is complete violin left shoulder freedom possible?

October 16, 2005 at 12:38 AM · Hi all,

I'm a tertiary grad violinist who still struggles with such a seemingly basic question it's embarrasing to post! :-)

q. how to hold the violin without left shoulder tension??

I play the piano and drumkit as well but I feel completely free on these instruments. Despite experimenting with countless chin/shoulder rests/pads (including none at all) the "perfect" setup on violin allowing complete relaxation, and security eludes me. I'm at a loss, apart from the fact that a few of my playing peers feel the same way as me.

just wondering the percentage of replies that fit into the following groups (particularly grad/pro players pls).

(NB when raising the shoulder I mean even a little bit. I don't hunched when i play but I'm still aware my shoulder/neck is tense a bit. As they say, you can't get a little bit pregnant!)

A - raise the left shoulder and see is at unavoidable pretty much all the time

B - raise the shoulder particularly for shifts and tech work but for easy music etc are fairly relaxed. although not perfect

C - don't raise the left shoulder a skerrick. holding the violin is as natural as breathing regardless of repertoire.

q. how important is the shoulder/chin rest for group C respondants?

q. who has acheived the fabled "perfect setup" and if so, how??

q. does anyone else out there feel that modern shoulder rests do not sit up high enough on the shoulder and are a long way from the collarbone - in fact sitting on the shoulder muscles instead? a very unstable area...

q. how many violinists out there play other instruments and feel stifled on the violin (relaxation wise) in comparison?

looking forward to some insight :-p thanks

Replies (19)

October 16, 2005 at 01:49 AM · Well, I'm not a pro or in music school (though I am a very serious amateur) and I play viola, not violin, so I guess I don't fit into the profile you're wanting to survey, but I'll chime in anyway...

I apparently always have my left shoulder slightly lifted when I'm playing. But I don't feel particularly tense doing it. Of course, the muscles have to have some tension to stay in that position, but I'm not really aware of it.

However, I saw a doctor recently for wrist problems (a neurologist who specializes in treating musicians) who said that I needed a higher shoulder rest to avoid the shoulder-lifting (I have a very long neck - there's no way I could play viola without a shoulder-rest).

As far as where the shoulder rest sits on my shoulder - well, mine (a Kun) sits in the bony area right around where the collarbone joins the shoulder. Seems pretty stable to me.

October 16, 2005 at 02:17 AM · Hi,

In response to your questions...

I belong to category C - don't raise the left shoulder a skerrick. holding the violin is as natural as breathing regardless of repertoire.

q. how important is the shoulder/chin rest for group C respondants?

EXTREMELY IMPORTANT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! There is no escape from this, and often many problems can be traced to this - either incorrect of both, and misuse of the shoulder rest.

q. who has acheived the fabled "perfect setup" and if so, how??

There is no such thing as the perfect setup! However, it should be relaxed, effecient and natural and your body should be used in a natural way. Important, but often forgotten is that problems of posture in daily life get accentuated in violin playing. Those need to be dealt with. Only experimenting with proper guidance can lead you to a usable and EFFECIENT setup.

q. does anyone else out there feel that modern shoulder rests do not sit up high enough on the shoulder and are a long way from the collarbone - in fact sitting on the shoulder muscles instead? a very unstable area...

I find this to be true only when the shoulder rest is used incorrectly. The shoulder rest does not hold up the violin. The violin should be balanced between hand, neck, collarbone and shoulder. The shoulder rest is a tool. To be remembered that it will never makeup for a chinrest that does not fit well.

Other things to consider. Bad hand placement (i.e. right and left) can also lead to shoulder problems. Remember that the body is inter-related and works in symetry. Problems can stem from anywhere. There is not a million ways to play effeciently. Basic posture in life and playing is essential. Like in everything, the cause should be searched and then the problem can be erradicated. The important thing is that you have done the right first step - awareness. With that all begins.

Good luck and Cheers!

October 16, 2005 at 07:28 AM · I don't use a rest and don't think I feel tension. I can tell you things I've noticed in setup that people have in common. People might disagree, but this is a combination of what I was taught and have observed. If you think of the bow in an average position, say somewhere around middle of the bow playing A & D string double stop, make the upper arm parallel to the bow in both planes. That relation is more or less maintained regardless of which string. Make the upper arm and lower form a right angle. If you then swing the violin with the chinrest as the hinge point so that the bow is parallel to the bridge, then you end up with most of the right geometry. To finish it, if you're standing straight, make the strings be parallel to the floor and have the upper arm rotated so that the lower arm is parallel to the floor also. The upper and lower arm, bow, and axis of the violin strings form a rectangle.

I think the position of the whole thing rotationally relative to the axis of the body is less standard and probably accounts for body types. Same with position of the chin. Whatever is most comfortable throughout I suppose.

My current favorite player uses a rest. Watching her on video I saw her actually lift the violin off her shoulder for a full half second and re-position it in the middle of a slow passage with no change in sound whatsoever.

Disclaimer: I'm not a violin teacher nor have I ever been a member of the N.Y. Philharmonic. The pro players here shy away from these kinds of questions though unfortunately.

October 16, 2005 at 03:18 AM · I'm still a student but I belong in category C. I haven't always though. Answering your questions though...

q. how important is the shoulder/chin rest for group C respondants?

As Christian said, this is extremely important. I played with no rest when I was little and that worked well but as I grew (I'm very tall) it became a nessecity to have some support. I used a Kun for a fairly long time and that resulted in a lot of pain in my neck even though I didn't have any obvious tension. I experimented with two or three shoulder rests and found that the Wolf Forte-Secondo rest allowed me to be completely free, relaxed and I wasn't having to constantly re-adjust the position of the violin on my shoulder or fidget to get comfortable, I could just put my violin up and play. Even after playing and practicing many hours at a time I don't notice any signs of stress, tension or strain to my body.

q. who has acheived the fabled "perfect setup" and if so, how??

I don't know if anyone really has. The "perfect setup" is different for every individual and everyone has to find what makes them feel the most comfortable and at ease when they play. This can takes months or years of experimenting.

q. does anyone else out there feel that modern shoulder rests do not sit up high enough on the shoulder and are a long way from the collarbone - in fact sitting on the shoulder muscles instead? a very unstable area...

I haven't found my shoulder rest to be uncomfortable or unstable. I have my rest set up so that it is fairly high up on the violin and it rests quite comfortably and meshes well with my body build.

October 16, 2005 at 08:41 AM · Can I add some more questions?

1) If you don't raise your shoulder, how do you keep also your head straight? I feel that I'm likely to bend the neck, either sideways either forward, to block the violin.

2) If I do not raise the shoulder and I do not bend the neck, I feel I have to support the violin with the thumb, which restricts the flexibility for shifts. What's the function of the thumb?

Cheers!

Sarah

October 16, 2005 at 12:43 PM · Hi,

Sarah, the thumb should participate in holding the violin. There is a reason why Milstein, Heifetz, and Szeryng have that classic l.h. thumb position. The violin should be balanced by the hand, the rest or shoulder assisting during shifts when needs be. Even why a shoulder rest, the hand should still be active in holding the violin and feel connected. The principles of playing restless apply even with one using a rest. The rest is a tool.

If you have neck problems, then you may have one of two problems: 1- the chinrest is not the right model for you in shape or height; 2- you may need extra support in the form of padding or shoulder rest (I gather from your post that you do not use one). Granted that I cannot see you, and am therefore in an odd position to make advice, I would suggest going to a luthier and chinrest shop. It's interesting that this is one of the first things I do with new students in my studio. I have tried to skip it, but it doesn't work. I find that addressing the chinrest/shoulder rest issue from the get-go saves time, frustration and pain. I personally go with my students to the luthier and try things. Helps every time.

And I have to admit that in the end, solving setup issues really is the key to true progress (at least it was for me). No amount of practice will overcome something to which a greater obstacle lies.

Cheers!

October 16, 2005 at 12:39 PM · Hi there,

I'm not a pro or a uni music student either but I do take violin seriously.

I'd say I belong in Gp C (I went through the whole re-setting up process about 6 yrs ago). I used to raise my shoulder without knowing until my current teacher told me and kept telling me for a long time until I learnt how NOT to raise the shoulder.

I'm a short person and my neck's average (some would say short!) length, so therefore I don't reqiure a shoulder rest to fill up any spaces since there is none. In fact, the shoulder rest was probably one of the causes for my raised shoulder I believe.

I don't think there's such thing as a "perfect set-up" since everyone's different but there might be a "general acceptable set-up" - signs other people look for in order to tell if a certain person is a good violinst or not (I know that's not always true...) I'm not sure if mine's a "perfect set-up" but it works for me. I basically have my violin sort of on a slop (instead of very flat on the collar bone), my left elbow sightly swing out to the left and I use the side of my chin rather than looking straight at the strings with both eyes. The lack of shoulder rest gives me freedom to move the violin either flatter or "sloppier" on my collar bone. Oh and the scroll of the violin doesn't really point right at the music when I play.

To answer Sarah's question: I keep my head straight by having my violin "more across on the collar bone" so I don't need to bend my neck at all in order to catch the chin rest. (and hence why my violin's more on a slope")

Hope that makes some sense. Cheers!

October 16, 2005 at 06:51 PM · I'm in the amateur-but-I-have-an-opinion camp. Very, very interesting discussion. The only thing I haven't read so far is the force vectors. That is, everyone thinks (naturally) that the pressure is up-and-down (shoulder up, head down), and the violin is therefore held as in a vise.

But the way I was taught, the pressure vectors are NOT up-down, but left-right. In other words, you don't move your shoulder UP, you move it IN, towards your right. At the same time, your head does not move DOWN, but slightly LEFT, so it's this effect:

<-- head

--> shoulder

with the violin caught in between. Therefore, you can hold the violin comfortably without straining all those muscles it takes to press down with your chin and up with your shoulder.

I can't do it perfectly myself, but that's the way I was taught, and that's the way I try to think about when I hold the violin.

This does not necessarily negate anything any of you have said so far. Everyone's anatomy is slightly different.

October 16, 2005 at 08:23 PM · I guess I will respectfully disagree with Sander. I teach that the violin should rest on the collarbone with the space a little over halfway to the shoulder between violin and body filled with a pad or rest.

I teach to place the violin on the collarbone with the head pointing straight ahead. When the violin is comfortably placed and resting stably enough to stay in place held very lightly by the left hand then, and only then, turn your head to the left and let it drop slightly to rest on the chin rest. The weight of the head should be straight down due to gravity. No pinching of the violin between shoulder and jaw.

I think the key to the ease and comfort is if you can play rapidly and comfortably in first position without even touching the chin rest with your jaw.

I think the tension comes from trying to hold the violin in place instaed of placing it properly in the first place.

Having said all that, holding the violin is very dynamic and involves the use of left hand, shoulder, jaw...and the proper posture of the body. A little hunching over to the front will cause a properly placed violin to fall right off. A more erect posture will make it much easier to hold the violin.

October 16, 2005 at 08:45 PM · Hi, Michael: Thank you for your explanation. I didn't say that what I said was right, I said it was the way I was taught. Your excellent and detailed description involved much more of the factors than I was even thinking of, and (of course) I'm certainly not a professional or a teacher. But I see what you are saying, and it gels with the way I was taught in that the overall principle is that the violin should be held naturally and without tension. It's hard to do that, I think you're saying, if you're artifically pressing down. Great discussion. Thank you.

October 21, 2005 at 08:33 AM · Hi Guys!

thanks for the replies. Didn't mean to be exclusive with the grad pro thing, just wanted some feedback from technically advanced players that's all.

- thumb position - I play with a variety of left hand thumb positions depending on what i am doing. i do find a milstein deep thumb style more relaxing than a A.S. Mutter underneath neck thumb style as yes, I can hold up the violin with my left hand more. But it still isn't perfect in terms of tensing the left shoulder.

- I am interested in Jennifers phrase "I apparently always have my left shoulder slightly lifted when I'm playing. But I don't feel particularly tense doing it. Of course, the muscles have to have some tension to stay in that position, but I'm not really aware of it." Don't you feel inhibited in your playing if you know this? I think a lot of players are in this boat of actually being tense but never thinking about it?

mmm Is tension only tension if you are aware of it and think it's tension or is tension inherently unpleasant? I was watching Joshua Bell play on his website and I think he looks incredibly tense when he plays but you could never tell from his sound....

October 21, 2005 at 08:53 AM · Also the only violin position I have found that truly allows me to rest the left shoulder is when the violin actually sits right on top of the shoulder, but this makes it impossible to play by putting it too high up and hard to see.

- I would think that this can be the only truly stable position for the violin as its weight is diametrically opposed by the shoulder/body. But noone plays like this, we all hold the violin sloping on the shoulder further down. Even using a chinrest in the middle over the tailpiece means sloping. Doesn't this mean that there MUST be muscular input from the shoulder to keep it secure??

October 21, 2005 at 11:26 PM · Do I feel inhibited in my playing knowing my muscles are tensed to hold up my viola? Not really. Having my shoulder rest slip or fall off definitely does make me feel that way, though! :)

Think about it: does it bother you that you have tension in your left upper arm? You don't rest your elbow against your side when you play, right? You're using your muscles to keep your arm up at a certain angle. Cellists have to keep their left elbow up while playing. These are things that we've gotten used to, but think about how hard it was to keep everything in position when you were first learning the instrument. You get used to holding your muscles in certain positions - those muscles get stronger to deal with it.

I'm not saying it's good or healthy to keep your shoulder raised, just that it doesn't bother me in my playing, at least so far.

October 26, 2005 at 02:20 PM · Orlando, I completely agree that rests sit too far out on the shoulder, away from the neck. I've been wondering if anyone else felt the same way! Nobody else seems to care, but I definitely get an ache in my shoulder when the weight is too far out.

Others have suggested (I think; tell me if I've got it wrong) that the shoulder rest doesn't actually carry significant weight or pressure; that the support is still by the neck. It doesn't work that way for me, though. With a raised shoulder rest, it works like a fulcrum, with the violin as a lever. So the weight definitely ends up on the shoulder rest.

I currently use a BonMusica rest, and have had to adjust it's shape very carefully in order to have the curve sit on my collarbone, not where it joins the shoulder but very close to my neck. I also hold it with less of a tilt; my collarbone is high, so resting the violin on shoulder and collarbone doesn't give me much tilt anyway.

I grew up using a playonair, but found that I was lifting my shoulder and causing tension. It may be comfortable again, now that I've trained my shoulder out of most of that, but the center-mounted chinrest that I have now cuts into my neck when I use a playonair or a sponge, or go restless. For a while I went chinrest-less, but now I have a different tailpiece with a sharp top edge on it... ah, woe is me.

My setup is far from perfect, but so far so good. As another fellow who uses the BonMusica said, "it's all a matter of angle."

October 26, 2005 at 11:10 PM · This is certainly discussion I'll have to follow and take the time to read. I have suffered from neck and shoulder pains at different points in my life and eventually over came them with changes of playing style or shoulder rests/chin rests. I'm currently using a Schmidt styled chin rest and a Kun Voce. I was previously using a Wolf Secondo which I didn't really have too many problems (usually) with.

When I tried the Voce though I was amazed how much better it felt. Now though, I can hardly play a scale without noticing tension building up in my neck, left shoulder, and then coming into my bicep which inturn affects my vibrato.

I was taking Alexander technique but even with full awareness and release of tension it's impossible to get it to feel perfect.

Almost everyone that tries my violin always comments on my high shoulder rest/chin rest combo. But whenever I try to make it shorter it feels even worse. I must admit that it does't sit too much on my collar bone as the rest positioned more towards the two corners, thus further from my neck.

I think I've caused more confusion that a decent description, oh well.

October 26, 2005 at 11:48 PM · Certainly the bow arm should be more dominant than the left hand when playing. This has been echoed by Leopold Auer, Kurt Sassmanshaus and Herbert Whone, among I'm sure many others - that the right arm has all the executive power, and the left is just like a well-oiled machine doing its job properly.

I've always found the bow works perfectly well on its own when the left hand is balanced properly, it's just achieving it which is the problem. So whatever setup allows you to attain this is probably the right one.

October 28, 2005 at 12:49 AM · hi everyone!

you know I'm slowly coming to the realisation (after lessons with a feldenkrais practitioner) that the only way to free the left shoulder completely is to hold the violin way over to the left...this is the only position I've found where shoulder/chin rest types/positions/adjustments become inapplicable-i think this is all caused by holding the violin too far around the front

I have tried this before but didn't bring my right arm around far enough in front of me as well so it felt wrong...another problem is that in this position it is very difficult to see the strings/fingers.

But, at this stage I'm going to persevere and try and retrain myself until this feels normal - as it actually is i think. My teacher videod me while i was playing in this position and it actually looked perfect (and not too far around at all), even though it felt a bit extreme. Although my right arm feels a bit weird/extended/protruding, it feels much freer than before, I'm having trouble making my bowing straight but I can feel it coming together,

the main issue though is that not too many other people play in this manner. How much are we affected by other peoples playing styles??!! I think we gotta be strong and find our own way, even if it means non conforming.....

July 18, 2007 at 04:05 AM · Hi,

Just curious how this worked out for you - I was looking for thoughts about violin position and left shoulder tension, and found this thread. I've played violin since I was 5 years old (now 32) but still struggle with this. I have tried playing without a shoulder rest but can't get the stability I'm used to... with one I always seem to end up with shoulder tension. Any thoughts most welcome!

July 18, 2007 at 04:15 AM · Greetings,

been giving this a lot of thought recently so glad to see the thread back. This has been a lifetime of exploration and struggle for me. I have an average length neck but can`t use any kind of shoulder rest for reasons I am unable to explain. I can use a pad but don`t like them so in this latter part of my career where I don`t have to work professionally I have been free to explore playing without a rest supporting the violin with the left hand. In general it felt good when I started except there have been moments of feeling unstable and not being comfortable doing long shifts. However, what interests me is that they occured after much playing when I was not fresh enough to maintain good use of the whole body or when I am not payign attention. There are two incidents over the last few years that really stick in my mind. I wa splaying Mozkowski Gitarre at the end of a long recital and I just found myself gripping the violin too much to be able to smoothly execute the octave leaps in triplets. Then, about the same time I did a four hour rehearsal, had a thirty minute break and then had to do another three hour rehearsal for Mahhler five as concertmaster. I was dog tired and as the time I had to make that leap from d sharp up to f on the e string starting the second movement my misuse of the body was such it felt (and sounded terrible). About the same time I had just bought a copy of Agopians book `NO time to practice` which includes a greta deal of leaping aorund the violin combined with trills and the like. MY idea wa sthat if I pracitced this stuff I would get better and better at this area of tehcnique by dint of sheer repetition. Over time I have founf this to not be true. In my case the origin of the problem is in a tendency to hold tension in the thigh muslces and contract the neck.

Thus I was able to achive the necessary smoothness and facility not by paying attention to the left hand, or the shoulder or any othe rlocalized factors. In my case I simply have a clear image of what I need to hear and pay attention to feeling ease and length in my neck. The whole syetem then functions perfectly. I have no idea why and no intention of exploring it. That would bring me back into the habit of exploring local movements , trying harder and harder to `do x` or `do y` instead of allowing the organismn to flow naturally.

That`s why I recommend Alexander Technique to all violinists.

Cheers,

Buri

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