Getting The Correct Size Instrument
School as begun and I've been measuring students for the appropriate sized instruments. It occurred to me that knowing how to do this at home for yourself might be useful for students and parents of students.
You Will Need:
A Yardstick, Tape Measure, or some other measuring device
Have the student stand and raise their left arm, straight and perpendicular to the body, parallel to the floor, palm towards the ceiling. Be certain the arm is coming in a straight line from the shoulder, and not off to the left side of the body or drifting towards the center of the body.
Measure from the shoulder (end of clavicle is a good landmark) to the center of the palm. Do it a few times and take an average of the measurement.
Take a look at this chart:
Violin Size Arm Length (inches)
Viola Size Arm Length (inches)
In terms of fractional sized or small violas: If your child is between sizes, ROUND DOWN! Leave the 'growing into things' for clothing and shoes. Playing a stringed instrument is a full contact sport, and a child's bones are growing and their connective tissue is soft and vulnerable to injury. It's better to go through the hassle of getting the appropriate size every 6-8 months (which is why I recommend renting for the still growing) than to risk pain by playing an instrument that's too large. Playing should not hurt, at any age.
For adult students, you will 99% of the time, play a full sized violin. Rarely, the most petite might play a 7/8th as adults.
In terms of viola size, it's rare that I'd be comfortable with a student playing anything above 16.25", and then only for the giants or those with a perfect, relaxed technique. Generally, 15 to 16.25 is about right for most of us, depending on our size. The demands on violists, even just over the past 30 years, have increased dramatically. Violists are asked to do everything a violinist might do, but on a larger instrument that takes more physical effort to play. Larger violas generally do sound better, it's true; but if after three, or ten, or fifteen years of playing a huge instrument and you're in pain and you've wrecked your body, what's the point of that?
You may notice that Violins are sized by fractions and Violas are sized by inches. I have no idea why it is done this way, but there you are.
When I was a child, it was unusual to find anything smaller than a 13" viola. At that time, fractional sized violins were strung as violas to accommodate a child's size. However, over the past decade or so, some shops have begun to offer smaller sized violas for children. I think that's great, and if that is something that is offered by the shop you patronize, go for it! Violas, even small violas, are broader, heavier, and have deeper ribs and a different string response than violins of the same size. In my experience, it's best to learn the concept of sound, on either violin or viola, and what goes into making it earlier, rather than later.
And there you have it. Of course it's best if you have a seasoned teacher doing the measuring, but it's certainly possible to do a good job of it on your own.