This article is dedicated to Cheryl Corey
This article is intended for violinists who are interested in learning how to hold the violin without using a shoulder rest, or using their shoulder for support. It is based on my own observations, experience, and some of what I have learned from my teachers. There are as many ways to hold the violin, as there are violinists. If you feel comfortable using a shoulder rest or your shoulder to assist you while playing the violin, then by all means, proceed as you are already. This is just one way for violinists that are interested in learning to way to play the violin without a shoulder rest, to do so.
First, the violin isn’t held, so much as balanced on the collarbone and propped up with the left hand. You can think of the violin as a bridge between these two ledges or points of contact. Begin by holding the violin in your left hanging loosely by your left side next to your leg. Bring the violin up with your left hand, and assist with your right hand if you need to, around the lower right rib at the corner. Slightly lift your head up, creating space for the violin to insert into the gap between your chin and your collarbone, and place the back of the lower left bout over your left collarbone. Lower your head down gently placing your chin on the chin rest. The natural weight of you head should be enough to keep the violin in place.
Try to balance the neck of the violin between the lower proximal phalanx of the left index finger and the around the joint between the distal and proximal phalanx of the left thumb. The ideal height of the violin should be about parallel to the ground and you should resemble the form of an archer or gunman taking aim.
Some of you may have collarbones deeply imbedded or very close to your neck. This may be the case especially in children. If so, even a collared shirt may be too thick for the violin to rest firmly over the collarbone. If your violin consistently slips off of your collarbone, try wrapping a cloth around the chinrest and lower bout of the violin for extra friction, or, a piece of chamois (or other fabric with grip such as carpet liner).
The precise way in which you will hold he violin and which body parts it will touch, is impossible to say, especially without observing the person with the instrument in hand. Everybody’s anatomy is different, ranging from different lengths, shapes, widths of body parts, and placements of bones. For example, some violinists like my friend Cheryl, who have relatively long necks and/or combined with broad, sloped, or regular shoulders, may have to hold their violins high in order for the chinrest to meet their chins, and will have the violin considerably off of their shoulder. Others with shorter necks and/or high shoulders will have the violin more adapted to their body shape, and will fit snug, like a doorstop. Their shoulders may even naturally touch the back of the instrument.
Whatever your anatomy, your shoulders should remain down and relaxed while playing. Your spine, all the way up to through your neck, should remain relatively straight with as little deviation from a neutral position as possible. Think of yourself as an athlete. You wouldn’t run, play tennis, soccer, basketball, etc. and keep your neck or spine in a compromised or crooked position. You should be relaxed and flexible at all times to respond to commands and to ensure fluidity of motion in execution.
Try to keep your eyes fixed on the instrument while you perform to watch the bow and/or fingers. It is like looking down the barrel of a rifle when you are taking aim. If you take your eyes off the target, you might miss, or likewise, if you are driving, and take your eyes off the road, you might get into an accident. Violin is a highly complex and sophisticated multitasking operation, and you should use all of your focus and senses to perform it.
The use or nonuse of a shoulder rest is a topic of heated debate in the classical violin world. You may even feel so strongly about using or not using a shoulder rest, that it is a way of life. Here are the reasons why I don’t use one.
If you decide to not use a shoulder rest, try to avoid clenching the shoulder to the back plate while playing. The shoulder acts as a mute, much the way a hand can stop the vibrations of a bell. This is the most stark and immediate difference when not using a shoulder rest or your shoulder to support the violin. Your sound will instantly be more resonant, deep, variant, and colorful. Basically, you will hear the way the violin was intended to sound. Actually, the violin sounds even more sonorous if you remove the chinrest as well. For more reading on playing without a chinrest as Paganini is purported to have played, visit the virtuoso Ruggiero Ricci’s book ‘Ricci on Glissando.’ I also believe that violinists like Kreisler and Heifetz kept their violins high to project more and to maximize the amount of volume from their instruments. It’s kind of like an old-fashioned amplifying technique.
Raising the fiddle will also create more space for your left arm to maneuver. Letting it droop will constrain your motions and make you feel as if you’re playing inside an old telephone booth.
An adjustment that is helpful when not using a shoulder rest is placing your thumb slightly forward, about opposite your second finger when it is placed on the note F natural on the D string. (This is also suggested by Leopold Auer in ‘Violin Playing As I Teach It.’) Supporting the violin essentially by the hand, you will need to find a more stable balance and more stable fulcrum point. Your tone will even improve slightly with the thumb in this position, because the violin being held with more firmness and security, will allow the bow to draw sound out of the instrument more easily.
Moving the thumb slightly forward will also allow your hand to more easily stretch into the higher positions. The greatest advantage of this technique however, is that in third position, your palm contacts the ribs (and the thumb, the saddle). Watch videos of Heifetz, Milstein, Kreisler (silent), Elman, Oistrakh, and Perlman and you’ll notice that they all do this. Actually, I’ve never seen a great violinist not do this. The greatest violinists always have great contact with their instruments. Friedman conveyed this principle using the analogy of a blind man walking and tapping the wall with his stick to find his way around.
Keeping the violin high also balances the entire frame of the body. When the violin starts to sag, the body follows with it, and starts to put stress on one side of the body. Become sensitive to this and adjust as you play. A good place to start is with the feet. Think of the placement of your feet as the foundation to a building or the roots of a tree. The rest of the body should remain balanced, centered, and upright on top of that.
Having the violin droop down is a natural tendency for violinists especially as they try to concentrate more. Always, remember to reset your posture and not let your focus unbalance your posture.
Another anecdote Friedman told me was about Fritz Kreisler. After being struck by a truck in Manhattan, Kreisler was left deaf. Trying to play the violin again, he asked Nathan Milstein if the first note was in tune, and from there was able to continue using muscle memory. This was an object lesson in the importance of contact with the violin.
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