Is a shoulder rest optional?

July 23, 2015 at 10:50 PM · I've had my (first) violin for two days now, and have had one lesson so far. Beyond the fact that I can't figure out how to properly put on the shoulder rest (after a short while, it falls off) I find it to be much more comfortable without it. Should I just get used to the feeling of the shoulder rest or is it optional?

Replies

July 23, 2015 at 11:07 PM · Hello Tim,

from what I read, playing without shoulder rest is preferred by many people, there's even a website dedicated to moving away from using conventional shoulder rest:

http://www.violinistinbalance.nl/back.htm

conclusively, if you find it comfortable without shoulder rest, you should play without one, maybe with a fine cloth on your shoulder to avoid varnish being worn off from contact with your body.

I personally mostly play with one because I cannot stretch my left arm very well due to some surgeries. I've been slowly moving towards no shoulder rest because I am finding that I cannot reach the strings properly sometimes.

July 23, 2015 at 11:39 PM · Alright thanks!

July 24, 2015 at 12:58 AM · Shoulder rest falling off is easily dealt with, get some rubber bands. As you get more familiar with your setup you'll be able to get rid of them again.

July 24, 2015 at 09:03 AM · You can play without a shoulder rest? Oh how I envy you! ;)

If you really can play comfortably without a shoulder rest and you're not holding onto the violin's neck to keep it in place and it's not messing with your posture, awesome, go for it!

July 24, 2015 at 09:27 AM · A couple of historical points - the shoulder rest came into use round about the middle of the 20th century (no-one seems to know when it was actually invented), and the chin rest was invented by the violinist/teacher/composer Louis Spohr in or about 1820, and within a few years it was catching on.

So, something to think about: how did violinists manage quite happily for several hundred years without shoulder rests and chin rests (as many still do)? Hint: a major part of the secret is posture and lack of tension.

July 24, 2015 at 10:13 AM · With a properly fitted shoulder rest, you can easily plop the violin onto your shoulder and with gentle pressure of your jaw line on the chin rest the violin will balance securely and comfortably there.

The tilt you get from the shoulder rest makes it easier to finger and bow the G and D strings when first learning the violin.

One of the challenges of playing without a shoulder rest is overcoming the tendency of the violin to want to slip off your collarbone, both sideways and towards the scroll end. You will want to find a chin rest and position that lets you secure the violin against slipping without the need to clamp down on the chin rest with your chin or jaw line.

I play without a shoulder rest now but it took awhile before I had sufficient left hand and bow arm flexibility to work the G string. I like having the violin pivot freely about the balance point on my collarbone.

There are many famous violinists who play with and without a shoulder rest. It's a personal choice. But get a properly fitted shoulder rest before making the decision to play without one. It will eliminate a source of much distraction when first learning so you can focus on bowing and intonation and not balancing the violin.

July 24, 2015 at 11:06 AM · I use a sponge to protect my collar bone. I think most people find they need some kind of padding to help with that.

There are all kinds of 'shoulder pads' (NOT shoulder rests) available...but the red cosmetic sponges are my favourite. They just seem to have the right density.

They don't slip (although they do move/creep over time), they don't damage the wood, and you can leave them in place even when you put the violin in its case. They are held on by elastics.

Shar carries them. They are inexpensive and last a very long time. Eventually however, they lose their 'grippiness' and loft.

July 24, 2015 at 11:12 AM · yes, but discussion about it is not. Here we go again!

July 24, 2015 at 12:18 PM · I used a Kun shoulder rest for a long time but just found that it was too high and stiff. But, I liked how it kept my violin from sliding around too much. So I switched to the "polypad" which is a foam cushion that is contoured to the shape of your shoulder. I like it pretty well.

The shoulder rest is an innovation. The fact that it was not around in the days of Mozart is not a useful argument against its use. Some great violinists use them and it apparently is not wrecking their technique, or their tone, or their bodies.

July 24, 2015 at 12:37 PM ·

"So, something to think about: how did violinists manage quite happily for several hundred years without shoulder rests and chin rests (as many still do)?"

My guess is that prior to the rigid shoulder rest, those too uncomfortable with the bare violin eventually gave up and stopped, and only those who were comfortable stuck with it and progressed. Even more so as technical requirements of the music grew, including a wide and constant vibrato and exploitation of the entire fingerboard. There were likely other ways to make the violin comfortable, such as the pads that many have hidden under their shirts or sewn into there collars.

The same is true in other areas. One can ask how anyone played with those heavy wood tennis rackets. Obviously, many people excelled with them, but the development of rackets by Prince and others made the sport accessible to more, and improved the performance of those who may have quit otherwise with injuries such as tennis elbow. Another example: as people aged, they may have simply quit photography when they could no longer focus a camera-- until autofocus came along.

You can't assume that everyone will be comfortable without a shoulder rest, regardless of how relaxed they are. They may never find it comfortable.

July 24, 2015 at 06:06 PM · from your other thread, if you're playing mostly lying down, you might get better results from a non-traditional setup (how you hold the instrument, where the shoulder / chin rest are and how high they are). I'd ask your teacher about this in your next lesson - tell them what's uncomfortable and ask for suggestions.

July 24, 2015 at 07:04 PM · I think that one of the points in the rest / no rest discussions that is often missed, is the importance of the physique of the player. As one famous violinist said, "Itzhak Perlman has no neck, while Simon Fischer has three. Life is so unfair."

Of course, I can see the funny side to that, but there's a lot of substance in it. Could you get Itzhak to start playing with a shoulder rest, and Simon to stop using his?

Recently I've been badgered (in a friendly way) by a violinist friend to stop using a shoulder rest. So, I gave it a try. Without the rest, the contact of the wood against my collarbone was uncomfortable. OK, so let's put a little pad there. Fine.

But how do I stop the violin moving away when I shift from high to low? I tried using some gripper fabric, and that helped quite a bit.

While pondering how to make this setup permanent, I've gone back to using the shoulder rest (a Wolf Forte Primo).

So let's see how it goes - after 47 years of using a shoulder rest, then for no good reason, ditching it :)

Will life be long enough to enjoy any benefit?

July 24, 2015 at 08:22 PM · I think that most of us can agree that it is entirely dependent on the physical setup for the player whether a shoulder rest (or sponge or some sort of support beneath the instrument) is necessary. As Scott has pointed out, today we accommodate a wider range of players in terms of age and physique than 100 years ago, and the tennis analogy is an excellent one.

With the help of my mentor, I made major changes to my setup and I haven't used a shoulder rest since 2003. It works for me and my physique. It wouldn't work for every single one of my private students though, and as a teacher I'm more interested in finding what works the best rather than adhering to some rigid set of rules for equipment.

July 24, 2015 at 09:03 PM · Then there is the role of fashion: men in the early 19th century wrapped their necks in yards-long neckcloths; earlier generations had padded clothing, more layers than we currently wear. Look at pictures of the Mozarts, for instance. Accommodations were always made.

July 24, 2015 at 09:18 PM · And the arching of the violin. I am easily able to manage using my teacher's violin which is very highly arches, has a huge pregnant belly that fits me perfectly. but on my lighter and flatter 7/8 instrument I have to work a lot harder to not work so hard.

July 24, 2015 at 11:19 PM · Well spotted Irene - It was about time someone remembered!

Tim, the traditional point of having a shoulder rest is for to help the shoulder support your violin against gravity. You may not need to use one if gravity isn't pulling the violin towards your feet. On the other hand you may need it for a completely different purpose - Indeed you and your teacher may need to invent yet another kind of rest altogether for steadying the violin when you're lying down.

July 25, 2015 at 10:30 AM · Here's an historical point: This topic has been discussed on v.com about 100,000 tines already. If I see it one more time here I think I'll be compelled to go on top of a roof with my bow and use it to shoot shoulder rests at random violinists passing by!

July 25, 2015 at 05:45 PM · Raphael, shoulder rest wars are how we tread water until the next 15-year-old wanders in asking what to play next or whether he or she can make it as a pro.

July 25, 2015 at 07:56 PM · Or a grenade to toss into the living room until the next rosin comparison thread opens! ;-U

July 30, 2015 at 12:38 PM · Just in time, my Bonmusica shoulder rest fell off while I was playing last night, it kept on doing that all night. I ended up giving up and stuck it in my pocket and played without a shoulder rest.

It actually felt quite comfortable and I wasn't restrained by range of motion in my left shoulder anymore. The rib of the lower bout was in between my neck and the collar bone and I didn't have any issues. Except, I did a quick change from E to G string few times and I heard a crunch! Thankfully it was just the chinrest being loose.

I think I am going to start playing without a shoulder rest as well, I wouldn't mind getting recommended for what to use for cloth under the bout.

July 30, 2015 at 01:00 PM · If you can play comfortably and relaxed without a shoulder rest, well and good. But if you are an orchestral player it is a good idea to have your SR to hand because there are some occasions when it is useful if you are the page-turner on your desk and are faced with tricky and fast page turns. Of course, these little problems come to licht during rehearsals so you'll know beforehand which pieces need the SR.

July 30, 2015 at 01:00 PM ·

July 30, 2015 at 02:43 PM · Uh oh... another discussion thread at risk of being completely wrecked by "British humour."

Steven, lots of people try little sponges, or a chamois cloth, or a microfiber cloth (like a cleaning cloth that's never been used) to cushion their collarbone especially if you can feel the edge of the metal hardware of the chin rest on that bone, that's uncomfortable after a while. For me what has worked the best is the

Go to www.johnsonstring.com and type "polypad" into the search box. What you will see looks like it is in the shoulder rest category (and Johnson String even files it in their SR category). But it's really just a contoured sponge, and you don't have to affix it to the violin rubber bands if you don't want to. The medium size gray one works for me. The difference between gray and blue is that the blue is firmer foam. The blue one will be more SR like, and the gray one will be more sponge-like.

July 30, 2015 at 06:41 PM · Steven, I generally don't use a shoulder rest (except on some rare orchestral occasions - see my previous post) but, to prevent discomfort between the metal hardware of the chin rest and my collar bone I wrap a narrow strip of chamois leather round said hardware and it does an excellent job. It's easy enough to replace when it gets grubby.

Or don't use a chin rest either :) That is actually the most comfortable option of all, but it takes a fair amount of work and time to get used to playing CR-less with 100% confidence in all circumstances, which is why it's really only done nowadays by HIP Baroque and Early Musick specialists, and, interestingly, a few traditional folk fiddlers (ahem!).

July 30, 2015 at 07:11 PM · Nate - fortunately, most shoulder rests are adjustable, and so it's quite possible to have a flat violin and good posture while using one. The human body tends to be less adjustable and some, like mine for instance, causes the violin to tilt quite a bit without a rest. There also doesn't seem to be any consensus whether the violin is muted more by a rest or by being in direct contact with the cloth of a shirt or jacket, and really that seems more a question of academic interest than practical applicability - probably time spent working on the bow arm would improve the average violinist's tone more than time spent messing with setup.

July 30, 2015 at 10:48 PM · An opposite experience regarding shoulder rest muting the violin --

I was at a sound check for a friend who was equally adept playing with and without a shoulder rest where he was the concerto soloist for the evening, and after a with-shoulder rest and no-shoulder rest comparison, we found out he projected more using his shoulder rest

I think all of us can find anecdotes of results going either way and I suspect it isn't so much as the sound being dampened by the shoulder rest touching the wood but how it affects your technique. I personally use nothing but let students choose what is the most comfortable setup because each person has a different body and just as important, different body perceptions. I think as long as you don't misuse a shoulder rest by clamping the violin with your head and raising your shoulder but have a physical connection and balance between your violin and your collarbone, you're on the right track.

July 31, 2015 at 03:17 AM · The technological advances in shoulder rests have been enormous since Heifetz and Auer's days. When I started the 'Poehland' was about it, then the Menuhin (which cleared the back of the instrument) was introduced. Most of the modern designs, whatever their other benefits or drawbacks, do not inhibit instrument vibrations.

Other issues, like the relative immobility imposed by a sr, are still on the table. And each violin, each violin with each violinist, is going to provide different variables.

July 31, 2015 at 08:38 AM · A few personal observations as violin & viola player and teacher:

Folks' physiques vary rather more than violin dimensions!

I have seen the "restless" amongst the great soloists all supporting their violins directly on the shoulders (padded or not) part of the time. Some of us, with a shoulder much lower than the collarbone, simply cannot do this without continuous ad harmful tension.

The Kun type rest reduces certain resonances a little on one of my violins, but not on the other. Shoulder or pad contact reduces the sound even more on both my violins.

Kun type rests are often much too high, especially in the children's models.

I really believe that good violin playing should not be limited to those with a certain physique.

July 31, 2015 at 11:14 AM · ...and, going back, how much of the recent posting has ANYTHING to do with the original question?

If you are truly supine, Tim, not simply leaning back, a shoulder rest may actually get in your way. I tried playing on my back once (not from necessity, but because I had a shoulder-tension issue and wanted to distract myself). For me, the issue was keeping the bow on the string and not having the violin too tight against my throat. At an angle, these wouldn't be problems. I would talk to your teacher, try what s/he suggests, be patient, and alert, and ENJOY.

July 31, 2015 at 11:38 AM · Marjory, you have to expect that any thread dealing with shoulder rests has a certain fractional chance of erupting into the latest border skirmish in the Shoulder Rest Wars.

I was interested in Nate's comment that certain legendary violinists do not permit their students to use shoulder rests at all. Certainly no one can dispute that Heifetz tutored many excellent violinists. And I think there are probably teachers today who take the same "my way or the highway" approach to various aspects of violin playing, whether it be shoulder rests or bow holds or hand positions or whatever. That's just how they teach. If you don't like it, you find a different teacher. But I think there are just as many if not more teachers of distinction who produced excellent star-level violinists but who took a more flexible approach.

I used to use a Kun but switched to the PolyPad because the Kun is too high and stiff, and my neck is short. But honestly what I found is that I lost a little tone from my violin when I did so. I believe that's because I went from contact at eight small points on the more rigid edges of the violin, to a foam pad touching a large area on the back of the violin which is a major vibrating surface of the instrument. While I am not a scholar of violin physics, this result kind of makes sense to me. When I watch "restless" violinists play, the violin is never just touching their collarbone. It's generally touching a lot of fabric on their shoulder too, so what I see there is a trade-off between contact at the ribs vs. contact on a large surface of the back of the violin, and I can see how that might depend on the individual instrument and who's playing it.

July 31, 2015 at 06:52 PM · Players have, and always will have, their own ideas about what's best for them, with or without SR.

A couple of points about the difference in tone playing with with/without a rest :

Of course that difference will be audible to the player. How could it not?

As for a difference to the tone as heard by a listener several feet away - well, I'm not really convinced.

Bring on a blind test, and let's see if it has the same results as the old expensive Italian violins / modern high-quality benchmades produced :)

July 31, 2015 at 07:19 PM · If it works for you, the Acoustifoam rest touches the back of the violin (or viola) at a minimum number of very small points ( http://www.acoustifoamshoulderrests.com/ ).

I played for 30 years without a shoulder rest, the next 35 with a Wolf rest, 5 more with an Acoustifoam and the next 5 (again without one) I'm back on a rest for the past year.

I often check my instruments' sound by playing them in cello position and cannot tell any difference with and without a rest. I think the real question would be whether the really highest significant overtones are affected - and after all at my age and after all those years of playing I could not hear them anyway. Anyway, only 2 feet away from the f-holes and at such an angle, the fundamentsl tones and lower harmonics are probably still too strong to tell if projection would be affected.

Andy

August 1, 2015 at 12:52 AM · I've been using a shoulder rest for about 6 months now- and also just got one for a viola- I've only been on violin a couple of years otherwise.

At first I even took the chin rests off- because to me, THAT is what mutes the sound a bit. But now I have both chin and shoulder rests on and love them!

If you cant rest the instrument between your chin and shoulder and non-supported by the other hand then it's a problem with VIBRATO especially. And as you are just beginning, the sooner you work on at least some vibrato the faster you'll be a better player.

August 1, 2015 at 09:48 AM · Some pretty strong arguments for NOT using a shoulder rest made by Nate and others.

It's always good to be reminded about this subject from those that really know what they are talking about.

I think it would not be a bad thing to take some time out to experiment with the idea of not using a SR - it can do no harm. Certainly the sound is different and possibly better. It seems for me to be making shifts harder (or less reliable) but then I'm only on day two of this trial.

The important thing is not to have a closed mind. Maybe it could be something revolutionary! We are never to old to learn.

August 1, 2015 at 11:58 AM · I agree, Peter, and I would add that many are, for the time being, too young to learn..

Yes, Nate's comments are based on his own acute observation, but so are those of many other contributors.

I abandoned the SR for sesveral years, and I still like to play restless to re-awaken dulled sensations, but I play more easily with one, and get somewhere near the lovely sounds going round in my head.

August 1, 2015 at 01:17 PM · Peter wrote, "It's always good to be reminded about this subject from those that really know what they are talking about."

No one is questioning Nate's qualifications. I've heard Nate play, and he sure is a terrific violinist of outstanding pedigree. I know less about Peter just because his profile is not as informative, but if he plays in a professional orchestra then obviously he's no slouch either.

Josh Bell and Hilary Hahn aren't posting on this thread, but if a picture is worth a thousand words, those words would be "Shoulder rest is obviously okay" written 200 times.

I played through my whole childhood, 12 years, from age 5 to age 17, without a shoulder rest. I have the painful spur on my collar bone to prove it. My teacher was one of the dogmatic ones who insisted that the best players don't use SRs. Shifting is not an issue. Hand me a violin with no SR, and I can shift. But my playing stance, shoulder alignment, hand positions, intonation, vibrato, etc., were all way behind where they should have been for the number of years I studied. You can argue that my teacher didn't know what he was doing, but I think first and foremost among his mistakes was failing to see how I'd respond to having a shoulder rest. I think I'd be twice the violinist now if I had been allowed to use an SR as a child.

August 1, 2015 at 02:39 PM · Oh, and "Is a shoulder rest optional?"

Yes!

August 1, 2015 at 02:53 PM · I'm not suggesting that anyone else should or should not use an SR. Possibly for young players it may be best, or maybe not.

There are bad uses of SR's as well as bad non usage of SR's - but all I'm saying is that it worth exploring. Who knows, I might go back to my SR.

I'm not certain, but going back to my orchestral playing days, I might have found it preferable to use a shoulder rest. Long tiring and tedious rehearsals* call for any aid that keeps one sane. This is where cellists win out, they have an instrument that they can lean on, and not have to hold up! (I know it's not the done thing to lean on your cello ...) But I would say the the fiddle players and especially viola players were the ones that often felt worn out, even with excellent usage. And cellists and double basses as well as the brass always made it to the pub first ...

* If you have ever performed in a Ring Cycle you will know just how tedious and tiring reheasals for such an event are. Six hours of slogging in rehearsal and you don't feel like playing through a couple of concertos, or an evening of chamber music. Some of the operas are nearly five hours long ...

August 1, 2015 at 05:42 PM · Some Wagner operas nearly 5 hours long - and that's with about 20 minutes of real music and the rest is gods shouting at each other :) Well, that's possibly a little exaggerated, but the essence is surely there.

August 1, 2015 at 10:19 PM · In the midst of this sr war, I managed to fracture my viva la musica pro shoulder rest during my holidays(I was pressing down on the left too harsh and the screw that keeps the clamps chipped the wood) and tailored three pieces of cloth with leather. I'll say that my playing has gotten much better. Mostly because my range of motion in left shoulder has improved, and I can easily control the angle of the violin with my chin and the left hand.

I am also learning that with my newer chinrest, it's not "left" enough, so I ordered one that protects the tailpiece and further left oriented.

August 1, 2015 at 11:45 PM · @Nate Robinson: I believe that playing WITHOUT a shoulder rest causes damping and muting of the instrument because contact with the flesh, muscle, and cloth will dampen the sound.

A shoulder rest allows the body to be buffered by the rest (and not damped), thus allowing for the fuller sound of the instrument. Also, depending on the size of the person's neck, the right size shoulder pad can place the instrument in a more comfortable position for playing (eliminating neck and back problems later in life).

August 2, 2015 at 06:28 AM · Steven

You have admitted to a really bad fault in your playing. Pressing down on the instrument with the chin/head can only do harm, and to have broken the SR proved just how much you were pressing down.

A lesson well learnt though, and your subsequent actions seem to be positive.

August 2, 2015 at 07:12 AM · I would get a chinrest with black leather and silver spikes. punk look.

the thing that scares me when watching violinists is that there must be a natural tenancy to hold the chinrest with the chin, and this has got to be bad. Other things scare me too. but that's another story.

August 2, 2015 at 02:10 PM · Nate, I have watched some of your fine playing on U-tube. Like your (our) heros, you seem to use your left shoulder occasionally to support your violin, at least partially.

What advice can you give to those of us whose anatomy just doesn't allow this?

August 2, 2015 at 06:43 PM · Nate, thank you for this clarification.

I already have a high chinrest as you have suggested.

My query is about having a shoulder well below the collarbone level, so that momentary shoulder support becomes a major gymnastic exercise!

Also, in very high positions on my viola, and like many of my young female violin students, my left thumb has to leave the neck and either come round the edge of the bout, or slide up the edge of the fingerboard; at such moments, support from the shoulder becomes rather necessary..

August 3, 2015 at 10:27 AM · Adrian, you're allowed to have a shoulder rest. It just has to be invisible inside your suit jacket. Take your tux and your Kun to your tailor and see what he can do.

August 3, 2015 at 05:18 PM · I've taken the rest-less experiment one stage further. Quick re-cap - I've used a Wolf Forte Primo shoulder rest for the last 47 years.

In place of the rest, I have now 'made' a little pad for the shoulder / collarbone - a little bath sponge, cut to shape, and covered with non-slip gripper cloth.

It all works well - it's comfortable, secure, and is not attached to the violin.

Shifting up and down is pretty much the same.

There is now the ability to rotate the violin, as some players do (but is difficult to do with a shoulder rest fitted), however I am a firm believer in *only* making the bow arm do all the work, so no change for me there.

Sound - well, the sound is a little bit different, even though the position of the violin is the same as with the shoulder rest. Is it better? Not that I've noticed. Does the violin resonate more freely? Only a measuring device could give an accurate answer to that one.

So let's stick with this setup for a while. I will persevere (no reason not to), but I can't help get the feeling that you simply need something to plug the gap between your chin and shoulder / collarbone, be it a rest, a pad, or nothing at all (if you have next to no neck). :)

August 10, 2015 at 01:23 PM · *runs away screaming from another shoulder rest thread*

August 10, 2015 at 09:44 PM · I am with Oliviu in running away from these threads. There have been lots of shoulder rest threads on this site. They tend to generate more heat than light. Once there was a poll and about half the respondents used one and half did not. If you look at professionals, some do and some don't. So, the short answer to your question is "yes." It is really a question of what you feel works best for you. Good luck!

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