Printer-friendly version weekend vote: Would you consider going without your shoulder rest?

The Weekend Vote

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Published: November 24, 2012 at 6:52 PM [UTC]

Speaking with the Baroque violinist, teacher and specialist Stanley Ritchie about his book, Before the Chinrest made me think of an obvious question: Would I ever consider going without a shoulder rest?

I think the shoulder rest would be the first thing to go, before the chinrest, if one were to start shedding these aids for holding the instrument. Ritchie no longer uses either one, and this all started when he became interested in the Early Music movement.

The answer for me is, perhaps I would do so if I were embrace Early Music and period performance, which does sound like great fun. (I mean, look below at Tafelmusik -- those people are having fun!) The other answer for me is, I'm pretty much what I am, and I play with a shoulder rest, without a lot of pain. It works, and it's unlikely that I will change things! I think that this might have been more of a possibility, if I'd tried it as a young student!

I'm curious about your thoughts! If you already go without a shoulder rest, just vote "yes," and also share with us your thoughts and experiences. If you are seriously considering it, vote "yes" as well. If there's no way you see yourself going without a shoulder rest, vote "no," and also share your thoughts!

Shoulder rest-less people having fun (the Canadian-based Early Music ensemble, Tafelmusik):

From Manuel Tabora
Posted on November 24, 2012 at 7:01 PM
I've recently made the switch myself, starting around the beginning of 2012. There's been a learning curve, to be sure. It's not as simple as taking the rest off of your violin and playing the same way. Shifting changes a bit, and so does vibrato. But I love the feeling of freedom, of having my viola "floating" on top of me instead of me always struggling to hold it up.
From marjory lange
Posted on November 24, 2012 at 7:07 PM
I gave it a serious try, and it was not a success. Perhaps if I were still in my 20s, or even 30s, it might have been possible, but after 50 years playing with one, my body--for better or worse, I'm not saying it's necessarily a good thing--has settled into that mode.

However, a coach last year had me turn my kun around! and that has made a tremendous difference.

From Sue Bechler
Posted on November 24, 2012 at 7:19 PM
At 62, but after more than 50 years playing, a major re-do of playing position and technique feels mind-boggling to me, not to mention tying myself into different knots than I already do. I have an oddly-crook'd left pinky, so I already make some accomodations to deal. I am not convinced that long-necked folks can't/shouldn't play rest-less, though that is regularly mentioned in posts about choices of rests.
From Donald Hurd
Posted on November 24, 2012 at 8:11 PM
Greetings, all! I stopped using my Wolf shoulder pad in 1976, just when I graduated from undergrad college. I was encouraged to do so by a friend who had studied with Delay at Aspen. I've never had any physical problems related to playing, either violin or viola. I recently changed my chinrest to a Flesch model, over the tailpiece to try a more top-of-the-shoulder approach that I'd noticed someone do in a recital. (Like the Tafelmusik video!) That required a whole new list of things to look out for while practicing, including holding the violin up higher with the left hand, a more complex coordination of the bow fingers and elbow movements, and increased awareness of the angle of the bow on the string as related to a new balanced feeling. I've learned a lot from always practicing in front of a mirror. I really enjoy reading everyones' accounts of trying new ideas! Galamian's and Leopold Mozart's books are always enlightening and instructive. So is! Thanks, Laurie!
From Vitalis Im
Posted on November 24, 2012 at 8:44 PM
I went without a shoulder rest for about four months. I made the switch back to a shoulder just last week. Playing with a shoulder rest never felt right.

This was my third or fourth attempt at going restless and this time it actually worked (I just needed to find the right chinrest). I could immediately tell that my violin opened up more--the sound was definitely a little more sonorous.

I made the switch back to a shoulder rest because, in the end, I felt much more comfortable with it than without it. I don't regret having gone restless, though--it's gone a TREMENDOUS way in helping me fix my posture, vibrato, and bowing.

Now when I play with a rest, it feels right--probably because I learned how to hold the violin the "correct" way without a rest and that skill set transferred over to my playing with a rest. Shifting, vibrato, and bowing have gotten easier, too.

Just my personal experience on this issue.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on November 24, 2012 at 9:23 PM
I'm happy with my shoulder rest. If I were to try to get rid of the rest, I think that would just be opening a can of worms and complicating my life to no good purpose. I have plenty of things to work on and and improve about my playing before I would need to think about messing around with something that is basically working just fine already.
From Luis Alberto Simó
Posted on November 24, 2012 at 10:10 PM
Hi all!
I think the use of the shoulder rest is definitely an advantage to play.
I,like so many other violinists, doubted about its use, and I've tried playing without it. I think the biggest advantage it has no use it, is that the violin sounds definitely more open and resonant,but I find it much more comfortable to play with. I think there are several things to consider:
The shoulder rest support should not prevent the violin rests on the collarbone, if need more height, you should raise the chinrest, but only to the extent that we need not put our head forward while we play. The problem sometimes is that the shoulder rest is used much higher than is desirable, and this creates a left shoulder block, especially in high positions.
Baroque musicians can play without shoulder rest, but a different thing is try to play a Paganini caprice without it, where the technical demands are different, speed, double stops, another kind of vibrato, much higher positions ..
Only in the case of a person with a extremely high neck, a very high shoulder rest is advisable.
If you look at the morphology of almost all the great violinists of the last century, where there was no shoulder rest, none of them seemed, according to neck height, need it. Even David Oistrakh, in his later years, he used a little support on the left side of the violin.
Another thing that helps me, is to study a time in the day without shoulder rest, say scales, double stops or changes of position.This makes our left thumb not lose mobility, one of the problems caused by the use of the shoulder rest.
One last thing, I think it's best to decide if you're going to use, or not, and keep that idea, because if we are always changing, it is difficult to incorporate a full sense of security and comfort.
Thanks Laurie, for so many interesting issues, where we can share experiences, I have learned a lot here.

From Marsha Weaver
Posted on November 24, 2012 at 10:29 PM
I gave up my shoulder rest within a couple of months after I began playing. I have a rather short neck, and the shoulder rest (Kun was the only one I ever tried) just put too much strain and tension into my neck and shoulder. I've found a chinrest that has a prominent "bump" that sort of hooks under my jaw, so that really helps to give my violin more stability. I'm very comfortable playing sans shoulder rest. :)
From Trevor Jennings
Posted on November 24, 2012 at 10:25 PM
I voted "yes" because I haven't used a SR for almost all of my violin-playing career. When I did use it I found it more of a restrictive nuisance than a help. [Edit added here to end of paragraph] Like Marsha, my neck is not long. Also like Marsha I use a chinrest with a bump (a longish ridge, actually) that hooks under the jaw so that downward pressure from the jaw and chin is minimized.

A few years ago a tutor at a workshop showed me how to play without a chinrest when one of the tie-rods on mine stripped its thread, and there was no violin shop within reach (this was in the middle of Ireland). So I sometimes play without a CR when I feel like it. One particular thing I've noticed when not using a CR is that the highest notes at the end of the fingerboard are that much easier to reach, on all four strings. I don't have particularly long fingers.
From Corwin Slack
Posted on November 24, 2012 at 11:01 PM
I gave up he shoulder rest 12 or so years ago in my late forties. My technique had plateaued and been stagnant for many years. Necessity opened many doors and I feel my technique is now constantly growing. But my caution to those who would give it up is to not lift the shoulder. Lifting the shoulder is not the alternative to no shoulder rest.
From Sue Buttram
Posted on November 25, 2012 at 12:28 AM
I played without a shoulder rest on my viola in college at the insistance of my teacher. I put it back on as soon as I stopped studying with him. Never felt comfortable to me. I would have to use a handkerchief which wasn't very attractive. Anyway, I don't have to do that anymore - yay!
From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on November 25, 2012 at 12:32 AM
I've gone without it for the great freedom feeling but since I have a long neck... I had to make myself a sort of special pad. My critera was that the pad had to sound better than the rest otherwise it was pointless.

Many masters of the restless era had pads, foam and folded towels under their coats... They weren't all without "anything" as we beleive. What I can see though, is that they were almost all short necked people contrarely to today with the rest allowing more diversity.

From Vanessa Johan
Posted on November 25, 2012 at 12:51 AM
i voted yes because i'm not using shoulder rest, but oh boy those baroque violinists! Great playing! I have ever played without chinrest but my violin feels very light that i became afraid of dropping it so I don't think i will put off chinrest.....i'm not even a baroque violinist...

i can not imagine shifting to higher positions and back without chinrest.....

From Michael Divino
Posted on November 25, 2012 at 12:59 AM
I've tried to give it up, I really have. No success. Either that or lack of patience.
From Nairobi Young
Posted on November 25, 2012 at 5:22 AM
Well I played my violin for almost two yr recently without having a shoulder rest and it was fine. With the first viola I got, I went the first couple months without. I found it easy to do on both, but on the violin, it helped my posture and my vibrato. With my new viola I cannot go without a shoulder rest because I'm so accustomed to it now, but if necessary I can and will. I don't see the need to get rid of mine at the moment so I guess I'm more inbetween.
From Simon Streuff
Posted on November 25, 2012 at 11:36 AM
I did play one year without a shoulder rest. While it is a very pleasant feeling soundwise, its technically an big change and for a long person, I am 1,86 (wich isn't that long, but have you seen a violinist over 180 cm playing without a shoulder rest?), it is dangerous. I had frequently bad headache that year and finally my new teacher told me to use a shoulder rest again.
Both isn't without danger, but for me a shoulder rest is much better to handle.
From Tom Holzman
Posted on November 25, 2012 at 1:26 PM
What Karen said. I have enough other issues that are not related to whether or not I use a rest. I have no need to add an issue to the mess, especially one that will not clear up the others, but might complicate them.
From Rocky Milankov
Posted on November 25, 2012 at 2:44 PM
What matters is the ergonomics, your ability to freely move your left hand up and down the fingerboard and produce a good tone with your right hand... and not drop your instrument.
I would rather use a common sense, than follow a religion when it comes to violin playing.
This discussion is pointless, because no two persons are alike. Some of us a short, some tall, some with broad shoulders and big hands, massive body, some with short neck, some with long neck. What works for one can not be blindly copied to another musician.
Enrico Onorfi is a great example of inventiveness with his white aviator's scarf under the tail-piece and tied around his neck.
Isaac Stern used a sponge pad underneath his shirt (see the documentary "From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China").
Both Midori Goto and Janine Jansen (along many other great living musicians) use chin rest and shoulder rest, but that does not stop them from moving their chin and the violin.
Using a shoulder rest does not automatically mean a "locked-in" or fixed posture, nor does the absence of it mean an instant relaxation and a flexible hold of a violin.
From Kevin Keating
Posted on November 25, 2012 at 9:11 PM
I stopped using mine for almost a year. It took some getting used to, but eventually it felt okay. At first I used the piece of quilt that covers my instrument in its case as a pad over my shoulder and was eventually able to take that way. Shifting was more difficult, more so down than up. I went back to using it however when I noticed the finish on the instrument's back where it rests on my shoulder starting to have a marred look. Honestly, I think that if chin and shoulder rests were available to Baroque violinists back then they would have used them. They used the best and most modern instruments of their day. Strads, del Gesus, Stainers, Amatis, etc., were all new modern instruments then and players embraced new technology the same way players today do. Chin & shoulder rests allow the instrument to vibrate more freely, I believe, since the back and belly are kept out of contact with the players body. They also fit the instrument to each individual player more precisely which makes it more comfortable and less painful. I use a shoulder rest regularly now, but I'm able to go without if I want.
From Paul Deck
Posted on November 26, 2012 at 12:27 AM
My story is the opposite. I started violin at age 5, without a shoulder rest, but with a huge Flesch-type center chin rest. I played until age 17 with no shoulder rest. I used to show up at pit orchestra rehearsals and the adults would always tell me it would be so much easier to play with a shoulder rest, that I should ask my teacher about it. They were probably right. I always struggled to hold up my violin, and I think it seriously impeded my development. I have pictures of me playing as a kid, with my violin straight out in front of me. Curiously I shared a stand in a community orchestra with a female student of the very same teacher. This other student used a shoulder rest (!!) and her playing position looked ideal to me. That REALLY should have prompted me to pester my teacher about trying a shoulder rest, but I knew what he would say -- that "real" violinists don't use them. (Why his other student, who played better than I, was allowed to use one -- will forever be a mystery I guess.)

I gave up violin when I went to college. In my late 20s, I discovered a good-sized lump on my collarbone which gave me a good scare until I went to the doctor and she laughed at my hypochondria (really she did) and said it was only a bony protruberance. It took me a couple of days to think of getting out my violin. Sure enough, that bone lump was right where the metal part of the chin rest straddled my collarbone for 12 years. I had never noticed it before, but putting my violin back on that spot and trying to play for only five minutes hurt like hell.

When my daughter started taking lessons in 2009, I marveled at the quality of instruction she was getting (Suzuki was a "rising tide", whether you like his particular method or not). But she was learning with a shoulder rest so I promptly bought myself a Kun and started taking lessons from the same teacher, and I have never looked back. I tried going restless briefly again a few months ago but it was just the most awkward thing imaginable. The bottom line is I really don't have any desire to relive the misery of struggling to hold up my damned violin. Now at least I feel like I can hold it up long enough to learn how to play it.

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on November 26, 2012 at 2:08 AM
Why bother? Neither side, no matter what they say, has the moral or technical high ground. If you're in to Civil War re-enactments, historically-informed performances, or just prefer to play without one, live it up going without. Otherwise, do what is most comfortable and compatible with your physique and technique.
From Tyler Makinen
Posted on November 26, 2012 at 2:48 AM
I stopped using a shoulder rest for a few reasons.I began to alternate playing with and without just to experiment, and as my left had technique evolved, I found that much of what I did (shifting etc.) actually worked better without the shoulder rest, and benefited from the extra mobility of my entire left side. Eventually, I became more comfortable without the rest than with it, so I just decided to stop using it altogether. In addition, I feel that my sound has benefited quite noticeably. I would not say that playing with or without a rest is a matter of right and wrong, but one of personal preference. If an individual feels that the benefits of playing with a pad outweigh the potential disadvantages, than by all means that is the route which they should take.
From Bernice Stochek Friedson
Posted on November 26, 2012 at 3:31 AM
My father was my first teacher, from age 4 1/2 to age 9, used a very tiny soft cushion. I then switched to a teacher who insisted all his students, from children to adults, use the same Kolitch shoulder-rest. Since I am small, with a short neck, I was never comfortable, but played and gave concerts regardless. When I left this teacher at age 13, the first thing I did was throw away the Kolitch! Soon after I switched to a small Poehland pad, which I have used up to about a couple of years ago. About then I realized that often I didn't bother putting on the shoulder rest when I was teaching, but only when I doing "serious" playing of my own. Now I find myself more and more eliminating it. I don't think I could play without a chinrest, but I have always used a very small one. So, I'm "almost" CR -and -SR free!!
From marjory lange
Posted on November 26, 2012 at 3:19 PM
Lisa's comment made me think a bit, especially in combo with the still of the video...people get so het up about be historically accurate, but I don't see the musicians in that video wearing the clothes of the Baroque--women in stays, men in tight coats--and the earlier poster who suggested that, if Baroque players had cr/sr available, they'd have used them, makes sense, too. It has to be personal preference, just like one's preference for old/new violins, or Fr/It sound.

I like it that many on this thread simply say what they do, without sounding either defensive or apologetic. If what you do works, good. If not, experiment...

From Corwin Slack
Posted on November 26, 2012 at 8:33 PM
We have would be Olympians running on prosthetic legs that could outpace all but the best athletes anywhere and anytime. We are now well past the era when we patronize or condescend to people who use prosthetics to overcome their handicaps and even less so when their skill with prostheses outstrips our skill with or without. And unlike runners who are in a competition we have no need to plead for a level playing field as some runners did when the man with prosthetic limbs threatened to outpace them.
From Charlie Gibbs
Posted on November 26, 2012 at 10:09 PM
I voted no, but if I had the choice I could actually say "Yes and no." I could never give up the good old Kun on my violin, but when I started playing viola I found the instrument thick enough that adding a shoulder rest was just too much. I'm playing viola in an orchestra without a shoulder rest and doing just fine.

So if you were to ask me whether I play with a shoulder rest or without one, I just might answer, "Yes." (I always was a fence-sitter.)

BTW you're right that Tafelmusik appear to be having way too much fun in that video. I had the pleasure of seeing them perform The Galileo Project live last Friday, and it was pure delight. I bought the DVD from which that video clip was taken, and although nothing can match seeing them in person, the video is as close as you're going to get. Highly recommended.

From Katherine Dunham
Posted on November 28, 2012 at 6:41 AM
For the past 6 weeks I've been playing without a shoulder rest, for the first time in my life. I have a long neck and am playing with a modified Flesch (no hump) chinrest; my luthier extended the feet enough to allow the violin to rest securely on my collarbone and my jaw to sit on the chinrest without my having to excessively bend my neck or raise my shoulder. So far I'm comfortable playing this way and it feels much freer than with the shoulder rest.
From Terry Hsu
Posted on November 28, 2012 at 3:40 PM
To me, we're all different sizes, shapes, with different hand sizes, arm length, neck length, etc etc. How is it possible that there be only one way to play the violin?

I taught myself how to play the violin without a shoulder rest since it seemed to me to be a valuable skill to have, even if I decided to go back to using a shoulder rest. I'm glad I did, it has proven to be a useful skill to learn. And I don't use a shoulder rest now.

But there are plenty of great violinists like Leonidas Kavakos, Josh Bell, and Hilary Hahn, amongst others, that use them. It's pretty hard to argue with their success.

From Arashi Lilith
Posted on November 30, 2012 at 3:14 AM
I've never used a shoulder rest with my viola, my neck is too short and my viola is too thick.. It took my teacher a bit of convincing to get me into a shoulder rest for the violin, eventually I stuck to a piece of foam but I often just go without. The foam makes things easier but in the end I feel I'm just being lazy about correcting my shaky shifts. I may just put some more cork under my chin rest and go shoulder rest-less, but I like my chin rest just fine :-)

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