Master Class with Dylana Jenson: shoulder rests, vibrato and more

September 25, 2013, 2:05 PM · "Being a lazy violinist with your body is important, because it allows us to play comfortably."

This is what Dylana Jenson told Edward, 9, at a master class last Friday at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music in California.

Beyond being a violinist who won a silver medal in the International Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow at the age of 17 and studied with the great violinists Nathan Milstein and Josef Gingold, Dylana Jenson also has made a place for herself as an expert in playing without pain -- and without a shoulder rest. Her ideas about playing without the shoulder rest are strongly held, and they certainly rattle the status quo. (In fact, she occasionally has dived straight into the controversy and has advised members on their issues involving pain and shoulder rests.)

But there is a lot more to her teaching, beyond the shoulder rest issue. Friday's master class showed her to be an engaging teacher who can clearly articulate technical musical and concepts. In working with three young students, she raised a wide range of topics, including creating a pain-free set-up, finding the long musical lines in Mozart, and understanding vibrato's relationship to expression.

Dylana began the master class with her own performance of the Vitali Chaconne. What a treat, to hear this piece -- played so frequently by students -- played by an artist! (She overcame, with admirable poise, the challenge of a pianist who was sight-reading.) And for the record: her own playing certainly shows no signs of physical strain, nor does her technique suffer without a shoulder rest! She was spot-on and full of wonderful energy.

For the master class, young Edward, mentioned above, played an excellent and musical performance of the first movement of Vivaldi's Concerto in A minor. He stood tall, with violin high -- many would find his position to be textbook-perfect. But in this upright posture, Dylana saw the potential for future strain.

"You are really young, and your body will let you do a lot of things," she explained to him. But just because you can do something does not mean you should. We don't need to be contortionists to play the violin. That said, the world seems to encourage us to hold our violins uncomfortably, and in ways that strain us.

"My mother was always telling me to hold up my violin," Dylana said. But the violin should not really be pointing up; in fact, it's all right for it to point down a bit. Likewise, the elbow should point to the floor, not be awkwardly pushed to the right. Sure, your elbow will need to come over, to reach certain notes, but not all the time. "When you have to, bring your elbow over. Do it, and then get it right back."

Furthermore, the shoulder rest is not something you need. She had Edward try playing without it.

"When you first take off your shoulder rest, you almost have to hold your violin pointing to the floor," Dylana said. This will give you the feeling you need, of connecting with the violin.

She named some famous "rest-less" violinists: Jascha Heifetz, Pinchas Zukerman, Nathan Milstein, Isaac Stern, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Ruggiero Ricci.

She told us that once, just to prove a point, Milstein played a Paganini Caprice, holding is violin at his middle, not even up to his chin.

Playing without a shoulder rest "is a wonderful way to play, but it feels funny because the violin is slipping," she said. It also changes your technique. For example, "the thumb is like a snake," it crawls all over the place, as it is also holding up the violin. (Ruggiero Ricci wrote an entire book on this.) And every time you go into third position, you need to crash into the violin.

"The first week without a shoulder rest is really difficult because the body wants, visually and physically, to go back to what it's used to," she said.

But the decision to go without a shoulder rest is a serious one. It's a decision that requires a commitment to changing your technique and making it work, she said.

"Only do it if you want to do it," Dylana said. "If you don't think it's the most important thing in the world to do it, it may not work."

Next came Cameron, 16, who played the first movement of Mozart's Concerto No. 3 for Violin.

Dylana first asked that he make the opening chord of the piece very clear.

"We hope (the chord) will sound well and go out, but make sure we hear the bottom (notes) of it," she said. "It has to be a nice, big chord, 'Hello! I'm here!'"

She also emphasized connecting with his sound, feeling the contact with the bow.

"The sound coming out has a kind of haziness to it -- you have to hear every note, that's the reality of it," she said.

It's also easy to fall into the trap of playing the music of Mozart in short phrases instead of longer lines. "It feel like you're cutting the phrases in little curtsies," she said. "Too many endings!"

One way to produce a longer line is to use our musical ideas judiciously. She quoted some wise words: "You can have anything you want, but you can't have everything you want."

In other words, do less, she said. You may have many musical ideas. In fact, you may have a musical idea -- and then decide not to use it. For example, "I like chocolate very much -- sometimes too much," she said. Yummy though it is, sometimes you just don't eat the chocolate. "That's what I'm talking about! Do the phrase, but don't do too much. Make it beautiful." Then when you do something special, it will seem special. If everything is special, then nothing is special.

Our final performer was Christine, 18, who played Vieuxtemps Concerto No. 5, from the cadenza through the end. Christine was doing well with the technical acrobatics required for this piece, and Dylana focused on musical expression.

"What is vibrato for?" Dylana asked Christine and the audience.

To make a beautiful sound? This is what a lot of people believe, Dylana said. But it's more than that: "Vibrato should do something, not just make a beautiful sound."

The first step in deciding where and how vibrato should be used is to try practicing without vibrato, Dylana advised.

"It's hard!" said Christine, who found that she had to adjust her fingers a lot to achieve perfect intonation without vibrato during a slow passage.

"Sometimes we use vibrato to fix our intonation," Dylana said. "If you are always using vibrato when you are practicing, then does your finger really know where to go?"

Another issue, playing without vibrato, is that the bow becomes even more important: "Listen to the quality of the sound -- if it gets gritty or restricted, do something," she said.

Once the passage was sounding good without vibrato, "now add vibrato," Dylana said, "but only where you want it. It's that chocolate issue again!"

Once you decide where to add vibrato, you also have to decide the intensity. And the bow shouldn't always respond to the intensity of the left hand. "Maybe it's just warm and fluttery, the beginning of something," Dylana said. "Choose, and be open to these very special moments and bring them out -- don't back off.

Dylana with Kaela
Dylana chats with audience member, Kaela, about pinkie position

With Dylana Jenson
Dylana and Laurie


September 25, 2013 at 08:02 PM · Amen on the shoulder rest. But when you decide to give it up it helps to have a teacher who gave it up.

In any event you must recognize that the left hand holds the violin up and you must not clench with shoulder raised or head bent over.

September 25, 2013 at 08:16 PM · Thanks for the review!

On the shoulder rest topic though, I noticed that she doesn't have a long neck nor the restless violinists she mentioned...

I am no expert and I trust her jugment though I still beleive the shoulder rest matter is really individual.

This is like when I tried to explain my slim finger problems (for vibratos and chords etc.) to my first teacher who had really big hands and was a man. He tried to help the best he could but it's just so different than any issues he could have had!

For certain things, the teacher just can't be in your body and you have to decide for yourself, once older and better informed on what you want to experiment. Many gave up the rest as late teens or adults (perhaps for this reason?)

But I agree with her that the restless principles and playing tension free shoould be taught to all, no matter what they use daily...

Thanks again!


September 25, 2013 at 10:00 PM · Not all of those violinists were truly "rest-free" either, though they may not have attached anything to the violin. Stern and Zukerman both use(d) padding or objects in the left shoulder of their clothing to help fill the gap. You can often see Zukerman slipping his hand inside his jacket to adjust the position of Mr. Galamian's old doorstop(!) prior to playing.

September 25, 2013 at 10:17 PM · I think that, more than than being "rest-less," she wanted to point out that their technique worked in a way that would support going with little or no shoulder rest. Dylana also had a center-placed chin rest.

September 25, 2013 at 10:40 PM · Muddying the waters a bit further is the fact that a typical shoulder rest has multiple roles: it not only acts as a space-filler, but it also typically prevents the violin from sliding away like a watermelon seed squeezed between your fingertips. The folks who play with just a cosmetic sponge held to the back with a rubberband, a chamois, or even ASM's skin-to-violin contact are all taking advantage of the extra friction provided.

The Milstein Paganini caprice story is a good one, and often told by the no-rest advocates, but you would think more of them would give their own demonstration, if a proper rest-free technique was all it takes, and yet we never seem to hear about that :-)

September 25, 2013 at 11:17 PM · One thing I gather is that a lot of teachers these days are starting kids on shoulder rests from the very first lessons. This strikes me as all wrong. Many of these kids, I suspect, would have become full grown without having any need for the device. Going restless, after being conditioned to the rest, is harder, I've heard, than going from restless to using the SR.

As mentioned in the 2012 thread linked from this blog, I went restless from my first days of playing all the way to 18 -- almost 19 -- y/o. I can play either with or without SR, but I prefer the feel of playing with it.

Although this puts me in the majority, I will staunchly defend the right and choice of any player, seasoned or new learner, who prefers to go restless. I stated my views on this in last April's thread titled "Is a shoulder rest necessary for children?"

Click this link:

September 25, 2013 at 11:17 PM · I am not a proponent of taking off a shoulder rest of just anyone that comes my way. Most likely if you have come to me as a student you have pain issues, however you want to describe them..neck, shoulder, wrist, elbow, back, thumb etc. I then evaluate the twist and position of your whole body. Just taking a shoulder rest off fixes nothing. I've had students come to me from other teachers who believe that taking it off will do just that. It can make matters worse. I, in fact, have tried to discourage my tall, gangly usually young men students from taking the shoulder rest off..thinking (secretly) that they might have problems...only to find that they become militant proponents of playing restless. I don't believe in the long neck theory, I've seen it disproved too many times.

I do have to say if you use a shoulder rest, and the position of your violin is not static, and you don't over twist your left arm, and you have a relaxed and moveable left thumb, and you can pull a full bow to the tip without any right arm pulling or strain, and your vibrato is beautiful and flexible..then why would you need to even consider taking off a shoulder rest? On the other hand, when I have started little students or have been to summer suzuki camps and seen little students, it is hard to tell which ones will develop the so called long neck that will insist on a shoulder rest, therefore starting a little beginner on a shoulder rest seems strange to me. Of course it does solve the problem of having to teach them to hold the violin themselves.

September 26, 2013 at 03:25 AM · When I rest the violin on my collar bone, with a standard chin rest (Guarneri or Teka) there is still a very large gap of several cm between my jaw and the chin rest. As far as I am concerned that is because I have a very long neck (about 14 cm from collar bone to jaw).

However, ever since giving away the rigid shoulder rest in favour of a pliable, relatively small sponge, a while ago, I feel far more stable and comfortable and I will never go back. I could only make this adjustment because I have raised the chin rest with a sponge as well and hope to replace this with the Kréddle soon. I remain convinced that the right chin rest is most important and this is more difficult for those having to fill a large gap. Then again, I never had lessons (or much else) as a what would I know.

September 26, 2013 at 02:29 PM · I wish I lived on the other side of 'the pond' to be able to take lessons from Dylana :)

it was a very nice enlightening interview Laurie, I thoroughly enjoyed it, great teacher (of course I love my own teacher too so I think I'd have lessons with both of them :D )

September 26, 2013 at 03:11 PM · I have tried playing without a shoulder rest and shifting is not too much of a problem but vibrato is another matter ! I really would like somebody to explain how you can do (wrist) vibrato without a shoulder rest as I cannot get anything going at all unless I am using one.

September 26, 2013 at 05:01 PM · Dylana, thank you so much for your comments, because I think they address an important issue, which is the fact that "playing without pain" is something that transcends this debate about shoulder rests. There is a certain kind of freedom of movement for which we should all aim, and it takes a lot more thought and adjustment than simply putting on or taking off a shoulder rest. This is where Dylana's teaching is so helpful!

September 26, 2013 at 05:36 PM · Hi,

Laurie and Dylana, thanks for these wonderful post, thoughts and for sharing this knowledge.

I agree that the issue of playing with ease transcends the support used or not used. It is also true that the kind of things needed for setup may actually change once someone has proper mechanics. In the end, these things are the most important.

Thank you and Cheers!

P.S. "Likewise, the elbow should point to the floor, not be awkwardly pushed to the right."

I have to say that I chuckled with relief reading someone else say/write something which I have so often!

September 27, 2013 at 09:32 PM · I use the "Bon Musica" shoulder rest. I need the predictability of a steady instrument in order to control my lifelong obsession with intonation. An instrument that moves around introduces more variables than I can manage successfully. I like the predictability of a hand position that will work in any position. One of my perennial technical pieces is the 15th caprice of Paganini, which changes position every four notes.

September 28, 2013 at 09:00 PM · "I am not a proponent of taking off a shoulder rest of just anyone that comes my way. … On the other hand, … starting a little beginner on a shoulder rest seems strange to me."

Precisely. The first statement confirms what I felt quite certain of when I asked the question in the 2012 thread. The second statement lines right up with my views on young kids and shoulder rests. If I were a teacher, I would start a beginner without the SR and go from there. Starting a kid on the SR, without first determining whether there is an actual need for the device, makes about as much sense as starting a first-grader on corrective eyewear -- without first measuring the vision and determining whether there is a need for correction.

September 30, 2013 at 12:34 AM · William Primrose used to speak of this, often invoking Milstein as a classic example. However, I never actually observed Mr.Primrose playing in that manner. Using Milstein as an example is not useful to a student of even above average talent. Milstein and Heifetz had genius that defied the laws of nature. Tossy Spivakovsky was a marvelous violinist, in spite of his bizarre technique. To suggest that his approach would benefit a violin student is silly. I have had to deal with a number of students over the last 45 years who came to me with no shoulder rest. Every single one struggled with intonation, vibrato, and proper alignment of the bow with the string. Their focus seemed to be on not dropping the violin. In addition, pointing the violin towards the floor virtually guaranteed that the bow never left the fingerboard.

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