Violin Wobble Without Shoulder Rest

April 30, 2018, 12:29 AM ·
So I have followed the whole shoulder rest vs no shoulder rest discussion and have recently decided to try to learn how to play without one. But I have come across a couple problems (naturally) from this.
1. I can't hold the violin up using just the neck and shoulder. It just slips down in front of me.
2. Shifting has gotten more difficult and vibrato is almost impossible.
3. Lastly, every time I place my fingers down on the E or G strings the violin 'wobbles' it goes down the comes back up after the pressure is released.

Did you experience this when you were learning violin? I would prefer to be able to play without a shoulder rest but should I not bother?

Replies (32)

Edited: April 30, 2018, 5:07 AM · Some folks play better without a SR, and are very proud of the fact.
Others simply cannot, while some can choose.
A very few of them support the violin only on the collarbone and left hand, with never any support from the shoulder.

But collarbones, necks, shoulders, jaw-lines, thumbs, pinkies etc,etc, are as varied as noses.
Violins are not so varied.

It's fun to try playing restless, and it awakens new awareness of the instrument. But you still need to play easily and convincingly those beautiful sounds running round in your own head..

April 30, 2018, 4:40 AM · Something like a chamois leather on your shoulder should solve 1.
April 30, 2018, 5:21 AM · In the past 55 years of playing music with other people on at least a weekly basis, I am the only one I have seen play the violin without a shoulder rest - and I have only done that about 10% of that time.

Other than checking out other chinrest shapes for a better fit and using chamois to protect your skin and get a better grip I would not give it another thought. Put the SR back on.

Being abler to play restless is convenient, but not worth doing if it spoils your playing or your fun at all.

April 30, 2018, 7:12 AM · What Andrew said.

I do not understand the mania for going restless against all evidence to the contrary. A shoulder rest is a tool, not a moral failure. If you’re more comfortable without it, play without it. If you’re more comfortable with it, then use it.

The vast majority of violinists in my orchestra use one, as do the vast majority of soloists who come through. You might find it instructive to go to YouTube and look up videos of professional soloists and professional orchestras. Take note of how many players at the highest level are using a shoulder rest.

Edited: April 30, 2018, 8:20 AM · No reason to avoid a rest if your playing works well with one, and you like it - as Mary Ellen said, top players in my generation and younger use one aplenty. If you have a stable equilibrium that you are technically and musically happy with, fine, why mess with it?

But there _is_ a working technique to not using one (most player who learned before 1950 didn't seem to use one, or used only a sponge in the jacket), so your questions must have answers. I'll see if I can articulate them. For an authoritative discussion of this sort of thing, see Ricci's Left Hand Technique book, or for a more extreme point of view, Stanley Ritchie's "Before the Chinrest" (baroque style, neither chinrest nor shoulder rest).

1) Without a rest, you don't attempt to hold the instrument horizontal without your left arm at all. (Beginners are often taught to be able to drop the left arm and walk around. This is _only_ possible with a shoulder rest, or way too much neck tension.) It is balanced on the collarbone, but supported in part by the slightest-possible pressure between your left thumb and the base of your left index finger. Upside of this is you can vary the horizontal angle of the instrument slightly for variety of sound, and rotate it on its axis very slightly to help with changing between strings. Downside is if you're not careful you can get tension in your left hand.

This is btw easier and more natural on some instruments than others. I learned it when I tried a very light instrument whose balance was closer to the chinrest than the scroll vs most I'd played.

2) Shifting and vibrato. I find upshifts realtively easy but downshifts are a whole new ballgame. Mostly they are done either with a pivot of the hand, or leading with the left thumb (thumb moves first, then hand). Either read Ruggiero Ricci's book, or watch folks like Ricci, Milstein, or Heifitz on video. I have very flexible joints and sometimes leave my thumb at the base of the next while reaching back into first position, but only for short excursions out of 3-4 position, and this approach probably won't work for most people. There is a sense in which restless players will find 3rd or 4th position to be more of a natural "home base" than 1st. Edit: you can also tilt the scroll a bit up while downshifting - this can help a lot. You'll see Milstein for instance doing this on some videos.

3) If this is giving you serious trouble you may want to try to get a lesson with a teacher who plays this way, as it is probably best diagnosed by an actual expert, in person, unless working on #1 helps. I haven't experienced this myself, so I can only guess.

April 30, 2018, 8:54 AM · First of all, have you thought about using a different chin rest? Have you thought about a higher chin rest if you're going to go restless? I agree with others that if playing with a shoulder rest is the only way for you to play with ease and comfort, do it. Alternatively, maybe a sponge or pad might be a compromise.
Edited: April 30, 2018, 5:45 PM · Right. Some good points brought up so far.

If you are reasoning that you want to play without a SR “Because that’s how the Old Masters used to play....” that’s probably not a very good reason.

If you want to play with a SR “Because that’s how Hillary Hahn plays...” again, a poor reason in and of itself.

However, if you find playing with a SR is painful for you. Or if it feels overly restrictive, then yes, try learning how to play without one.

If you decide the wobbly no SR manner of playing is just too insecure and can’t be overcome, then learn how to play with a SR. They certainly stabilize the violin.

April 30, 2018, 8:29 PM · Aidan,

I tried playing without a SR and I liked some things about it but didn't think it was going to work for me. But it's definitely doable for some. Here's the most credible and practical resource I found on it:

April 30, 2018, 10:13 PM · Thanks, Francis that really helped me to understand more about not using an SR. Craig, I did feel a little restricted from the SR which is why I wanted to try without it! I'm just experimenting with what works for me since I haven't been playing very long. Ella, I do want to get a different type of chin rest, but I live in Africa in the middle of nowhere, but I am trying to get one, its just taking a while. (also new strings).
May 1, 2018, 12:40 AM · Hi Aidan,

Happy to hear to your exploration! The key is not to get fixated about it. Keep experimenting and your body will find a balance point for the instrument where the "wobble" becomes the flexibility.

>>1. I can't hold the violin up using just the neck and shoulder. It just slips down in front of me.

Yep you can't do that without a shoulder rest or sponge/adhesive material that will keep instrument in place. The whole point of not using shoulder rest: to feel the instrument balanced on your left hand and collarbone.

>> 2. Shifting has gotten more difficult and vibrato is almost impossible.

You're squeezing because the hand is freaking out with the responsibility of supporting the instrument. Do some Yost with and without shoulder rest. It'll take time to get comfortable. It'll gradually get easier over time when you stop squeezing.

>> 3. Lastly, every time I place my fingers down on the E or G strings the violin 'wobbles' it goes down the comes back up after the pressure is released.

You probably haven't found the right spot to place the violin. Many people not using a shoulder rest put their jawbone on the center on violin and not on the plate. When the instrument is secure, the effects of your finger weight is minimal and shouldn't disturb your playing.

Again as many posters have pointed out, don't kill yourself about going restless. But don't be detracted's really like learning a bicycle or learning a swim, you're really putting yourself outside your comfort zone, but will discover so much afterwards, (and that's regardless whether you ultimately decide to use a shoulder or without.)

Edited: May 1, 2018, 4:54 AM · Mary Ellen Goree wrote, "I do not understand the mania for going restless against all evidence to the contrary. You might find it instructive to go to YouTube and look up videos of professional soloists and professional orchestras. Take note of how many players at the highest level are using a shoulder rest."

The implied question is a good one, and deserves good answers, so I offer mine. There are other possible answers, and many have been aired here over the years. I am not a great violinist so it is not guidance, just one personal perspective to think over and respond to.

My takeaway from videos is different, because I am not looking at the count of restful soloists so much as which ones I'd be more comfortable imitating.

For example, compare videos of Vengerov and Repin--similar age and training, both are fine players. I have seen both live. To me Vengerov just does not look like his neck position is comfortable, and restless Repin's does. If you disagree and you find Vengerov's position is a better model, to the limited extent one can use Youtube for guidance, then the conclusion is obvious: the rest is beneficial.

To my mind staying flexible is tough to learn, with or without a rest, takes a bit of practice and guidance, and Aidan Wright, the OP, points out there can be a problem with the instrument slipping down the whole time. I have bought the idea that a flexible and relaxed setup is beneficial. A shoulder rest need not spoil that. Clamping down on a rest and keeping the instrument a stable and static as possible as a method to prevent the instrument slipping does in my mind create a problem for the flexibility I see in Repin and not in Vengerov.

Now I am not saying that soloists without rests are always better players. I do prefer to Repin to Vengerov. By contrast, here are two female violinists of roughly similar age:

Min Lee:

Min Kym

Arguably, Min Kym is the better violinist. Nevertheless, to me she does not look comfortable holding the instrument, whereas Min Lee, with her little pad, and her almost Heifetz-like setup perhaps influenced by her teacher Friedman, is much closer to something which in my eyes is comfortable and a good start for the kind of long healthy playing setup of which Milstein is a master.

So there is one answer to your question: if you post back saying that you find Vengerov's position a preferable model for your playing to Repin's, or Min Kym's to Min Lee's, no one can disagree. Besides, many great players play wonderfully despite postural issues which would be an impediment for most of us, so there is no point in arguing. That was just an explanation of one the reasons which happens to have influenced me, why some people might prefer the restful and restless experiment.

May 1, 2018, 4:56 AM · I would like just to note that in my opinion, although watching performers, top ones included, may be helpful and insightful, the combination of movements is too difficult and subtle to observe in their entirety and variety. Even more difficult to emulate.
I think therefor an experienced non dogmatic teacher who will at least instill essential features common to both restful or restless playing is extremely helpful. Equally is a proper chin rest. Then reading, looking at YouTube videos, discussing it here or elsewhere is a complementary set of resources.
Edited: May 6, 2018, 10:09 AM · I'm fascinated by the idea that some people think that using a shoulder rest is wrong in some way. I had not encountered this until I became a member here.

In my opinion its simply a question of physique. I a big guy with a relatively long neck and playing without the support of a shoulder rest requires me scrunch my neck down to meet my shoulder. Its awful.

I also have a large, active left hand with a big, brilliant, warm vibrato (think Francescatti). When trying to get maximum effect without a should rest I am literally in danger of pulling the violin out from under my chin.

Some people use them, some don't. I have a few students who don't use them and they're fine, but most do use a shoulder rest.

May 6, 2018, 11:47 AM · Ryan, have you ever experimented with a taller chin rest?
May 6, 2018, 11:57 AM · I've seen them but I've never felt compelled to try one, mostly because I feel perfectly comfortable using a shoulder rest. They look awkward to me.

One of my college professors suggested I try to play without a shoulder rest. He had ditched the shoulder rest at a late stage (I think he was 50 at the time) and eventually grew to love the feel of not using one. My personal experiment lasted a few weeks. I think I was revisiting Tzigane at the time and the G string opening was nearly unplayable for me without a rest.

I need complete left arm freedom to feel comfortable in fast technical passages, and I can only achieve it when my neck does 100% of the job of holding the violin while my left arm zips up and down the violin. Even something as simple as the first fast run in Lalo feels alien to me without a shoulder rest.

Not to mention that the padding on most shoulder rests helps keep the violin "attached" to my clothing. No slippy slidy feeling.

May 6, 2018, 1:42 PM · A taller chin rest can help, but I think there's a limit as to how tall chin rests are crafted. I think having to support the violin with the left arm slightly is totally acceptable.
May 6, 2018, 7:34 PM · I recall when an excellent teacher or mine wanted me to try going restless. She looked at me and my violin and decided I should get the Menuhin SR instead. My shoulder and collarbone were thinner then - I was skinny. Fast forward years of developing upper body muscle and strength through various activities and the loss of lower body mobility. Recently found I can play comfortably restless. If I’m playing with my kid, no SR is fine. if I’m playing difficult pieces for a long time, I like having my SR for support.

A key point is that the violin rests on the collarbone and the front side of the shoulder, not on the top of the shoulder. The arm should be brought under so the collarbone creates a tilted “bookshelf” to rest the violin on. If your violin elbow is swung too far back, or you are trying to hold the violin on the (rounded) top of the shoulder, the violin isn’t resting on the collarbone and the violin slides down.

Your jawbone makes the book that sits on top of the violin on the bookshelf. The violin shouldn’t be squeezed tightly or your left hand can’t move freely.

It should be comfortable. If it isn’t, stick with the SR that works for you.

A lot of people are right in that playing rest-free is very posture dependent. That said, The other part is that it’s also anatomically dependent. People with long necks like Hillary Hahn need more to fill the space then just the violin and a pad or cloth. Others don’t have the body tissue to support the violin this way. (At least I didn’t when I was younger.)

My two cents.

May 6, 2018, 8:25 PM · Totally agree with Jane. Playing restless is largely anatomy and posture dependent. The violin (or viola for that matter) should rest on the collarbone/chest region and not on the top of the shoulder. Otherwise, you are restricted and uncomfortable due to the left shoulder joint being locked and clothing seams cutting into your shoulder by the pressure of the violin and shoulder rest.
May 6, 2018, 10:54 PM · "A key point is that the violin rests on the collarbone" -- Amen, amen, amen.

I see too often friends and colleagues who don't understand that, and try hard to prop up the whole instrument with the shoulder via the shoulder rest. So they try this $100 shoulder rest, or that special $200 commissioned chin rest, and keep adding sponges underneath the shoulder rest and use a Strad Pad on the chin rest...but they never find it working because the foundational balance of the instrument to the body is missing.

Practicing just 5 minutes a day shoulder rest-less will teach you that balance immediately.

May 7, 2018, 2:00 AM · ..And if your collarbone is too discreet to provide secure support, you can try the scarf passing behind the tailgut.
May 7, 2018, 4:45 AM · Is playing restless anatomy-dependent or technique dependent? Before shoulder rests were invented, weren't there players with varied anatomies? Also aren't there also players with similar anatomies some who prefer with shoulder rest and others (I think fewer) who prefer restless?
Edited: May 9, 2018, 7:24 AM ·

"Is playing restless anatomy-dependent or technique dependent?"
Both or either!

"Before shoulder rests were invented, weren't there players with varied anatomies?"
Indeed, but garments often had, and still have, padded shoulders, collars, lapels, etc.

May 18, 2018, 3:43 AM · In case anyone is interested: here's a video I made going over essential techniques and postures to understand when playing without SR:
May 18, 2018, 6:31 AM · "Indeed, but garments often had, and still have, padded shoulders, collars, lapels, etc."

But how do you explain people before 1800s who played the violin against the arm or against the chest? Haha maybe next we'll say they used magnets.

If you understand the technique, you can play comfortably with padding or bareskin, and the wobble isn't something terrifying but freeing.

May 18, 2018, 7:23 AM ·

Menuhin using one of his shoulder rests @ 38.10 !!

May 18, 2018, 7:32 AM · For sure wobble good, fixed bad!
Edited: May 19, 2018, 2:09 AM · Christiaan's technique was used by Menuhin later on. Their hands, especially the thumbs, seem to allow this .

But I find support from the shoulder (in my case via a SR) means I can get the sounds I imagine rather than just "making do"with what I get from supporting and playing with the same hand..

May 18, 2018, 12:41 PM · A lot of what he says in the video can be done with a shoulder rest. i.e. freedom to move the instrument and have your head off the chin rest.
May 18, 2018, 1:29 PM · Sure, as long as you hold up the violin with the left arm and not the neck it can be pretty similar!
May 19, 2018, 5:50 AM · Christiaan - it is great that you are not dogmatic about this subject, as I hope I'm not. It's a pleasure to exchange views in such a civilised manner. I hope people can discuss instruments (old and new) in the same way.
May 19, 2018, 7:38 AM · Haha, thanks. I actually play all my concerts on a 1200 dollar Chinese instrument. It sounds wonderful and plays super easy. I've played old Italian instruments and new Italian masters and you know what, I sound pretty much the same on all of them!
May 19, 2018, 8:08 AM · Yes, that's what i think too. It's the player that produces the sound. Last night I heard a terrific violinist in a lecture recital (Emile Sauret Etudes-caprices - even harder than Paganini caprices). She was playing on a Strad violin owned originally by Sauret and loaned for the recordings she's doing of the works. It had a lovely rich mellow sound. Not dissimilar to a lot of top modern fiddles.

I've tried some nice Chinese violins although I have a Ricardo Bergonzi of 1995, which I bought due to it's big sound.

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