Sizing Viola to a student

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Barbara Stafford said: Jul 25, 2014
Barbara Stafford
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
Plano, TX
59 posts

Hello everyone, one of my students is using a 15.5″ viola. He is an older beginner in book 2. His arm length neck to palm of hand is 27 1/2” . I see by some charts online that he fits this viola, but it just seems so big on him I would like to encourage him to get a smaller instrument. Violin is the instrument I was trained on, and I realize violists tend to like their instruments larger. I don’t feel like he can manage the technique on this large instrument. It looks like such a struggle all the time. I would love to receive feedback from teachers who have suggestions. Thank you!

Laura Burgess said: Jul 26, 2014
Laura Burgess
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
32 posts

There was a trend in the late 1980s to play the biggest viola you could manage. It ended in a lot of repetitive strain injuries. In my undergrad viola teacher’s studio, 7 of his 10 students and the teacher had carpal tunnel syndrome. Seeing such an accomplished musician make this mistake has made me very conservative about instrument size for students.

I have just been what you are describing with a young violist that I am covering for the summer. He was playing such a large viola that he could not play in tune. I had to lobby for three weeks to get them to try a smaller viola because their vendor only carried a few sizes. He is now at the right size and can really play.

The bottom line is, a chart cannot tell you if the viola will fit the child because there are so many variables. Hands and arms can grow at different rates.

Can they make the correct hand and finger shape with this size? Can they play in tune? Can they reach 4th finger on the C? How do they feel at the end of playing for a half hour? Does the bow comfortably sit in the sweet spot? Trust your judgement or get a professional shop to do the sizing. Usually, they can exchange for size with no cost.

Best wishes, I know this isn’t easy to get right.

Sue Hunt said: Jul 27, 2014
Sue Hunt
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Violin
389 posts

For beginners, I always undersize violas. It is so important to learn a relaxed posture before building advanced technique on top of it.

I was also a late beginner and my teacher’s biggest mistake was to start me on a 16″ instrument. It lead to all sorts of muscular and skeletal problems which I have never totally sorted. This means that I can’t play long enough to enjoy an evening of chamber music.

Most older viola beginners are highly motivated to jump in and play their hearts out. It will be much easier in the long run, if you start them on a tiny instrument.

Pierre Yves Gagnon said: Jul 27, 2014
Pierre Yves Gagnon
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Violin
Oakville, ON
17 posts

Violas come in all shapes and sizes. Did you know you can find violas as small as 1/8 size? It is a misconception to think viola needs to be large. Recently, there has been great progress in building small violas with nice tone. I agree with Laura’s comments on how to size violas. You could even look into a 14 ” viola, which is the same size as a violin. Sizing a viola is similar to sizing a violin.

In the choice of a viola, besides its size, look at how comfortable the instrument is to support, how easy is it to play in higher position, how heavy it is (the ribs on a viola are wider than on the violin, which could affect the weight of the instrument. Other violas are constructed for school use, and they are so heavy no one can hold them.) and, of course, its tone.

Bow is also important to consider. A full-size viola bow is heavier than a violin bow, but it does not have to be the same weight as the cello bow as some inexpensive viola bows are.
You may be aware that violin bows come in different weight. You could consider a heavier violin bow instead of a viola bow. I hope your student will enjoy the beautiful tone of the viola.
Pierre Y Gagnon

Pierre Y Gagnon

Barbara Stafford said: Jul 27, 2014
Barbara Stafford
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
Plano, TX
59 posts

Thank you so much for your comments everyone. Now I feel more confident to express to his mother that she really needs to purchase or rent a smaller instrument. I know this is going to be disappointing because they own the large instrument. The shop actually talked them into the larger instrument. I wasn’t prepared to say no, and now I am regretting it. Thanks again!

Danielle Gomez Kravitz said: Jul 27, 2014
Danielle Gomez Kravitz
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
59 posts

I agree with sizing down.

I do want to add, however, that if the student has been on a violin for a long time there is such a thing as wanting to favor a viola that sounds “violin-like.” In other words, smaller and possibly brighter in sound.

A viola should play like a viola. I believe that part of learning the instrument is learning to find your viola sound. It’s supposed to be bigger and… LOUDER. Conductors love a violist that is unafraid of blasting out that sound. All too often you will see timid violists that got forced to play the instrument in middle school because the part was “easier.”

Obviously, I check to make sure that the student can comfortably reach everything without straining the wrists. But I have a private policy of making the student play the biggest instrument he can handle.

Sue Hunt said: Jul 28, 2014
Sue Hunt
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Violin
389 posts

It has always amused me that violin teachers don’t insist that fractional instruments sound like fabulous full sized instruments. They aim to draw out the biggest fattest tone from whatever they are given to work with. Perhaps there’s a lesson in there for us viola teachers.

Carol Gwen said: Jul 28, 2014
Carol Gwen Kiefer
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Washington Crossing, PA
75 posts

Well said! Allow yourself to go for comfort and finding tone on whatever the size. In working with violists my goal is always to minimize the physical demands of the instrument.

The “Bigger is Better” debate has been around for a very long time, and in some major orchestras is still the guiding principle, resulting in a trail of injured violists! I, too, am a recovering “16 5/8th’s with Huge bouts” violist. :)

“Our purpose does not lie in a movement to create professional musicians, but to create persons of a beautiful mind and fine ability. We engage in human education through music so that children will grow with beautiful and high sensitivity, through an unparalleled, uniquely musical approach.”
—Shinichi Suzuki (Where Love Is Deep)

Barbara Stafford said: Jul 28, 2014
Barbara Stafford
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
Plano, TX
59 posts

Thanks again! I appreciate these thoughts and experiences you all are offering. I think I will post a new question I have, as I am trying to find an affordable solution for this particular student.

Danielle Gomez Kravitz said: Jul 29, 2014
Danielle Gomez Kravitz
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
59 posts

@Sue:

It’s true. But it’s comparing apples to oranges in a sense. A violin full size is a full size. There’s no discussion after that point other than the quality of full size purchased.

But a viola has a wide range of “full sizes.” Everything from 14-17 inches and there’s a lot of fractions of inches in between. Not to mention the thickness of of the body.

So there definitely is such a thing as finding that viola sound. It’s that perfect combination of technique and finding a viola that you can make a good sound on.

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