A recurring theme I see in the discussion section at Violinist.com is the issue of how to play without a shoulder rest and without the shoulder coming into contact with the back of the instrument.
I started in a Suzuki class at the age of six, and at least at the time, everyone was taught to hold the instrument exclusively between the head and shoulder--- and be able to drop the left arm. When I began studying with Emanuel Vardi at the age of twelve, he was strongly against this and asked me to remove the shoulder rest. Though every five years I try one out (and quickly put it back in the drawer) I haven't used one since. Mr. Vardi didn't believe generally that the shoulder should come into contact with the back of the instrument, though he didn't offer me too many details on how to accomplish that, and at times I struggled. There were times in the more difficult repertoire that I simply played with the shoulder supporting the instrument, and I actually never felt there was much wrong with that. Look at the miracles Eugene Fodor accomplished playing that way! Or so many of today's soloists who use shoulder rests. It certainly works.
However I think there are some benefits to holding the instrument above the shoulder, too, and as I see there is interest on the part of some in doing that, below are a few ideas that I hope may help. In addition to having worked on this with some students, I also asked my wife Tanya--- who loves her shoulder rest--- to try all of this out to get her impressions.
If you keep your scroll higher (level with your nose), it will bring the center of balance of the instrument closer toward you, which is an advantage especially in downward shifts. Also, it might help if you have your chin more in the middle (more on the tailpiece than in the chinrest) especially if you're playing a really large viola. Many people find leaning on the left leg a little helps with general balance.
At the moment of the shift, the head should be in contact with the instrument to prevent it from moving. If the left hand is moving in the right way, very minimal head pressure is needed to keep the instrument in place. If the left hand isn't moving the right way for this experiment, all the head pressure in the world won't keep it in place! (also see below about instrument set up, which can also get in the way.) In some cases, it helps if the thumb can start in the same position as it will end. Your thumb can't always behave in the same way as with a rest, as it plays more of a role. (Rests often allow for a lower thumb position.) Often I let the neck fall onto the bone at the bottom of the thumb for a long slide, however for a really high leap where the high note can only be reached with the *end* of the thumb touching the heel of the instrument, I will start that way in the lower position; i.e. with only the tip of the thumb touching the scroll. To repeat, contact must be kept the entire way, and it will be a slower shift than you're used to.
While the hold is the same for viola players, we also thought it might be easier to start out with a violin. It's lighter, your arm is less extended, and the distances are shorter. When you're above 4th position, your wrist is against the bout, so the palm is holding the instrument in place, but from 4th position downward is venturing out "onto the diving board", so a smaller distance to bridge might be useful in the beginning.
The physical benefits of playing without shoulder contact are the freedom to put the scroll wherever you need (useful if you're crammed into a small opera pit!) as well as less wear and tear on the back. A more debatable point, I feel it keeps the left hand in a better position from the start, as there isn't the freedom to have a bad position and be able to play.
The disadvantages are that for some it's harder in the beginning (and harder to switch later), and it uses more upper arm muscles. I'd say the left hand ends up working a little harder as well. I wouldn't say one hold is entirely better than the other, but they are quite different. For an informed opinion, it's worth giving both a shot to see which suits you better, and that might change from time to time. I have some students who aren't at all interested in trying it out, and I don't push it. For those who have interest in it, I feel that leaving the left shoulder uninvolved in playing fits in with the general goals of economy of motion. (And you can get some really swanky slides!)
For more reading, see Leopold Auer's book on the playing the violin (Violin Playing As I Teach It). He advocates this method. Also, many videos exist at YouTube of Nathan Milstein, who held the violin this way, with cameras from all angles. In the beginning you think it seems impossible, as if the violin will fall, but with the right movements (different from what you may be used to), it can be accomplished!
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