscle tension.
The better solution is to find a way to build up the violin to the normal specification underneath and then to provide the student with a way to fill up the empty space from the top of the instrument. We might try a higher chin rest, or in the case of one student I knew years ago, use something under the chin rest to raise the chin rest height in relation to the instrument.
Short or Stocky Students.
Irregular Finger Length. Occasionally I run into a student whose fingers seem to be irregular in length. For instance the pinkie finger may be a tad shorter in length with regard to the other fingers or one of the other fingers is longer than is typical. There is not much that a teacher can do to accommodate the unusual sizing in these cases except to encourage the student to find an instrument size that works best for the student.
Inconsistent Growth. A growing student will not grow evenly all around. The student may gain a quarter inch on one side and an eighth inch on the other. The student’s neck may lengthen, but the student’s body may stay the same. I like to use the wedge sponges as shoulder rests to accommodate growing students. The sponges come in six sizes, and I can easily switch from one size to another in a lesson. If a student's violin hold tends to tip the violin “upward,” I try a larger size sponge. Sometimes a small child may be playing on a size 6 wedge sponge (the largest size!) while playing on a ¼-size violin. When a student moves up to the next larger size, we might try a smaller sponge to accommodate the increased instrument width between the shoulder and the chin.
My sizing method may not be the same as your method. I recognize that there are many ways to do this. This is my preferred method. Keep in mind that there may be other factors that will impact a sizing decision, such as the child’s body size overall, the child's hand size, irregular finger length, and inconsistent growth. My key points are these:
- Develop a sizing method for your studio that produces the type of results that work for you.
- Make sure that your instrument provider or dealer understands your method of sizing your students. In other words, make sure that you and your shop owner are “on the same page” when it comes to sizing your students.
- Make sure the parent takes the child to the violin shop in order to be there for the proper sizing process.
- Do not allow your students to choose instruments that are too big. Students will not “grow into” the correct size without other unnecessary posture problems that may be difficult to correct later.
- Follow your teacher’s advice about sizing!
Please feel free to share your particular method for determining what size instrument a student needs.