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Tommy Atkinson

Ditching the shoulder rest (kind of)

March 28, 2009 at 2:05 AM

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...

From Mili Leitner
Posted on March 28, 2009 at 12:47 PM

 You could also try Huber pads, a pack of shaped pads which you can stick together to alter the height and angle and then attach with an elastic band. I use one without any of the extra stuff they provide and find it very comfortable, because my body shape makes a shoulder rest impractical since once I'm on the G string there's literally no room for anything more than 1/2 an inch of support. Like you, I found it very beneficial to vibrato, especially arm vibrato, although I do find big downward shifts significantly more difficult now (probably just showing up my technical inadequacy rather than a reflection on the Huber pad).

The only problem I discovered with using a sponge is that if you have smaller hands (like me, and I guess many people who find a smaller support appropriate) and sometimes have to take the left thumb around to rest on the edge of the fingerboard over the body of the violin to play really high notes on the E string, you necessarily end up raising the left shoulder a bit just to avoid dropping the violin. But since that tends to only happen in very specific situations for a second or two at a time, it's worth working around.

From Tommy Atkinson
Posted on March 28, 2009 at 8:19 PM

 Thanks for the suggestion! I'll have to make a note to try a Huber pad. I fortunately have big hands (except for my unusually short pinky), so the high notes are basically a non-issue in regards to having to bring my thumb up.

The beauty, I think, of trying out this sponge is that it's really gotten me thinking about how I interact with the violin - it's also made me want to try every option that's out there: sponges, padding, simple cloths to get friction going, foam rubber, etc...

If anyone has a suggestion, I'm willing to try anything!

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on March 28, 2009 at 8:39 PM

Hi, I also fell in love with this method! Like Mili, I find that with smaller hands, it's really tough to learn to go in high positions but it's possible and it's getting better each day!   I'm lucky to be 5"9 but very very very lucky those who are 6"0 and more (because they have such long fingers, they never have to do much with their left thumb...).  I also have a long neck and wanted to find something that worked with the non-shoulder rest way of playing.  A little home made cushion has been marvelous!  At first, I tried just a cloth but my chin was not even on the violin. It was ridiculous!  Now, with this home made cushions that holds on with an elastic, I can have the violin with the angle I want + it steels touches to my colar bone.  Really, it doesn't help me to support the instrument.  It just gives it the good angle and because of this allows my chin to rest on the chinrest.  I apply exaclty the same method as with no rest and I love it and don't have shoulder pain anymore because the shoulder stays down.   I have found this to be the best method for those who cannot play with nothing at all but who want to have the restless feeling and sound.  (A small cushion doesn't muff the sound like a rest) So, here is another thing to explore if you are good in sewing!  Just be patient because it's takes a while to find the place to put it and the shape you want to have it.   Must design one with the smallest contact point possible and this is the challenge! 

Good experimentation!


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