Helping a student find the right shoulder rest

June 16, 2022, 6:34 PM · First post on here so bare with me if I'm doing this wrong :)
Basically, I have a student (beginner, but middle school age) who has the wrong shoulder rest/chin rest set up. The tricky thing is, based on my knowledge the reason she is experiencing uncomfortableness is because she has to put her shoulder up and lean her head to the side to keep the violin in place, aka she needs a taller setup. HOWEVER, any attempts to heighten her shoulder rest, using foam or cloth as a temporary fix, she claims makes the problem worse because it makes her "clench her jaw," even though her posture looks perfect with these fixes. Instead, she's been going restless, which she still complains about, but is apparently the best of two bad options for her. I'd be totally fine with this if her scroll wasn't pointing at the floor now. What should I do? I can't make her get a taller rest if she feels it's uncomfortable, but I also feel like I can't step aside and let her suffer through bad posture. Any suggestions?

Replies (26)

June 16, 2022, 6:53 PM · Taller chin rest?
Edited: June 16, 2022, 9:06 PM · Well you're going to need to do some experimenting, and unless you have your own personal fleet of CRs and SRs to let her try, there will be some expense involved. It sounds like your student has tension issues. Therefore until you have the comfort and posture issues settled with the CR/SR setup, probably it's a good idea not to move too fast in her repertoire sequence. My teacher has found that a LOT of his students are able to get comfortable with the Wittner CR and either a Kun or Everest SR. And make sure the violin is back far enough on her shoulder. The farther forward it is, the more distance you have to make up between the front side of the SR and the top of your student's chest. The clenching issue is probably just because the temporary padding and so forth doesn't feel secure.
Edited: June 17, 2022, 1:07 AM · It's not just the shoulder rest, it's the shoulder/chin rest combination. I hate trying to find the right solution. I'm currently using a basic curved maple rest and a Hill style Guarneri after trying a Teka, which was comfortable, but not right for the G string. I've got a Bon Musica but I hate it. I still harbour the suspicion that a car sponge is the best option.
Edited: June 17, 2022, 2:03 AM · I agree that it sounds like the student has lots of tension. I think if as of right now the better option is for her to not use a shoulder rest then maybe it could be beneficial to explore that path since adding height to the shoulder rest makes her feel worse despite it "looking perfect." This happens a lot where just because the setup looks good to the teacher then it's perfectly fine and the student doesn't need to change despite them feeling pain. You aren't one of those teachers so that's good. Ann's suggestion of a taller chin rest is a good one. The chin rest is often a highly overlooked aspect of a setup to the point where you could have the perfect shoulder rest for you (or lack of) but you'll still feel pain because the chin rest isn't right for your or your student's jaw. I think with the no shoulder rest option there could be two reasons she is still complaining. Either the violin is slipping due to there not being a shoulder rest to provide grip or as of right now the total height of the violin and chin rest is too low due to the absence of the shoulder rest. For the former, you can just have her place a microfiber cloth or piece of leather/shelf liner to provide grip on her clothes. For the latter, you can still use some shelf liner or one of the other materials I mentioned for grip and then explore different combinations of taller chin rests and add some small makeup sponges under the violin wrapped up in the shelf liner to add some height under the violin. Essentially, you have to find her ideal amount of height above and below the violin.

I know what it's like to have a terrible setup. I've tried many chin rests and no matter how tall, short, or how much or how little foam/cloth I just couldn't get it comfortable. Eventually, I decided to drop the shoulder rest like your student is experimenting with and I found a good chin rest for myself and I have two makeup sponges wrapped up in some shelf liner to add some height and grip under the violin. I'm the most comfortable I've ever been.

Feel free to email me at the email address on my profile if you have any questions about shoulder restless playing and how to explore that world with your student. It's definitely possible for her to find comfort in both using and not using a shoulder rest, but if the better option for her right now is not using it then figuring out how to make it more comfortable is important. I had to teach myself how to play without through trial and error and by getting creative. I'd be more than happy to email you some pictures to better show what I came up with for me. In the meantime definitely find her ideal chin rest. That's half the battle. Lots of people with taller necks like the SAS chinrest. You can find it on Johnsonstrings and Fiddlershop but I think Johnsonstrings has more options if I remember correctly. It comes in I believe 4 different heights and wood types.

Edited: June 17, 2022, 2:18 AM · Makeup sponges are very good for friction, which I need, but they are a bit difficult to attach. It depends - if you can find a glue that is easy to remove, then all is fine (although it's probably best to get no glue on your violin). I also have some under-carpet anti-slip stuff, but I'm finding chamois best. Oh, and gel pads. I use thin ones sometimes for adhesive purposes, but Fiddlerman uses a fat gel pad under his violin and a very high chin rest.
June 17, 2022, 4:06 AM · just a small suggestion, let her try to hold the violin really up with her left hand. do some exercises on this without the bow, just lifting up the violin and keeping it up with the left hand, so without shoulder or jaw involved. in this way she learns this feeling.
June 17, 2022, 5:59 AM · what is 'wrong' with the scroll of the violin pointing more downwards? if you go and search on youtube 'Dylana Jenson' you can see an example of someone (there is many more) playing this way.

Not only Dylana plays with the scroll pointing downwards but firmly believes and teaches that the violin should actually 'touch' the 'front' of our shoulder (I can't show you but what she means is the slopy bit more towards the front of the shoulder rather than the very tip which faces the ceiling if this makes any sense).

She does say that the violin is not 'glued' to that spot and must be free to move as you play, however that is the point of contact for the 'most part' ie: the violin's base and it should touch (not press) there most of the times. This is for 'rest-less playing'of course, however with a rest it is still important not to make it a rule for the violin's scroll to have to point straight or to the ceiling, and the left hand should have the leading role with a rest/sponge only giving a little help here and there.

Dylana is very experienced in helping violinists with pain and technique issues, she advocates playing with no rest, 'however' will always work with the student and help the student find pain free technique even with a shoulder rest if this is what they wish or find it suits them best.

In regards to your student's 'issues' I would say as well that it may well benefit this student to practice without a shoulder rest, teach the left hand and left thumb to actively guide/keep the violin in its place together with the contact point of the front of the left shoulder and the chin just lightly resting nearer to the tailpiece of the violin (maybe a centered chin rest may help? I have a guarnieri and this overlaps the tailpiece so I can use both the side and the tailpiece end).

there are some exercises as well where one can play slowly with the chin totally OFF the chin rest to help the left hand learn its role which is vital 'even' if you play with a shoulder rest.

June 17, 2022, 11:23 AM · My daughter is middle school aged and has a tall neck. Her violin teacher has an amazing kit from Frisch and Denig (https://www.chinrests.com/) to design a custom fit chin rest. Elevating shoulder rest can cause additional stress and fatigue as the arm has to reach higher, so a properly fitted chin rest works better in those with long necks. Once she was fitted, we sent the measurements to the shop and received the chin rest in a week. It has made a huge difference in her posture and comfort. Please check out the website.
June 17, 2022, 3:41 PM · Jean brought up another good point of having her hold the violin up with her left hand. With the absence of the shoulder rest, she's going to have to get used to holding the violin up herself which takes time for the muscles that were previously not doing much to develop to the point where she can hold the violin up with ease.

On the other hand, Jo is also correct in being confused about why the violin has to be held up. There are plenty of violinists who don't actively hold the violin up when they play. Dylana Jenson is certainly one and so is Nathan Milstein who happened to be one of Dylana's teachers and Itzhak Perlman. Jo is also right in saying that none of their violins stay in the same place. Movement is okay and is actually encouraged. A mobile violinist is a free violinist. Sometimes having the violin up can help when playing such as shifts, but I don't think it needs to be up all the time. I think the important thing is making sure it doesn't point to the floor TOO much in terms of angle. It can point to the floor a little bit. The only way to get good playing without a shoulder rest is to practice without one with the correct technique which Jo has already explained earlier. Especially the part about the thumb. The thumb plays a huge part in shoulder restless playing. The center mount chin rest suggestion is a good one in order to get the chin closer to the chin rest. I use the SAS chinrest I mentioned earlier for that very reason.

Edited: June 17, 2022, 7:19 PM · Sounds like many important points are already made, I just resonate the pain and uncomfortable frustration your student is suffering right now, feeling very sorry for her and sympathetic.
I share many common aspects in my experience with what Christian is writing above, although I must be far less experienced in general.
When I was playing in a university orchestra more tha 30 years ago, I had no proper hand frame nor training, the condition of my violin was terrible, and I squeezed so hard my left hand and my chin and shoulder. Obviously playing was so painful. Only at much later stage of life I started to learn basics more seriously and very gradually relieving myself from unneccessary strains - still needing a lot more work. One of the surprising experiences was that I recently realised removing the shoulder rest allows much more freedom for my left elbow to adjust its angle, thus leading a better left hand frame. I have a relatively long neck, so I've tried a lot of combinations of the chin rest and the shoulder rest. Yet meanwhile, it seems to me that the best solution was to remove the shoulder rest and restart setting things up, at least for myself.
It actually requires huge energy and time to rewire one's brain. Having a shoulder rest seems to invite an unwanted reflex to me. One's attention tends to be always drawn to fill the gap between the shoulder rest and one's body, you develope to feel somewhat unsafe and uncomfortable if your body is not in contact with the shoulder rest, and gradually lead to squeeze up unnecessarily. I don't mean all players with the shoulder rest squeeze themselves, but just pointing this small risk. Perhaps very experienced good players have developed good enough control to avoid such risks, but the risk is kind of inherent with the tool. Feeling so much pain at playing makes one very anxious to arrive at a drastic solution, but in such state of mind very often one is already attached to a certain preconcieved idea about how that ideal state would feel. In reality it often turns out the case that how the real solution feels is strikingly different from what one had expected/imagined/dreamed. And the brain needs time to process such experiences.
I'm no expertise at teaching of course, but it seems likely to me that your student, having developed so much tension in the setup, has to accept going back to focusing on very basics for a while, just for the sake of resetting her perception. Like resting the scroll on a stable support and feeling the relaxed finger movement from the base joint of the knuckle - just such simple basic things? Of course it's just one option out of so many, we're built so different, both physically and mentally.

June 18, 2022, 4:10 PM · Wow, thanks for so many great responses!! Every comment is much appreciated! This all gives me much more to go off than just the circles I was going in trying to research different brands and styles of shoulder rests. I realize now that I know embarrassingly little about playing restless (I've always found it to be torture, personally) so I'll need to do more research into that to help guide her in that direction, should that be what ends up working best. We've tried shelf liner as suggested, but I hadn't tried wrapping it around sponges, so I think I'll give that a go first to help with comfort, since she's also mentioned the wood and chinrest brace digging into her neck.
June 18, 2022, 6:33 PM · The wood and chin rest bracket digging into my skin was another huge reason I started using shelf liner and sponges. The makeup sponges I find work better because you can use them to add as much height as you want rather than using one of the generic foam shoulder rests.
Edited: June 22, 2022, 5:45 AM · This is just a thought . . .

One of Perlman's MasterClass.COM videos deals with chin rests and shoulder rests. In this video, he's assembled a group of his current and former students to have a group dicussion about chinrest/shoulder rest combinations. Perlman talks about what works for him with his rather short neck (no shoulder rest), and several indiviual students talk about what works for them.

Perlman encapsulates the conversation by saying that, regardless of what a violinist chooses to use, the violinist needs to be comfortable holding the violin under the chin.

I wonder if watching this video together might help the situation? It would give you a chance to ask questions of your student relating to some of the observations made in the video, and it would give your student the opportunity to express their feelings and views on the topic. It would also give you the opportunity to express your concern for your student that, because of the angle of the chin and shoulder, he/she doesn't appear to be "comfortable" in how they're holding the violin.

And, Perlman does carry a certain amount of credibility in what he says. Perhaps that might impress your student to try something different.

I know that this video helped me. I had previously felt a bit guilty using a shoulder rest, when so many violinists do not. But, no longer.

June 22, 2022, 6:48 AM · I found this thread extremely interesting, some great replies.

For myself, I have tried quite a few different rests, all of them uncomfortable, until I finally found out what my problem was, which was simply the fact that I had to relax completely, in shoulders back and arms. This worked for me, don’t know if it would work for anyone else though, but I found not only did my playing improve dramatically I also have no strain issues at all now.

Edited: June 23, 2022, 10:17 AM · I guess my neck is short. I'm contemplating a gelrest and a Berber now that I have found a British supplier of gelrests (Bridgewood and Neitzert, unexpectedly).
June 23, 2022, 2:57 PM · Paul Deck, I’m curious which Wittner chinrest your teacher feels works best for a lot of his students? Personally, I’ve found the “Augsburg” over the tailpiece model to be best for me, and I have one on both of my acoustics and my Yamaha YEV electric. That and Bon Musica shoulder rests, but that’s just for me. Wittner chinrests are very lightweight, but unfortunately Bon Musica shoulder rests aren’t.
Edited: June 25, 2022, 6:23 AM · I agree 100% with Perlman's advice on the chinrest. First find the chinrest that fits your jaw perfectly. If you cannot find a comfortable fit, consider buying a "The Impressionist" that you can contour to the exact shape of your jaw or even a more comfortable contour.

If the fit is close but not perfect, consider adding a "chinrest cover". I recommend the "VaaGun" brand, which unfortunately seems to be getting harder and harder to find as the years pass. Amazon used to sell the same design in a different brand. I keep one of these permanently on each of my violins and violas - have done for years. Not only does this add to comfort for your jaw but it also is long enough to cushion the collarbone.

It is recommended that your chinrest be high enough that you can hold the violin between your jaw and collarbone. If your neck is too long for that, check with someone else for advice.

I do not think a shoulder rest should be considered as a substitute for proper chinrest fit at the jaw/collarbone but rather to allow for some support by the shoulder and to help with a different supporting angle for easier fingering.

I think some people are not built properly to fit violin playing, but there are other string instruments they may be built for - or other ways to hold it. Shortly after our granddaughter moved to Crete (the first time) she sent us a video of a local band in her village - the violinist was playing his instrument supported near his knees, on his thighs (cello position) - no chinrest nor shoulder rest needed.

Edited: June 24, 2022, 1:03 AM · My teacher had a custom-made chin-rest for her viola, long before she bought a Korfker. I don't know who made it.

I ordered a gelrest. My chinrest is likely to remain a Hill style Guarneri padded with gel and chamois unless I need something higher.

June 24, 2022, 1:07 PM · Hi Gracie, I haven't read any of the other responses yet so I apologize if I'm repeating advice.

To me, this sounds like a perception problem on the student's part. I've taught many students like this (usually adults) who seem to *imagine* a particular way a violin should feel under their chin. So even if their setup is top-notch, they'll still find little problems with it.

In this instance, my guess is that she is expecting a lot more security from the SR/CR, and because it's not there, she feels the need to clench her jaw down.

4 potential solutions I would implement if I encountered this:

1) Tie a shoelace (or large elastic band, or whatever) onto the chinrest, wrap it around the back of her neck, and then tie it again on the chinrest. Basically, the idea here is to make a "violin necklace" that is just tight enough to make her know that she can't drop the violin if it slips. A good rule of thumb is to tie it tight enough to where she can still slip it over her head. That way you don't need to untie the knots every time it's used. Make sure not to strangle her. I prefer wider material for this (something like the width of a belt), but use whatever works.

2) Bon Musica SR. Since these basically "clamp" onto the shoulder, they provide a high level of security, and students will sometimes even lift their chins off the chinrest entirely (which I don't personally like). I generally recommend Bon Musica to students with particular issues, and not so much to the average student.

3) Teach her to trust the balance of the violin on her shoulder. This can go hand-in-hand with step #1 (violin necklace). Try putting a small bag of potato chips in a small ziplock bag between her chin and the chinrest. Have her learn to play without crushing the chips. Ideally we want to have CONTACT with the chinrest, but not be squeezing it, and the chip-trick is a nice way of learning this. In doing this, she will learn to "trust" that the violin won't drop just because she's not squeezing it.

4) Look up the "chinrest lip." Oftentimes, a lack of security comes not from the height of the chinrest, but the fact that it doesn't have enough of an "edge" from the student to feel that their jaw is preventing it from sliding away. The chinrest lip is a nice way of adding an "edge" to the chinrest without having to buy a bunch of chinrests to see which one works. IF the chinrest lip works, then you could pursue looking into a chinrest with more of an "edge" on it for a more elegant solution.

June 24, 2022, 9:53 PM · I don't have these issues and I'm pretty sure I would crush the chips.
June 25, 2022, 3:13 AM · It's more of an exercise to develop kinesthetic awareness, Paul. I would crush the chips too, but the chips being there would certainly help me to be more aware of how much pressure I tend to add.
Edited: June 25, 2022, 12:57 PM · Actually if someone handed me a sack of chips I'd probably just eat them. LOL! Sorry! What they need is a device that fits into the cup of a chin rest to measure the total force that's being applied between chin and shoulder. Some kind of strain gauge or such. It would be interesting to compare SR vs restless players, what their force profile would look like playing some kind of short but relatively demanding piece.
June 25, 2022, 1:24 PM · Probably easier to measure at the collarbone.
June 25, 2022, 1:57 PM · Sounds a bit like me - in my case (YMMV) going restless was the solution (there are both costs and benefits). However, there is a process to follow to become comfortable rest-less AND you have to give the thumb time to figure it all out since it now has to both counter the fingers and hole the instrument up. Or I should say act as a pivot on which the neck of the violin rests.

Whether she sticks with this or not it is a wonderful thing to learn as you have the feeling that the violin is part of your body and not something that you hold and play. That sensation is hard to give up if you can get it to work.

June 26, 2022, 3:59 AM · The chips are cheaper than a gauge, Paul ;)

Btw, it was actually the folks at Frisch and Denig that originally passed the chip idea onto me.

Usually, it suffices just to have a student imagine that there's a bag of chips there, but that's also because I'm actively watching them and gauging their pressure level.

July 5, 2022, 9:03 AM · I play without a shoulder rest, and it was a really fun process getting the most out of it. Your student will have to learn different techniques when it comes to playing without a shoulder rest. How to hold the violin with stability, being able to be tension free enough through the shoulder to thumb/fingers for vibrato, and being able to comfortably shift positions up and especially down, without yanking the violin out of place.

The good thing is there are many ways of achieving each of these things.

As for the head tilting, holding the violin low. To me it strongly suggests she feels she does not have enough traction with her chinrest, and is increasing the angle so that the chinrest hooks in to her jaw more. While there are professional violinists who play that way. It is more common to see the violin raised higher than horizontal, so that gravity helps with holding the violin in place.

When looking for a chinrest I suggest one that has a deeper depression so that her jaw can hook on. This will make shifting easier and she will feel more relaxed and worry less about dropping the instrument. Ideally it should enable her to keep her head straight without tilting.

The shoulder rest I use is the Wave 1 from wave chinrest. They come in different heights and different designs. The wave 1 offers the greatest traction. Some also like the Kreddle, but it can be a pain to find the right position for the student due to all the adjustment options (I also found it too slippery).

You could also look into rubber pads to fill in any smaller gaps (and give more grip). Gel rests also has a low profile rest that may help. There are also many tricks for filling in a bit under the violin that a number of soloists used.

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