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Laurie Niles

Restless in Colorado

August 11, 2012 at 4:29 PM

This week I took a road trip to Colorado with my family, and I cleverly took my spare violin, so not to expose my primary one to the varying temperatures of the car or to the radical change in altitude and humidity.

I could enjoy my hikes, and I could practice!


But I forgot one thing: my shoulder rest! It's sitting happily at home, with my other fiddle.

I know that a lot of my dear V.commies expound on the amazing freedom you find without a shoulder rest, the incredible feeling of the wood vibrating against your collarbone, the ability to move the violin around on your shoulder and not have it clamped under your jaw (which, I will note, you shouldn't do, whether you use a shoulder rest or not). At any rate, I had no choice but to give it a try, so I thought I'd try to channel some of those positive ideals the anti-shoulder rest aficionados embrace.

It didn't go well. I found that I needed to bring my left thumb up and actually hold the violin at times, instead of cradling it between the thumb and index finger base joint. Vibrato required a slightly different position, in which the thumb moves bit more underneath the neck, so there was this new requirement to change thumb positions more often than is normal for me. Shifting while playing fast notes was definitely more stressful. My thumb felt more tension from all of this, which gave more tension to my hand in general.

As for my neck, spine and head: Ouch. In order to even touch my chin to the chin rest, I had to shrink the distance between my jaw and collarbone. I have a high enough neck that this necessarily means scrunching my spine, just to make contact.

To be very frank: I hated it. Completely!

The truth of the matter is that after 30 years of playing the fiddle, I've found a balanced position, with a shoulder rest, that serves me well. As the saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. I feel more freedom WITH my shoulder rest: Freedom to cradle instead of hold the violin with my left hand. Freedom to switch between cradling the violin with my hand and taking some weight with my head when shifting or doing vibrato. Freedom to keep my spine straight, and freedom from pain in my neck. Freedom from pain in my left thumb. I can play faster, shift better, vibrate more continuously and with more variety.

As for those vibrations in the wood of the fiddle, they are a bit stronger without the rest, but I do feel them with the rest as well as without.

I have no doubt that some people find a better balance for themselves without a shoulder rest. Do what serves you best! I always welcome the debate and the sharing of information about this on

But I'm afraid you don't have a new convert to restless playing!

From Michael Snow
Posted on August 11, 2012 at 5:26 PM
If you have a stress-free experience using a shoulder rest, more power to you. For me, I could never get there. I also have a high neck, and for me that made using a shoulder rest, even a high one, a problem. The first time I tried going without a shoulder rest, though, was just as you described: awkward, more tense, less control of vibrato, etc. I tried for a few weeks and gave up. But, going back to using my shoulder rest, I curiously noted that I had a little more freedom than I had had before. Hmm. SOMETHING about the non-rest experience made me more aware of balance and efficiency of motion. I experimented with rest-less playing for two years, never getting completely comfortable with it. One night, at a gig, I realized that I had left my shoulder rest at home. Panic set in. I had no choice but to play for two hours in public without a shoulder rest. Amazingly, I got through it, and a shift happened in my playing. I never used the shoulder rest again after that night. I tried a few times but it felt too confining. It's been quite a learning curve since that night to keep gaining more freedom in my hands, arms, and neck, but now I have freedom I never had with a shoulder rest. When I play now, my jaw may touch the chinrest briefly, but for the most part I don't need to at all, just a quick pinch when doing a very fast shift downwards.

I'm a big advocate of finding whatever works best for each individual, whether that's using a shoulder rest or not, but for anyone who has played one way for decades I don't think a few days or weeks trying the opposite method can be used to determine how the new method will actually feel in time, just like how it feels when we first started learning the violin was no indication of how it would feel a few years later, since the whole experience was new.

From Dottie Case
Posted on August 11, 2012 at 7:11 PM
Laurie, that was EXACTLY my experience when I managed to get to a Carousel rehearsal without my SR. I was hoping hoping hoping that I'd find it free and easy, but mostly it just collarbone, my neck and my shoulder. So, I too am joining the team that says, Yes! Whichever way you can play without tension, go for it.
From Tom Holzman
Posted on August 11, 2012 at 8:16 PM
Very nice pic. You certainly learned first had why some people still use SRs.
From Jim Hastings
Posted on August 11, 2012 at 9:07 PM
This reminds me of a time I was visiting friends who took an old fiddle out of storage and had me tune it up and try it out. I found I could play restless. No big deal -- I had already gone restless all the way to age 18.

But now that I have the comparison, I, too, feel more freedom WITH the device. No great, arduous adaptation process -- I knew right away I liked the feel better.

The subject line of a recent thread -- something like "How to play without a shoulder rest" -- is one I've mulled over lately. To me, the words "how to" in this context make it sound as if there were some special trick to it. I would think that if a person is built right for going restless, it should come quite naturally.

And for those seeking to emulate restless players: Keep in mind that more than a few professionals -- Isaac Stern, for one -- have used padding inside their jackets.

From Vanlal Hruaia
Posted on August 11, 2012 at 9:50 PM
My father always wanted me to learn the violin without a shoulder rest. He always told me "What if you forget your shoulder rest somewhere? What will you do then?" So I tried. Din't work out. Then I found out that if I place my chin on the center, like how the great Anne-Sophie Mutter does it, it's much easier to grasp the violin without any inhibition. But the thing is, you have to completely change your bowing and your left hand technique when you go to the higher registers, especially high up on the G string. So I just decided to stick with my shoulder rest. ;)
From Corwin Slack
Posted on August 11, 2012 at 11:51 PM
You described how I felt for five months. It took a long time to learn a new set of techniques. I have no doubt that many could do it faster than I did.
From Paul Deck
Posted on August 12, 2012 at 12:47 AM
I was a restless player from the age of 5 to 17. When I returned to the violin at the age of 44, I found that I had lost much of the flexibility in my upper arm and elbow, and so it was difficult to reach notes on the fingerboard. I bought a shoulder rest (Kun) and immediately I felt so much better, as if the SR was what I had been missing all those years. I have to wonder if not having an SR as a young student is what kept me from making the same progress that my daughter is making now. Her violin sits so nicely on her shoulder and she feels comfortable and can concentrate on things well, while as a child I always struggled just to hold up my damned violin. With an SR, because my violin is lifted off my shoulder a bit, my chin makes more secure contact with my chinrest and I feel so much more "connected" to my violin, and I can feel its vibrations in my jawbone so much better. Because the jawbone is nearer the ear, these vibrations seem more valuable than those that enter the body through the collarbone. Also the tone of my violin is improved by about 20%, but probably that is because I feel more secure which improves my bowing. Mainly because I know that my violin is secure on my shoulder and won't fall down, I feel so much more freedom -- freedom to move my left hand and arm in various ways to accomplish a greater range of technique and expression than I ever could playing without a shoulder rest.

I'm just saying that there is more than one way to look at things like "freedom" and "feeling connected" and "better tone" which are the hallmark claims of restless playing.

From Kenneth Choo
Posted on August 12, 2012 at 3:23 AM
Hi Laurie, kudos to you for trying the new experience!

I would like second Corwin's comment though; for others considering the same, please give yourself time to work through the "how to" (also very important to have the knowledge of what needs to be in place/done)

From Corwin Slack
Posted on August 12, 2012 at 4:14 AM
You cannot rely on instinct or intuition. Slow and awkward as it was, I could not have made the transition without a mentor and guide to show me many new techniques that I needed to know,
From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on August 12, 2012 at 8:40 PM
I took my cheaper violin to Lake Tahoe for a long weekend and discovered that I had left the chinrest at home! I would have given up on the idea of practicing, except our host's daughter asked me to play while she danced. You can bet that I put on a chinrest as soon as I got home, even though I probably won't play that violin again for a long time.
From Paul Deck
Posted on August 12, 2012 at 9:24 PM
I've kind of solved this forgetting shoulder rest and forgetting bow etc. problem. When I travel I always take the same CASE and switch the violin I want to take into it. The CASE as all the accessories in it, and it forces me to look the violin over once.
From Dessie Arnold
Posted on August 13, 2012 at 10:46 PM
You have to do what you have to do. I've done both, and although I loved the freedom of going completely restless, my current practice is to use a thin foam cosmetic pad.

In future, if you normally use a SP and forget it, one or more(folded)washcloths and a rubber band can help you bridge the gap and ease the discomfort.

More problematic is when you leave the music glasses at home in the case! ;)

From Ray Randall
Posted on August 14, 2012 at 2:08 AM
Where were you in my old home state? That looks familiar.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on August 14, 2012 at 4:14 AM
Francesca, I found myself in a very similar situation, we had a Swedish friend who was teaching the kids (and adults) to dance to Swedish songs, so of course I had to join in and learn it by ear, improv a bit (btw my "classical training" did not hinder my ability to improvise a Swedish fiddle tune, lol!)

Paul, you'd have to talk to my Italian fiddle about giving up its Musafia digs -- ! But I actually have two shoulder rests, one for my spare! Don't know where it went! Maybe I lent it to a student?

Ray, your home state and mine, too! I grew up in Aurora. But let's not talk about Aurora. :( I was in Estes Park! :) Hiked, rafted, ate good food, shopped, spent time with family and friends. I love Colorado.

From Angela Garwood
Posted on August 14, 2012 at 6:25 PM
Vanlal Hruaia
I am curious, in what way did you feel you had to change your bowing technique?
From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on August 14, 2012 at 3:36 PM
I'd like to try Swedish fiddle music some day. One of our Scottish Fiddle Club members taught us a Swedish hambo dance tune and it had a fun rhythm.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on August 18, 2012 at 4:02 AM
Laurie, I've had a very similar (bad) experience the few times I've forgotten my shoulder rest. At this point, if I forgot mine on a trip, I'd either try to buy another one locally or use it as an excuse not to practice. I did have to switch shoulder rest brands in my late 20's, after my first break from the instrument, but when I did that, all the back/neck pain that I'd been suffering from in my late teens/early 20's went away and never came back, so I don't want to mess with it. I totally agree: if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

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