Why I ditched my shoulder rest after 30 years

July 25, 2016, 9:47 AM ·

We had a great run, didn’t we? We finished all ten Suzuki books, learned the Tchaikovsky concerto, went to Curtis, won some prizes and a few auditions… I’ve been with you longer than I’ve been with my wife and children. But I’m leaving you.

Nathan ditches his rest

A taboo subject

The whole topic of shoulder rests had always raised my hackles. This was mainly because, as a "user", I felt the need to explain myself. I wished that I could have had the musical, even the moral, upper hand of the non-users! They never had to explain themselves to us<. They had only to recite the hallowed names in whose rest-less footsteps they were following: Heifetz, Milstein, Oistrakh, and so many more.

Check out this old thread from right here at violinist.com to get a sense of the stakes involved: by the end, everyone may as well be unfurling campaign banners: #NeverRest or #ImWithKun!

Even my friends and colleagues who played without rests annoyed me: not through word or deed, exactly. But I could see the naked undersides of their fiddles smirking at me. So I wish that I had known then what I know now: playing without a rest simply means that you support the instrument exclusively with the left hand; playing with a rest gives you other choices. So how could choice be a bad thing?

Should we have the right to choose?

I’d simply never thought about it. My "choice" to use a rest hadn’t been a conscious one; it was simply the way I had always played. Maybe the sponges I used starting with Twinkle Twinkle didn’t count as shoulder rests proper, but I’d certainly never tried going completely without. And I never felt the need, until I ran into an unexpected difficulty.

A time to nitpick...

Years ago, while preparing a concertmaster audition, I was becoming obsessed with my shifts. They didn’t feel natural, and they didn’t sound smooth, even in simple scales and arpeggios. Intonation could have been better too. In short, my shifts were getting in my head.

So I pulled out "the Bible": Ivan Galamian’s Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching. There I discovered some rules of thumb that somehow I had never properly learned. They were literally rules for the thumb: how it should move during all kinds of shifts. I tried following these rules to see if it would make a difference, but it felt so artificial. My hand always wanted to snap back to its old ways. And then I remembered a piece of advice I had heard somewhere along the line: If you want to feel the natural movements of the thumb, try taking off the shoulder rest for a few minutes.

So I did. What a strange sensation it was! I immediately walked into a carpeted room because it felt like the violin was going to drop straight to the floor. But the advice rang true: after a few minutes I was, without thinking about it, following the rules of thumb laid out by Galamian.

But with my audition fast approaching, there was no way I was going to make such a radical change. I implored my left hand to remember what it had learned as I put the rest back on.

...and a time to reflect

With my audition out of the way, I dredged up the shoulder rest question. What really mattered was sound, right? If I didn’t sound better one way or another, why should it matter? My shoulder rest wasn’t even touching the back of the instrument, so there was no way it could make a difference. I resolved to forget about it and get back to practicing.

But I just couldn’t let it lie. So one day, when nobody was looking, I left the rest in the case and walked on stage for a rehearsal.

At that time I was with the Chicago Symphony. For those who are curious, orchestra rehearsals and concerts are perfect for experimenting with just about any change: hours and hours of playing, day after day, without the chance to second-guess your technique. In fact, check out this 360-degree video of me rehearsing Bartok's The Miraculous Mandarin with Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic: use your mouse or mobile device to "look around" the video and you’ll see me in my usual spot, sans shoulder rest!

At the end of one month, despite some discomfort in my neck and jaw, I had my wife Akiko (also a violinist in the CSO) act as judge and jury for some blind listening in the big hall at Symphony Center. I was willing to accept whatever verdict she handed down.

We ran a randomized A/B test, back and forth, rest on and rest off. She couldn’t consistently pick a sound winner. Relieved to get away from my low-grade chronic pain, I slapped the rest back on and put it out of my mind.

Dead weight

Flash forward to just eighteen months ago. Now playing an older Italian instrument, I had fallen in love with Pirastro Passione strings (gut core with metal winding). To match the lower tension of the Passiones, I had also switched to a looser soundpost placement to increase the resonance of that wonderfully human gut-string sound.

Suddenly, the violin seemed to come alive, and I sought a deeper awareness of my physical connection to the instrument. I worked on a vibrato that was based more in the hand. I paid more attention to finger pressure, and sought out glissandos rather than avoiding them.

There was only one thing stopping me from fully embracing this new feeling, and I almost couldn’t bring myself to admit it. At this point I was supporting the instrument entirely with the left hand, often playing with my chin off the chinrest. So I wondered what exactly my boon companion, the shoulder rest, was adding (other than 80 grams).

Inspiration from a great still among us…

Before doing anything drastic, I reread an interview with Aaron Rosand that I had encountered on violinist.com. On my first reading, I had been skeptical of his advice. Now everything fell into place.

He explained that having the violin more in front of me (as opposed to angled left) would promote a better finger angle for vibrato. He also said it was desirable to play with more upright fingers, something that I had learned while studying with Daniel Mason, a student of Heifetz. I had let myself stray from that position in the intervening years.

When I finished reading the interview, I realized that I could make a number of changes at once, and that they could work together: shoulder rest off, violin straighter in front of me, left hand closer to the neck, fingers more upright, and a finger-oriented vibrato. With trembling hand, I removed the rest and wondered: would this be good-bye forever?

...and inspiration from Nathan Milstein

I’m often asked if I was named after Milstein. I’d love to answer in the affirmative, but besides being untrue, it would create impossibly lofty expectations! The very day I took the rest off, I got a call from a man who lives practically down the street and who happens to own Milstein’s Stradivarius. He wondered if I might play a short recital a week later at his home, for a private gathering. I would play Milstein’s violin, of course.

I drew a sharp breath and wondered: could I play a program in one week without a shoulder rest? A second later, I thought: on Milstein’s violin, how could I not? I chose pieces that I had performed many times: the Bach g minor solo sonata, Debussy's Beau Soir (arranged by Heifetz), and Wieniawski’s D Major Polonaise.

I didn’t mention my shoulder rest plans to anyone but Akiko; I didn’t want to be held accountable in case I bailed at the last moment and slipped the rest back on. But aside from nearly losing my grip for the run of tenths at the end of the Wieniawski (at least the floor was carpeted), my first rest-less performance was a success! I’ve never looked back.

The proof is in the sound

I haven’t gone to the trouble of running another blind test with Akiko. And even that wouldn’t be definitive. Whether you’re testing old vs. modern instruments, Strads vs. Del Gesus, or what have you, the process is always flawed because of the human element: the player. It's simply impossible to play every instrument exactly the same way.

And just as I play better on an instrument that I like, I play more comfortably with a setup that fits me. I’ve arrived at a different vibrato and a greater variety of shifts, compared to my rest-ing days. I can confirm that through recordings I’ve made over the years. I like the changes.

I do believe, though, that having gone through this process of discovery, I could put the shoulder rest back on and still vibrate and shift the way I do now. It’s just that I would feel the extra bulk of the rest. And I would miss the vibration of the wood on my collarbone, through my arms and on to the ends of my fingers.

Will this change last forever?

That’s impossible to say. I thought I’d play with a shoulder rest forever, so I suppose it would be just as likely to someday put it back on. But I doubt it.

If you don’t know the books (or the "cult", as the New York Times put it) of Marie Kondo, the Japanese de-cluttering expert, you can get a taste for her methods by picking an object and performing a simple test. Hug the object closely, press it against your body, and see if it "sparks joy". If so, hang onto it. If not, thank it for its service, and say farewell.

For 30 years, I’ve had you pressed against me. I’m sorry to say that the joy is gone. But in recognition of your three decades of service, let’s keep our options open. There’s a spot for you here on this shelf: to be left until called for.

My favorite shoulder rest

For the last twenty years, I used the Viva La Musica rest, so I absolutely recommend it. Akiko uses it too (that's hers in the volcano picture up top)! When I first started using the VLM as a teenager, it was because my teacher Dan Mason had discovered it and loved how on some violins it seemed to enhance the instrument's resonance. At the time, it was the only wooden shoulder rest we could find, unlike the Kun rests which were plastic. Most importantly though, it's adjustable without being flimsy. With the proper adjustments I was able to get the violin in the same position it's in now (relatively flat, out in front of me). And that's what ultimately allowed me to transition away from it so easily.

You could say that the Viva La Musica was so effective, it taught me to do its job myself!

Tell me about your experience with shoulder rests in the comments!

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July 25, 2016 at 06:36 PM · Any similar experiences with chinrests, which were also an add-on appliance to what was originally made by the great original Cremonese makers?

July 25, 2016 at 07:01 PM · You might like to look at http://www.violinistinbalance.nl/ for interesting research on custom-made "collarbone rests" and chin rests. (I have no economic interest in their work!) I have witnessed very impressive improvements in people's playing and use of themselves with improved equipment.

July 25, 2016 at 07:10 PM · I love how I can "hear" through my collar bone when I play without a rest...

July 25, 2016 at 07:24 PM · Casting the shoulder rest back into Mount Doom?



July 25, 2016 at 07:30 PM · I've tried to go cold turkey with no success. This is a great article though and it gives me a lot to think about going forward...

July 25, 2016 at 07:33 PM · In the years I've played, a shoulder rest was imperative. Due to by body proportions, playing without one caused me to have to squeeze my shoulder closer to my chin, thereby creating stress on my shoulder and neck. I have tried rest-less, but it just wasn't comfortable, and I found the position of the violin to suffer as well. I now play an electric 6 I had made for me, but it is much heavier than an acoustic, and I absolutely need it for support. Without a rest, too much of the weight has to be supported with my left hand, and the fluidity of my hand is decreased. Sadly, the position of the violin tends to be more 'left of center' as well and it has a more angled position as opposed to being flat. I am frustrated here! lol I will be having another violin made, and yes it will be a 6-string also, but will have some things changed in hopes of correcting some of the ills I currently experience. If you have any suggestions, I would so appreciate them, and have included my e-mail addy for correspondence. Thanks for this article. fiddler2009@hotmail.com

July 25, 2016 at 08:23 PM · I have gone back and forth between shoulder rest and without. I love to play without but sadly the pain forces me back to using the rest. My advice to others is play without the shoulder rest until you know how to shift properly. Then if you need the shoulder rest, put it back on again but play the shifts the same way as without shoulder rest, i.e. the hand more attached to the neck with more active thumb.

July 25, 2016 at 08:58 PM · If you can, you can. If not, don't obsess about it. Personally, I've tried, and come to the conclusion that while shifting seemed to be the issue at first, it was in the end a matter of vibrato. Everyone's got a slightly different vibrato. Mine is more arm. And there were just too many positions on the fingerboard at which I simply could not produce a vibrato that satisfied me. Some positions were fine--some were just at the wrong angle or something.

I had the opportunity to study with Daniel Heifetz a couple of times, both undergrad and graduate. But there was something about his rigidity concerning the use of the rest that turned me off in the end. Instead I studied with Steve Staryk, who used a rest. And if you can play like him with a rest...

Does the fiddle sound better sans rest? Maybe, and probably in a marginal way under the ear. But in the end, you have to be comfortable. One issue for the advanced or professional considering doing without: it takes time and a technical change to be comfortable and confident. Will most advanced players obtain the same levels of confidence? Maybe. Or not. But then how much time do you have to devote to changing, and what else do you have to do? Personally, I'd rather spend the time on the music I have to learn and perform.

There are different motivations for playing without a rest. I think a for many people it can be a trendy urge towards purity, kind of like having both a mountain bike and a road bike but selling them for a steel single-speed. Or the new fad of the "tiny house."

July 25, 2016 at 10:00 PM · I swear by no SR. But the issue isn't really SR or no SR. It is rather do you hold the violin with your left hand or do you clench the violin with or without SR? Raising the shoulder and SR are pretty much the same thing in my mind.

Dropping the SR won't turn you in to a virtuoso but if you have the proper guidance from a teacher who does not clench (or like Nathan Cole) you remember a teacher who gave such instruction you will have break throughs in your playing and technique. I think it is much easier for amateurs to do this since we don't have commitments. Nathan Cole is obviously a virtuoso with a fabulous technical foundation so he was able to make the transition relatively quickly. It took me much longer (at my much lower level) but I did improve a lot.

July 25, 2016 at 10:32 PM · Several months ago, I joined an early music group. To "fit in",

I soon bought a Baroque bow (a good but inexpensive one from China

- I don't know the maker). This bow solved my "set-up" problem!

I realized that when using my modern bow I was always pressing

down when in the upper half of the bow, to control the sound.

In contrast, the Baroque bow doesn't seems to require any

pressure; it's almost as if it draws the sound out of the

instrument by itself.

Because I was no longer pressing down with my right hand,

the violin suddenly felt much lighter and more comfortable,

and I found I no longer needed a shoulder rest. Prior to that

I had tried many combinations of shoulder rests, cloths, etc.

but had never found anything really comfortable.

Has anyone else had a similar experience with a Baroque bow?

July 25, 2016 at 10:36 PM · Nice report Nathan. Thank you!

When I went rest-less, I found that it was important to hold my violin more towards the center. The ubiquitous Guarneri chinrest was not ideal. I currently use a Teka, which is side mounted but extends over the tailpiece. I tried a Zitsman and a Flesch, but found them too far right and too high. I would urge people to just try gripping the violin further towards the right, and see if that helps with rest-lessness.

Now I find shoulder rests to be insufferably restrictive. I sold my Bon Musica on eBay, and gave away my Kun. It's difficult to imagine ever needing them again.

July 26, 2016 at 01:14 AM · I'm not likely to ditch mine any time soon! But if one wants to go shoulder restless, yours is a good example because you did so while also adjusting your technique. I would warn readers: don't do something that causes you injury! If you decide you want to try playing without a rest, make the adjustment with a lot of thought about how your technique will support this change. It's not likely to be something you can do overnight.

July 26, 2016 at 04:01 AM · Thanks for taking the time to read such a long post! And hey, we're having a civilized SR conversation! :)

For those asking about chinrest, I can't see doing without that. For one thing, I need to protect the varnish of the instrument that I play. But also, friction from the chin is necessary at times when playing without a rest. I made the switch to an even lower chinrest at the same time that I went restless. That was basically because the Milstein Strad has such a chinrest on it currently and it seemed very comfortable to me.

As for the basic issue of why or why not, I'll just sum up my thinking. Heed Laurie's warning well! This was not a quick transition for me by any means, even if the last step of the journey (taking off the rest and playing a program a week later) seemed abrupt. Remember that I had tried this several times before, over a period of ten years.

I expected to use my restless time as a learning experience only, and then to put it back on. And I learned plenty. It just happened that in the end, I found I didn't need it. But that's only because I had done the groundwork of preparing my left hand to do things that it wasn't doing before.

And to Scott, sometimes I did wonder why I was taking time for this when I could have just been practicing! One point I didn't make in the article was that each of these periods of experimentation (I think there were 3 overall) happened directly after a big audition preparation. So I was frankly sick of practicing and I needed something different to try. And as I said in the article, I used my time in orchestra well since in a normal practice situation I knew that I would be tempted to micro-manage everything.

Keep the questions coming, and if a video on this would ever be helpful, I'm happy to come up with something.

July 26, 2016 at 04:15 AM · Great article ... What about SR/no SR with viola? I find the bigger instrument much harder to support with left hand ... would love to see suggestions

July 26, 2016 at 02:15 PM · I think for beginners a shoulder rest can be beneficial. The fiddle is hard enough to play without having to worry about the thing slipping off your shoulder. Once some proficiency is acquired then one should try not using one. My violin hero is Nathan Milstein, I was inspired by him to play without a shoulder rest, but what helped the most was this video of Yehudi Menuhin. I'm sure it's on Youtube. It is a video of him teaching young students how to correctly hold the fiddle. His instruction is clear, simply, and for me , very effective. Since watching that video I haven't looked back. All I will say is to give it an honest try. try it for a week or so and if it's not for you then so be it, no problem. As long as you can play without tension, being relaxed is the goal. peace

July 26, 2016 at 04:40 PM · What sort of vibrato did you have before and what do you have now ? Has going without a SR affected your vibrato in anyway ?

July 26, 2016 at 05:37 PM · I don't mean to suggest that everyone who wants to take off the SR has the same motivation (it may well lead to greater freedom and better sound for some), but look up an interesting related NY Times article this week:

"The Oppressive Gospel of Minimalism."

I would just suggest that people who are playing perfectly well with a shoulder rest really ask themselves why they're chosen this struggle: is there an admired player on the orchestra or a soloist that doesn't play with one (usually from an early age)? Is there really something about the rest that is really preventing them from doing something? Or is it more like tatoos and hipster beards?

I see this with the whole string fetish: people spending buckets of $$, chasing their tails for the perfect strings, only to end up back where they started and with a drawer full of strings. And all while ignoring that which we really need: focused, efficient practice, use of a metronome, thinking about bow distribution.

July 26, 2016 at 07:15 PM · For me, eliminating the SR allowed me to control one variable that I felt was really missing: the ability to easily change the angle of the instrument relative to the ground without having to move my entire body.

For example, it is much easier to achieve a consistent sautille with the bow at a position relatively the same with respect to gravity on each string, changing the tilt of the violin (which is a small rotational distance) as opposed to raising and lowering the entire bow arm.

July 26, 2016 at 09:20 PM · Absolutely Scott, I wouldn't advise going down this road for no reason at all! For me it was shifting that I thought needed improvement (especially expressive shifting). Discovering a different kind of vibrato has been an unexpected benefit.

But your point about needing focused practice above all is always a good one!

July 26, 2016 at 10:34 PM · Another thing I'll just put out there: It's one thing to decide to do this for yourself, and yet another to make a blanket decision for all of your students. If you are a teacher who truly knows how to teach "restless" technique (I'm talking about Dylana Jenson!) then perhaps this can be okay, but if you are unable to teach someone to play restless without physical pain, then I think you have to let them use a rest. I think it's important for a teacher to be flexible in at least some ways about set-up. I've heard too many stories of students forced by a teacher to give up their shoulder rest, who had lasting physical damage. By the same token, it's possible for a rest to be too high, too wrong, etc. It's a very individual problem that needs a very individual solution!

July 27, 2016 at 02:13 AM · I was a preadolescent beginner and played restless till 18½ y/o -- about 2 years after reaching my full height of 5'-10". Then I tried some rests and liked the new feel right away -- better than the feel of a bareback fiddle. My current model is Kun Bravo, which I am very comfortable with. I orient it SW-NE, as viewed from the back of the instrument, and set it at lowest point on shoulder side and about ½-inch higher on chest side.

Unlike many who have gone from resting to restless, I found going from restless to resting a quick, easy adjustment.

A previous poster feels a shoulder rest can be beneficial for beginners. I recommend starting without one, especially for a kid who is still growing, then letting the student try some rests for comparison. My theory is that many who end up ditching the SR might well have been better off without one in the first place. I can play either way but prefer playing with one.

I definitely can’t wear a jacket and tie with the SR in place -- too much bulk, neck too short. When I was 20 y/o, I decided to ditch the jacket and tie, not the SR. Gained more freedom of movement this way -- can’t fathom going back now.

July 27, 2016 at 05:20 AM · I've been fiddling with my SR lately -- screws came loose on a VLM Diamond and the angle got all screwed up and I seem to not have been able to get it comfortable again. (Partially an artifact of having switched chinrests when I bought a new violin, so the SR/CR combo isn't what it was and has never totally been right.) Ended up playing part of a practice session tonight without the SR, remembered just how uncomfortable I find the violin on my collarbone, but realized that I sound much better without it because the violin is held precisely where it should be, left thumb held further up, instrument held flat and pressed up to the bow and tilted when it needs to be. I suppose it's time to go find a better SR/CR combo. Sigh.

July 27, 2016 at 05:53 AM · There's a commercial product called a "Chin Cozy" (you can look it up), and it's just one of several available that appear to be essentially identical. I've made up my own version that's similar in design but longer so that it wraps all the way over the violin ribs and several inches onto the back. This provides a gripping surface that works similarly to the small round "cosmetic removal pads" that restless players sometimes use. My design differs from the commercial products also because I use a thin closed cell urethane foam pad on the inside between the "ultra-suede" outer layers, in contrast to the thin open cell foam used in the commercial offerings which crushes down to nothing when you put pressure on it. So I not only get traction, but also comfort, and protection for the instrument. All parts can be thrown in the wash. I'd put up a photo, but I don't know how or if I can here on violinist.com. I realize this won't help you if you don't have a little making talent and a sewing machine, but I just thought I'd put it out there for you to consider.

One more point is that Hill brackets on a chinrest are a poor choice for playing restless, because they are much more prone to irritate the skin over your collar bone.

July 27, 2016 at 10:04 AM · Nate, thanks for the interesting piece, you did not mention the rubber mat you put over your left shoulder, could you tell us something about that?

July 27, 2016 at 06:55 PM · As I see it, most people look at the violin as incomplete without the shoulder rest. A modern development. I haven't encountered "restless" snobs, possibly because I'm not a professional, but I play with plenty who are, and the rule is that you get looked at oddly, and sometimes with a sneer if you don't use one...kind of like "and who do you think YOU are...?".

Personally, I tried and tried to use one years ago and couldn't take to it. It always seemed limiting and impersonal. A few weeks back practicing scales on the G my teacher hesitantly suggested I might be at the point where further development necessitates a rest. So I practiced the scales more, leaned into the fiddle and improved my hand position for smoother shifts, and she was impressed. No need for a rest. Not to say it didn't sound like an aged, diabetic cat at the top, but the cat sang smoothly all the same.

July 27, 2016 at 08:26 PM · Great article, it inspired me to try practicing restless again after several months since the last attempt, and it went wonderfully last night. I was able to do Simon Fischer's warmup routine and then some etude and concerto work no problem, all with no shoulder rest!

I think the key to using a shoulder rest is to use one as minimally as possible to compensate for the length of your neck and the distance between your collarbone and chin (although these issues would be better solved by a custom chin rest, I think). In my case, I had my Kun adjusted to be as short as possible after my first experimentation with shoulder-rest-less play, and after doing this for about six months my technique has adjusted to be almost like I wasn't using a rest at all. So, last night, I was able to hold the violin just fine on my collarbone with nothing but a small folded dish towel to shield the violin from my neck.

I still need to practice more to get my shifting to work flawlessly, but even after a few hours I was making great progress towards that goal. Also, aside from the greater relaxation that my trending to no rest has brought, I found it much easier to focus on my bowing with no rest. The whole activity of playing is just much more natural without the rest; and, to me at least, this makes sense--the instrument was designed and technique developed without shoulder rests, so everything should probably work fine without one.

What seemed to be a technological advancement may have been a technical hindrance, as the violin wasn't redesigned to accommodate a rest when it was first invented. Maybe if the whole setup of the chin and shoulder were rethought from the ground up it may work, but that seems to be a lot fussier than learning the balance and relaxation it takes to play without a rest. However, it may be that the relaxation you must force upon yourself to play with no rest actually makes it easier to play. That's the way it seems to me, at least.

July 27, 2016 at 08:27 PM · Congrats on becoming rest free Nathan! :D I ditched mine also after reading Mr. Rosand's interviews and haven't looked back, everything feel lot more natural and sound actually became bigger too!

July 28, 2016 at 04:19 PM · (Ms. Leong-you can always try readjusting the feet differently; I for sure have changed mine throughout the years (higher, lower, different angles) the only constant being the chinrest model and the Diamond. In my case, chinrest choice has been the most critical aspect of the playing setup, and the VLM Diamond just happen to fits a more "natural"-for me, of course- and "looser" violin position much better. *Perhaps* it may be a chinrest issue after all. Best of luck.)

July 28, 2016 at 04:29 PM · Nathan, this is a very interesting post. I tried going restless for a period but it didn't work. I didn't really try that hard, and I didn't get any specific lessons from someone who claims to be good at helpings folks with the transition (such as Raphael Klayman). My issue is that I was required to play restless as a child, with a huge Flesch center chin rest, and I was taught all sorts of stuff like "you should be able to hold up your violin indefinitely with just your chin" and it was always painful, and as a result I have a significant bone spur on my collarbone which is right where the hardware from my chinrest wants to go. I tried a chamois, then two layers of chamois, then three, but it just didn't work.

On the other hand, I can't help but notice that you're making progress toward playing more like Anne-Sophie Mutter now that you have gone restless. So the big question is: How do you look in a sleeveless mermaid gown?

July 28, 2016 at 06:17 PM · To Paul: I'm sure nobody on this forum wants to know the answer to your question!

As far as what I use to avoid "slippage", it's a piece of leather from a great company called Brettuns Village. They sell leather, all the way from complete animal hides to little pieces of scrap leather. So mine is from their "scrap leather" page, and I just requested a smallish piece that I then cut down to size. The leather side faces the instrument, and the side that faces my clothing is a rougher, suede-like texture. I've sent enough folks their way now that I believe they'll know what you want if you request it.

July 29, 2016 at 12:38 AM · Nathan - thanks so much for providing such an interesting article on your evolution in the SR area. For those of you out there reading this article, remember this: Nathan is a professional musician of the highest quality. He is uniquely qualified to do the experimentation and make the technique changes necessary. Thinking after reading this article that if you ditch your SR you are likely to sound like a true professional like Nathan is probably not a realistic idea. You will not magically or automatically sound much better. When you ditch the SR, your technique changes in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, and without careful guidance of a teacher, you may create significant problems for yourself. So, those of you who are not professionals should try to do this in a structured way with some guidance. Good luck!

July 29, 2016 at 02:42 AM · Paul, Being able to hold up the violin with no left hand is a long standing fallacy. Long before shoulder and chin rests there were teachers who encouraged lifting the shoulder and clenching the violin. It may be 5% better to use a SR than clench the violin even part time.I have seen pictures of old time violinists cradling the scroll in their left hand while the tuned or bending over to hold the scroll against their leg.

Tom, I quite agree. There is no point in trading one bad habit for another set of ill conceived habits. A no-SR mentor should not lift his/her shoulder at all and should rely on classical guidance on thumb placement, left hand posture etc. The classic no-SR fallacy is to support the neck on the thumb. Run from such advice.

July 29, 2016 at 05:58 AM · My point of view is that if the player can do without one, that's great! But all the repertoire must be as easy or even easier to play without one. I do dislike the preaching of the non-SR dogma as a zealot, especially because most of the arguments in favor are bad, or not good enough (because it worked for "blank" violinist, collarbone contact-which is still quite doable with many SRs, etc.) Mr. Cole did well in his article, though.

July 29, 2016 at 05:38 PM · Nate, I come from the opposite perspective. After starting and playing for decades w/o a rest, and then giving it all up for an equal amount of time, and then experimenting using a rest, a simple basic Kun, the rest has made all the difference. I have a sneaky suspicion starting w/ a rest I might have made the CSO and you starting w/o a rest, maybe you wouldn't have? Possibility.

As I enter late middle age I realize more and more that lots of things that would have seemed impossible now seem like they would have not been so difficult with a few minor changes; such things as playing in a great orchestra, or winning a seat in Congress, after watching the performances of some congressmen at the recent conventions :)

July 29, 2016 at 09:02 PM · I think it all goes to show that when you "search", hopefully you don't lose sight of what you're searching for. A better sound, a more comfortable setup, or in my case, smoother shifts. The search could lead you in any direction if you're open to it!

July 30, 2016 at 02:17 AM · " So I wish that I had known then what I know now: playing without a rest simply means that you support the instrument exclusively with the left hand; playing with a rest gives you other choices. So how could choice be a bad thing? It is NOT accurate to say that the Violin is supported "exclusively" with the left hand.... I learned how to play WITHOUT a shoulder rest and found that it was a COMBINATION of left arm and SHOULDER &


July 30, 2016 at 03:11 AM · Peace, BACH and Music to all.....

I have been living with both, Violin and Viola for forty-five amazing years. I call my musical life "Magic Carpet", as I have travelled the world, encountered the loves of my Life because of this. I also call the fiddle "My Cross" and the Viola "My girlfriend". But after all these wonder filled years, I now live in excruciating pain in both shoulders, my right elbow; and my upper left chest and back are in a constant state of agonizing pain. This has been years in manifesting, I know, and I have tried almost everything short of quitting. But doing away with the shoulder rest is not anything that I would have EVER considered, until recently, and now your article. Last week I came upon an article about Paganini's "Secret Method", and it certainly rang a bell. Not only did they not use shoulder rests, but chin rests also. It spoke of a technique that lent itself to the pre-lengthening of the neck, revolutionary leap brought about by Paganini himself, due to the extraordinary and almost superhuman technical demands of his compositions. The violin WAS smaller (shorter), so the left hand stretched and reached forward and backward from a focal centered, thumb anchored point, in an arched manner and with extensions both up and down. I found this fascinating. And after reading your own accounts of how you've put it all to the test. I wonder if there might be some hope for me, to correct and maybe minimize the Pain with which I now live with constantly. There was a time when touching Music would be the only time when I could literally and physically not feel the Pain. But now, after all the wear and tear of these past 45 years, it's become a major and preponderant issue, which I cannot ignore any longer. I know these particular pains are endemic to violin and Viola players, and many articles and treatises have been written on the subject, but could this be the "smoking gun" behind all these chronic ailments? I LOVE what I do, and fear having to quit, as the Pain is now quite unbearable.

I've had to have Cortisone shots in my right elbow, and fear I may soon have to do the same on both my shoulders and chest..... And of course, quitting is hardly an option, but I may have to STOP for a while. Thoughts?

July 30, 2016 at 03:16 AM · Going "restless?" This may help: https://youtu.be/gtnQkS2xx6s

July 30, 2016 at 03:32 PM · For me, no SR age 4 to 30. New chinrest type and SR (with some experimentation) age 30 to 70. SR on and off age 70 to 80 with more experimentation. No SR for violin or viola age 80 to 81 and still counting. As we age our bodies become less flexible and probably have suffered from some injuries and the freedom of playing without a SR and without a chinrest that locks our jaw in one place allows motion of the instrument to compensate for reduced joint flexibility. But we are all different and I see no point in criticizing others' choices if they work for them.

I have also had to change from an arm to a hand vibrato (following a neck injury at age 55) but I find my arms are too long to hold the violin toward the front (which does help hand vibrato) and bow "straight" with any control. We do what we can.

July 30, 2016 at 03:58 PM · "when you "search", hopefully you don't lose sight of what you're searching for"

Right. Your point is the choice should be intelligent. It shouldn't be because somebody else does or doesn't use one. Or because somebody calls it a crutch. Or because there's a trend one way or the other. It's not intrinsically good or bad; the proof of that is there are plenty of good examples of both.

July 30, 2016 at 09:34 PM · Thanks! I'm appreciative of the constructive conversation around this. Don't forget, too, that as I mention in my article, playing with a SR allows you to choose how much left hand support you're going to use: all the way from none to total. The issue of left hand support is the more important one for me.

July 31, 2016 at 05:33 AM · When I first began private vln lessons with a member of the Bflo Phil...about 60 yrs ago, the market for shoulder rests was sparse..the rubberband-sponge or Poland pad were OK....Asking what pro fiddlers used, my teacher mentioned that the crop of players (back then) were all about 5'6" tall. It was common practice to have their gig coats tailored with a built-in shoulder pad...and they actually walked on stage at a tilt to keep the shoulders seem symmetrical. This eliminated the prospect of the SR falling off etc...but also necessitated practice time adjustments....The female players of the time toughed it out with whatever they could tolerate. GREAT ARTICLE...

July 31, 2016 at 05:48 PM · That's why I prefer to play cello sometimes. No need to mess around with chinrests and shoulder rests.

August 1, 2016 at 12:45 AM · When William Primrose asked Milstein why his students whom he required to pay without a shoulder rest were having such tension, Milstein replied, "Tell them to hold it with the left hand". Menuhin gives an excellent account (using a plastic transparent violin) of how to play without a shoulder pad. It's on you-tube. Then problem most people have in using this advice is that they still retain the underlying assumption that the violin must be held in place by force between the neck and shoulder. When practicing without a shoulder pad, it is essential to keep the shoulder relaxed, i.e. down. If you still can't do it, take lessons in Alexander Technique to get control of your body.

August 1, 2016 at 12:57 PM · Worth noting: Quite a few of today’s world-class soloists use the SR -- Hahn and Bell are just two who come to mind. And some of yesterday’s soloists, especially the ones who grew up in pre-SR times -- e.g., Stern -- used padding inside the upper-left jacket area. Keep that in mind before trying to copy some restless player.

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