Question For Those Playing Without A Shoulder Rest

December 22, 2007 at 06:56 AM · After reading Laurie Niles interview with Ruggiero Ricci, I want to ask those here who are not using a shoulder rest when you play, are you able to hold/balance the violin without your left hand?

Mr. Ricci mentions in his interview that before the common use of chin rests, violinists held their instruments with the left hand. Essentially I am asking, is being able to balance the instrument 'hands free' that critical? I have started to play without a shoulder rest because I found a different chin rest that fits me...but I can't take my left hand away and keep the violin on my collarbone, it slides towards the floor.

Replies (27)

December 22, 2007 at 08:47 AM · Greetings,

no I can`t. Menuhin points out that it is neither importnat nor possible for many people in his book on the violin which includes a photo of the violin hanging down. Now one to unless you are sure the chinrest is on tight,



December 22, 2007 at 09:27 AM · I see it as balancing the instrument as lightly and supple as possible--regardless of how you get there. This helps squeeze every note out of it with resonant projection.

God knows for me, violin has been not only an awkward kind of thing, but phenomenally so because of reasons I won't go in to.

But, I think of the chin's relationship to the balancing the instrument, not as a vice, but as part of your overall flow. I was shown this more or less, but am finding it is not only true--but very true.

This means, (find Raphael Klayman's site and read about playing without a rest to better understand this: I think) that in a resting state, the violin is rather neutral, relaxing on the hand parallel--some find a little upward from parallel helps.

But once one starts flowing with the instrument while parallel or maybe a little above, the chin becomes an ally to flow rather than a 'grounding point' or something. Perhaps a reference point for your spatial feeling for your string crossings and shifts, if that makes sense, is the role I see of the chin. And it is a sort of flowing reference point that is rather dynamic. Watch Oistrakh play whether or not he uses a shoulder rest...

Now, and finally, knowing these things, and doing these things, take a long time to master... Just ask me.

December 22, 2007 at 03:03 PM · Some of those old guys could do so to a great extent, I think, but you need to consider their body shape,shoulder structure, length of neck, the use of padded clothing, etc., too. My understanding is generally some of the weight is held in the hand - for the base of the index? Doesn't work for me a bit, but I'm certainly not going to try to talk those out of going rest-less who are happy and comfortable. Sue

December 22, 2007 at 04:05 PM · I play without a shoulder rest and without raising my shoulder at all and I cannot let go. Since The violin only has four notes that can be played in a "hands free" position it doesn't seem important that one can do that.

In fact when the left hand takes responsibility for holding up the violin the rewards start accruing. Holding up the violin becomes a context for implementing a very solid left hand technique.

But before any arguments start let's all acknowledge that there are plenty of fabulous violinists with enviable facility who don't subscribe to this notion.

I used to play with a shoulder rest and I did have a hands free technique but I was at a dead end. I had to backtrack way down the hill but I have greatly exceeded my "hands free" capabilities with a hands on technique.

December 22, 2007 at 05:23 PM · Three of my former teachers, and one of my best buddies, don't use shoulder rests, and all of them can balance the violin "hands free".

December 22, 2007 at 05:27 PM · I play without a shoulder rest and can play hands free without any movement of the violin. I had a few insights in the process of figuring this out.

First, just as every violin is a little bit different in size and shape so is everyone’s collar bone. Because of this there is a very particular spot on the back of the violin where it makes contact with the collar bone where it will not wobble a bit just by placing the violin on your shoulder without any contact from your head. With the violin on my shoulder in correct position for playing I was moving the lower bout back/forth, in/out in small increments until I found it's most stable point before leaning my head onto the chinrest.

I also think that "Chinrest" is a deceiving term. If I were to place the point of my chin on the rest it is quite round and gives me no control of the instrument. However if I align the strait edge of my jaw bone in parallel with the bottom of the chinrest the violin will be more stable and stay in place much better while playing.

Once I was able to get the violin to sort of hover with out any left hand contact I noticed that once I started playing my left hand would move the instrument just enough to get it out of the new found best placement and I would start to drift downward. This was mainly caused by me grasping the neck too tightly and tended to pull down somewhat on my violin. Also by trying to support the instrument with the left hand a bit too much causing my violin elevate a bit at times. Once I changed those I found it much easier and smoother to make multiple quick shift changes and keep the violin right where it’s most stable.

December 23, 2007 at 04:52 AM · I can hold the violin 'hands free' without a shoulder rest. I can also hold it that way without a chinrest, which in some ways is easier for me (talking here about 'modern' violin playing, not historically informed practice). I don't need to wear bulky clothing. I can hold the violin that way in just a Tshirt. I use a piece of chamois folded over the chinrest area of the violin to get rid of any slip. If I use a cotton or similar cloth the violin moves around.

When the violin is held hands free it is almost horizontal. I have to raise the shoulder slightly to do this. To get it totally horizontal or above I have to raise my left shoulder a bit more, but it seems natural, not forced, to me.

Most of the time I don't play like this, though. I mostly play without a raised shoulder. The violin is supported by the 'proximal' part of the collarbone near my neck, and my left hand (If I were to take my left hand away at such moments the violin would hinge downwards, so therefore a 'hands on' method most of the time for me). I raise the shoulder slightly for some down shifts and at moments here or there where it helps, for instance if I want to change from hand vibrato to arm vibrato. So in the normal course of playing my left shoulder occasionally comes upward slightly and then goes back in a relaxed way in order to support the back of the violin. I find this a comfortable and natural technique. When I raise the shoulder I am then using the full length of the left collarbone, along the left hand underside edge of the violin, a la Steven Redrobe (the full shelf, in other words). Another thing I sometimes do is simply lower the violin momentarily, instead of raise the shoulder, for extra support, or even do both at once.

I was trying to use a Milstein (or at least a Milstein-looking) technique of using a chinrest and no support from the 'distal' part of the collar bone for a while back (which I think is the method Corwin uses) but found this created pain in my jaw and collar bone near my neck from the pressure (even just the pressure of the weight of my head caused this pain after a while). So I went back to my unorthodox chinrestless technique which I love.

Anyway, that's just me. Emil Chudnovsky went to great lengths to point out the madness of my violin holding approach and I don't hold it against him. As an amateur I suppose I have the luxury of being able to do whatever I choose. I think I get the best results by far doing what I do. In build, I am of average height and weight, and my neck seems of normal length. I naturally tend to make a slight double chin when playing, so no doubt this helps support the violin. Perhaps my collar bone is set higher than average or something, or maybe I'm stubborn and just learned how to cope with the way I play.

Hope this lengthy description is of use to somebody. To answer your question, no, I don't think it is critical. It can be a help at times for some players.

December 23, 2007 at 03:48 AM · "Essentially I am asking, is being able to balance the instrument 'hands free' that critical? "

I assume by balance you mean support it in something like playing position. It's easily possible. I'm sure most or all non-rest players can do it, I could and never used a rest. But I don't think you'd want to play in that condition, because your neck is clenched. You have to be able to do it if you want to reach down with your left hand and adjust the bow screw for a second, or turn a page left-handed.

December 23, 2007 at 03:50 AM · I can hold the violin without both rests without the help of my left hand, but when playing, the left hand takes over in the support department.

December 23, 2007 at 03:52 AM · I play without a SR, and cannot hold the violin up without my hands. Neither could Menuhin. (He specifically says this in one of his books) Neither can many others.

Everyone's physiology is different, so don't make this some important goal. All that matters is that you can hold the violin between neck & hand, in playing position, without tension and without unwanted movement.

December 23, 2007 at 04:42 AM · Michael Schallock has a comprehensive article-

pro and con- on the shoulder rest which, he says,

works well for some and not for others-per above.

Ref: Click on Violin above then click on

Holding the Violin.

December 23, 2007 at 03:20 PM · I play with a shoulder rest (I have a very long neck and long arms relative to my height), but also play baroque violin, obviously with no shoulder or chin rest. Since giving up on the notion of "hands-free" playing, my shifting has become much more free and accurate. So has my familiarity with the feeling of each position, so the general security of my intonation has improved. The shifting technique I use on baroque violin is fundamentally applicable to modern technique as well. The shoulder rest just shortens the distance that my head has to drop to support the violin while the left hand shifts down, and along with the chin rest permits me to "indulge" in continuous head support for really long fast passages with a lot of shifts in both directions (ie the sextuplet passages in the first movement of the Tchaikovsky concerto).

December 23, 2007 at 12:12 PM · My profile picture (click on my name) shows how I hold the violin. There is no pain because their is no clench or grip. The violin merely rests on the corner of the collarbone.

December 23, 2007 at 01:52 PM · to say that one can hold the violin in more than one way is revealing, but the question is: if you are going to give a solo concert tomorrow, what hold will you use? AND WHY???

and a question on another level is this: do you know of another person in this world who is exactly like you besides you?

December 23, 2007 at 03:20 PM · Zero, Al, which is why much of this stuff has to be discussed in the first person: this works for me, this is what I do.

December 23, 2007 at 03:22 PM · As Delay said, there is always a right way to do something, but the right way for you to do it might be the wrong way for me to do it.

December 23, 2007 at 04:22 PM · that is my point, that everyone is very different and without having a good teacher closely observing the student, knowing the strengths and limitations of the student, even delay cannot possibly point the right way sight unseen and situation un-analyzed.

it is great to be inquisitive; however, i wonder the concern of being able to balance the violin with the hand is really that much of an importance in the whole scheme of things. the fact that many great violinists do not have to worry about balancing the violin with hand suggests otherwise. one reason to have a good teacher is to separate what you need to be concerned about from what you should not worry about. until then, the temptation is to chase every shiny object coming your way and you can be quite busy and unproductive.

which begs the question, are you aspiring to be a great violin hand balancer or a great violinist because one can make the argument that by chance being a good hand balancer has nothing to do with being a good violinist?

December 23, 2007 at 06:42 PM · I used to be of the mind that I couldn't play without a shoulder rest. I played for 35 years with one and I didn't think that it was possible to change (although I thought it may be desirable). I don't know whether the next person can change or not or even should change or not but I could and did. I haven't forced anyone to make the change but I have received a lot vociferous resistance to my even mentioning the possibility that one could improve by holding the violin with the left hand. Its as if some people say that no one can play well and hold the violin with the left hand. People take it as a reproach when you say that its possible. I don't understand that.

Maxim Vengerov, Hilary Hahn, and Joshua Bell play with shoulder rests and they are excellent players. You have plenty of evidence that a shoulder rest (or a chin hold) can work well for some/many people. You may disagree with the desirability of such a change and I won't begrudge you that but you can't deny my assertion that holding the violin in the left hand improved my playing. I'll even assert that many other players could improve if they properly held the violin in the left hand.

I played in church today. We did the aria If God Be For Us from Messiah with soprano solo, violin solo and organ. I played the same way I always play. You can see my hold in the picture in my profile. It doesn't change for public performance. I wore a suit but the jacket was unbuttoned. The knot of my necktie is a small nuisance and given my druthers I wouldn't perform with a necktie or bow tie but that is non-normative at my church so I put up with it.

December 23, 2007 at 07:04 PM · -are you aspiring to be a great violin hand balancer or a great violinist because one can make the argument that by chance being a good hand balancer has nothing to do with being a good violinist?-

While I guess that's true, strictly speaking, I doubt that many of us could become good violinists without giving some serious thought to the question of how to keep the violin in the air, and whether or not to let the left hand be involved.

December 23, 2007 at 11:19 PM · not sure if milstein has given "serious" thoughts about the way he handled his violin. i would like to hear more about it beyond my speculation that he simply arrived at it having fiddled around with it for a long time. it is an individual product, much like the way McEnroe swang tennis racquet...not necessarily a classical form, but highly effective for him only. it seems that many who have studied with milstein have not been clearly instructed on that.

those who are using sr and now contemplating the switch, is it to imitate milstein's form or his sound? does his form in your hand necessarily produce his sound?

corwin, i did see the photo. with hand balancing the violin, only a video can do the action flick justice:).

December 23, 2007 at 11:26 PM · From Sue Bechler:

"Some of those old guys could do so to a great extent, I think, but you need to consider their body shape,shoulder structure, length of neck, the use of padded clothing, etc., too."


Yes, look at the physiology of of Ricci and Heifetz.

We used to have a steady string of Heifetz students with long necks coming in for extra-high, custom chinrests because Heifetz insisted that they play without a shoulder rest.

Worked for Heifetz. You're results may vary. ;)

Another (true) story about a university teacher who played without a shoulder rest:

A student asked him one day,

"How do you downshift with such security without a shoulder rest?"

He demonstrated, and his Bergonzi landed on top of the piano.

David Burgess

December 24, 2007 at 12:17 AM · Al, Why do you spend so much energy anguishing over this? As far as I have ever been able to tell, only the shoulder rest folks have a special patrol to enforce the discipline. No one is going to take your shoulder rest away. If you want to play with a shoulder rest be my guest. I have never and will never criticize a shoulder rest user. I am only interested in talking to people who are seriously weighing the change.

The change takes time and I am honest about that. There are people with relatively well formed techniques that are just a touch away from dropping the rest. Most are like me and they will take from months to years to fully make the change. If they already have professional attainments and obligations they may find that too long to make it worthwhile. On the other hand, if they are playing injured or forsee future injury they may see it as a necessary investment of time and effort.

It took me about three years to get comfortable with the balancing issue. That may be reflective of my talent level. Many could probably do it in a few months. I never stopped playing (community orchestra, background music at friends weddings etc.) while I made the change but playing was very awkward for 6 to 12 months of that period.

December 24, 2007 at 01:10 AM · "Why do you spend so much energy anguishing over this?"

in this jolly season with so many nice treats around, i am too full for half baked concepts:)

by "half baked" i do not mean folks whose physiology fits sr-less playing, but those who do not, but convert for the sake of converting. in other words, herd mentality.

there is no "anguish" (pretty strong word),,,simply an observation.

if the pre-conceived notion is that sr-less is THE way to go regardless, i agree, anyone can do it!

December 24, 2007 at 01:01 AM · Hmmm. He didn't have dark curly hair, thick eyebrows and glasses? Smoke a cigar? It was a $50 fiddle and he quietly slipped the real Bergonzi to the accompanist while no one was looking.

December 24, 2007 at 04:03 AM · Herd mentality? Have you seen how many people play with a shoulder rest vs. those that do not? Where is the herd? Since you asked, how many people play with it that don't need it?

If you don't want to play this way don't. The shoulder rest has become a religion for some and they just can't quit obsessing on those that won't conform. We hands on players have given up on proselyting. We only talk to the curious who come with questions. But we have to do it over the babbling din of shoulder resters and clenchers.

December 24, 2007 at 04:46 AM · I do not use a shoulder rest and have not for many years. For me, the sound is better without one and my technique works better without one.

That said, I have many students who use one. I do not forbid the use of the device, as long as they have a certain amount of freedom of movement in the instrument.

It took me a few months to get used to not using it, but being a serious student at the time, I found the benefits of discarding it outweighed the impediment.

By the way, one of the best ways of getting used to not using a shoulder pad is to practice without your chin touching the chinrest. That way you learn how to support the violin with your left hand. You will have to develop a new shifting technique. If you have an arm vibrato, you will also have to adjust that to develop a wrist generated vibrato. If this seems too much of an effort, then keep the shoulder pad.

December 24, 2007 at 07:56 AM · It seems to me that this thread has steered a bit off-course. The OP's concern is not going SR-less, but the fact that he can't then hold the violin horizontal with just his neck & chin.

So again I say, who cares? Does this really matter?

T Net is probably worried about shifting, but it's easy to shift accurately and use the left hand for support at the same time.

No worries.

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