by Danielle Marconi, Suzuki Niagara violin teacher
Stringed instruments are some of the few instruments that are available in multiple sizes, to suit the needs of students of all ages and physical builds. If you are reading this, you may be in the process of searching for an instrument for your child. Common sizes available are, from smallest to largest: 1/10, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, and 4/4 or full-size. First I will begin with what I CAN'T tell you about instrument sizing. I can't tell you through a blog what size to buy. Please do not try to pair your child with an instrument according to age, or arm length. You cannot simply measure your child's arm, or use his/her age and then find the corresponding violin size on a chart somewhere and be certain that you've found the right size.
So let's move on to what I can tell you.
Personally, I can tell you that playing a stringed instrument, whether it be violin, viola, cello, or bass, is an amazing experience. From the first note played, to the first polished song performed at a recital, to the moment you've mastered a concerto you've always wanted to play, you must be able to be "one" with your instrument, and this requires the right size! You need to feel comfortable playing your instrument, be able to move with it, support it, and not be physically strained or sore after playing. You will not enjoy playing if you are not able to hold the instrument with ease, or if you experience pain after playing for only 15 minutes. Your instrument should not dominate you, rather, you should be able to feel in control of it and use it for your musical expression.
Children grow at different rates, and have different builds. Just look at a classroom of children who are in the same grade and are the same age. Not all of these children will be the same height, have the same size arms/legs/hands/fingers, or have the same strength in their neck, back and core. So here are some things to consider when looking for an instrument.
1. Consult a professional (preferably a teacher or a luthier). Ask someone who has experience sizing instruments, and someone who will be able to see easily if an instrument "fits" or not. Please keep in mind that staff at local music stores are not always trained in this area. Your teacher is the best person to consult, or someone who specializes in making/repairing the instrument (who is trusted by your teacher).
2. Try a few different sizes and brands to be sure you've found the right fit. Instruments of the same size can still vary from one to the next. Personally, when I was looking for the full size violin that I play now, I tried about 20 different options before I found one that fit me the best!
3. Hold the instrument in playing position (with the help of your teacher). Check arm reach, finger length, and range of motion with the bow. There are many mechanics involved with playing a stringed instrument, and all of these require ease of motion, being able to get where you need to be without straining.
4. The size of the instrument should be comfortable! When your child is trying out a violin for example, he or she should be able to support the instrument with ease without hands! That means that the weight of the instrument should be supported on the shoulder, using the weight of the head.
5. Smaller is better. When in doubt, go with a smaller size. Many injuries can result from playing on an instrument that is too large. We do not "grow into" instruments, rather we "grow out" of them.
Keep in mind that with the sizes available, and considering how many years ahead your child may have of playing, that they may end up using one size for a few years. Or, if they have a year with an incredible growth spurt, that may initiate a move to a larger size sooner. Please keep in communication with your teacher about this and do not make a decision about changing instrument size without him/her. Students are often eager to move "up" a size because they often see this change from one size to the next as a mark of progress; but that is NOT so! I have seen many very young children playing on small violins who are much more advanced than students on larger instruments. Keep progress and instrument size separate. Sometimes students are also eager to move to a bigger violin once they have discovered that the tone of a larger instrument is "better". I've put that into quotations because tone can be improved and mastered on a small instrument, and often tone is a matter of the quality of the instrument that you have, not its' size.
Finding the right sized instrument is a lot like finding a perfectly fitting pair of shoes or a dress. Take your time, try out the instruments, and find one that speaks to you!