Playing Without a Shoulder Rest

November 6, 2015 at 03:15 PM · Hello Forums,

I'm an adult beginner (27 y/o) who's been playing the viola now for about six months, and it's coming along really well. I really love it. Right now my tone is just now starting to sound pretty decent and my vibrato is getting consistent (finally!). However, something I've been struggling with since day one is holding the instrument.

I had a rather unorthodox teacher for a few months who insisted on not using a shoulder rest. I've used a shoulder rest before and I like that too, but I'm now so accustomed to playing without one that I feel too locked in when I use one. My problem, however, is that I can never get the same security holding up the viola without a shoulder rest, which makes everything a lot harder: shifting, vibrato, etc. I can still do it but I just feel like I'm doing something wrong. And since I know it's basically impossible to get into the specifics of my particular hold over the internet, I just wanted to ask if anyone had any general tips about holding the viola without a SR that might be useful. Also, it's normal that the viola feels much less secure without a shoulder rest, right? Is it normal that I keep having to change and readjust the angle of my thumb (where the neck is resting) in order to vibrate?

Sorry that this is pretty vague; but any tips would be very much appreciated, as I can't really afford to get a proper instructor at the moment.


Replies (32)

November 6, 2015 at 04:24 PM · Bringing up a thread that includes both a viola and a shoulder rest?!

That's some mighty thin ice you're skating on....


I also play viola (17.5") without a SR. I have a little piece of non-slip rubber I glued on to my chin rest clamp, that keeps the body end of teh viola from sliding down off my shoulder, which helps give the illusion of security.

I'll see if I can post a pic of it.

November 6, 2015 at 04:54 PM · In my "restless" youth, I had a chinrest with a pronounced lip to hook under my jaw and keep the viola on my collarbone. I too found that the thumb had to readjust continually. For a flexible vibrato, I usually had the pad of my thumb under the viola neck.

Long sessions and desk-sharing brought me back to a well set-up CR-SR combination, though.

November 6, 2015 at 06:31 PM · Agree about the chinrest with a prominent hook (I play restless violin, and the instrument drops down 80 degrees without my hand holding it all the time).

Also, the hand needs to adjust slightly for vibrato unless you can basically hold the instrument parallel without your hand to prop it up (not while you play, which is when your hand will lightly hold the instrument up to preserve the health of your neck).

November 6, 2015 at 07:40 PM · If the viola rests on the shoulder, it's like using the Abominable Shoulder Rest! I know folks who do this, but I cannot.

If I use the base of the index as part of the L.H. support, my vibrato sounds like a goat. I can play the violin like this, but not the viola, where I want a varied, warm vibrato.

November 6, 2015 at 07:59 PM · My little non-slip grip I glued onto the chinrest mount.

November 6, 2015 at 08:52 PM · Thanks everyone very much! This is all very helpful.

That non-slip pad is an interesting idea, @Seraphim! I'll have to try that out. Do you get something like that at Home Depot or something?

Also, @A.O., I'm glad to hear that it's not just me: I can barely hold the viola without my left hand and no shoulder rest; I really have to clamp down and even then it just dangles there pointing at the ground. If that's normal then I feel a lot better about it. :)

November 6, 2015 at 09:13 PM · I took the CR mount off, glued some textured rubber to it, trimmed off the excess, and re-,ounted the CR.

You could also use a square of that non-slip shelf liner stuff, draped over your shoulder to prevent slippage (maybe not so elegant..)

November 6, 2015 at 10:43 PM · In my experience, it is quite unusual for a violist to play without an SR. Even violists who play violin without an SR usually use one or some appropriate substitute.

November 7, 2015 at 02:55 AM · I play with a 16" viola and use two cosmetic sponges (one on each side as a sort of "saddle") to keep things from sliding around.

The trick is finding where the viola literally rests on the collar bone so your left hand is mostly free (it is never completely free). Sometimes that means finding a different CR. The other trick is letting the neck rest on your thumb without gripping. Easier said than done.

November 7, 2015 at 03:52 AM · I tried a shoulder rest with my viola. Lasted all of 60 seconds. Some kind of torture device..the shoulder rest is. Now I use a cosmetic sponge to protect my collarbone. Never noticed any slippage issues.

November 7, 2015 at 03:28 PM · Bottom line. Everyone is different: there is no moral, ethical, competitive imperative about your choice of setup. If it works, allows you comfort/pain free playing, flexibility to maneuver, doesn't stop you from any technique you want to employ, and the instrument sounds its best, then it's a good setup for you. There are evangelists on both sides of the sr fence. Grain of salt always wise. Personal experience always best.

The mechanics of holding a viola are somewhat different from violin, simply because of the greater length/weight of the instrument.

I know one violist (personally) who plays w/o sr, but she also plays w/o cr, and mostly plays Baroque rep. she also has a very short neck

November 7, 2015 at 04:21 PM · "the greater length/weight of the instrument", not to mention the greater width, and greater vibrating string length, and the greater clearance under the strings, which themselves vibrate more widely, needing a firmer hand and more resilient vibrato..

For strong, flexible access to the lower strings with my short fingers, my viola is tilted 45° (30° for my violin.)

In the high positions, my left thumb tip comes round the upper bout, or even along the edge of the fingerboard (I've seen both Bashmet and Vengerov do this), so for me the SR is vital, but mr CR/SR setup is so well customised that I hardly feel it.

November 7, 2015 at 05:28 PM · You can find a variety of self-adhesive rubber type materials at your local crafts store. You just need something that gives you a little friction against your shirt. Lots of things will work.

November 8, 2015 at 04:25 AM · Thanks again everyone. One more question: is it actually possible to hold a viola without a shoulder rest and without using your left hand, so it's parallel to the ground? Mine is only 15.5" and I feel like it's basically impossible to hold it horizontal without a shoulder rest. Would getting a higher chinrest help with that? Is it even necessary to be able to hold it that way?

November 8, 2015 at 06:18 AM · In my experience it's not possible to hold either vln or vla by the chin alone w/o shoulder rest, unless one puts undue stress raising the shoulder. But, as I said above, every body's different. Not sure why you'd want to except to tighten your bow...

November 8, 2015 at 06:34 AM · That's good to hear. I was just worried because all the instructional videos things that I see online stress that it's important to be able to only hold it with chin/jaw and shoulder/collarbone. Usually they are using SR's though.

November 8, 2015 at 08:54 AM · Every single "restless" player I know, or have watched, uses support from a raised shoulder at least part of the time, even those who hotly deny it!. I can't do this: the gap under the viola is too great. To play restless, my left thumb must support the viola.

And I don't see why the viola should held very high: the 'cello isn't, and it seems to work..

November 8, 2015 at 11:18 AM · It does not matter if you are using a shoulder rest or not : please refer to the three points of contact when holding the violin/viola.

November 8, 2015 at 12:27 PM · Indeed Brian, this excellent article covers all the various aspects.

One phrase is incomplete: the "small gap" between the back of the violin and the shoulder. It should say "the often" or "sometimes" small gap: in my case the gap is emormous, if I want to hold my viola proud and high like a violinist!

And Marjorie "Not sure why you'd want to" (use the shoulder) "except to tighten your bow..."

..or, as I said above, when my thumb has to leave the viola neck entirely in the high positions.

November 8, 2015 at 10:02 PM · I have NEVER had to remove my thumb entirely in any position on either violin or viola. In the stratosphere, it moves to the shoulder bout, but to let go altogether? No way.

Even Midori doesn't do that; she has that little attachment thing. Gripping with the chin/shoulder tightly enough to make it feasible to play 'handless' on anything like a regular basis will (not might, will) eventually create serious shoulder issues.

November 8, 2015 at 10:55 PM · @Brian Thanks that's a great article. Although I've never heard to keep the base of the index finger on the neck while vibrating.I know someone who does that but isn't it usually recommended that the thumb be the main point of contact on the left hand?

November 9, 2015 at 06:31 AM · Marjory, I said my thumb has to leave the neck, not the viola!

Whether it comes round the bout, or along the side of the fingerboard, it can no longer support the viola: the shoulder has to take part.

And I don't "grip" with my shoulder and jaw: I "balance" the viola. No issues, even at 66yo!

November 9, 2015 at 08:33 AM · Greetings,

there is absolutely no virtue in being able to hold up a violin paralle to the ground (let alone a viola) without the support of the left arm. Except for a small number of no neck physiques both instruments will probably dangle with the scroll pointing in the direction of the ground. Its not an issue and one shouldnt b trying to solve it. One thing you might find useful as a viola player is to place a rolled up cloth under you armpit. This supports the left arm without serving in anyway as a shoulder r rest and helps one to stop tensing the neck. The head is so heavy anyway that just relaxing a minimal amount of weight onto a good chinrest should keep the instrument secure in tandem with the left hand.

In th e long run there probably arent that many viola players who can do without a shoulder rest. Just keep it to the absolute minimum. There is nothing wrong with playing the viola like a cello either.



November 9, 2015 at 10:59 AM · Andrew, "with the base of the first finger lightly sliding against the neck of the violin, and in some cases moving slightly and briefly away from the neck"..

So the neck can rest against but not on the base of the index e.g. for passage-work, and separate slightly e.g. for vibrato.

My 2 centimes d'Euro..

November 10, 2015 at 06:16 PM · This video may help:

Do you use baroque shifting? Do watch the Guarneri Quartet on Youtube. Arnold Steinhardt uses a raised chin rest instead of a shoulder rest.

November 11, 2015 at 09:03 PM · As always, Buri is talking sense.

The average weight of viola must be around 0.5 kilos. Your head likely weighs ten times more. Lightly resting your jaw on the rest should be all that's needed to keep things in place, provided your chinrest has a decent lip.

I highly recommend Seraphim's arrangement of putting something non-slip on the chinrest mount. I do something similar, but with some felt I got from a sewing shop.

The idea that you have to be able to hold up the instrument hands-free is quite common, but in my opinion downright dangerous. The arm evolved to hold things up - the neck most certainly didn't evolve to press things down. It's simply asking for an injury. Whether you play with or without a rest, I would strongly suggest using your arm as the primary support for the instrument and using any shoulder rest for stability alone. I know a violist who gave herself a lifelong painful neck injury, so this is not a small matter...

November 11, 2015 at 11:53 PM · Some of the teaching material of yesteryear has a lot to answer for. I have in mind an old Novello violin tutor that is pre-WW2 and so before the advent of the shoulder-rest. This tutor has a photo of W H Reed, a well-known CM and violin teacher of the time (see Wikipedia), posing with his hands-free violin being clamped between chin and shoulder and sticking out at right-angles to his torso. Many thousands of violin pupils must have been influenced by this photo and enjoined by their well-meaning teachers to do likewise, probably with long-term adverse effects in quite a few cases.

I don't use a SR, have no problems with shifting and vibrato, and wouldn't dream of attempting Reed's pose; and I doubt whether he, with his undoubted ability, would have actually played gripping like that with the chin.

It is worth remembering that effective shifting and vibrato are closely associated - they both depend on a relaxed left arm, from the finger tips to the collar bone. You're not going to get that required level of relaxation if the chin is clamped down on the chinrest.

November 12, 2015 at 01:06 AM · This method of jamming the violin between the shoulder rest and the chin (not using the left hand at all to give support) is still quite common. You will see many youtube videos from violin teachers saying that this is how you MUST play the violin 'The left hand should be completely free to move up and down the fingerboard'.

Good grief, no wonder so many people end up in pain ! I did challenge a few of them on this but they all replied 'Well, that is how I was taught and that is how I teach it'.

November 12, 2015 at 06:07 AM · Brian, I agree with the last bit. At least I play both ways, and all of my students receive tailor-made advice.

But may I insist again that when I use support from the shoulder, I do not clamp: the weight of my head balances the viola, with the the relaxed shoulder contact as a "fulcrum", see-saw fashion.

Also, the OP plays viola: I play both, (treating the volin as a "little" viola!)and the issues are greater on the longer, wider, heavier instrument.

Edit: BTW, the huge gap between the viola and my shouklder has nothing to do with my longish neck, but rather the slope of my shoulders.

November 12, 2015 at 12:44 PM · Brian, I know a number of fine violinists in my orchestras who use SRs but most of the time they're playing the chin hardly touches the chinrest, so they are tension-free. I don't use a SR but my teacher taught me how to move the left hand freely up and down the full length of the fingerboard without clamping my chin down on the chinrest, a light contact being all that is required in descending shifts. Consequently, if I lessen the support by my left hand the violin will automatically droop and point towards the floor - no big deal, the lip of the chinrest is still there!

Incidentally, my teacher herself uses a shoulder rest (a Bon Musica I believe) but never insisted that I use one. Her teaching of shifting and vibrato skills - and a good relaxed posture - to a pupil who doesn't use a SR demonstrated what an excellent job her teacher Shinichi Suzuki did.

November 20, 2015 at 05:00 AM · hi friends, first of all, plane without a SR is sound. it gives you so many colors, while sr doesn't let You.

November 22, 2015 at 08:16 PM · My older, more sensitive instruments may give very slighly fewer colours, but my playing has more colours with a SR!

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