Restless armless and teacherless

May 11, 2013 at 04:47 PM · Prompted by an injury, I have continued learning to play, but without a teacher and without a shoulder rest. It's time to reconsider, as I haven't entirely gotten over the discomfort.

1. A prospective teacher maintains that whether or not a shoulder rest is used, the violin must be stable while leaving the left hand free. Is there any consensus on this point? If it's the jaw and shoulder which must bear the responsibility for holding the violin, then as the left hand wouldn't always have to hold the violin, there could be a significant departure from the playing method where the left hand is always supporting the violin.

The claim that the left hand must be free doesn't make sense to me, because it is almost never free -- it has to press on the strings.

2. Is it necessary to have a short neck or large/flat shoulders in order to play restless successfully?

3. Is it necessary to have a teacher who also plays restless?

Is the technique required to play without a rest so different from that with a rest that one needs to learn from someone with personal experience in this, or is the difference not critical?

4. Do you have recommendations for a teacher in Toronto Canada?

I apologize for raising the topic of shoulder rests again, but I didn't find these issues addressed in a manner which would help me decide on what approach to take for myself. I do see many posts which are helpful, and would appreciate your thoughts on these points.

Replies (40)

May 11, 2013 at 04:53 PM · Yes, your left hand has to be free, but it's important to understand what a teacher means by this. Basically, you should cradle the violin with the left hand, rather than grabbing it with the left hand, and a shoulder rest has nothing to do with this.

This means that you should not "hold" the violin with your left hand, ie. don't grab the violin, clutch the violin. By squeezing the violin with the left thumb, one puts the hand in a cramped position, which also inhibits the motion of the left fingers. "Holding" the violin, instead of cradling the violin also inhibits your ability to cultivate a good vibrato, and it keeps you from being able to shift smoothly.

Most of the time, when a teacher wants the student to free up the left hand and is seeking solutions like holding the violin with the head, it's because the student needs to explore the other extreme, as he or she is already clutching mightily with the left hand.

May 11, 2013 at 05:59 PM · Thanks for your reply. In my particular case, I was told that the violin must be stable without using the left hand, which implies being able to support and balance it with the jaw and shoulder alone. Would you agree with that?

May 11, 2013 at 06:36 PM · I think it's a good exercise, particularly if you've grown very dependent on resting the violin in your hand. That said, I think that at some point, one needs to find a balance between cradling with the left hand and supporting with the shoulder, and this article illustrates that idea well.

Eventually, you don't want to be squeezing with your neck and shoulder, just like you don't want to squeeze with the left hand. So it's a balance between cradling with the shoulder and chin, and cradling with the left hand.

Hope that helps!

May 11, 2013 at 06:49 PM · The claim that the left hand must be free doesn't make sense to me, because it is almost never free -- it has to press on the strings.

Yes precisely. You need to be able to release the pressure of the fingers at any moment in order to shift. It is in these moments that the violin needs to be supported from the shoulder and chin. Also for vibrato the finger pressure often needs to be partially released. The extent of this release, and the amount of support from the chin and shoulder is something we develop our feeling for over time.

May 11, 2013 at 07:41 PM · Lance Ouellette - Toronto Symphony member, Alexander therapist, and string teacher - has been very successful helping professionals and students learn to balance, rather than clench their instruments, so they can play more comfortably.

May 11, 2013 at 10:48 PM · It is not a clutching issue per se, but rather a specific insistence that the violin must be stable without the involvement of the left arm. This is problematic for me, as it's practically impossible without a shoulder rest or pad, unless I allow the violin to slope significantly downward and rest on the shoulder. (My shoulders are more sloped than average.)

So if the violin has to be stable without the hand, I must either use a contraption, or play with a significant slant. I hadn't realized until now that playing with a significant slant might be a valid option.

May 11, 2013 at 10:51 PM · Thanks for the recommendation Gary. For what it's worth.. does he use a shoulder rest?

May 11, 2013 at 10:51 PM · I wondered if the OP meant that the left hand had to be "free" in the sense that he could hold the violin up without using the LH at all? In case that's what was meant, some of my restless colleagues can hold the violin up this way and some can't. That seems to depend on their physiology. But since the left hand should assist in supporting the instrument anyway, holding up the violin without it isn't necessary.

May 11, 2013 at 10:52 PM · I like to think you just balance the violin (vertically) between collar bone on one side and the thumb (attached to the raised arm) on the other. Light touches from the jaw, base joint of left index finger, left hand finger tips and even the bow can all variously serve to stabilise the violin. Setup can make this easier or harder depending.

Why should you be able to move your left hand out of the way?

May 11, 2013 at 10:58 PM · If we play with no support at all from the shoulder, the left thumb has to support the instrument, during vibrato and shifting (when we can need a minute gap between the base of the index and the fingerboard) as well as counter the finger pressure. Our hand-shape may not permit this; (mine does not: the violin neck falls into the "web" of the hand).

With support from the shoulder - either square shoulders, padded clothing, or a shoulder pad or rest - the thumb is relieved of this task and can "freely" participate in the finger action.

Personally, I use a wide shoulder rest on a relaxed shoulder; the weight of my head balances the instrument see-saw fashion: no gripping, no tension, no red mark! But I do not impose this on my students if it does not suit them.

May 12, 2013 at 01:26 AM · Nathan: "I wondered if the OP meant that the left hand had to be "free" in the sense that he could hold the violin up without using the LH at all?"

Yes, this is exactly what is being asked of me, and I'm having trouble doing it without a shoulder rest and accepting its need.

It is a logical consequence however that if the hand can be so completely freed that it will also be relatively freer when applied to the violin. The question then is this ability to gain complete freedom necessary in normal playing or can a restless player (with a normal sized neck and shoulders which don't make the shoulder rest superfluous) compensate with additional technique?


May 12, 2013 at 02:32 AM · Perhaps it's time to reconsider the possibility of a shoulder rest or some type of support, especially since you are recovering from an injury.

May 12, 2013 at 06:27 AM · I agree with Laurie that the left hand must be relaxed and not clenching the neck of the violin.

I totally disagree that one should always keep the violin up just with the chin and shoulder, even with a shoulder rest this type of holding the violin is very high risk of giving you an injury in time, it certainly did to me (in my old times when I was using a shoulder rest and never supported the violin with my hand).

I have been playing with no shoulder rest/pad now for just over 3 years, I have been learning all the time since and up until very recently making 'discoveries' about playing with no rest.

Basically when I play the violin is always supported by my collarbone of course, then the chin and left hand take their turn in 'helping out', my chin sometimes has to put some light pressure on the chin-rest to aid the violin to stay up, mainly when downshifting, the left hand is always touching the neck lightly of course and it supports the violin sometimes more sometimes less depensing on what I am playing at that second in time.

I could have never learnt so well without the input of 'restless players' but they were all far away from me, it is 2 memebers of this forum in particular who taught me a lot about playing restless

And they live in America, I live in London, so it was 'long distance' help :)

May 12, 2013 at 10:52 AM · My teacher makes the point that the only part of the LH thumb nail that should be visible to the player is the edge; if you can see any more then it is likely that the thumb is gripping rather than supporting. This issue arose specifically during work on the fine technique of arm vibrato.

Concerning the issue of supporting the violin without the assistance of the left hand and shoulder rest, this can be a useful technique to acquire for quick turning of a page on the music stand if one wants to avoid bow-waving by the right hand.

May 12, 2013 at 11:52 AM · There is a big advantage in being able to hold the violin up without using the left hand. It frees the left hand for shifting and vibrating. And generally makes it easier to play the instrument. But (this is a really big "but"), the problem is doing it without introducing tension in the neck and shoulders.

I have played without shoulder rest for 3-4 years and if I could use a shoulder rest without introducing tension in my left side, I would. But every time I put on an SR, I start clenching and the tension returns. My left shoulder gets achy.

Like yourself, I am NOT able to hold the violin in playing position without my left hand. That is, when playing without SR, I am ALWAYS supporting the instrument in some fashion with my left hand. There is about 4-5 inch gap between the bottom of the violin and the top of my shoulder, so it is physically impossible for me to hold the violin in place without SR or some kind of support. So my left hand has to perform the task.

I have noticed that many people who do NOT use SR, have square shoulders and short necks and are able to support the instrument without the left hand. Anne Sophie Mutter is a perfect example. Itzhak Perlman is another. But some of us are just not built like that and have to use the left hand more (or entirely) to keep the violin up.

If you are going to play without SR, then it is critically important to get a good fitting chin rest that is the proper height. Without it, you will struggle keeping the violin in place and develop all kinds of bad habits. A good chin rest will facilitate a good head position (head back, almost looking straight forward, not tilted or looking to the left), and will feel "grippy" so the violin does not feel like it is pulling away from you during downshifts.

One final point, when I took off the SR, it took a good 4-5 months to get used to the feeling and be able to play comfortably. It does take adjustment in left hand technique. Fortunately, most of the changes happen quite naturally. Your left hand will automatically do what it needs to do. But be prepared, it will feel very awkward in the beginning.

Good luck!

May 12, 2013 at 12:18 PM · The purpose of chinrest and shoulder rest is to position the instrument for most comfortable playing. I played my first 30 (or so) years without a shoulder rest and with whatever chinrest happened to be on my violin. (One of my childhood ambitions was to be able to walk around holding the violin between my chin (jaw) and collarbone with no hands on it.)

Then I found a chinrest that was a perfect fit for me and allowed me to hold the instrument with just the weight of my head and with no fear of dropping it. (I eventually ended up owning 4 of these chinrests as insurance against the future). At about that same time I found that my arm vibrato motion was enhanced if I used a shoulder rest. Of course every shoulder rest model is different, every body's body is different, and there is enough difference between violins that the ideal shoulder rest should be carefully chosen.

I played the next 30 or so years with a shoulder rest (and the same ideal chinrest model - on several different violins). Then the shoulder rest started to hinder me. So off it went and I used an acoustifoam (rubber rest held on with rubber bands) for a while and then nothing at all. And for the past few years I switch between all 3 as the flexibility (or lack of it) of my left hand demands. So at this stage I've been playing for 74 years - and counting.

Any very specific rules, applied generally to others, have got to indicate ignorance and parochialism. Not only are violinists different from each other, but they also change along their life journeys.

It is simply best to have a good, experienced teacher who can guide you to the best techniques for your own progress.


May 12, 2013 at 02:53 PM · The acoustifoam is a good alternative to SR. It provides support without locking the instrument in place. I view it as a compromise between SR and no SR. It kind of feels like a SR, but not quite. I would describe the feeling as half way between SR and no SR.

The only problem I have found is that it adversely affects the sound of my instrument. I have found that my instrument is very sensitive to having things attached to it. Even chin rests, especially center mounted ones, kill the sound of my instrument. But, that depends on the instrument and you may find that the acoustifoam does not hinder the sound of your instrument. If not, then it is a great solution.

Note: acoustifoam is a fixed block of hard foam material. When you get one, you have to order the right thickness. The best way to do it is to go to a shop that has an assortment of acoustifoams and try them out to find the right one.

May 12, 2013 at 04:44 PM · I just may have said this on other threads (.....) but the first consideration is the chinrest: of the right height to rest the fiddle on the collar bone, with just enough "lip" to hook slightly under the jawbone, and the right inclination to tilt the violin to the right for easy access to the low strings.

Then we can look in a mirror to see what's missing! Every non-rester I have ever seen uses shoulder support from time to time (bow tightening, page turning, nose scratching etc.) even though they hotly deny it!

I agree about the soft pads, but for the longer, heavier viola, I use a Kun Bravo with high feet to balance, not grip, the viola on my shoulder and chest. I do not raise my shoulder...

I often practice violin with no support from the shoulder at all, to renew contact with the instrument.

May 12, 2013 at 04:49 PM · Having your left hand "free" certainly makes your life easier, but is not mandatory. Go to youtube and find "The art of violin" documentary. Observe the old masters, most of whom did not use shoulder rest. It is apparent that they dynamically supported the violin with left hand; you can see that some of them in fact supported the violin briefly with right hand during the intermission - meaning that they could not hold it entirely by the chin. Keep in mind though that you will have to develop a totally different technique, almost like learning a new instrument. It is possible. The only question: is it worth the effort? Some people on this site will say yes, some no, but at the end of the day it is your call.

Keep in mind that, among the best contemporary players, those without a shoulder rest are minority.

May 12, 2013 at 05:59 PM · Thanks for all your responses. I started with a shoulder rest, and my injury arose while using one. Because of that, I took the suggestion someone made to try not using one, and the pain and discomfort did lessen significantly, although it has not disappeared entirely. I have been restless for several months now, and am well beyond the point where it's a foreign notion, but as a learner have many additional challenges to surmount.

I don't want this thread to degenerate into yet another pros and cons of shoulder rest debate. I could go back to using a shoulder rest, or a pad, and might choose to do so in the future. But I wish to first exhaust the option of playing without one, to learn what is required to do so, and what is needful and helpful in healthy playing in general.

While nobody has directly addressed the other part of my question -- whether it's necessary to have a teacher who is experience in playing without a shoulder rest, I'm inclined to think that it is necessary -- that as the usage and dependence on shoulder rests has grown the knowledge and acceptance of techniques which avoid one are reduced. It might be however, that as this rarity extends to teachers, the inability to find one who has both normal to longish proportions and the ability to play without a shoulder rest might be the factor which eliminates this option for me.

May 12, 2013 at 06:42 PM · It isn't necessary to have a teacher who doesn't play with a SR but it does help. There are some tricks/adjustments in technique for playing without one that seems to come with experience.

May 12, 2013 at 08:32 PM · sorry Ray, I thought I addressed the bit of 'do you need a rest-less teacher' in my post but reading it back I did not make it obvious.

Basically I did not have a 'rest-less' teacher, my teacher uses a rest and I was also 'afraid' he may not approve of me going restless from some things I heard him saying in the past, thankfully I got the wrong end of the stick as we say and he does not have a problem with me having gone restless.

Anyway, for some things I NEEDED the input of an experienced restless player, however what I said is that the help which was given to me by other players over a distance (this was over emails and with one person on skype) was enough to help me out :)

I owe a million thanks to the experienced players on this board who have helped me directly, they were a HUGE support.

So yes, I think you need the input of an experienced restless person, however it does not have to be your teacher and it does not have to be 'constant' input or not even in person.

May 12, 2013 at 08:44 PM · When you ride a bicycle must you be free to ignore balance in favor of propulsion?

Joseph Szigeti had a long neck and played with no shoulder rest.

It would be very hard to learn from a teacher who clenches the violin. The left hand has responsibilities including holding up the violin. You need to hold the violin up whether shifting, vibrating or crossing strings. You can learn very solid technique while integrating these requirements.

May 12, 2013 at 09:46 PM · Joseph Szigeti used a very thick pad in the shoulder of his jacket.

How would you hold the violin up when playing at the top of the fingerboard?

May 12, 2013 at 10:37 PM · I forgot that you are looking for a teacher in Toronto.... at least 3 members of "Tafelmusik" used to give private lessons: Jeanne Lamon, Christopher Verrette and Patricia Ahern.

If their rate is to high for your budget, try to find younger baroque players in the city; most of them attended the TBSI or have had lessons with the masters.

If they can't teach you how to play without the rests, nobody will!

May 13, 2013 at 12:40 AM · Adrian wrote:

"Every non-rester I have ever seen uses shoulder support from time to time (bow tightening, page turning, nose scratching etc.) even though they hotly deny it! "

I am one of those who "hotly denies it." I might make a video to prove my point, but basically, my physique is such that it is not possible for me to support the violin without the left hand. When playing, my left shoulder NEVER touches the instrument. It also does not touch when turning pages, scratching my nose, etc. In fact, when I went restless, I had to change the way I turn pages because I was no longer able to use my left hand to do it. It is now busy holding the violin.

That said, I would agree that the "majority" of non-resters DO use their shoulder to support the instrument from time to time. And many of the non-resters ARE able to support the instrument without the left hand, but certainly not ALL.

May 13, 2013 at 12:44 AM · Regarding the teacher, if you want to play restless, it is better to find a teacher that also plays restless. They will be in a better position to guide you. But finding such a teacher may not be easy.

May 13, 2013 at 02:41 AM · I can only turn pages with my right hand. If I need to tighten the bow hair I put it in my left hand which is still folding up the violin. The shoulder is nowhere close to the back of the violin. (You can see this in my picture).

Before I went restless I had no real technique. I didn't need a technique because I used a crutch. (I am talking about me not others.) Once the left hand was forced into holding up the violin, I had to learn to shift, vibrate, prepare fingers etc. there is freedom in responsibility. For the record there are legions of SR users who play better than I do without a rest. But I play better without one than I did with one.

May 13, 2013 at 06:57 AM · Yes, Smiley, you're right: I should have said that all the non-resters I have ever met, not ever seen, use some support from the shoulder.

I watched your "going restless" videos on U-toob with great attention: they are clear, helpful and refreshingly undogmatic. My own neck and shoulder shape are similar to yours, and when I play restless, I too cannot use any shoulder contact at all! I have found the same benefits as Rocky, but to produce the sounds I like to imagine, I find the SR beneficial.

I don't understand the "crutch" analogy: to me, the right SR setup is more like finding the right shoes for a given terrain. At home, I go barefoot; when fell-walking, I wear strong but flexible boots; most of the time, moccasins. And Corwin, I "balance" my viola on the SR, just as I balance my bike on its (two) wheels! And how many of us ride a bicycle without a saddle?

And JRay, to answer your two questions (!!):

1. No;

2. Yes.

May 13, 2013 at 07:42 AM · I want to know when all those cyclists are going to take off that other "training wheel" and the crutch that is the handle bars and ride the "wheel" thing

....the monocycle.

May 13, 2013 at 08:44 AM · Adrian, as someone who plays restless, I'm genuinely confused about the need you say most restless players have to use some support from the shoulder.

I'm not playing virtuoso classical music, so generally only practice the first 7 or 8 positions, but I never feel the need for the violin to go anywhere near my shoulder. The instrument feels stable with just a touch of pressure from the jaw to prevent it rocking on my collarbone.

Why do people feel the need for raising the shoulder??

May 13, 2013 at 09:49 AM · Geoff, support from the shoulder, whether direct, or via a small pad, hidden padding, or a full shoulder rest, facilitates:

- the slight gap between the fingerboard and the base of the index, which in turn allows a more varied and supple vibrato (e.g. from the elbow);

- security and freedom in the stratosphere (above the 8th position!).

Long fingers and flexible thumb joints allow many to avoid these actions without participation from the shoulder. But I mostly play viola...

May 14, 2013 at 02:20 AM · I don't understand why people want to learn restless. This was not a question when I learned. I've started with small pillow (probably because it was not possible to find bridge for 1/8 at that time). I see benefits of some padding even for small children. Now even cheapest bridges can be adjusted in height. Seems to me much more convenient. Gives you freedom of movement for left hand and stability.

May 14, 2013 at 06:14 AM · Adrian, what you describe is not unique to shoulder-rest users. As a player who doesn't use a shoulder rest, I can do both things you list without involving my shoulder, as can my students who elect not to use one (although the majority do).

Yes Alex, that worked for *you*. What about all the other people on this planet who don't share the same exact physical makeup as you?

May 14, 2013 at 06:25 AM · Adrian - thanks for the insight.

May 17, 2013 at 12:57 PM · J -- I think it is invaluable to work with a teacher who can integrate balanced posture and instrument support with efficient playing technique and artistic interpretation.

Learning to properly align the head and neck with the spine requires monitoring from an experienced professional. My colleague Crissman Taylor (of Violinist in Balance fame) requires players to have several Alexander Technique sessions with her before she'll begin fitting a chinrest or shoulder pad. That's because no chinrest or shoulder pad is likely to be effective if your body is locked up and out of balance.

Some resources players can utilize to get a better understanding of balanced playing:

* Paul Rolland's film series and book "The Teaching of Action in String Playing" is the bible for string teachers who want to connect how the body works and violin/viola playing.

* Marianne Murray Perkin's "A Comparison of Violin Playing Techniques: Kato Havas, Paul Rolland, and Shinichi Suzuki" provides an easy to follow review of how these important teachers approached instrument support. Marianne (who passed away recently) graduated from Suzuki's training program in Japan and her class notes and correspondence with Suzuki's assistant Ms. Mori are housed at George Mason University, Harrisonburg, VA. They are a gold mine for graduate students and teachers who want to better understand the teachings of this seminal pedagogue.

* Paul Rolland Institute "Sampler DVD" includes demonstrations of instrument support. It can be obtained through the website.

June 19, 2013 at 03:17 AM · I went to see Tafelmusik recently, and saw that not only do they play without shoulder rests, they play without chin rests! I tried that for about 5 minutes before giving up. No doubt a baroque player would be able to help me further, but I think the the reason that idea had not occurred to me was because although I love baroque music, my conception of violin playing is not that.

I started lessons with a new teacher -- one who plays without a shoulder rest. So far, it's been great -- he's helped me immediately improve my positioning and technique, so that I am at greater ease in playing. Remarkably though, he also suggested, perhaps due to my sloping shoulders, that I would benefit from some foam or a pad to stabilize the violin.

I'm tempted to add chinless to list and go full baroque as a reaction, but I did that for 5 minutes and that was probably enough.

Thanks all for your many helpful posts.

June 19, 2013 at 11:08 AM · Nobody used a chinrest until Louis Spohr invented it in 1831. It's not just baroque period practice, but all the works of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, etc were premiered without the use of chinrests too. Paganini didn't use one either.

September 2, 2013 at 02:28 PM · Playing restless demands action from the left hand in supporting the violin and fast, long-distance shifts require a brief shoulder support. Forcing your shoulder to NEVAH (!!!) touch the violin is just a big sack of baloney.

September 2, 2013 at 04:29 PM · If one holds the violin on the collarbone and the instrument more forward, as many of us who play without an SR do, there is no contact between the left shoulder and the bottom of the instrument.

Blanket assumptions that involve "always" or "never" don't work when it comes to something as diverse as addressing the physical approach to an instrument.

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