Thomas Suarez

The Poisonwood ... Peg? A Tale of (among other things) a Falsely Accused Mosquito

June 30, 2013 10:24

While in New York, a friend, the violin maker Brian Skarstad, spoke highly of a new violin that had just reached his shop by a colleague of his, John Moroz of Salt Lake City. I wasn’t in the market for another violin, but was going to be driving right past Brian's shop in Pleasantville, New York, and so out of curiosity I stopped in.

Fifteen minutes later, I left—with the Moroz violin. A beautifully made instrument on a Guarneri model, it was pretty stiff competition for my Italian violin, an excellent Gaetano Gadda bearing a Scarampella label. The Gadda was put to good use by my friend in one of the major London orchestras, and I started playing the Moroz.

Some months later, when a round welt on my neck began itching mercilessly, I was not surprised. After all, the mosquitoes in Occupied Palestine can be voracious, and it was just unfortunate that one happened to bite me where the violin rubs against my neck. But the whole violin-side of my neck soon became raw, stinging such that it would wake me night after night, and only the prolonged spray of a hot shower would provide even brief, partial relief. The skin began to shrink on that side of my neck, as if there were dried glue on it.

Briefly back in New York, I went to a dermatologist. He suspected I was allergic to the nickel on the chinrest hardware or to the ebony, or perhaps I had a fungus. I’ve never been allergic to chin rest hardware, but covered it with tape to eliminate it as a suspect. My neck continued to get worse. I still held the mosquito world responsible for the original (now rather horrific) circular welt half-way down my neck, though clearly something else was also going on.

It happened that my first two weeks back in the West Bank I was playing viola in a chamber group. Only viola, no violin, all day long, for two weeks. My neck stabilized and began to heal. After the last concert in that group I returned to my violin, and immediately my neck broke out with new vengeance.

Now that it was clear that something on the violin was the actual cause, rather than merely exacerbating some other culprit, such as the fungus theory, I realized two things that I should have noted earlier. One, like many violinists who tend to play with the chin centered rather than to the side, my chin touches the tailpiece about as much as it does the chin rest. And two, my inflamed ‘mosquito bite’ just happened to be precisely where the end pin meets my neck. The cause had been literally right in front of me—the instrument's exotic wood tailpiece and end pin.

John Moroz had used a matched set of very high quality fittings for the violin made from a fine Brazilian wood called caviuna. But the wood, as we now learned, is known for causing strong allergic reactions. The problem had not been apparent when I first bought the violin, probably because the wood was varnished and the toxic substances took a while to ooze out.

I hermetically sealed the tailpiece with tape, spanned a barrier over the end pin by threading it through the legs of the chin rest clamp, and used a cloth over everything, to be sure. The wood of the tailpiece and end pin was so toxic to my skin that it took a good month before my neck was close to normal again, but the problem was fixed (and the mosquito vindicated). All I needed to do was insulate myself from the wood until I was next in New York, where Brian would replace tailpiece, end pin, and pegs with ebony ones.

But there was one final twist to this saga. After Brian replaced the fittings, I shed the protective cloth and played—and within an hour my neck flared up again. I was really beginning to think that I needed an exorcist rather than a luthier. The only explanation I could conjure (short of dark magic) was that during the months I played the instrument with the Evil Wood, my skin was continually smearing the oils from the tailpiece onto the (otherwise innocent) chin rest, and so my old chin rest was now contaminated.

So I got a new chin rest, took a deep breath, and played. Exorcism successful.

3 replies

Shoulder Rests ... Why are we captive to endless versions of an inherently bad design?

June 22, 2013 19:53

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 :

• Significantly more secure on the instrument, yet with less pressure.

• Stable in any position, whereas the kuns become increasingly less stable away from center point of the violin's curve, and are virtually unusable closer to the collarbone.

• Thus, the player can put the shoulder rest precisely where s/he wants it—No need to position it further back just to keep it from slipping off. (This advantage is even more significant for the viola, simply because its larger size means the mid-curve is further back.)

• Vastly lesser risk of damage to the instrument (and disrupted performance!) by the rest slipping off and crashing against the back.

• No distraction by the fear of the rest falling off, and the accompanying contortions to try to prevent it.

• Since the Menuhin's feet form a coil spring, they pull apart further and more easily, resulting in significantly less marring of violin surface by the rest's feet, and less stress on the violin from stretching the rest to get it on and off.

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?

(Above: A Kun-type shoulder rest on a viola. Note how both feet grasp on the same side of the instrument’s curve.)

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.

(Above: An inexpensive Chinese-produced Menuhin-type shoulder rest on a violin. Note how the two feet lie on opposite sides of the instrument’s curve.)

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?

(Above: Menuhin-type shoulder rest. Note how the design allows the rest to be positioned even very close to the player’s neck while remaining secure.


* 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.

note: This article also appears on

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