June 9, 2007 at 6:16 PMTough subject for the day -- My shoulder rest. I don’t have one and have not since the early spring of 1998.
While I was a teenager I read one of the Applebaum interviews with Nathan Milstein. I recalled very clearly that Milstein said that the function of the left hand was to hold up the violin. I intuitively said yes but I had neither the will nor the means to drop my shoulder rest. I had been steered into a dead end.
I can look around me and see many players who are much better than I am who use a shoulder rest. Perhaps it is right for them. I have some deep reservations but lacking their physical and mental make-ups, I’ll never know.
I do know that dropping the shoulder rest was like breaking a dam that was impeding my progress. I could not have done it without a very insightful teacher who himself had dropped the shoulder rest and who had gone through relearning process.
There were several fundamental understandings I had to gain to make this transition to no shoulder rest.
1. Lifting the shoulder was not a correct solution
2. There was no need to hold the violin up with my chin and shoulder. (There are plenty of pictures of great violinists tuning their instruments who clearly cannot turn just the peg but have to hold the scroll in their hand)
3. The adaptation of the left hand, if done properly, would improve my technique not limit it.
Several events started me forward:
1. I bought an early 20th century violin by a famous maker in the summer of 1997.
2. That fall I was asked to sit concertmaster (a rotating position) in a town-gown orchestra I was a member of.
3. The student conductor gave me bowed and fingered parts that had some errors in them. I asked him who did it and hired his mentor, the man who fingered and bowed the parts, to explain them to me. He became my teacher. (And he corrected the transcription errors made by the student conductor).
4. Teacher didn’t insist that I immediately drop the shoulder rest but he made life quite painful for me. It became clear I was going to have to change.
5. I showed my newly purchased violin to a prominent violinist who owned several by the same maker. He doesn’t play with a shoulder rest and he didn’t offer to let me use one when I played his instruments. I was humiliated.
6. After my turn as concertmaster I dropped my shoulder rest and never picked it up again.
How has it gone?
It was quite difficult at first. Changes and improvements happened in quanta not gradually or continuously. Vibrato never was a problem. Shifting upward on the first three positions was relatively easily mastered. Down shifting, especially on the G and D strings in the lower positions took a while. Learning to cross the bout efficiently and smoothly was a very long process. It took lots of adjustments.
It would be delusional to say that I have perfected the transition but I am clearly a better player today than I was before the switch. I would encourage others to make the jump but I offer several cautions.
1. Don’t lift your shoulder. Don’t lift it permanently, don’t lift it momentarily, don’t lift it to shift. Just don’t lift it. (The picture on my profile is my standard playing posture.)
2. Get someone to show you how to do it. Best choices
a. Someone who has made the change
b. Someone who never used a shoulder rest
c. Someone who doesn’t lift his/her shoulder.
3. Don’t linger between using it and not using it. Take the plunge.
There are several other things to consider.
1. Don’t drop your thumb under the neck (pointed back to the scroll) when you shift. The thumb will gradually drop as you shift upward.
2. Work early on to get rid of first finger dominance. The hand needs to be rotated to the neck and the balance of the hand should be between the second and third fingers. The violin should rest on the little shelf at the base of the first finger when you form it into a hook and push the base knuckle forward. This is easy to say but it takes a lot of concentration to make this work.
3. Don’t curve your palm too much. When you reach the bout the base of the palm should be under the violin, not hitting the bout.
4. Keep your elbow under the violin.
5. Practice Yost!
6. Practice legato as frequently as possible (including the Yost scales). You can hide all sorts of technical defects in between up bow and down bow. You have to hear your technique to improve it.
Don’t set unrealistic expectations. Don’t compare yourself to others. You will improve but this isn’t the hidden secret to greatness. It is a wonderful route to betterness.
How else would you do it? You can always lean against the wall. ;)
Loving the repetition for effect. Don't lift you shoulder, don't lift it!! :)
It is a very small price to pay.
Intuitively I can tell, really tell, that the answer lies in learning the instrument without the use of a shoulder rest, and so I will continue to learn and develop in this manner. Beside that, should I stick with the shoulder rest now, I can see the day when I would be again faced with the decision of whether or not I should go on using this device. In short, I just know the day would come when I would have to drop the shoulder rest in order to develop into as good a violinist as I hope to one day become. I'd rather learn to do so now rather than after much of my technique has already developed. The way I see it, using a shoulder rest is kind of like smoking...sooner or later you're gonna want (or have) to quit, so why start?
Thanks for a GREAT blog, it came at a great time in the life of this emerging violinist's life!
if i read your post correctly, you changed not because it was a physical issue to you since you did not mention any discomfort, nor was it a sound issue (in your reply to nathan); it is more like a social pressure issue, that others in different situations have influenced you into changing.
you state that you are a "better" player because of that. can you elaborate on that, because i am not too sure from your writing what you mean and your ideas of comparing the old you vs the new you since you have since grown musically with time and practice both of which may be independent of the sr.
don't get me wrong, i am all for people getting what they truely desire and what fit them, sr or not. even from your post i got a sense this issue is more than physical and acoustic. on an elementary level, it reminds me of kids buying certain brands of sneakers because celebrities endorse them.
my sympathy goes out to those who are using sr when they should not and those who are not using sr but should and particularly those who are using sr because they think others expect them too.
I would tell you all me feats and accomplishments but they would probably be underwhelming to most violinists; however, they are significant for me. I can solve left hand problems much more quickly, I shift more smoothly and I play much better in tune than I did previously. I always know where I am when I am in the upper positions. I credit most of this to dropping the shoulder rest.
I made the transition a couple of years ago. I have since changed my left hand setup completely, so that the violin neck rests deeper, just above the middle thumb joint (not down in the flabby section). I can play without the contact of my index finger, although for faster passages it almost always touches (though it never supports). By balancing on the thumb alone, I am able to settle my fingers back a bit and center the pitches on the meatier part of my pads. I have a free, relaxed vibrato because I'm not obliged to keep contact with the index. I just balance it on the thumb.
This whole setup works for me only if I play restless.
I don't mean this is a demeaning way but if you ride large tricycle it wouldn't matter how you leaned when you pumped the pedals of the tricycle. When you ride a bicycle your body has to move in a proper way to stay balanced and not fall over. You don't think that much about it and you can still do it. Playing without a shoulder rest is like riding a bicycle. Moment by moment you move in a way that almost tips the balance and then you recover it again but quite naturally.
1. sr or sr-less, index finger should not touch the neck (other than fingertip pad), right?
2. if in trying to balance the neck (to counter the gravity in sr-less situation?), the neck now sits deeper into the ring formed by the thumb and index finger (with each other fingers as well), abutt the thumb, allowing the index finger to hover higher over the fingerboard, allowing execution of notes from a different angle, with different part of the fingertip pad, creating a differnt ?feel/sound, then why can't people using sr learn to reposition the thumb contact point and hand position as such to experience this different setup?
sr-less mandates one to balance with thumb (emily) and index finger "area" (you)....doesn't that sound more like a bike situation where one has to keep the balance in check or one may tip over the balance point?
between bike and tri, i would pick bike over tri because it is more fun:)
it is more fun because i know if i tip over the balance point i will fall:)
It was only recently that I realized that the viola was just too heavy for me to hold up with my chin and shoulder. When I did that with a viola, the back pain and tension in my left arm started within 15-20 minutes. It was from clamping down too hard with my chin, not so much lifting the shoulder, but that too. So I started holding the viola up somewhat with my left hand--balancing it, as people said--and paying attention to using my left thumb, the injury to which has long since healed, although it's about a half-centimeter shorter than my right thumb. I also sometimes just lift my chin off the chin-rest during a pause in the music to make sure I'm not clamping down.
Now I can play easily for at least an hour or so (unfortunately that's all the time I have to practice)without pain. And my vibrato is better, not worse, as I had feared, because my wrist and arm don't tense up. I still don't use my left thumb totally naturally--the tip was completely severed and partially re-attached, and the innervation isn't completely normal. But I can use that thumb much more than I have been, and the injury doesn't have to be an excuse, I can work around it.
I have a long neck and small, sloping shoulders and I'm still going to keep the shoulder rest. Even using my new hold that involves the left arm and thumb, I can't really play without one--I've tried. It's not just a matter of a "lower" hold. It's hard to explain, and I've decided that for now the extremes of the shoulder rest debate don't have relevance for me. But nonetheless I think the principles involved and articulated in your post have helped me--even *with* the shoulder rest!
Obviously there are great players who use a rest, and rest-less players should not feel superior. But neither should rest users regard non rest-ers as oddities, and I do object when teachers advocate a rest as an automatic normal default procedure.
For myself necessity is a great motivator.
My assessment of any method would be "does it allow the shoulder to remain relaxed?". Anything that includes an active shoulder has a degree of danger that I think should be avoided.
In my definition an active shoulder is one that has to be thought about. If you have to think about keeping it immobile it is active. If you have to think about raising it to some angle it is active. If it is just relaxed all the time I consider it inactive.
That is the whole history of humanity wrapped up in one sentence. Al ku, did you know that you often come out with profound statements of philosophy?
My violin is resting on the corner of my collarbone. That corner seems to be at its highest point when the shoulder is relaxed. If I raise my shoulder then that corner rotates (or seems to rotate) slightly down which wouldn't be good. I don't see a need to involve any other point of my shoulder in contact with the violin.
The fact is that it was NOT an argument between two pros. If there's any confusion as to which is which, look up our respective bios, and my website.
I also know that there are talented people dropping out of the professional world with injuries from using a shoulder rest and from not using a shoulder rest (i.e. lifting their shoulder or some other defect) I take it that almost all of them were trained by professionals so you'll see what that appellation taken by itself means to me.
Nathan Milstein used to give demonstrations of playing with the violin resting on his upper arm. He didn't even seem to need his collarbone and chin (i.e. the guy knew the unicycle).
I have absolutely no knowledge of the Alexander technique but it strikes me that everything anyone says about it says that tension is bad.
I don't know what you do with your shoulder and I really don't care. I just want anyone that ventures away from a shoulder rest to be very careful about what they do with their shoulder. I am (scanty to be sure) evidence that it may not be necessary to do anything with it at all.
I am extremely guarded about my public statements about my capabilities. I am decidedly not a professional. Since I have no intention of offering a playing sample you'll either have to visit me personally or take my word for it that this works (for me).
Since there is no shot from the same angle as my profile (and I challenge folks to find pictures taken from that angle) I will characterize the difference as I see it.
He holds the violin where I do on the collarbone but he doesn't hold his arm up so high. I posed the picture in my profile for effect. I tend to keep my elbow relatively close to the body so the violin isn't quite so high. My normal playing posture looks very much like Milstein.
One other thing to note in this clip. Milstein's thumb lags his fingers in down shifts. This is as Teacher taught me and seems to go strongly against the grain of the pedagogues who published on shifting technique.
Regretably I can find no other sources of similarity between me and Milstein :) or is that :(
Speaking of which, thank you for your invitation for me to come visit you and hear you, but I'm a little busy with my professional career. Not that I haven't travelled. In 1990 I made my European solo recital debut in Geneva, Switzerland. In 2001 I toured Japan in an orchestra. And I've recently been tentatively invited to perform as a soloist in China. But tell you what...do let me know when you come to my neck of the woods - New York - to make your NY recital debut, as I did in 1991, and schedule permitting, I'll gladly come and hear you.
But I am not just an impudent amateur inventing it as I go. My teacher, like yours, is a grand student of Ysaye with his own accomplishments as a pedagogue and performer and my choices and techniques have been informed substantially by his teaching.
Let's leave the discussion like this: You (an accomplished professional and a student of Aaron Rosand) believe that the shoulder needs to be more involved in holding up the violin than me (a student of a fine teacher in the same tradition as Aaron Rosand) who believes that any tensing of the shoulder must be viewed very skeptically. We both hold our opinions in a world of numerous and diverse opinions held by players and teachers of greater accomplishments than you or me
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