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Finding the right-size fractional instrument requires a good ear for tone

By Richard Ward

In spite of chronic loss of funding for our schools and subsequent elimination of music programs, it seems as if more young children than ever are playing stringed instruments. It also seems that parents are starting their children on music lessons at a younger age and often want them to benefit from the advantage of a good-quality instrument. These parents realize that violin-family instruments are not the easiest to learn, and the disadvantage of a poorly made instrument is a real handicap.

Stringed instruments have always been made in a variety of sizes, from the standard full-size (referred to as 4/4) down to violins as small as 1/32, which might be used by a two- or three-year-old child. These sizes are always expressed in fractions, hence the term "fractional sizes" when talking about these small stringed instruments. However, that doesn't mean that a 3/4 size is three-quarters the size of a full-size (4/4) violin. If it did, a 3/4 violin would be four inches shorter. In reality, a 3/4 size violin has a body length one inch shorter than a full-size. These so-called fractions are simply a convenient system that has been developed to indicate the different sizes. There is roughly a one-inch difference in size between each of the quarter sizes. A 7/8-size violin is about a half inch smaller than a 4/4. This is true of violins, cellos, and basses. With violas, size is expressed in actual body length. A standard full-size viola is 16 inches, and anything under 15 inches is considered below standard size.

SIZING UP YOUR PLAYER
On the average, a child will stay in a given fractional size for about two years. Normally you should trust the teacher to let you know what the appropriate size should be. When you change instrument size, you may need to change the bow size as well, unless the student's arms are unusually long or short.

There is a bit of confusion about some of the actual sizes. Most 3/4 violins are similar in size, with a body length of about 13 inches; 1/2-size instruments have a wider range. There is a "Suzuki size" that is smaller than the "German size" and can vary by as much as a half inch in body length. There are similar variations in the 1/4-size violins as well.
Always use strings appropriate to the instrument. The string size should match the instrument. Fractional-size strings aren't just shorter versions of the corresponding full size. They are usually a bit thicker, increasing the tension and improving the sound. If you use a string intended for a larger-size instrument, the strings will probably break more easily.

If you want your young student to enjoy learning to play his or her stringed instrument, get the best one possible within your budget, preferrably from a violin specialist. This will go a long way toward helping your budding young Joshua Bell or Hilary Hahn.

 

SOUND ADVICE

The trick to searching for a small stringed instrument is finding one with the best possible sound. Because of their reduced size, these smaller instruments have a weaker, somewhat one-dimensional sound that lacks the fullness and depth of the standard-size instruments.

The smaller the size, the weaker the sound, all other things being equal.

Lauren Elledge, a colleague, started playing the viola when she was eight on a 1/4 violin strung with viola strings. She still remembers how awful the sound was, especially on the lower strings. Yet, a well-made and adjusted 3/4- or even 1/2-size violin can sound almost as good as a full-size, but the smaller ones never will. While there are tonal compromises one must accept, you can find a good, playable small instrument.

For the beginning student, I recommend a good rental from a shop that specializes in stringed instruments, rather than a purchase. That way, if the child loses interest, the instrument can be returned with only minimal investment. After a year or two, you can usually tell if a child will stick with it. Then, purchasing the fractional instrument starts to make sense. After a year or so of renting, a good shop should give you some sort of credit toward purchase. If you do purchase, make sure you can trade the instrument in when the child grows into the next size. You don't want to be left with an instrument you can't easily sell. Sometimes you can purchase something from the family of a student who has outgrown it. Just make sure that the price is fair and that the instrument is in good condition. At some point, you will have to sell it.

You don't want to end up with a house full of small-size violins.

FRACTIONAL SIZE CHART (in mm)
  Violin/Viola 4/4 3/4 1/2 1/4 1/8 1/16
  Body* length 356 335 310 280 255 230
  Total length 590 550 520 462 419 n/a
  String length 325 310 285 260 235 215
  Player size ** inches 23 5/8+ 22 1/4 - 23 5/8 20 1/4 - 22 1/4 18 1/2 - 20 1/4 16 7/8 - 18 1/2 14 - 15 1/4
 
  Cello 4/4 3/4 1/2 1/4
  Body* length 755 690 650 580
  Total length 1,240 1,130 1,060 952
  String length 680 635 600 535
  Player size ** inches 23 5/8+ 22 1/4 - 23 5/8 20 1/4 - 22 1/4 18 1/2 - 20 1/4
 
* Body length is the length of the back less the button at the top of the back.
** Measure the distance from the neck to the center of the palm with the arm stretched out straight.

 

LIMITED CHOICE

There are plenty of interesting-sounding full-size instruments out there for sale. The situation with smaller sizes is a bit different, with new and 20- to 30-year-old instruments dominating the market. In the past, makers were reluctant to make good-quality small instruments for what they viewed as a limited market.

Today, with the growth in demand for good smaller instruments, violin makers are starting to produce better 3/4- and 1/2-size instruments. I've played on some 3/4 violins and even 1/2-size violins that sounded remarkably like a full-size instrument. If you want a good older instrument, you may need to spend more time in your search.

The European masters of the 18th and early 19th centuries occasionally made instruments on order for a specific client, but these are rare. Some of the German or French commercial makers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries made fractional sizes, but normally in their least expensive models.

I have found some 60- to 100-year-old French instruments from the Mirecourt workshops of Marc Laberte and Thibouville-Lamy that, if well set up, can be very good. There are also good vintage fractional-size instruments from the German workshops. However, I've never seen small instruments from the big Markneukirchen workshops of Ernst Heinrich Roth or Heinrich Heberlein.

Overall, the supply of quality vintage fractional instruments continues to diminish. Children can be careless and many of the small fiddles have not survived. While musicians have traditionally preferred older instruments, you may find that a good-quality new fractional sounds as good as, or sometimes even better than, something old.

A version of this article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of Strings magazine.