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Mendy Smith

Restless in Houston

May 4, 2013 at 1:11 AM

For years I've struggled with mastering the art of vibrato. For years I've also struggled with tension and trying to find a comfortable setup. The two go hand in hand. This year, I'm determined to try to do something about it - again. This year I'm doing something radically different. I'm ditching my shoulder rest - for awhile at least.

For a violist, I'm small - 5' 2" with average sized hands playing on a 16" viola. Using an average shoulder rest at its lowest setting is too high for me in some spots. I tend to clench the instrument between my chin and shoulder in an attempt to free my left hand to move about the fingerboard. In doing so however, my left hand also tenses up in response to the overall tension on that side of my body. At the end of the day, I turn into a ball of violistic tension. Not good.

I have tried almost every conceivable chin rest / shoulder rest combination known to man over the years, and even tried to invent a few myself. Last year, I thought I hit on a winning combination until a few weeks ago when my teacher and I started working on my vibrato again. That is when all these little tension issues were put under a spotlight. I was sent home to experiment on what freed up my left hand no matter how bad sounded or awkward it felt.

Over the following week, I started from scratch. Off with the chin-rest and shoulder rest, and found the ideal position in which to hold my viola within minutes. I added my existing chinrest back on, and things were still good. The moment I added ANY shoulder rest, things went down hill faster than a baseball on a waxed slide.

So, I tried playing without a SR altogether. Not so bad! Having built up a habit of practicing for a few minutes every day without one over the past year, I slowly learned how it felt to play without one so it wasn't a scary place to be. However after about 30 minutes of playing, my collar bone starting getting red and tender. I added a sponge. Ahhhhhh. Much better! It also took out a bit of the side-to-side wobble I was getting when changing strings.

OK, we're getting somewhere. BUT.... I hadn't tried to vibrate yet. I tried it. A bit of wobbling, a little adjustment and viola! The best looking vibrato and most relaxed one I ever had. BUT... could I shift? Up - no problem. Down... well, that was a different story all together. I could do it, but it felt weird. BUT... feeling weird per the instructions I was given was not a reason to give up on it. My lessons were the next day, so I decided that it was what it was and let it be.

I presented the results of my experimentation to my teacher the next day, both with and without the SR. Her judgement was the same as mine. Without a SR but with a sponge or two seemed to be the winning combo from a vibrato and tension standpoint. Then the test... how did it sound? Could I do my 3-octave D-minor scale up and back down again? I hadn't tried that yet, so had no idea if I could do it or not.

We were both satisfied with the sound - no noticeable damping from the sponge. Then, the scale. Getting up there was easy. Getting back down again... surprisingly easier than ever before. It seemed that this new position freed my left hand up enough that it was no longer getting stuck on the upper bouts when coming back down from 7th position. It was a bit of a trick, but I could do it. The rest of the lesson was done with nothing but a sponge. After the end of the hour, I felt good. No residual tension in my neck. A first. BUT, the next evening would be the real test - chamber music rehearsal.

I let my fellow musicians (should I also say woman-friends?)know what I was attempting to do. Luckily, chamber music rehearsals are all about camaraderie, fun and support so I had no fear of my floundering ruining rehearsal. I showed off my new found skill and got the same verdict that my teacher gave me - it looked so much more natural and relaxed. It was time to dive into Mozart's Divertamento - Adagio movement.

It felt comfortable, and I even managed to vibrate quite a bit though it still sounded a bit like a bad Wagnerian opera singer. We ran through a bit of the first Allegro movement, and the little parts that I had such a difficult time with before were so much easier. Who knew! The verdict from my group was two thumbs up.

Though my forearm and base-of-thumb muscles were a bit sore at the end of rehearsal, it was from using muscles I hadn't used before and not from tension. Success!!!!

As Elise told me on FB afterwards.. welcome to the "light" side. Well now, I'm a violist and will remain on the "dark side", but I get her drift. This might work out afterall.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on May 4, 2013 at 5:40 PM
Good luck in your no-SR path forward. I took it 15 years ago and have no regrets. It helped me move off a plateau as I now learned how the left hand shifts and vibrates and holds up the instrument.
From Benedict Gomez
Posted on May 5, 2013 at 2:09 PM
Wouldn't short people naturally have less need for a shoulder rest?
From Gail Nelson
Posted on May 6, 2013 at 1:35 PM
I found that with most of my young students, who are too small to find a rigid shoulder rest comfortable, that a sponge works just fine. I say if it works, do it!

That said, my 8yo son has been trying to find something that works for him. He didn't like the sponge, it didn't feel stable enough, same with a micro-fiber towel. But I randomly came across the junior size Playonair shoulder rest on eBay. Figured for about $5, it was worth a shot. For those who don't know it, it's essentially an adjustable air pillow with elastic straps and rubber footies that attach to the instrument. He loves this thing, it took all of the strain out of his playing, and hasn't put his violin down since.

So..from my perspective it's a godsend. Might be worth looking into if you feel the need to do so. I play viola too, and while I like my SR, am considering trying the Playonair - just because it might be a *little* more comfortable.

From Christina C.
Posted on May 7, 2013 at 6:35 PM
love this entry, Mendy! My teacher also encouraged me to try going restless because of tension issues so I did for part of my practice sessions but then put it back on for rep work. Thanks to my schedule over the last few weeks I a) have not been practicing much and b) have only been doing rep work because of the limited time. I need to get back on track!

My concern was also the thumb, the increase in both the weight & the contact on it. Do you find that you had to change your contact point at all for a little more security? I'm wondering how that will work in warmer & humid weather too. You're quite a bit further south than me so maybe you could give me a heads up on that.

From Mendy Smith
Posted on May 8, 2013 at 2:40 AM

Yes, I've adjusted my thumb position quite a bit. It is much more underneath the fingerboard in general than before for support. I haven't seen temp & humidity being an issue any more than it is normally.

From Christina C.
Posted on May 8, 2013 at 2:51 PM
ah yes... I think I was bringing the thumb under more too, but in trying to keep it there that's where I'd start to notice a bit of discomfort... as you pointed out perhaps it was just the increased weight which I could perhaps get used to, but it felt like there was tension from trying to keep the thumb there, so in trying to avoid the tension the violin would often end up in the 'V' of my hand between the thumb & 1st finger.

thanks for replying. I'm betting you're also in the same boat as me right now, champing a the bit in anticipation of getting those summer chamber music workshop assignments in the mail soon!

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