The physical relationship between the violin and one’s body must rank as one of Creation’s supreme mysteries. The instrument should feel like part of your body, we correctly tell our students, yet sometimes it seems like an alien, cancerous appendage. Thus like most violinists, over the years I have experimented with the myriad shoulder rests commercially produced, as well as a few home-grown concoctions, in quest of something that best mates me and instrument.
In the 1960s, when I was a student, most of the great violinists used no shoulder rest, and that remains the ideal solution for a minority of players today. It was my solution as well for some years if, in my case, largely on philosophical grounds. Violinists who play ‘bareback’ without strain should feel lucky and read no further.
But the contour of the violin back evolved for reasons of sound, well before today’s violin position and technical demands, and I do not believe one is breaking some natural law to concede that there is often a conflict between the two. Since the violin back slopes to the sides, its natural state is to slide off one’s body unless the apex of the back rests between the shoulder and the collarbone. Shoulder rests are supposed to remedy this—yet shoulder rests are more often used unthinkingly, violinists accommodating a contorted position dictated by the contraption.
The most common shoulder rests in use today are those that create a platform across the back, secured to the violin or viola with two feet on either side. In contrast to the various pads, sponges, and airbags that constitute the rest, this approach has clear advantages, allowing the instrument to vibrate undampened, and preserving a one-piece feeling between instrument and player. Best known by the Kun brand, several companies offer endless variations on the same principle.
It is my contention, however, that these are all variations on a flawed theme, and that a far superior alternative has been inexplicably sidelined: the Menuhin shoulder rest.
The advantages of the Menuhin concept over the kuns (I’ll use the term generically in lower case) are enormous :
These flaws of the kun approach are inherent in the design, as both pairs of feet normally grasp the instrument on the same side of its curve relative to the player. This is analogous to trying to squeeze a beachball by clasping it only below the center-point, rather than with fingers on both sides of the curve: the pressure itself makes the rest slip off toward the player. And since this problem increases dramatically the closer one brings the shoulder rest to one’s neck, players are often forced to keep it further back than they want, just to minimize the risk of it slipping off (indeed, for many players, ‘shoulder rest’ is a misnomer). Even in the unusual instance in which the desired position happens to be at the apex of the violin's curve, the kun still suffers from poor leverage because of the close feet. How often have I seen a colleague suddenly clutch the instrument, sensing that it is slipping? How often has precious concentration been squandered by the fear of it?
________________________________________ * While there is no one ‘correct’ way to hold the violin, my comments about concave contour and foam assume two premises. One, that in order for one’s position not to be inherently tense, the violin must be stable on the shoulder/collarbone without any need to hold the instrument in place by squeezing the chin or raising the shoulder. (The weight of the chin counteracts the lateral force of the bow.) And two, that the violin can move organically with the body, not fixed to any one spot on the shoulder.
The Menuhin rest’s feet, in contrast, are far apart and so lie on either side of the curve of the violin relative to the player, even when positioned close to the player. This inherently stable position achieves a much more secure hold with less pressure on the instrument.
Its markedly lower risk of falling off means a far lower risk of such an incident scratching the back of the instrument or worse.
On the kuns, the leverage disadvantage resulting from narrow span between the two feet means that the feet have to be quite rigid, exerting a fair amount of pressure against the instrument. Every time it is put on and off the instrument, the edging is rubbed and the instrument is stressed. But the Menuhin rest does not need the same pressure, and its feet form a spring which allows them to open comfortably over the sides without stressing the violin or marring the edging. And this greater flexibility in turn allows for the use of thicker, gentler pads.
Two other problems with the Kun/etc are not inherent in the design, but nonetheless universal as they are marketed. One is manufacturers’ increasing predilection for contouring the platform, so that the player’s shoulder is trapped in the concave part, forcing the instrument into a predetermined, immoveable position. Some are slight, some extreme, but all do it, and I would argue that this serves only as bad medicine for a violin position that is itself unstable (=tense). The Menuhin rest is straight, flat.
Exacerbating this is companies’ near-universal policy of padding the shoulder rest with foam rubber. Wherever the rest meets the body, it is stuck there. The Menuhin rest is lined with cloth, neither slippery nor sticky. But even if players disagree [*see comment at end] and prefer the concave shape and/or foam, the kuns themselves would benefit from the Menuhin’s feet system.
YET the Menuhin rest has all but disappeared from sight, and was only resurrected as a cheap knock-off, relegated to the market niche of a bargain option for young students or the non-serious player. I know of only one professional violinist, other than myself, who uses it.
If the virtues I have argued are valid, why is this?
These Menuhin knock-offs can easily be ordered for anywhere from a few dollars to ten dollars. It is my contention that it is their very price, and the resulting inglorious quality of production, that has condemned the Menuhin rest not to be taken seriously, or indeed even noticed. In stark contrast, the kun-type is available in a full range of quality and choices by its various manufacturers: serious students and professionals can opt for gorgeous, high quality models with select hardwoods and brass fittings, frugal students can get quality versions made of cheaper materials, and plastic models suffice for young students. But the Menuhin rest? What serious violinist would look at a cheap, poorly made aluminum shoulder rest that rarely even makes an appearance in a shop’s display case? As it is, the latest batch hitting the market, some with gold-colored feet, are even poorer than their predecessors, the very market niche dooming the Menuhin rest to a race to the bottom.
Yehudi Menuhin was a smart man from an intellectual family, giving him an analytical approach to his own tribulations with the violin. His shoulder rest reflects this intelligence and careful thought. It is a superior design that deserves to be made available in a high quality production that will allow it the recognition it deserves.
Any company executive reading this want to give it a go?
* While there is no one ‘correct’ way to hold the violin, my comments about concave contour and foam assume two premises. One, that in order for one’s position not to be inherently tense, the violin must be stable on the shoulder/collarbone without any need to hold the instrument in place by squeezing the chin or raising the shoulder. (The weight of the chin counteracts the lateral force of the bow.) And two, that the violin can move organically with the body, not fixed to any one spot on the shoulder.
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