Left Hand Support for a petite player (w/ no shoulder rest)

Edited: September 15, 2018, 10:25 PM · Hey Guys!

Ok - I know this question has been asked A LOT - so I truly am sorry for asking again! But after spending a significant time reading posts and books and blogs and responses I feel more confused than when I started. Quick info before question.

I am an adult, female, beginner (started January '18), very small framed, short arms, small hands, short pinkies. I have a teacher that I take weekly private lessons from. Aaaand I have LOVED the violin forever and am SO GRATEFUL I get to learn finally! I *think* that covers the basics.

I started out with a chin rest/shoulder rest combo. My teacher uses a shoulder rest. I have experienced so much tension in my neck and jaw because I couldn't stop clenching. I have spent the past several months researching and trying countless combinations of chin/shoulder rests. One day I decided to try out no rest with a high-ish, center mounted chin rest.

It's perfect *for me* there is no tension or pressure, my bow arm is set up just right, everything just feels right. It sits perfectly on my collar bone and my shoulders don't slope so there is only a smidge of space between the back of the violin and my shoulder. It feels wonderful :)!

Here is my question - left hand support? My teacher has only ever played with a shoulder rest and so she keeps her thumb to the side of the violin and nothing else. That clearly doesn't work for me if I don't use a shoulder rest. I need some sort of support from my left hand.

So when I follow some of the advice I have seen and rest the violin on the 3rd index joint and the nubby-bone-ish part of my thumb pad - - - it seems ok until I get to the E string - my index and middle fingers are cramped for space and the area just seems congested.

Also it gets a little iffy on the A string as well as having the mobility to move around on the strings. For some reason - swinging my elbow up to get my hand to G doesn't seem to bother me - my thumb rolls under the violin neck momentarily and then rolls back to the side when I move back - I think that is ok???

I am paying attention to not clench my thumb and index finger, there is something that just doesn't feel right with my set up. The closer I get to the index finger side of the violin, the less mobility I have. My teacher's left hand structure is based off a comfortable use of a shoulder rest (aka very minimal support) so she recommended I ask around with people who do not use one. She is a great teacher - so I don't plan on switching to one who is restless. She is open to me using a set up that best suits me - so I am looking for some input from those who do play without a rest. How do you position your left hand?

I seriously appreciate any insight and time invested in answering my question. Thank you so much!


Replies (11)

September 15, 2018, 3:55 PM · Rachel,

First, can you hold the violin on your shoulder with just your chin? If not, is it because the instrument is slipping/sliding on your clavicle? That is often the problem and it can be solved by a rubber band and a sponge that keeps the instrument from sliding.

A friend discovered another solution when she saw a no-slip mat on a tray in a restaurant. She bought some at a local restaurant supply, cut out a piece to fit and clamps it in place with the chinrest bracket.

FWIW: I played without a shoulder rest for most of my playing life. Then I broke and dislocated my left collar bone and now I need a shoulder rest to get the correct position.

September 15, 2018, 6:13 PM · Hi George :)

It is very well balanced on my collar bone and doesn’t slip. It’s not immobile but it feels sturdy and well balanced - I have a pretty notable collar bone which helps a ton!

Previously my teacher had my left hand set up with my left thumb gently touching the side of the neck as a place holder and nothing else. I need more support on the neck now for sure. Just don’t know what that looks like :)

Edited: September 15, 2018, 6:26 PM · I don't play regularly without a shoulder rest, but I have been experimenting rest-less lately. I find certain things have to change in order to accommodate the change. Experiment and see what feels comfortable and mess around with a variable or two in your posture. Obviously, no matter what, you want to keep the basics in mind:
-Feet shoulder width apart
-left foot angled slightly out
-Center of gravity more toward the left foot
-"lengthened" back
-head in a comfortable position, not awkwardly angled

From there, the variables you can mess around with:
-angle of the violin in relation to your body
-angle of violin in relation to the ground
-position of the lower bout in relation to shoulder/collar bone
-position of the thumb on the neck and in relation to the first finger joint
-curvature of the thumb
-height of the fingers above the fingerboard
-angle of the hand in relation to the side of the neck
-least amount of contact/hand pressure required to maintain the instrument up/to play a note

There are certainly others that I haven't mentioned, but think of your own as well. Every person is different and every set up is different. Everyone also has different opinions on this as well. The two MOST IMPORTANT things are 1)take your time, and don't change too many variables at once and 2)communicate openly with your teacher as you're on your road to discover what works for you. Even if she doesn't play with a shoulder rest, she should (hopefully) be able to identify what simply won't work or what is or will cause you tension or injury down the road so you can avoid that.

Also watch plenty of videos of different players playing without a rest so you can have a better idea of what it should look like as you play.

I hope this helps!

September 15, 2018, 10:29 PM · About the cramped feeling as you move to the E-string:

One approach I've observed from some violinists is that they adjust the rotation of the hand along the forearm axis - 1) their palms are more parallel to the neck on the G and 2) turned more towards their face as they move to the E.

Motion 1 has the effect of moving the fingers further over the strings and fingerboard, making it easier to reach the G. However this position can make it very cramped to play on the E, forcing your fingers to curl back in on themselves to reach the E-string that's right next to your palm.

Motion 2 does the opposite - it effectively moves the strings further away from your palm, and also changes the angle at which your fingers extend relative to the string. This way as your fingers flex they move more along the string length and less across the fingerboard. This may help you somewhat with the e-string.

Edited: September 15, 2018, 10:56 PM · Forgive the spammy post, but I invented an aid for the left hand, as I have the same issues as you. For me it’s accentuated, as I play a big viola. It’s a brand new product, so the only person with extensive experience using one, is me. I am an adult beginner, and I use it instead of a SR. It transfers the weight of the neck of the instrument down to the body of the hand, so it no longer feels like it will “slip” down. By removing the slipping feeling, you reduce the response of wanting to tense up your hand. You get accustomed to playing with a relaxed hand.

"Training wheels" until you no longer need one?

An alternative to a SR?


Wonderthumb at Johnson Strings

September 16, 2018, 12:17 AM · Lots of great advice above. Since you're a small person, I highly recommend holding the violin pointing almost directly in front of you. Involve the left arm in supporting the violin's weight, namely the bicep upper arm muscle. If the bicep is engaged, the left thumb should not need to provide a significant amount of support. The left thumb muscle should stay relaxed but the thumb itself can cling onto the neck a bit more.
Edited: September 16, 2018, 1:52 AM · I know exactly what you’re going through and I’m pretty sure I can be of some help since I’m researching this very topic for a project. The first thing to be aware of is that there’s a lot of ambiguous and sometimes wrong information on the internet. People will say that you have to do this or that, and while I’m sure it may work for those giving advice, it may not work for you.

The secret to playing without SR is that you have to figure out for yourself the right way since every person is different. It’s a different experience for everyone because the following factors come into play:

-length of arms
-how tall your neck is
-shape of your jaw
-amount of body fat
-shape of collarbone
-size of hand
-length of fingers

There’s also the fact that you’ve only been playing for 9 months, so you re training lots of other things that are extremely difficult. It may take you another year or even more (depending on how hard you practice, and how much you experiment) before you can truly learn to play without SR. Some people who play without SR played with one for years and therefore developed many important aspects of their playing so that when they learned to play without one, it was still difficult, but a lot of the important things were out of the way.

There was some really good advice above, you have to constantly try different things:

-find out how you like to angle the instrument (look at difference between Heifetz and Ida Haendel)
-find out the best way to support the instrument with your left hand thumb by experimenting with multiple positions (look at the difference between Anne Sophie Mutter and Itzhak Perlman for instance)

Also, a better chinrest (a custom made one for instance), may help significantly as well.

Anyway, if you’d like more info, you can contact me privately at misterdmmc AT gmail

I’ve basically been interviewing as many teachers as possible for an upcoming documentary series, so I’ve learned quite a lot about this subject. One of the best ones specializes in making custom chinrests, and teaching people how to play withour SR.

PS: you are very lucky to have a teacher who is very open minded and understanding that she might not be equipped to help you as far as non SR playing is concerned. I’ll just warn you: in the beginning it’s a whole lot harder to play without SR (read what i wrote above, it may take you a few years), but if you manage to do it, you will learn quite a lot about your body and how it relates to your instrument. You may of course at one point decide that you want to use an SR as well, and it’s much easier to switch to SR playing than the other way around. Nothing wrong with that either as long as whatever way you choose to play is enjoyable and comfortable

PPS: you have to be very careful not to hurt yourself whether you play with or without an SR. There are people who play without SR by constantly raising their shoulders which may miraculously work for some, but for some others, they’ve had injuries. Another key aspect of playing without SR is to realize that you can move around a lot, but you need to know what your neutral (resting) position is. Basically you can go in and out of tension as long as you re aware of what you’re doing. For instance, you can momentarily raise your shoulder for shifts, or momentarily clench your jaw , but you have to learn to then let go when it’s no longer necessary. Once you figure all this out, then you’ll have really understood how to play without SR.

Edited: September 16, 2018, 7:11 AM · Denis, sounds like your research is bearing fruit! I look forward to reading your final results. That was a very informative post.
September 16, 2018, 10:14 AM · Wow! Thank you so much everyone! This is all such great information and I am excited to try and experiment and see what works best for my particular anatomy. This violin of ours sure isn't boring, is it?! Lol!!! Here's to more research and experimenting!
September 16, 2018, 11:08 AM · Thanks Craig! BTW your little device is rather intriguing!

One more thing Rachel: It’s quite normal that you might experience a lot of tension in the beginning because you’re not sure exactly how it’s supposed to work with your body. It really helped me a lot to get regular back / neck massages. You have to put in quite a lot of effort but you also need to be a good judge on whether you’re going too far or not.

Since you’ve only been playing for nine months, chances are that you haven’t even started vibrato yet, and even if you have , it ‘s probably extremely weak at the moment. It takes a number of years to develop a good vibrato (by classical stndards anyway). The proof is in Youtube, there are parents posting videos of their children’s progress, and if you look at even child prodigies such as Leia Zhu, who startted violin at 3 1/2, you see that at age 6, she has probably started working on vibrato for a few months or maybe even a year. It s actually quite good but it isn’t quite there yet. At age 7, there’s significant improvement but still not quite there (in my opinion). By age 8, it’s, in my opinion, at the level of where it should be. I’ve followed other prodigies like that too, and it’s similar.

I’ve also interviewed music students (non-prodigies) at the local university , and many didn’t start to learn learn vibrato until 3-5 years after beginning the violin. (Age 8-11). In fact, a lot of students didn’t seem to have their technique fully sorted out until they got to music school (I’m not talking about top tier music schools) and get the help they really needed.

One other way to practice to see what other issues you may have is to have someone hold the violin for you at the scroll, so that you’re 100% free to experiment with different hand positions. I used to put the scroll against a wall to create the same effect, and I would see what problems I had that weren’t caused by learning to hold the violin. For instance, for my case, I noticed that even if I play 100% free, it’s not comfortable for me to have my thumb extending past the neck like some teachers would insist. Doing so prevents me from doing vibrato. My thiumb is closer to where Anne-Sophie Mutter has hers.

So the issue was clearly where I rest my thumb . That said, you should also be aware that playing without SR is not about learning one single static position that will work for every situation. There’s a basic neutral position, that I mentioned above, that you need to become acquainted with, but then certain situations will call for different hand positions, angles, etc...

Yes, the violin is torture.

September 16, 2018, 1:02 PM ·

For almost two centuries since the violin came to be, and rebecs and vielles many centuries before, instruments were just supported by the left hand.

I find it very informative for my own modern playing. Not saying you should play Tchaikovsky concerto like that of course.

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