Left thumb balance, without a shounder rest

September 23, 2006 at 03:13 AM · Having been using a Wolfe shoulder rest since I started playing two years ago, I have put it to one side and am experimenting without. This is because of a slight tendency to tighten in the shoulders and I'm not happy with the fixation to the upper body that can be encouraged by using a shoulder rest.

Despite having a long neck and had the shoulder-rest extended quite high, I am now managing surprisingly well with just a piece of chamois leather over my collar-bone where the violin sits, while my thumb balances the neck. I am gradually getting used to shifting without it wobbling.

I'm a teacher of the Alexander Technique so I'm very conscious of maintaining free, expansive poise for support.

I see from videos that Menuhin had his left thumb to the side of the neck and not underneath, while maintaining a significant gap between the knuckle of his forefinger and the neck. In otherwords, the instrument seemed to hover to the side of his thumb, without apparent support otherwise. If anyone can offer a tip or advice to how to achieve this, I'll be very grateful. Thanks, Noel

Replies (25)

September 23, 2006 at 03:31 AM · Try making a backward L with your left thumb, then set the neck of the violin on the bottom of the L between the two joints closest to the tip of the thumb. The thumb supports the neck without having to bring the tip underneath. The palm of your hand creates an arch, and the index finger may or may not touch the neck at its base joint, depending on the circumstance. This is not the same as resting the neck all the way down in the fleshy part of the V, nor is it the same as supporting the violin with the thumb's tip.

When you shift, you can easily slide the thumb up and down the neck while still supporting the instrument, all without any squeezing.

When I started playing without a shoulder rest, I was unsatisfied with my left hand until I found this technique. It completely eliminates the need to squeeze the neck between your thumb and index.

September 23, 2006 at 03:51 AM · Greetings,

a photo of your hand would be helpful!;

However, I suggest you simply move your thumb a litlte closer to your nose. If you go too far it will tense the hand but done right it will liberate the hand and the violin will float as you wish.

Also approach the problem from another angle. Put a piec eof foam betwene scroll and wall and practice lots of one string sclaes such as Flesch. Plus, one finger scales such as found in the Galamina book or Yost. You can kepe the thum -off- the violin the whole time and slightly closer to your nose. Really leanr this feeling of complete lightness and freedom. then use the last few minutes of your pracitce to play as normal but with the samme feeling of freedom.

Incidentally, tension in the thumb tends to override awarness of tension in the other fingers because it has a stronger feedback connection with the brain. But very often the actual origin of tension is in the base jint of the firts finger. This may be continuous or occur just before a shift or rapid passage work. Make a point of pausing befor eall such moments and consciously relaxing the first finger joint. It can enhanc etehcnique to a remarkable degree.

Of course, this tesning may well be a response to the loss of primamry control so check thta out well you are at it....



September 23, 2006 at 03:56 PM · trying to do it without proper guidence, can actually hurt you.

I suggest taking some lessons with Aaron Rosand.

He set me free and set me straight on that issue.


To extrapolate on your inquiry, when one wishes to pursue playing the violin without a shoulder rest, it also requires a shift of the body center (in relation to the fiddle & vica versa), and a more astute left hand thumb in relation to the neck of the instrument.

I would say, doing some left hand exc.'s without the bow will be very benificial (when one is dropping the use of shoulder rest). You can find them (exc.'s) either in Dounis book, Carl Flesch book or Simon Fischer book.

One very specific & beneficial excercise without the use of bow, is like walking:

try the first finger (LH) and thumb very slowly from first position and up on the same string. You can try with the thumb going first, 1st finger follows etc. etc. etc. Up & Down the fingerboard then try with the 1st finger starting and the thumb following etc.

later try with thumb and 2, etc etc etc.

September 23, 2006 at 09:22 PM · What has worked for me is to take as much weight OFF the left thumb as possible. Since you are not using a shoulder rest it may (at first) seem harder to hold the violin and more weight is left resting on the thumb, making it hard to shift. However, I transfer more of that weight to my collarbone, chin, & shoulder and try to leave as little on the thumb as possible. (I do use my shoulder, btw, and I've heard that raising it can cause injury. I don't raise it too much and have been doing this for 3 years, injury free). I have a short neck, though, so that helps.

September 23, 2006 at 09:28 PM · Greetings,

I once turnrd up restless for a lesson with Erick Gruenberg. He looked at me for a few moments and then said 'Oh, you are making things dififuclt for yourself.' I then asked him how to go about shifting and he said you can raise the shoudler to support the violin. I had always thought this was taboo and he saw that in my face I guess because then he said "It really doesn"t matter if you raise the shoulder, as long as it comes down again..." Then he smiled and said rather dryly'of couyrse, in the Paginini cocnerto your shoudler is going to be raised an awful lot of the time..."



September 23, 2006 at 09:54 PM · Buri,

Rosand would actually point out that it is not really raising the shoulder as it is putting the shoulder out.....

I have been playing this way for 12 years now, injury free and have won my Seattle Symphony job this way (as well as playing with my odeonquartet this way).

Actually, when I started the violin in Odessa, USSR, I started without the shoulder rest. The "crutch" was thrust upon me when I had arrived to NYC.

It was not until I met and studied with Aaron Rosand, that "I came back home", since the shoulder rest never really felt comfortable for me. One could do better with a door stop :)

September 24, 2006 at 01:21 PM · Hi all. As a fellow Rosand es-pupil, I'm with Gennady. But I put similar things in different words. If you have some time, please visit my website - http://rkviolin.com. Click on "writings" and see "Fundamentals of holding the violin and bow". Early on in the article I go into a lot of detail about the shoulder rest, and how to play without one. My approach is very closely based on Rosand's - with an innovation or two of my own. Eventually I hope to post some illustrative photos in that article. Let me know how it works for you.

Regarding tension in the thumb specifically, without disputing other ideas, see if the following exercise helps: practice some scale or passage in a slow to moderate tempo. As you do - especially in the lower positions, gently slide the thumb up and down a bit while the rest of the hand remains in place. It's impossible to do this with a very tense thumb, and can lead to greater awareness when you go back to playing normally.

September 24, 2006 at 06:44 PM · Noel Kingsley, Leonid Kogan has an "Interpretations" video where you can observe his violin posture.

Similarly, Aaron Rosand has a nice website (aaronrosand.com) that features some beautiful pictures and stuff for sale. I strongly recommend his latest recital video - you'll see the posture that Gennady and Raphael are talking about.

Of course, nobody can forget Heifetz videos. They're very educational too.

September 24, 2006 at 07:39 PM · I'm getting confused. Everyone is talking now about releasing tension in the thumb, where it looked to me like the original poster was asking how to play without touching the index finger to the side of the fingerboard.

September 24, 2006 at 08:01 PM · Hi Emily,

Feel free to call, we can discuss it further if you'd like.

September 25, 2006 at 03:44 AM · Greetings,

Gennady, Iagree with your and Mr?Rosand`s postion. I never raise the shoulder to support a shift. Not necessary. Should have clarified that one.



September 25, 2006 at 03:56 AM · Emily I hold the violin the way you described,along with a shoulder rest. Placing the thumb in this manner, helps prevent the player from trying to hold the violin just with the chin alone. In my opinion, the left thumb and the chin, more the left thumb, supports the violin. I guess what ever works for the player.

September 25, 2006 at 09:23 PM · I'm reminded of a funny story that Rosand told us. A friend of his had studied with Heifetz. At the first class Heifetz told him "Take off the scaffolding."


-Take off the scaffolding!


The other students whispered "your shoulder rest. Take it off."

-Oh, I see... Mr. Heifetz, I want to do whatever you tell me, but I've never played without one. How do I do it?

-You'll find out

A year passed and he still hadn't figured it out. He begged Heifetz for a hint.

"Alright, move the shoulder over a little bit."

I don't know if that really happened, but that's how I remember Rosand telling it!

September 30, 2006 at 03:20 AM · I think it's achieved through magic. At least, that's how they taught us to do it at Hogwarts.

Seriously, I haven't done a lot of analysis, so I don't know how valuable this comment is going to be, but I have to admit one thing I notice about my thumb orientation since going sans shoulder rest, is that it moves all over the place, and I never worry about making sure there's always a little gap underneath--I let my thumb tell me how to get there before I start telling my thumb what to do.

September 30, 2006 at 05:26 AM · Hi all.

Regarding the left shoulder, there is a photo of Kreisler I've seen in a cd booklet (can't remember which) and you can clearly see that he has his left shoulder very much forward, supporting the violin. Looks a bit weird, but there you go. Great players do what works. This may have been only a fleeting moment, caught by the camera, and Kreisler resumed a normal posture later. Or maybe he always played like that.

I remember years ago trying to emulate Menuhin's left thumb. I gave up and found my own way to do it.

October 11, 2006 at 09:07 AM · Thank yoiu for all your helpful comments. Sorry not to have acknowledged earlier but I have been away. I've been working on the dexterity of my left thumb and found it's getting much easier. Thanks, Kimberlee and all. I've written more on the other discussion 'Vibrato with no shoulder rest' as it's more current and ongoing.

Thanks All,


March 17, 2008 at 11:45 PM · Should a beginner who is interested in playing w/out a shoulder rest (viz. "me") make sure they study with a teacher who doesn't use a rest? If so, is there some way to find one (I'm supposing there isn't some massive on-line database of every violinist in the world who doesn't use a rest).

March 18, 2008 at 12:26 AM · I'm not a beginner but finding a teacher who doesn't use a rest has been an ongoing quest for me. I had one teacher once who didn't use a rest but then she changed and went back to using one. So I've gotten through years of study without a teacher who plays like me. Good luck on finding a teacher. Some areas seem prone to strong prejudice against playing without - no doubt due to the influence of string faculty violinists nearby and their strong ideas.

Clayton Haslop's DVD's might help supplement your studies if you can't find a teacher who plays rest-less. Mr Haslop plays without.

March 18, 2008 at 02:14 AM · When I was a kid, I had a teacher who actually made us play *without the thumb*. Difficult, and sounds awful, but once we were allowed to use our thumbs again things went smoothly from there on!

March 18, 2008 at 02:44 AM · Nathan,

I suppose the answer to your question would depend upon the teacher, however my teacher uses a rest, whereas I do not. Nonetheless, her insight and ability as a teacher is not compromised. Also, a bit of wrist tendinitis and a touch of arthritis in my basal joint make me keenly aware of any tension in my left hand, especially my thumb! In short, it makes it easy for me to realize when I am doing things wrong, and I immediately set myself right.


March 18, 2008 at 07:46 AM · In one of the volumes of "The Way They Play" (I can't remember who it was - but he was Russian!) but there is a very good description of how to set the thumb without a shoulder rest and how to to place the violin on the collar bone. Varga, who never used a shoulder rest, always recommended using a chin rest (he had one designed)that had an extra lip on the edge to give the violin more security during shifting. He placed the thumb pointing out sideways (like hitching) and in a position between the 1st and 2nd finger when there is a space of a tone between the fingers. Hope that helps but I think the others are correct - find someone to show you who doesn't use a shoulder rest. There are plenty of great players who use a shoulder rest.

March 18, 2008 at 11:20 AM · Hi Nate,

I think that in most cases, the answer is yes. Some people who use rests or some sort of support have the knowledge on how to play without, but the great majority don't, so I would urge a person interested in playing restless to have contact with someone who doesn't use it in most cases.

That said, I find it depressing to have to give this kind of advice, but most people who use rests place the hands incorrectly, and use their movements incorrectly (the left hand thumb is one major flaw, as is shifting). Although this is just as injurious to do with a shoulder rest, unless the person knows the proper mechanics, it will be impossible for the young person to find a way to play without it.


P.S. Now, I don't know how advanced the person is, but either way, if we are talking about the NYC area, could I recommend Keng-Yuen Tseng?

March 18, 2008 at 12:09 PM · I would like to comment on what Christian had to say:

"...most people who use rests place the hands incorrectly, and use their movements incorrectly (the left hand thumb is one major flaw, as is shifting). Although this is just as injurious to do with a shoulder rest, unless the person knows the proper mechanics, it will be impossible for the young person to find a way to play without it."

Christian, I believe you are completely correct. For one, it was not until I dropped my shoulder rest that I was able to eliminate all tension in my thumb. It seems a bit of an contradiction, but the stability (or rigidity) the rest offered allowed me to play with tension. Without a shoulder rest, this is nearly impossible.

March 18, 2008 at 01:02 PM · I really don't think anyone needs a teacher to show them how to play without a shoulder rest. It's really quite simple I think. The most important focal point of all is relaxation. A few key points to consider when playing without the rest to find that freedom:

First of all, locate your collarbone and place the fiddle there. Try to find a balancing point between left hand and collarbone (everyone's is different). The thumb should act no more than just a guide, sometimes even try practicing without the thumb on sustained notes when you start to feel tense. I make sure to have as little contact with the shoulder and the back plate of the instrument as possible. Too much shoulder contact will reduce the ring in the sound. Leopold Auer wrote a section in one of his books where he discussed this very issue which I found very helpful.

March 22, 2008 at 03:10 AM · Check out Laurie Niles' tremendous blog titled -

"Tafelmusik baroque ensemble plays rest-free and easy"

Published: Feb. 7, 2008 at 11:02 PM

Last modified: Feb. 8, 2008 at 5:42 AM

It explains in a simple video how to play without both a shoulder rest and chinrest.

Extremely insightful to anyone trying to uncover the "mystery."

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