In my group lessons, each kid is issued a violin, a book, and a sponge for their shoulder rest. I used to use a sponge back when I first started playing, and then again for a couple of months in high school when I was trying a whole slew of different options, but for the most part of my violin-playing career I've used a Wolf Forte-Primo shoulder rest.
I really like the Wolf because it's adjustable and provides a big area that touches your shoulder. In the past couple of years, I've gone through a few phases with the Wolf. I had it set to a high level, I tilted the bar, I lowered the legs of it, and most recently had it as low as it could go on both legs.
About a month ago, one of the schools I teach in bought a shipment of strings, rosins, and sponges for their violins. They had a bunch of sponges left over, so I decided that I wanted to try one out and give it back when I was finished with it - just take it for a test drive.
That was 2 weeks ago. And I don't want to give the thing back.
There is definitely a different approach to playing when you're not using a secured shoulder rest. I guess one way to describe it is that it becomes more of a balancing act, in a good way. I'm finding that my vibrato has seriously loosened up and become even easier to do continuously. I've always prided myself on having a nice vibrato (it just came naturally when I was a kid - I never had to do any exercises!), but it has come into a whole new dimension now. Shifting (especially big shifts) have become much.... not easier, but maybe "less resistant" in a way. Of course, it's not a quick fix for all of my problems. Any deficiencies in my playing that were there before are still there now, but I feel like I'm taking an important step in getting reacquainted with how I interact with my violin. Even if I end up going back to a shoulder rest, I'll definitely be using these principles of balance that I've learned with not using a proper rest.
Anyway, I'm planning on experimenting with a bunch of different options in the coming weeks and months until I find something that I really like. I generally like the sponge that I'm currently using (it's called a "Perfect Shoulder Rest"), but I think I can find some things that I'll like better. I might head to the pharmacy and see if I can get some of those cosmetic pads...
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