'before the chinrest' revisited.

August 20, 2020, 7:05 AM · I recently re-read "before the chinrest" by Stanley Ritchie.
he wrote this in 2012.

Generally speaking this is an interesting book, full of great insights into early music and very worth while.

Fast forward to 2020, and I now find certain aspects of his violin technique and philosophy very frustrating.

I was and always have been a great defender of the original instrument revival every since the late 70's and 80's, it taught all string players a new way of listing to early music.

My quarrel with Ritchie now is as follows:-

1. The title "before the chinrest" is wrong, it might
be "before the shoulder rest" but that's wrong as well.

2. To ask for the player to use a lighter bow and gut strings is one thing.....but to ask for a completely different technique for shifting, and a butchered setup
with neck replacement is another.

3. To comply with his requirements means relegating yourself
to a sub-branch of performance practice where employment is even more precarious than playing 'regular" instruments. Who wants to specialize in a form of playing that restricts you
to a narrow historical period in any event??

4. Good professional, and recorded groups have now in 2020 learnt so much from the early music revival that it is now difficult to hear from a recording whether they are playing
'original instruments" or not. They have toned down the vibrato to an incredible degree, added ornamentation in good taste, and often use lighter bows and gut strings.....all this without necessarily using doctored instruments. Listen to any recording of the HANSEN quartet and you will hear what I mean. Many groups are playing at A_=440 as well with
no detriment to the music. They may even in public be hiding
a shoulder rest under their chamois....but I dont want to get nasty!!

So I apologise if this is a bit of a rant. However do you think that the "100% original instrument" movements days as far as strings are concerned are numbered purely on the ground of relevance, and practicality??

Replies (34)

August 20, 2020, 7:57 AM · You can get away with using a modern instrument if it's an audio recording. But if it's a video or if you have to pose for a picture, then you need to saw off the last couple of inches of your fingerboard.
August 20, 2020, 8:17 AM · I have some HIP recordings, most of which are wonderful, but refuse to be part of the movement for reasons part logical, part paranoid. Won't change my technique nor buy a period performance instrument. We can play music of any era with beautiful and appropriate style on our modern instruments and setups.

No offense intended to those who would cry heresy-I see no need to argue about issues we won't convince each other for. Let me butcher lovely music in peace, while you play the violin The One Right Way for baroque, classical, etc.

August 20, 2020, 9:37 AM · I have the Ritchie book and while I found it interesting and inspirational, with a few very good exercises too, I never quite got what he meant with the "shifting by swinging the elbow" thing, something he emphasizes A LOT. Anyone care to try to explain?
Edited: August 20, 2020, 10:52 AM · In defense of Prof. Ritchie:
1. I see nothing wrong with the title. He is talking about violin playing before the invention of the chinrest by Spohr.
2. The "butchered setup" if done by an expert luthier is completely reversable. One can play on an instrument, the only changes being the use of gut strings, a different style bridge and soundpost, and no chinrest. Thus, you do not have to alter the neck angle or put on a shorter fingerboard. However, with the additional changes one gets a slightly different type of sound.

About the "different" shifting technique, if you look at videos of Itzahk Perlman and some others, he uses this shifting technique. He pretty much plants his wrist in 3rd position and extends back to 1st position and extends upward to the high positions. Shifting is risky, while extending is less risky. I changed my technique to this style and found the Paganini caprices much easier to play. For instance in the fingered octave section of the 17th caprice, the more shifts eliminated the more accurately and quickly you can play.

3. Many period instrument players also perform on the modern violin, therefore expanding employment opportunites. I did that when I was freelancing in NYC. In the evenings I would play in the pit orchestra of the Broadway show Annie, and during other free time I would play in period instrument groups and other gigs. I would do anything to make a living.

4. I somewhat agree with this comment. When I first started playing Baroque violin in the 1970's I vowed that I would never play the Bach solo sonatas and Partitas on the modern violin. However, I changed my mind about this and have given recitals of the complete sonatas or Partitas on the modern violin. I found that I had to play the period instrument and the modern instrument in totally different ways, For instance when I performed Bartok's Solo Sonata, there was no way that I would imitate the Baroque violin sound. Similarly, when I performed Baroque music on the modern violin I let the instrument dictate the sound I got rather than trying to imitate the sound of a Baroque violin.

August 20, 2020, 12:14 PM · he says in his book that the only reason for the chinrest is to keep
his chin of the varnish!! I agree with that, but I dont agree with doing away with the shoulder rest and monkeying around with a technique to make up for it. I have played many a time with no chinrest and just a minimal KUN shoulder rest. Thats just business as usual and the reason why the chinrest is irrelevant or or off.
August 20, 2020, 12:44 PM · Bruce thanks for sharing your insights!
August 20, 2020, 12:56 PM · David you seem to be having difficulty separating the HIP movement from modern violin playing. The fact is the goals and therefore the chosen means of the HIP movement are often different from modern violin playing. This fact should be accepted and both sides should live and let live.

To me you sound like someone who has read a book on maintaining a Model T Ford and has gotten very irritated about the advice to have the front wheels higher than the rear wheels while changing the oil since this practice is completely unnecessary on modern cars!! Why would anyone even drive a Model T that's stupid!!

Relax. Quit insulting the HIP movement, and remember that no one is telling you what to do. If you don't share the goals of HIP players who want to explore the setup and technique of the past, you don't have to. Just quit attacking the legitimacy of such things simply because you don't want to do them. It's rude.

August 20, 2020, 1:28 PM · @David,
Concerning your assertion: "Many groups are playing at A_=440 as well with no detriment to the music."

In fact before the 19th c. there was no standardization in pitch. The musicians tuned to whatever the local church organ was tuned to. Also, we can get an idea of the parameters from wind instruments of the time.
The period instrument players had to come up with some sort of "standard" pitch so they could play together. This was A415 for Baroque, A425 (or so) for early classical, A 430-35 for Beethoven and early Romantic.

In (I think?) the late 19th c. it was decided that A435 would be the international pitch. Today, many orchestras play at 442 and up. (I'm pretty sure Mary Ellen can attest to that.) A number of years ago the concertmaster of the North Carolina Symphony told me that he didn't bother to tune to the oboe's A 440, because he knew the pitch would just go up.

August 20, 2020, 1:34 PM · My main qualm about HIP is that it has a virtual musical stranglehold on the baroque repertoire-so very few modern players even attempt to play baroque publicly anymore besides the Bach 6 S&P and the ocassional keyboard/violin sonata. Four Seasons at most, sometimes. I believe both performance styles should be able to co-exist, but the HIP scholarship has had the perhaps unintended consequence of deleting most of "their" repertoire from the "regular" concert hall experience.

I know for a fact one of their important performers has lamented this state of affairs, perhaps a bit more than a decade ago.

I welcome their niche-and so does their enthusiastic audience-but everyone should be able to play that repertoire without being derided for not playing "the right way." One can always adapt vibrato and bowing without going full-HIP. The original composers may not be so offended that things are not exactly the same, and perhaps happy in some cases that their old music is still being paid homage to.

No offense intended, though I know it may be taken as a personal attack. I enjoy my HIP recordings-I just play modern violin. Similarly, I listen to Liszt piano works, but am no virtuoso pianist. Modern violin is what I play, whether it is Baroque or late 19th century works.

Stay safe, and play whatever you wish in the style you are convinced is best for yourself and your audience.

Edited: August 20, 2020, 1:52 PM · Early Music gives us more possibilities. The movement has moved beyond the hardware and postures and also explore improvisation and things not recorded in notation.

This below is a beautiful result of past decades's cumulative research in instruments, postures, string making technology, and performance practice. Modern mainstream and HIP players can learn a lot from each other.

I don't think it'll be quite the same to hear a modern mainstream violin and Steinway on this music.

August 20, 2020, 1:59 PM · @david renton Many violin virtuosos in the 17th century played the violin below the collarbone, on the chest or on the arm. (Corelli, Biber, Schemlzer, Matteis, etc.) It is a worthy quest to figured out why and how they played the way they did.

And certainly no one is forcing you to play historically according to iconography and and treatises. But if you are ever interested, you can find people to teach you, thanks to people like Ritchie who have dedicated their lives to this pursuit and research.

August 20, 2020, 2:43 PM · Of course-not the same. Why should it be? I would argue "different" possibilities, instead of "more". But one should not overtake the other. Live, and let live, as was mentioned above.

I generally use gut strings on a modern setup. That doesn't mean you should. People prefer different things. So if one is inclined to perform in the historically-informed manner-even though I cannot fathom doing so myself-they should be happy to do so.

In many instances, however, the more zealous fans of period performance practice tend to find problems with or criticize anything modern touching what they consider their specialty. While no one is "forced" to play that way, for some there is no other way to touch those works-which is fine. But therefore, many modern performers are happy to leave said repetoire to the niche experts, concentrating almost exclusively on "modern" works more "fitting" of our modern setup.

It would be more fun and interesting for everyone to be able to play the old repertoire in different ways-including HIP-than the public having little access to that repertoire due to a general strict adherence to specialized performers for those genres.

So, I do not oppose HIP at all-nor should I. Though in my perhaps heretic-to-some opinion, the modern performer should care a bit less about that specialty niche, not being too afraid of playing the "wrong" repertoire for his/her instrument.

Not a personal attack, Dorian Fu-just an opinion. Freely enjoy your music as you do! Be well, and stay safe.

August 20, 2020, 3:41 PM · I do agree a bit with Adalberto's point. For example, when do you ever find a "modern" performance of Bach's Matthew Passion? The period groups have in a way monopolized the baroque repertoire. You may find I have a bizarre taste, but I for one am really fond, for example, of Karajan's recording of the Matthew Passion with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Yes, it lasts three times longe than modern (sic) performancesr, but for me this music, to which I listen together with my old father, can allow this.

By the way Dorian the video you posted is very interesting, thanks!

Edited: August 20, 2020, 4:00 PM · A lot of this discussion concerns opinions about taste in the performance of music. I have known Stanley Ritchie since the 1970's. (And by the way he was/is a top notch modern violin player.)

Also, for your information a pretty good number of people in the period instrument crowd considered Stanley Ritchie's playing to be "too modern" because of vibrato and bow usage.

In a joking way, some used to say that the style of period performance in the Netherlands needed some ice put on it to keep the swelling down. :)

Edited: August 20, 2020, 4:59 PM · I would love to see Ray Chen or Hilary Hahn play Westhoff and other great 17th-c. music and explore 17th-century performance techniques. But I have a feeling they won't be doing so anytime soon. We need different musicians to specialize in different styles. It's all good.

Plamena Nikitassova, violin on chest, thumb on frog:

I only find it funny to hear complaints that the Early Music movement is somehow monopolizing repertoire from mainstream players. No one has the power to stop audience from voting with their ticket-buying power. Just make great music and people will go listen to you.

August 20, 2020, 5:01 PM · I do personally find Ritchie to be a tad old fashioned sounding Baroque-wise, but his Schubert -- what a wonderful recording.
August 20, 2020, 5:17 PM · Perhaps for super early violin music, but read yourself: "we *need* specialists for every style". It is that dogmatism that turns me away. Imagine I ridiculed you for your preferences (I do not). We don't "need" them *exclusively*. Everyone should feel free of criticism from playing whatever, otherwise you are limiting the repertoire. Perhaps that is what you deem best, but I disagree. The repertoire is for everyone, not just the scholarly-inclined.

The current well-known soloists won't touch the majority of the "HIP repertoire", and most of you know it. That is in the end my biggest regret about this subject. The performances are otherwise often quite beautiful.

Still, I know I won't convince anyone, so I will bow out now.

(If it's not yet clear, I have nothing against HIP research, concerts, and scholarship.)

August 20, 2020, 5:37 PM · When you have a shorter fingerboard, additionally there are more "lanes" to bow in. It's like moving from Pittsburgh to LA.
August 20, 2020, 7:34 PM · Dorian - great links, thank you.
August 20, 2020, 8:39 PM · @Adalberto Valle-Rivera, I think you are reading things that I did not write. What I wrote included:

"I would love to see Ray Chen or Hilary Hahn play Westhoff and other great 17th-c. music and explore 17th-century performance techniques"


"[m]odern mainstream and HIP players can learn a lot from each other." And I really do mean it when I said "It's all good."

I enjoy Stéphane Grappelli play jazz, I enjoy Ray Chen play Romantic concertos. I enjoy Oistrahk play Shoskakovich. I enjoy Amandine Beyer play Corelli. They all have particular niches they they sound great at, and I think attacking Early Music impoverishes all of us.

That's why I also particularly appreciate Yo-Yo Ma doing crossovers into other specializations. The two CDs with Amsterdam Baroque weren't the most historical endeavor, but that doesn't matter because it offered more possibilities to us listeners and they sound great.

August 20, 2020, 8:41 PM · Amandine Beyer exploring below the collarbone hold with Matteis:

Again I won't be holding my breath waiting for Joshua Bell or Sarah Chang to record this. I'm thankful there are people who do Early Music and invest in the time, effort, money, and career to bring us these wonderful recordings and interpretations. But if Bell or Chang do decide to join in the fun, I would love to hear them!

Edited: August 20, 2020, 10:54 PM · No problem, Dorian. Just missing the time players used to record and perform baroque works for their recitals, in addition to their common romantic fare-times long gone. Nowadays there isn't much variety: classical work sometimes, modern work, romantic sonata or two, encore. Though I still enjoy attending the modern recital, I wish performers were not too afraid of the older repertoire, and as I mentioned, I do attribute it to the success of the HIP scene. Wish we could have both types of performance coexist (modern and older setups) rather than compete each other out.

(Hilary Hahn is one of the most daring performers in terms of what she chooses to record and perform live. Does not care that she is not supposed to do this or that, or perform whatever composer, though she doesn't do much baroque as far as I am aware of.)

Be well. Did not mean to antagonize any of you.

August 21, 2020, 6:01 AM · It is interesting to see the diversity of viewpoints on this topic. In his original post David states that using HIP techniques makes employment even more precarious. As has been pointed out, one can play learn and play with more than one technique. Further, the arts are generally not regarded as an ideal career if ones goal is to make money. If a person chooses to exclusively perform in a “sub branch” that is less lucrative, that is commendable, and shows their passion for it.

Adalberto laments that performers on modern instruments are pressured not to play early music. To some extent I get the sense that this topic also relates to money. However, even if it does not, it is possible to ignore the pressure. There are famous performers who play early music on modern instruments. Simone Dinnerstein is a good example. Again as others have said, do not let other people dictate your artistic endeavors. However, one cannot assume that they will be lucrative.

I personally believe that the interest in historical music and HIP have brought wonderful music to the light of day. From its roots in reviving Bach in the early nineteenth century to today, it has enriched our world. And there is more to do. For example, it was not enough to rediscover Bach in the nineteenth century. There was so much more discovery even though it may have appeared that none was left. An example is Casals’ popularization of the Bach cello suites. They were regarded more as technical exercises. He recognized their beauty.

Edited: August 21, 2020, 8:19 AM · I would agree with the last point of the original post: The HIP "movement" has taught us a lot. But there is a limit. There are only so many sources to rely on and they have been studied and studied and studied. Plus at any rate, no matter how carefully we read Quantz we still can by no means be certain that the sound the HIP people are creating is even in the neighborhood of how Corelli sounded. We hope, but we can never know. So, yes, HIP losing relevance.

Another point that I sometimes observe, even in performances that are not declared HIP: People often spend too much time with the details of HIP stuff (ornaments, vibrato or lack thereof, jeu inégal etc.) and forget to study the character of the individual score they are working from. So we hear ornaments in the slow movement of Vivaldi's Winter, interrupting the long breath of those melodic arches and complicating the gloriously simple melodic line. Or: when e.g. a section is repeated (e.g. in a da capo aria) you expect that there will be ornaments the second time around--and sure enough there they are!

Lastly I often think about Tourte. He got very rich from his bows, they sold extremely well. Which seems to indicate that they performed better than the older models in the eyes of the violinists of the time. They delivered what those violinists had been hoping for, probably for some considerable time (and what they might have worked hard to achieve with their traditional bows before they got a chance to play with these new ones). We can not assume that people of every era believed that their instruments were the best possible solution.

Edited: August 21, 2020, 8:50 AM · I agree with that. I really think that if Mozart could have heard, say, Hilary Hahn play his 3rd violin concerto (as seen on YouTube she plays it for pope Benedict xvi) with her modern violin and bow and current capabilities, he would have truly and totally been astonished. Idem with Bach etc.

But that does not mean that I do not find the efforts illustrated by the videos Dorian posted here above very very interesting and fascinating!

Edited: August 21, 2020, 1:11 PM · When playing pre-1820 violin music without a CR, and without a SR, you can sometimes be aware of little safety features written into the violin score by the composer (who would very likely have been a violinist himself) to help the player descend from a high position without courting disaster. The sort of things to look for to enable a safe descent, especially in orchestral scores, are a short rest, an open string, an octave harmonic, or even playing across the strings in a high position. This will be just long enough to enable a quick stabilising touch of the chin, jaw, or even cheek, on the violin's tailpiece or a lower bout. In videos you can see violinists in Baroque ensembles doing just this.

August 21, 2020, 1:43 PM · I loved the book, it is so full of insight. (Here's the interview we did with Stanley from 2012). I'm not a HIP performer or specialist myself, but I find it all to be very inspiring, and I enjoy groups like Tafelmusik and the Handel and Haydn Society. And I love my Baroque bow for Bach! I do think that, if you give up your chin rest or shoulder rest, you'd best be prepared to re-vamp your technique. But also, modern players can benefit from learning about those techniques because they can allow you to let go a bit from the neck/chin/shoulder, even if you still use the shoulder rest and chin rest.

August 21, 2020, 2:26 PM · If I may add, if the player also wishes to include a complete set of plain gut strings (the G will be covered gut) in their approach to Baroque music then they will quickly become aware that, if they have never used gut before, they will need to re-vamp their bowing technique because of the noticeably lower tension of gut and a different behavior compared with synthetic strings. Re-vamping will include bow pressure and location of the best sound points on the strings - especially with a gut E. This re-vamping of technique is not a bad thing and can pay useful dividends when returning to synthetics.
Edited: August 22, 2020, 10:28 AM · I think the HIP movement gave us and classical music a huge benefit by revitalizing baroque music; by challenging the then conventional approach to it thus often its misinterpretation. I also consider its means to do that - using the argument of tradition, thereby using the same weapon that had been turned on the music against its bearers to be a brilliant one. Thus I think it is too narrow a view to look upon the instruments themselves and how they are held, etc., and even complaints about how quiet they might be in large halls, etc., as the greatest distinctions. Moreover, given that early music was not as clearly notated as more recently, the range of interpretation of that music is rightly larger than when it was viewed in the traditional perspectives of earlier times, and still is, so its limitation to just how tradition or history would dictate that it should be played is an inaccurate interpretation, both theoretically and in practice given the variety of interpretations.

The key criteria should be, has been, and is again, how well the music speaks, and that, not the by the book historical techniques have in my opinion enlivened and validated such approaches to music.

And they didn't stop with baroque; although the argument of lost tradition and techniques dims as they get closer to the present, so it naturally becomes a self-limiting argument or approach towards reinterpreting music.

The argument about playing music according to the tradition it was taught in still continues - Hilary Hahn made such an argument not long ago with respect to her performance of solo Bach, which some listeners, including myself, find to be inadequate, as we hear something else in the music.

August 25, 2020, 2:12 AM · The violin is an incredibly versatile instrument
on which we can play 400 years of music, so i would like to submit
that given a good resonant violin set up 21st century style, with or without chinrest or shoulder rest, with or without gut strings, and a good selection of bows of different weights...then it must be possible to play anything in the literature with style and persuade the audience of its beauty.

What i don't like is being 'pideonholed' or classified s a 'modern' violinist of a 'baroque' violinist, subject to different criteria.

I would instead like to be called a "complete" violinist who can give a recital audience the variety which is so often lacking. Let's have concerts or recitals ranging from Pergolesi to R. Strauss!

August 25, 2020, 3:12 AM · J Ray: great conclusion, very true.
Edited: August 25, 2020, 5:20 AM · Discs.
I thoroughly enjoy Bach partitas played by Enescu, or Mullova, with Grumiaux (or yes, Hahn) in between.

And the cello suites by Casals, or Kuijken, with Yo-Yo Ma in between.

Hip interest perhaps started with Landowska with her mighty Steel-strung Concert Grand Pleyel Harpsichord. And continued with Karl Richter's dry-as dust-Bach. In both cases, our romantic ears were fascinated and enriched, ready to hunt for the real thing.

Worst case? Modern playing on HIP instruments! Just sounds soggy.

Faking? A pretty "baroque" bridge, and a suprisingly heavy outcurved bow, held at some distance from the frog. My Eudoxas at A=415 gave a sparkling détaché.
They asked me back.

August 25, 2020, 7:13 AM · @adalberto

Greatly enjoyed your comments in this thread. You say you use
all gut on your modern set up. This is something I have been meaning
to try for a long time. What does that do for the overall tone of your instrument? I am aware that gut strings in practice last a lot
longer than people usually suppose so thats not an issue. Do you get the same dynamic range with gut and a tourte bow? Would gut strings mandate a light tourte bow? what would really interest me would be a chamber group of people all using gut strings with a regular set up. Have you tried that?

sorry for al the questions.

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