Playing without a shoulder rest

September 23, 2019, 2:46 AM · Hi there

Recently I’ve transitioned to playing without a shoulder rest on my violin, it’s comfortable and I’ve found a set up that results in no fatigue at all.
-Wittner chin rest centre mounted and an artino pad. I’m able to support my violin comfortably for long periods of time.

However, I tried this set up on the viola and I just cannot get comfortable, it results in twinging pain in my left hand ring finger of all places. I assumed this set up would be transferable but it seems not. Has anyone got any tips on how I can move to playing without a shoulder rest on the viola? I’m really keen to. What is your set up if you do?


Replies (17)

September 23, 2019, 7:40 AM · i'm curious what is your reason to not use a shoulder rest.

for me i find my violin too loud sometimes so i use it without shoulder rest allowing my body to dampen the violin.

i had my local luthier raise the chin rest a bit but thats about it.

September 23, 2019, 7:49 AM · I use a left hand rest instead
Edited: September 23, 2019, 10:32 PM · I personally use a shoulder rest on both violin and viola, but I think there are some general considerations you should keep in mind.

First of all, the fact that you are using an Artino pad while playing violin suggests to me that you are still using something to stop the violin from slipping, which most players benefit from. When I think of playing restless, I usually think of those who use absolutely nothing or just a small cloth or chamois leather; in other words, nothing substantial under the violin. Will you still use some anti-slip thing when playing viola?

Second of all, your violin setup is not likely going to work on the viola because it's a bigger and thicker instrument. Because of the viola's thickness, your chin rest, and especially your shoulder rest, need to be lower to accommodate the thicker instrument.
Also, you may want to position the viola a bit differently than the violin, so this could affect your equipment choices as well.
Thirdly, how are you holding/positioning the viola? This may be slightly different from what you do on the violin. This could affect both your comfort level and what accessories you choose to use to help you hold your violin/viola. Does your scroll point more in front or you, or out to the side? Does the instrument sit higher up on the shoulder or lower, more on the chest? For me, my viola scroll points more forward than my violin scroll, and the viola sits higher on the shoulder than the violin, all due to the larger size, but this is just what works for me. Ultimately you will have to experiment a bit to find the right position/angle for your unique needs.

Fourth, the viola is a heavier instrument. This means your left arm muscles have to be more engaged in supporting the instrument. In other words, your left arm has to bear more weight when playing viola than violin. Although this applies to some degree if you use a shoulder rest, this situation is of particular relevance if you choose not to use a shoulder rest. You could make the same statement about the shoulder/collarbone. Also, with a heavier instrument, it is a lot more tempting to squeeze the instrument with shoulder, neck, chin, and left hand, as well as adopting unhealthy postures like slouching and collapsing, so be extra mindful of that.

September 24, 2019, 2:24 AM · Bravo . The great viola virtuoso William Primrose strongly advocated playing without a shoulder rest or any kind of pad .He discusses this at length In the book Conversations with William Primrose .You have to work at this for some time but the benefits are great . Contrary to a previous comment this does not deaden or muffle the sound . I remember seeing Pearman in concert playing the violin of course . I noticed that he was the only player not using a shoulder rest . In the past none of the great virtuosi used them .
Edited: September 24, 2019, 2:49 AM · Please note that M Zilpah is specifically asking those violists who play without a shoulder rest to tell him their setup. Of course everybody is free to chime in, but still, we've had this discussion before, haven't we, so perhaps it would be nice to just stay on topic. And, in case it turns out that there are no actual responses to his request, well, that will also tell M Zilpah something...
September 24, 2019, 3:40 AM · It's certainly possible to do, but... without seeing you play, it's really hard to diagnose what might be going wrong. Twinging pain is definitely not to be ignored! As to my own setup, just a normal, fairly flat chinrest, made by the luthier, Hiroshi Iizuka. (Not in the center)
September 24, 2019, 6:06 AM · Ella has a lot of good advice.

I have found that not only does the "support system" for a viola have to be different than for a violin, but what works for one violin may not work for another.

Finding the right combination of things can take a lot of experimentation. If you can figure out the critical contact points for your viola on your body you can find ways to add those to your instrument. There are now a number of aids that attach to the back of the instrument by "micro-suction." You might look into those.

September 24, 2019, 6:22 AM · Hi all,

Ella - thanks for your advice! I use the Artino purely as a grip aid, not much else. Otherwise it doesn’t touch my shoulder, usually it’s there for when I shift up and down, it’s an additional security feature for me. I’ll definitely play around a bit with the different points. I also have a viola lesson this week, so hopefully I can get some help there too! I do intend to use an anti slip something or other if I can. But if there is no need for it, there’s no need.

Kai Lu - I chose to go without a shoulder rest for the violin partly because of sound and partly because I was so uncomfortable using a shoulder rest, that I decided to strip it back. Starting with finding a chin rest that works for me, after that I found I didn’t need a conventional shoulder rest for support, but more a pad just to have.

Andrew - you make some great points about finding the critical points on the viola. Experimenting is something I’m up for, having done it once before with the violin.

It’s not the end of the world if I don’t find something that works for the viola, but I’m already uncomfortable as it is with the shoulder rest, and it slips (I’m yet to find a shoulder rest that doesn’t slip from my violin or viola).

Thanks for the pointers so far everyone!

September 24, 2019, 5:54 PM · I regularly play both without. That said, my main viola is a thin-bout 15.5” with an almost violinistic neck (read real slim) I could not imagine playing a 16.5” like that. My second viola is a heavy 15.5” student grade Ernst Heinrich Roth with a standard bout and neck. I play that more often with an SR just because of the mass.
The reasons to play without-
1. better resonance without that heavy underbellied mute
2. more freedom of movement both lifting and playing.
3. lighter without
4. less bending over after knocking it off
5. less to carry
Only reason to use-
1. when I’m sick or too tired, weak, and slouchy
September 24, 2019, 6:30 PM · I play the viola without a shoulder or chin rest, but only at an amateur's level. Although I do play violin with both shoulder and chin rest. The reason for the difference is that I have not found a shoulder and chin rest combination for the viola that feels comfortable to me.

What I do for viola is place my chin on and a bit right of the tailpiece, then hold the scroll up so the viola naturally slides toward my neck.

This forms a natural and stable platform that does not require any gripping of the viola by the left hand. You need to experiment with the height of the scroll to find what will allow you to down shift with confidence.

September 24, 2019, 7:30 PM · I am in the same place as you. I can play a violin for long periods
without a shoulder rest and be perfectly comfortable. The viola
is another matter altogether. Twenty minutes is my limit without extra
support--discomfort and strain along the side of my neck. So I just gave in and
bought a Kuhn rest. My viola is a lot heaver than my violin.
September 25, 2019, 5:08 AM · I agree with Rupert. I had an early "restless" period on my viola, and successfully "fine-tuned" my chinrest with the contents my toolbox, but three-hour rehearsals with spine-twisting desk-sharing lead me to fine-tune my Kun too. Now, at 70 yo, I have no pain, no cramps, no hickey, and a nimble left hand with a vibrato folks seem to like on all four fingers and all four strings...
September 25, 2019, 8:18 AM · I see a certain amount of professional chamber music. In these groups, many of the violinists play restless, but the violists tend to have an SR. While I am sure there are professional violists who play restless (Zukerman, I think), I suspect that most use an SR, including the violist in the Shanghai Quartet, who I believe used to play the violin in the group without an SR. To me, what I have seen speaks volumes. Personally, I use and SR with both violin and viola. I can imagine playing restless on the violin but it would never occur to me to try that on the viola. Too cumbersome.
Edited: September 25, 2019, 11:00 AM · I think it really depends... You could say the same thing about violinists, that most use a shoulder rest. That said, there are way more violinists than violists, which leads to a greater number of violinists going restless than violists, but I'm not sure about the percentages... I also like to distinguish between those who use a standard shoulder rest (e.g kun, Wolf), those who use a sponge or foam pad, and those who use nothing or just a small cloth/shammy. In the end, it's what truly works for you.

Personally, I don't ever see myself going completely restless. I've tried briefly to play without a shoulder rest on both violin and viola. On violin, I can cope for short periods of time. I could cope short term on viola as well, but it's somewhat harder because of the heavier instrument. Although I could make some adjustments to my chinrest choice or something, my main problem is that the violin/viola only rests on a very small part of the collarbone, mainly the small raised knobby thing at the end of the collarbone closest to the center of the neck, so the instrument ends up being extremely unstable. I could pull my shoulder forward to expose my collarbone more, but that doesn't seem healthy either. This means that going completely restless isn't really viable for me, so I really need something to stop the instrument from slipping; even a sponge will do. For me, I really think I need an actual shoulder rest for violin unless I try to really fine tune the height of my chinrest (I have a fairly long neck). My chinrest and violin fills most of the space between chin and collarbone, but I still need a fair bit of height from the shoulder rest, mainly on the chest side. I love my Kun and won't trade it for anything. On viola, things are different. The instrument is thicker, and the entire space between chin and collarbone is pretty much filled completely by my viola and chinrest. This means I need a very low shoulder rest on the viola. Right now I use a low set Kun and wouldn't trade it for anything. However, I've always fantasized that perhpas one day, I'll get a new viola and for whatever reason, because the shoulder rest can't go low enough or some other reason, I might not be able to use a standard shoulder rest anymore, so I would look into using a sponge or foam instead. I can't go completely restless for reasons mentioned above. The bottom line is that I can't see myself ditching a standard shoulder rest on violin unless I make significant changes to my chinrest, but on the viola, I could see myself being perfectly comfortable with a sponge or pad as long as I can find one with the right contour if it were to be necessary, which makes me kind of the opposite of Tom and Frederick.

September 26, 2019, 5:06 AM · The viola is not just heavier and thicker, it is longer.
So the forearm is more slanting, the notes are more widely spaced, and the strings need to be held down more firmly.
To use the left hand to hold up the viola is a bit like trying to lift the chair you are sitting on!
September 27, 2019, 1:08 PM · What Adrian said sums it up.
September 28, 2019, 9:17 PM · What Adrian said! That’s why I wouldn’t play a longer viola without.

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