Nathan tosses his shoulder rest into the volcano

Why I ditched my shoulder rest after 30 years

We had a great run, didn’t we? We finished all ten Suzuki books, learned the Tchaikovsky concerto, went to Curtis, won some prizes and a few auditions… I’ve been with you longer than I’ve been with my wife and children. But I’m leaving you.

The shoulder rest: a taboo subject

The whole topic of shoulder rests had always raised my hackles. This was mainly because, as a “user”, I felt the need to explain myself. I wished that I could have had the musical, even the moral, upper hand of the non-users! They never had to explain themselves to us. They had only to recite the hallowed names in whose rest-less footsteps they were following: Heifetz, Milstein, Oistrakh, and so many more.

Check out this thread from violinist.com to get a sense of the stakes involved: by the end, everyone may as well be unfurling campaign banners: #NeverRest or #ImWithKun!

Even my friends and colleagues who played without rests annoyed me: not through word or deed, exactly. But I could see the naked undersides of their fiddles smirking at me.

So I wish that I had known then what I know now: playing without a rest simply means that you support the instrument exclusively with the left hand; playing with a rest gives you other choices. So how could choice be a bad thing?

Should we have the right to choose?

I’d simply never thought about it. My “choice” to use a rest hadn’t been a conscious one; it was simply the way I had always played. Maybe the sponges I used starting with Twinkle Twinkle didn’t count as shoulder rests proper, but I’d certainly never tried going completely without. And I never felt the need, until I ran into an unexpected difficulty.

A time to nit-pick…

Years ago, while preparing a concertmaster audition, I was becoming obsessed with my shifts. They didn’t feel natural, and they didn’t sound smooth, even in simple scales and arpeggios. Intonation could have been better too. In short, my shifts were getting in my head.

So I pulled out “the Bible”: Ivan Galamian’s Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching. There I discovered some rules of thumb that somehow I had never properly learned. They were literally rules for the thumb: how it should move during all kinds of shifts.

I tried following these rules to see if it would make a difference, but it felt so artificial. My hand always wanted to snap back to its old ways. And then I remembered a piece of advice I had heard somewhere along the line:

If you want to feel the natural movements of the thumb, try taking off the shoulder rest for a few minutes.

So I did. What a strange sensation it was! I immediately walked into a carpeted room because it felt like the violin was going to drop straight to the floor. But the advice rang true: after a few minutes I was, without thinking about it, following the rules of thumb laid out by Galamian.

But with my audition fast approaching, there was no way I was going to make such a radical change. I implored my left hand to remember what it had learned as I put the rest back on.

…and a time to reflect

With my audition out of the way, I dredged up the shoulder rest question. What really mattered was sound, right? If I didn’t sound better one way or another, why should it matter? My shoulder rest wasn’t even touching the back of the instrument, so there was no way it could make a difference. I resolved to forget about it and get back to practicing.

But I just couldn’t let it lie. So one day, when nobody was looking, I left the rest in the case and walked on stage for a rehearsal.

At that time I was with the Chicago Symphony. For those who are curious, orchestra rehearsals and concerts are perfect for experimenting with just about any change: hours and hours of playing, day after day, without the chance to second-guess your technique. In fact, check out this 360-degree video of me rehearsing Bartok’s The Miraculous Mandarin with Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic: use your mouse or mobile device to “look around” the video and you’ll see me in my usual spot, sans shoulder rest!

At the end of one month, despite some discomfort in my neck and jaw, I had my wife Akiko (also a violinist in the CSO) act as judge and jury for some blind listening in the big hall at Symphony Center. I was willing to accept whatever verdict she handed down.

We ran a randomized A/B test, back and forth, rest on and rest off. She couldn’t consistently pick a sound winner. Relieved to get away from my low-grade chronic pain, I slapped the rest back on and put it out of my mind.

Dead weight

Flash forward to just eighteen months ago. Now playing an older Italian instrument, I had fallen in love with Pirastro Passione strings (gut core with metal winding). To match the lower tension of the Passiones, I had also switched to a looser soundpost placement to increase the resonance of that wonderfully human gut-string sound.

Suddenly, the violin seemed to come alive, and I sought a deeper awareness of my physical connection to the instrument. I worked on a vibrato that was based more in the hand. I paid more attention to finger pressure, and sought out glissandos rather than avoiding them.

There was only one thing stopping me from fully embracing this new feeling, and I almost couldn’t bring myself to admit it.

At this point I was supporting the instrument entirely with the left hand, often playing with my chin off the chinrest. So I wondered what exactly my boon companion, the shoulder rest, was adding (other than 80 grams).

Inspiration from a great still among us…

Before doing anything drastic, I reread an interview with Aaron Rosand that I had encountered on violinist.com. On my first reading, I had been skeptical of his advice. Now everything fell into place.

He explained that having the violin more in front of me (as opposed to angled left) would promote a better finger angle for vibrato. He also said it was desirable to play with more upright fingers, something that I had learned while studying with Daniel Mason, a student of Heifetz. I had let myself stray from that position in the intervening years.

When I finished reading the interview, I realized that I could make a number of changes at once, and that they could work together: shoulder rest off, violin straighter in front of me, left hand closer to the neck, fingers more upright, and a finger-oriented vibrato. With trembling hand, I removed the rest and wondered: would this be good-bye forever?

…and inspiration from Nathan Milstein

I’m often asked if I was named after Milstein. I’d love to answer in the affirmative, but besides being untrue, it would create impossibly lofty expectations!

The very day I took the rest off, I got a call from a man who lives practically down the street and who happens to own Milstein’s Stradivarius. He wondered if I might play a short recital a week later at his home, for a private gathering. I would play Milstein’s violin, of course.

I drew a sharp breath and wondered: could I play a program in one week without a shoulder rest? A second later, I thought: on Milstein’s violin, how could I not? I chose pieces that I had performed many times: the Bach g minor solo sonata, Debussy’s Beau Soir (arranged by Heifetz), and Wieniawski’s D Major Polonaise.

I didn’t mention my shoulder rest plans to anyone but Akiko; I didn’t want to be held accountable in case I bailed at the last moment and slipped the rest back on. But aside from nearly losing my grip for the run of tenths at the end of the Wieniawski (at least the floor was carpeted), my first rest-less performance was a success! I’ve never looked back.

The proof is in the sound

I haven’t gone to the trouble of running another blind test with Akiko. And even that wouldn’t be definitive. Whether you’re testing old vs. modern instruments, Strads vs. Del Gesus, or what have you, the process is always flawed because of the human element: the player. It’s simply impossible to play every instrument exactly the same way.

And just as I play better on an instrument that I like, I play more comfortably with a setup that fits me. I’ve arrived at a different vibrato and a greater variety of shifts, compared to my rest-ing days. I can confirm that through recordings I’ve made over the years. I like the changes.

I do believe, though, that having gone through this process of discovery, I could put the shoulder rest back on and still vibrate and shift the way I do now. It’s just that I would feel the extra bulk of the rest. And I would miss the vibration of the wood on my collarbone, through my arms and on to the ends of my fingers.

Will this change last forever? That’s impossible to say. I thought I’d play with a shoulder rest forever, so I suppose it would be just as likely to someday put it back on. But I doubt it.

If you don’t know the books (or the “cult”, as the New York Times put it) of Marie Kondo, the Japanese de-cluttering expert, you can get a taste for her methods by picking an object and performing a simple test. Hug the object closely, press it against your body, and see if it “sparks joy”. If so, hang onto it. If not, thank it for its service, and say farewell.

For thirty years, I’ve had you pressed against me. I’m sorry to say that the joy is gone. But in recognition of your three decades of service, let’s keep our options open. There’s a spot for you here on this shelf: to be left until called for.

My favorite shoulder rest

For the last twenty years, I used the Viva La Musica rest, so I absolutely recommend it. Akiko uses it too (that’s hers in the volcano picture up top)! When I first started using the VLM as a teenager, it was because my teacher Dan Mason had discovered it and loved how on some violins it seemed to enhance the instrument’s resonance. At the time, it was the only wooden shoulder rest we could find, unlike the Kun rests which were plastic. Most importantly though, it’s adjustable without being flimsy. With the proper adjustments I was able to get the violin in the same position it’s in now (relatively flat, out in front of me). And that’s what ultimately allowed me to transition away from it so easily.
You could say that the Viva La Musica was so effective, it taught me to do its job myself!

Tell me about your experience with shoulder rests in the comments!

133 thoughts on “Why I ditched my shoulder rest after 30 years”

  1. Hello Nathan this is a great article with lots of great history. Quick questions for you… did you change your chin rest when you got rid of the shoulder rest to make up for the loss of total height? With such a height difference with and without the shoulder rest are you finding your head looking downward? Are you having to raise your shoulder to meet the violin?

    1. Paul, I actually did change my chinrest after playing the Milstein violin… but it was to a lower chinrest! So now I have basically the lowest, flattest chinrest. I spend a lot of time with my chin off the rest entirely, except for when I’m shifting down. I tend to bring the instrument up rather than look down with my head. Occasionally the shoulder will rise a bit, although it’s always a brief moment and nothing sustained.

      1. Nate,
        Great article! Thanks for sharing. I have a question regarding tone and sound. Did you notice a significant change in the type of sound (ie: Dark, Bright, Mellow, Harsh) you were making with the chinrest place to the side vs over the tailpiece, or clamped to the centre block?

        1. Well, some instruments sound better with different styles of chinrest. I’m fortunate that this one “agrees” with the side-mount chinrest since that’s the one I’m most comfortable with. Other instruments may need to be clamped on both sides of the tailpiece. So in short, I didn’t notice a difference in sound. Whatever you do, avoid covering the actual tailpiece with your chin. You need those vibrations to ring free!

      2. I’ve recently removed mine and I was questioning my brief shoulder rise when shifting down. I’m glad I read this article/comment because everything I’ve been doing is pretty much what you’ve mentioned/explained and feel more comfortable with it.

    2. I perform and teach violin. I often find myself playing up to 8 hours in a day. I had been slowly lowering the height of my Kun through the years until finally I only used a foam Artino circle, much like a make up pad. At the age of 44, I experienced a C5 C6 disc herniation which caused a loss of arm control and massive pain. I am fully recovered after spinal surgery and back to my old ways, but now I use an Everest chinrest with long feet, and a Wave ergonomic chinrest which seems to keep me from jutting forward with my head. After this brutal experience and fear of losing my only source of income, I will never go back to a life without a shoulder rest. The chinrest and shoulder rest encourage better spinal posture. While genetic, I am convinced that postural issues created by not using a shoulder rest can have a strong impact on spinal health.

      1. I’m so glad that you’re back to playing comfortably! Yes, whatever solution you can come up with to keep your head/neck (and by extension the spine) in proper alignment.

      2. I played for years, using some little cushion that’d held on with rubberbands, for a shoulder rest. Recently, I bought an Everest shoulder rest, and it was the best thing I ever bought for my violin, and my neck. Don’t wait till you’re 62 years old to get one.

  2. Nicholette Fetsch

    Nate,
    Many years ago had a similar experience. I fell in love with the much greater intimacy
    with my violin. It was a revelation becoming part of the instrument. I played sans shoulder pad for quite a while, and was sure that there was no turning back. What freedom . . .until a blood vessel began bursting in one eye every day, sending me to the eye doctor for help. Smart man. He had me show him how I held my violin. Hmm, it’s too bad there isn’t some sort of a brace to hold your violin, he said. There is, I replied.
    So, back to the shoulder rest, against my better musical judgment. The bloody eye cleared up promptly. My eyes have always had a coordination problem, which was aggravated by the added pressure. As you say, we are all different.
    Many thanks for all your helpful practice tips.
    Kind regards,
    Nicholette

    1. Wow, I’ve never heard of that! Scary story. But I’m glad you had someone to diagnose you quickly. I’m not sure where the pressure in the eye would have come from though. Glad you’ve found a solution.

  3. I tried so many years ago and returned to shoulder rest after 1 week … Todas I want to improve one more time ’cause I feel different my “relatioship” with the violin. I feel I need to study my vibrato better and don’t like this by arm. Some tips? Better to try with something for don’t left slipped out the violin? Something changes in your right arm? Thanks very much

    1. Feel free to stay with the rest but experiment with supporting more with the left hand. As for vibrato, I love the exercises by Simon Fischer in his many books. Warming Up, for example, has a step-by-step way to feel many different types of vibrato in the finger and hand and arm. You might have fun with those exercises!

  4. Great post that I relate to!
    First of all, I’m a violist and I’m the opposite of you – I played without shoulder rest my entire life. I got through college and grad school rest-free and I’m proud to say that I loved my sound and never had any injuries or soreness. My problem was that I would always tense up a lot during orchestral auditions. After many failed auditions, I finally decided try using a sponge – and I immediately won my first full time professional orchestral job.
    It’s good to be open to trying new things!

    1. First of all, congratulations on the audition win! Where do you play? The fact that you could recognize tension and decided to do something about it was the key, I imagine. The willingness to attack a problem is greater than any individual solution. Thanks for writing!

  5. Hi Nathan,
    I have also switched (perhaps) permanently from using a rest to not, with positive results. I still feel some insecurity with it though-and find that my intonation does suffer a bit from the instability in a way, even though it is enhanced in other ways (due to a better hand position).
    Have you experienced that at all?
    I’m curious whether you find that without the rest, the chin rest plays a more important role in your comfort?
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this!

    1. One of the next videos I need to make is about octave practice. If you can comfortably play octave scales with 1-4 (even if they’re slow) then you should be in good shape intonation-wise. Is the instability you’re talking about just during shifting?
      As for the chin, I find that it’s on the rest less overall than it used to be. When it is, it’s there for a purpose and then it’s free again. It used to sit there all the time and collect tension.

        1. Part of that, I believe, is forming the habit of having your first finger always resting on the string. This way, whatever position you’re in, you feel that frame based on the octave relationship between 1 and 4. So no matter what fingers are doing the shifting, your first finger is always “in” a position and on a real note. That really helps. There are small exceptions, but in general this is one of the keys.

  6. Thanks for sharing this! I have wanted to ask you why you stopped using shoulder rest. I always felt like shoulder rests are more like “collarbone ” rest.
    This sounds somewhat silly, but how do you tune your violin without shoulder rest? It’s so difficult to tune without!
    Thank you!

    1. Haha! I know what you’re talking about with tuning. I happen to have those geared pegs (by Wittner) so tuning for me is easy. With “normal” pegs it would be a little more awkward. I am able, however, to hold the instrument without the left hand for brief periods. It doesn’t sit “up” like it should for normal playing, but it’s good enough for tuning.

  7. I made this switch almost a decade ago and never looked back. A couple of things that make it work better are a custom made lifted chinrest (in fact I have a fitting kit in my studio to fit students and professionals who want to make the switch) and an Acoustifoam pad that fills the space between my left shoulder and the instrument. This helps with the slipping and sliding problem.
    I’m lucky enough (like Milstein and Heifetz) to have those broad eastern European shoulders. The violin rests firmly on my collarbone. Those players with narrow and sloping shoulders will have a harder time going without.

    1. Well, you may be right about the shoulders. Since I made the switch, I’ve had people insinuate that I have no neck (not true, as you can see from my picture up top!) or that in some other way I’m uniquely suited to go without a shoulder rest. I always dismissed these comments. But I do have broad shoulders for my height. Maybe that helps? But since the violin doesn’t rest on the shoulder, I’m not so sure.
      In any case, the difference for me is the support of the left hand, which I would keep whether or not I ever return to a shoulder rest.

      1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
        I have a question that why it is more loud and more echo with shoulder rest?
        I used to play without it in my life. One day after I perform many people told me it is beautiful sound but not that loud. One of my conductor friend also suggest me to use the rest. So I tried. I felt I lost my own color of sound but it is loud and so much comfortable for vib,swifting and anything but not for the bowing. Especially I noticed it is more loud and echo with the rest. Even people do more like it and said to me it is much nice and deep loud sound when I use it but it is colorful when I am not using it.
        What should I do? Since I started using it I feel like so much week but colorful and comfortable bowing without it and when I use it is much loud and easy to play but uncomfortable for bowing.
        Please help me. Thank you!!

        1. Sometimes with the rest on the instrument is immediately closer to your ear which will make it seem louder! It would be great to do a blind listening test with some friends to see if it’s really the case.

          1. Thank you for replying!

            I did blind test with my friend. She said with the rest is much loud with echo. If I use sponge or cushion instead of the rest, it sound better but still less sound than with the rest, I also did blind test with my friend for several times and she got it all.
            Have you tried to compare the echo with it or not? I wonder it is only happening to my violin but also to your violin.
            Thank you so much..

          2. It was really shocking to me because I believed it is better sound without the rest and my teacher,Stephen Clapp , recommend to use it but I didn’t. I guess he was right… I want to know it is only me think this way. So please help me. I can’t even sleep..

  8. “…My shoulder rest wasn’t even touching the back of the instrument…”
    I thought that was one of the reasons to use one… without the player’s shoulder pressing against the back of the violin, the back of the violin was more free to vibrate.

    1. Part of proper setup without a rest is making sure that your shoulder doesn’t touch. It should really be collarbone so that the back of the instrument is free to vibrate, as you say.

      1. This has been a revelation for me in the last few months. My attempts to go sans have been hampered by the fact that I’ve tried to use my shoulder to support my instrument. I still use a rest because I can’t get over the fear of dropping my
        Instrument, but even with one, the concept of using my collarbone and chin rather than clamping with my jaw and shoulder has dramatically reduced my tension and improved my consistency.

        1. I believe Kato Havas has a book that talks about that fear of dropping the instrument. It’s actually one of the most common fears for violinists even though nobody wants to talk about it!

  9. Thank you for this article, Nathan! I’m an older(70 this year) viola student, having begun as my daughter’s Suzuki violin parent, and taking my own lessons. After a few months on the violin, my teacher handed me his student viola and said “Here, I want you to practice on this” (perhaps as a means to address the many problems that beset older students). I never looked back, and found a nice, if a bit large (16 5/8″), viola of my own. I proceeded to search for the ‘right’ set up … and now own most styles of shoulder and chin rests as a result. Eventually, I settled on a center-mount chin rest and used either a Mach I or Kun shoulder rest, and ‘wore’ my viola rather high. This never suited me completely. Three years ago, I realized that my body wanted to use my collar bone as the rest, and that the shoulder rests did very little for me. Despite a longish neck, I always felt like I was straining to put my chin down and felt like the instrument my ‘squirt’ out from under my chin. I migrated recently to a deep-cup, Guarneri-style chin rest (lower, but still with a bit of ‘hook’ behind my collar bon). What a change! I feel much ‘closer’, more physically connected to my instrument, have a much greater degree of movement with it, and hear and feel each pitch much more intensely. I did attached a small flap-like patch of leather to clamp posts of the chin rest that folds over the clamp and edge of the viola, and now slip a foam shoulder pad under my shirt on which the left side of my viola occasionally rests. I was surprised how quickly I got over my initial fear of instability and much more natural my “rest-less” set up feels. One needs only to experiment to find what is ‘right’ for the individual.

  10. I personally have never used a shoulder rest and don’t like them. I will give them to some of my students when I feel they need them but I have always tried to avoid using them and here’s why.: the shoulder rest raises the violin up so that it it vibrates more and makes more tone. One would think that this is an advantage but many years ago my daughter was practicing many hours a day when she was in conservatory and was having a ringing sound in her left ear that lasted for hours after she finished practicing, not a good sign. Of course we were very worried and promptly took her to an otolaryngologist who could find nothing wrong and gave her wax earplugs which didn’t help at all. My daughter had been playing with a shoulder rest which her teachers insisted on for all their students as a matter of principle. When, utterly exasperated that she could not alleviate the ringing in her ear, my daughter took off the shoulder rest. The ringing stopped and she has never again (it has been over 20 years) had a problem with this. I have heard that many violinists eventually have hearing loss in their left ears so I think we teachers should be very careful about asking our students to use shoulder rests unless they’re absolutely necessary.. Thanks for your post. In my area I am the only teacher who does not give her students shoulder rests as a matter of course and you have given me more reasons for not doing so. Ruggiero Ricci said once, by the way, that playing without a shoulder rest is better for your shifting as you have to be a lot more careful. Thanks again.

    1. The hearing issue is real… I haven’t seen evidence yet that it’s related to the shoulder rest, but any setup that causes discomfort/ringing should certainly be changed. Glad your daughter’s situation got resolved!

      1. I think that the increased volume of sound that you get from raising the violin up from the shoulder may also increase the probability of hearing loss – more decibels. My daughter and I both use really flexible sponges and, as I said, she has never had any ringing in her ears since.

  11. Hi Nate,
    Thanks for the interesting article!
    Recently I played a number of fiddle gigs for the Calgary Stampede. Many times as I was playing, my KUN rest came loose and ultimately fell off. I realized that I was trying to bring my violin forward and was fighting the relatively fixed position of the KUN rest.
    I tried playing without the KUN, and this caused pain in my neck. So I’ve begun to use the Acoustagrip sponge. So far it seems to be helping. I have the freedom to swing my violin forward, the sponge isn’t falling off, and I’m not having any neck problems.

  12. Nathan,
    Great post and, as coincidence would have it, I went through this similar experience this past spring. I have had several extended periods in the past where I didn’t use a shoulder rest, but this time I really feel like it is going to stick. Interestingly, for me I actually find that I raise my shoulder into the shoulder rest in an attempt to really lock the fiddle into place, which has caused some tension issues for me that seem to be resolving when the shoulder rest is away.
    Now for my question: I’ve noticed in some of your more recent videos you have some kind of pad/cloth (made out of leather maybe??) that you have been using. Whatever it is, it looks in the video as if it might be made of a material that provides some grip that would keep the fiddle from slipping. What is that thing!? 🙂
    JP

    1. It’s a piece of scrap leather from Brettuns Village leather craft supply. What a great place! Go to their selection of “scrap leather” and just ask them for a piece that looks like mine. I’ve sent a few people their way now, so I bet they’ll know what you’re talking about. I cut mine to the size I like. It’s smooth leather on one side, and a rougher texture on the other. I put the smooth side facing out. Works great!

  13. Hello Mr. Cole
    First of all I wanted to thank you for your insightful videos and posts (especially including this one). I started without rest nine years ago, but a bad clinching habit made me start using one (I use wolf forte secondo ). A few years ago I read a book by maestro Ricci and a few notes by him about the disadvantages of using a rest, and after some studies tried to play without rest. But one of my main problems was violin slipping from its place between the chin and collarbone. From the first encounter with your videos I wanted to ask you something particularly relevant to this post. You seem to use a rubber-like fabric when playing violin. Does it give you a bit of friction or does it only raise the height of your contact point on the left hand (collarbone)?
    I will be glad if you could enlighten me on this subject, if it is possible for you. And again, thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience, through both these blog posts and videos.

  14. Matthew Millkey

    Hi Nate,
    Over the course of my 15 years playing, I have changed my setup countless times, ultimately ending-up with a very high chin rest centered over the tailpiece and a large shoulder rest-shaped sponge (I have a long). However, over the past year my teacher made me study the baroque violin in addition to the modern violin. Though it took a while to feel comfortable, I discovered that playing sans chin/shoulder rests allows me to be much more physically relaxed and free. Plus, as you pointed out, I feel much more connected to the instrument. Over the past few months I have switched back to a normal chin rest on my modern instrument, and have gotten rid of the shoulder rest. I don’t miss it one bit! Anyway, learning the baroque violin is a great way to help with the transition to playing without a shoulder rest.

  15. Excellent article, Nathan! Playing without the shoulder rest sounds interesting, especially considering matters of feeling resonance in the collarbone and through one’s body (In piano tuning, I can even feel the beat rates through the keys when testing intervals. Fascinating how the violin and piano have a way of communicating back to you that you are doing things correctly, the violin harmonically and the piano with inharmonicity, both via sympathetic resonance.). I shall have to ditch the shoulder for a few minutes and see for myself. I do remember my old violin mentor, David Robillard (Associate Concertmaster, OKC Philharmonic/Tulsa Symphony) always played with out the big shoulder rest. Both of you Concertmasters make a strong case. I’ll let you know how it goes.
    Also, I’m glad that you mentioned the Galamian book. Maybe down the road, we can discuss his “points of contact” principle for 3rd and 4th position. That small area, 3rd high, 4th low, always confused me (key of G minor comes to mind). Where do you make separation from neck and body? I admit that I have a penchant for being over analytical.
    Hoping all is well with you. Thank you for your philanthropy concerning all things violin!

    1. Thanks Bryan! I find that in third position I only occasionally touch the neck, but in “low” fourth or “regular” fourth, however you want to think of it, it’s constant contact.

  16. Nathan,
    I’ve enjoyed your posts, and never more than this one! Bravo! I’m glad that you are promoting playing without shoulder rests! I absolutely believe in playing without them, if at all possible.
    I’m a violist, and I’ve been doing it for many years now, and I can absolutely attest to your experiences with improved sound, vibrato, shifts, variety of style, etc. I agree with ALL of it!
    Yes, the key is to hold it with your left hand, giving yourself the freedom in the shoulder and neck, which results in all those wonderful gains! Your arm will get more tired, but then it will get stronger and get used to it!
    You’re a marvelous violinist, musician and blogger! Keep ’em comin’!
    Thanks!
    Peter

    1. Thanks! Yes, the left arm will likely get fatigued in the beginning. You have to make sure you can recognize what’s just fatigue (from using muscles differently than before) and what may be tension.

  17. I play viola and the added weight/size I think justifies my use of the shoulder rest. I only used a cushioned pad for years because my private teacher didn’t want me using a Kun or other shoulder rest. I always had trouble with it slipping out from my shoulder along with constant neck strains.
    Finally, I decided to get a Kun rest and voila (pun intended), my neck strain and troubles were over. I can never go back to the pad or no shoulder rest.

    1. My limited viola experience all happened before I stopped using a rest, so I can’t comment on how well it would translate for me!

  18. Nathan Sonnenfeld

    Hi Nathan,
    I very much enjoyed your article.
    I have been playing the violin for 16 years and for all 16 of them I have used a rest. I too use the VLM and it is by far my favorite rest that I used. However I am coming to a crossroads and am currently going back forth between using the VLM and a simple slip on pad. While the VLM provides me with the assuring support, the pad forces me to support the instrument with the left hand. The pad only prevents the instrument from slipping. I find that when using the pad, my left hand is much more relaxed and tension free.
    A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of having a lesson with David Taylor, assistant concertmaster in Chicago. He told me how it was easier for him to drop the rest after he had a custom chinrest made for him. This partly inspired me to get a custom chinrest and it positively improved my playing position tremendously. He also talked about the benefits that he has experienced since dropping the rest, which are very similar to what you talk about in your article.
    By the way, Miraculous Mandarin is so much fun to play.
    Thanks again for sharing your story.
    Nathan

    1. Great! I miss sharing a “tour trunk” with David. He would give the most colorful recap of every concert on tour as we were changing back into “civilian” clothes. I remember his chinrest as well. Thanks!

  19. It’s nice to know that the professionals are now figuring out what I figured out as a student in Cleveland back in 1997. The shoulder rest manufacturers were just in it for the money after all. They didn’t care about the sound of your violin. See my article regarding my thoughts on the shoulder rest at the following link. Now if I could only win a good job.
    https://steemit.com/music/@doogee/the-conspiracy-of-the-shoulder-rest-manufacturers-to-ruin-the-sound-of-the-violin-and-take-down-classical-music-fail

    1. Well, I’m not sure how much money there is in shoulder rests! 🙂 But I think most folks would agree that using a shoulder rest usually isn’t about sound. It’s about comfort, habit, teaching… Just to see the comments on this article you get a sense of all the issues involved. I lean away from the conspiracy idea, but ultimately we came to the same conclusion for our own playing it looks like!

  20. I have been playing the violin for a number of years, starting without a shoulder rest then purchasing several types. These helped me achieve a better vibrato and shifts etc. However, over the past few weeks I found that the sound quality of my instrument was better when I played without a rest, I just feel the notes passing through my body – if that makes sense. I am now in the process of adapting my left hand to play more freely. The difficulty I have at the moment is getting an even sustained vibrato in the lower position on the G string, my hand feels strained, so I just stay on it for a few minutes at a time. The shifting and playing in tune has been a marked improvement without a SR. My question is, how long did it take you, or anyone else on here, to become comfortable playing without the shoulder rest.

    1. Hi Vincent, you can see from my story that I tried several times and went back to the rest each time. So probably a month of not using a rest, two or three times over a period of several years. Then the last time when I took it off, it only took a week before I was performing solos, then another week or two before I knew the change would last long-term. That’s not to say forever, but that’s my guess!

  21. Hi Nathan,
    Thank you for your reply. Just thought I would let you know how I am getting on “Sans Shoulder Rest” . I have finally cracked it, my playing is 100% better (at least I think it is) I play quite a bit on the G string in the lower position which was a problem area when I first started, but now after a couple of minutes warm up, I can play down there without any problem. I did try a raised chin rest (SAS), but that was like playing upstairs, with my instrument on the ground floor, I sent that back and got a Guarneri style rest, which works very well for me, together with a piece of Chamois leather cloth. I did try the shoulder rest again to see if there really was much of a difference, and it felt like I was playing with a crutch under my neck. Changing positions up and down has not been an issue for me. My daughters cello teacher told her not hold the neck to tight, think of stroking a cat under its chin 🙂 I adopted this technique on the violin and it works. Thanks for publishing your article, it gave me the encouragement to bite the bullet and try it out.
    One added bonus, I don’t have to juggle a shoulder rest about in the violin case to make it fit.

    1. Wonderful! Of course I wasn’t out to “convert” anybody in writing this post, but the fact that you feel more comfortable after trying this out is great. I hope you continue down this road!

  22. Hi Nathan,
    I got rid of my shoulder rest a year ago. I had hard time holding the violin, shifting, vibrato and sore collar bone. I changed my chin rest so many times as well. Now I can play without too much problem, but it gave me a big sore looking lump recently which is not goung away and I have to put cloth over my collar bone to prevent soreness. Often my left wrist gets sore so I stretch my left arm etc. I don’t like shoulder rest so I am determined to get used to play without it but I don’t know how some people have no problem at all.
    I also want to know your thumb position because it is not easy for me to vibrate the first finger on the note right next to the nut (f on e string) and I see my thumb often goes under the violin neck. And it often doesnt touch the violin neck and sometimes the violin neck rests between the thumb joints like a hook.
    I don’t know whether there is a rule for this because Heifetz, Gitlis, Mutter all seem different how they position their violins, thus and fingers..
    I would appreciate if you have any ideas on how to prevent the pain and tense left hand.

    1. Hi Kim, it’s impossible to diagnose without seeing you, but the most common cause for tension in the left hand (whether with or without a shoulder rest) is squeezing between the thumb and first finger. So if you feel that sideways pressure on either one of those, something should change.
      My violin usually rests on the thumb joint closest to the palm. So not actually in the “V” but sitting on top of the next joint. It never actually goes under the neck.
      As far as playing in first position and vibrating, just know that many great players also struggle with this. One thing to make sure is that you are reaching back with the first finger to play those lowest notes. This way your hand is actually a bit further up the neck. If you try to play with your whole hand right next to the nut, it certainly will feel cramped.
      Let me know if any of this makes a difference!

  23. Thank you Nathan,
    My thumb is a bit too loose -sometimes it doesn’t even touch the violin neck. It is mostly slanted pointing towards the scroll and goes under the neck for high positions.
    Do you play with the thumb almost straight up and the thumb tip comes above the neck? Do you think it could be all depends on the body shape, violin position etc or straight thumb and opposite of the first and second fingers is the right position? Vibrato- what you said is right. I need to work on my vibravo a bit more. Thank you.

    1. Hi Kim, I do play with the nail joint of the thumb basically pointing straight up. It is almost always above the neck. In general, the longer your fingers are, the higher your thumb will rise above the neck. So that depends on finger length. But I can’t think of a hand shape where it would be advantageous to have the thumb pointing back at the scroll. I used to play that way but had to give it up when it put too much strain on my left arm especially during vibrato.

      1. Hi Nathan,
        Thanks very much. I am trying your way.
        It would be awesome if you make a close up video clip showing your hand movement, vibrato, different angle shots etc. I am analysing some of the famous players but they are not close up shots.
        By the way, you made some really good videos so thank you.

        1. That’s a great idea, and although that’s a nice big project I know that it would be helpful to many people just like you. I hope you’ll stay in touch and look for that video when I make it!

  24. Hi Nathan! Very interesting article! I used a Kun all my life until I was getting really frustrated with it. It would fall off, and my hair would get caught in it, and it didn’t seem to fit me quite right. I experimented and found the Sure-tone rest. http://www.suretone-rest.com/ I’ve been quite happy with it. I also have a Kreddle chin rest, and recently the left side of my chin/jaw/teeth has been hurting. It’s really frustrating, hurting while playing violin takes so much of the joy out of it! Do you think I’m clamping with my jaw? How do you think I could stop it? I just signed up for your school on ArtistWorks, but I haven’t been able to upload a video yet. Hopefully we can look at it when I can upload a video.

    1. Most likely there is some clamping going on. It’s pretty common, and you can do some playing with the chin completely off the rest to see where are the parts that you’re most likely to want to clamp down. That can start the process of getting rid of tension. And welcome to ArtistWorks!

  25. Thanks for this!
    I have been gradually using a shoulder rest less and less and finally ditched it about 2 months ago.
    I’ve realised that some problems I had with my left hand have resolved on their own now I’m rest-less. I seem to be able to get a better hand shape and it’s easier to play octaves in 1st pos, something which my small hand struggled with. My shifts are better. I feel less tired after long rehearsals and concerts!
    I also prefer the sound without the rest; when I play with the old rest now the sound feels distorted now, maybe because I’m not getting the sympathetic resonance through the collar bone that I’m now used to. I really wish I’d done this 20 years ago!

  26. Mr Cole, have you ever tried playing with NO CHINREST as well as no shoulder rest?
    I’d do it 100% of the time, but I don’t want to irreparably mar the violin finishes with my chin.

    1. I’ve never tried no chinrest! Although now that I support the instrument with the left hand, I find that my chin is on the rest much less often. I do need that friction sometimes though, so I wouldn’t want to go without. Also, as you say, there’s the instrument to protect!

  27. Alexander Strachan

    Nathan,
    This was an awesome read and thank you for sharing. I have a custom raised chin rest that is slightly to the left of the tail piece. I had a fitting two years ago due to pinched nerves and pain. I removed the shoulder rest then tried a different shoulder rest and now back to no shoulder rest and I love the vibrations and resonance of my violin. I’ve been studying for 15 years and still learning. My violin rests on my collar bone and I support it with my left hand and some weight from the chin. The issue is that my violin doesn’t necessarily come over the shoulder and when I get into very high positions my left hand comes all the way around with the thumb along the back top rib of the violin. It’s awkward and odd because I don’t have the support of my shoulder due to where the violin rests. So I’m thinking well I gotta figure things out with my teacher and I’m going to be refitted and see if perhaps I need a custom raised center mount chin rest because my neck is tall. Any advice about playing in higher positions? By higher positions I mean 4th finger towards the end of the fingerboard to play arpeggios.

    1. Sure thing! My thumb never comes off the neck completely, so that’s the short answer. With at least a little bit of contact with the neck, I can always get back down (you’ve already seen that you can’t once the thumb comes off). And I can reach the third and fourth finger pretty much all the way up to the end of the fingerboard from that position. You can work on that reach over time. How far away do you think you are from reaching the end of the fingerboard with a bit of the thumb still on the neck?

      1. Alexander Strachan

        Would it be okay if I made a short video showing you my set up and demonstrating what I mean with the left hand and thumb contact as I move up the fingerboard?

  28. Thank you for sharing your insights with us. I stopped using my Resonans low shoulder rest at a my teacher’s suggestion over 7 years ago, and have only recently looked back. Yes, I quit my shoulder rest cold turkey after 25 years of playing with one. Well, I did try the little red sponge for a bit, but it angled the violin forward and kept it from being rotated, so I got rid of that too. My sound, vibrato and bowing all improved as I was able to be more free with the angle of the violin. It was definitely more forward as many have mentioned in their comments, but I was also able to rotate back and to the left for more freedom on the e string.
    The reason that I was looking up shoulder rests and happily came across this article was because I was worried that a lack of stability was hurting my ability to play faster and more difficult passages. In theory, if the violin is locked in place and I am not supporting it with my left hand, my left hand should be more free to play and shift faster. It sounds like this is not a problem for you, and I probably just have to practice more, lol. I have also felt lately that my violin wants to slip away from me in performance due to the shiny tuxedo jacket lapel. My favorite way to practice is with just a thin t-shirt on. Do you have any advice on going from practicing to performing, and do you wear the leather on top of your tuxedo for performances? No judgement, it looks like it would blend right in. Thank you for your time.

    1. Thanks for reading James, and to answer your question I do wear the leather rectangle on top of whatever I’m performing or practicing in! I recently heard of some people using the Magic Pad as an alternative to that. I’m going to try it out, especially since it’s only about $5. But it does stick to the back of the violin, something I have been trying to avoid.
      As far as the left hand being more “free” if it isn’t supporting the violin, I haven’t found that to be the case. It makes sense in theory, but in practice as you see things work just fine. For me things work better in fact, otherwise I certainly wouldn’t continue down this road!

  29. Lucy​ Manning

    I very much enjoy your postings and thank you for New ideas to try!
    10 years ago I stopped using a shoulder rest. It was a tough transition, but I found my vibrato to be much freer as a result. I was having extreme shoulder pains with the rest the last few years – I was mostly playing viola then – which continued when I returned to the violin. After I became accustomed to no rest, the pain disappeared! So after 40+ years I said goodbye to my rest!

  30. Thanks for another great post, Nathan! I really do appreciate you sharing all of this with us! I’m also really impressed with how thoroughly you answer all questions! Can you please clarify what you mean by “upright fingers?” Thanks and all the best!

    1. By that I mean the “steep-ness” of the fingers. Flat fingers would appear to be very long, where the palm is far from the violin neck. Upright fingers result from the palm being closer to the neck of the instrument. You will see a big difference in the last finger joint, the one closest to the nail.

  31. Bit late to the party but i hope i’ll get the answer here:
    I am having trouble on shifting without a shoulder rest, especially on big shift.
    When my thumb has to come out from left side of the violin neck, or back down from high position to low’s, the violin would feel like going over a speed bump every time the thumb’s joint cross over 4th position, making it hard for me to keep the violin steady (thus a not secure intonation)
    Is there anything i can do/change/practice to overcome this problem?
    Thanks Nathan!

    1. That definitely takes getting used to. In fact I had to get used to a lot more contact with the thumb, certainly a more constant contact. One thing to remember, for shifting down, is that if you’re shifting down to 3rd position or above, you can leave your thumb where it was and only let it catch up after the shift. That was crucial for me. Also, make sure that on the way up, you keep the fleshy part of your thumb in contact with the neck. This way you’ll always have a way back.

  32. Thomas Grönroos

    Hi Nathan! Very interesting article! Thank you for sharing.
    I am a “restless” player as well and I made a short video on this subject.
    I’m comfortable with my side mount style chinrest, 1 cm raised (clamp legs are both at the G string side)
    https://www.facebook.com/100012929202638/videos/326148814492756/
    My only frustration nowadays is the precise dress code for male orchestra members… mostly “white tie” formal dress, black suit, or a tux. I’m not really a fan of bow-ties and neckties! Add intense stage lighting, and stress, then it gets really HOT! Facial sweating makes my chin rest slippery. I have tried handkerchief without success, it’s a slippery experience as well. Instead, I would like to wear a thin Nehru collar shirt, less stage lightning, and less stress…
    Best regards
    Thomas, Sweden

  33. Great article and great comments. And wow, Nathan, you even take the time to respond to each person.
    First of all, I doubt I am in the class of players here, being mostly these days an Irish fiddler (but anyone who thinks Irish fiddling is just a bunch of sawing hasn’t played Irish music, and I am very grateful for the technical skills I learned when I was a violin student).
    As in the case of a previous comment, I also began playing violin later in life (age 37 – I am now 66), having started up with my Suzuki-student son when he was four. I did manage to get up into Book Eight, and yes, having played lots of other instruments all my life was a big help.
    I don’t recall that playing without a shoulder rest was ever an option with our particular teacher. It’s just the way it was and I never questioned it. So when I finally did ditch it all together – probably ten years ago – it somehow felt like a supreme act of rebellion. How wonderful to find compatriots!
    I hated every shoulder rest I ever tried, and I even tried making a few of my own design – sponge, foam, velvet of every dimension. One thing I especially disliked was the way the lower-most corner of the Wulf and the Kun pressed against my upper chest. I did, for a time, tolerate the Playonair, but eventually even that went into my collection of unused shoulder rests and failed experiments.
    I can’t remember how or when I decided to lose the shoulder rest altogether, but I was inspired by the assumption that my violinist/violin-maker father (whom I never had the pleasure of meeting, unfortunately) – and others in his generation – certainly never used one, and it did take a bit of tweaking in terms of finding the right chin rest (mine is a Guarneri with a slightly exaggerated lip).
    My set-up for most of these last ten years has been the above chin rest with a small folded square of rubber shelf protector under my violin, held on by a rubber band – it adds no height but does prevent slippage (and I have tried the stick-on rubber pad that others have mentioned but I like my shelf-protector pad better). About five years ago I added a folded piece of chamois to the mix. This I place on the chin rest. Not only is it very comfortable, but it adds the tiniest and most subtle amount of softening to my tone which pleases me. I dyed the chamois a dark brown so it wouldn’t stand out. It is now soft and supple and is like an old friend – my security blanket 🙂
    What I love about no shoulder rest, as others have affirmed, is that my violin is more a part of me. When I breathe, it breathes; when I move, it moves. Yes, there are adjustments that need to be made sometimes when playing, but those become part of the rhythm and flow of the music. I especially love feeling the vibrations of my instrument on my collar bone and in my shoulder. Another thing I hated about the shoulder rest, especially the ones that suspend the instrument above your body, was a feeling that the music was suspended in mid-air and not connected to anything. It’s been argued that the violin can resonate more freely when suspended – and it seems logical – but I find the opposite to be true.
    All of the above having been said, I find that the conversation about shoulder rest vs. no shoulder rest is much like a conversation about religion: best to avoid discussing in polite company – – – So thank you for this affirming article and an opportunity to share my experience.

  34. Hello Mr. Cole,
    thank you for your precious insights! I’ve been playing without a shoulder rest for about six months now; I sometimes tense up my neck in the shifts down and tend to stick the side of my index finger to the neck… I use a center mounted chin rest. Would you suggest raising it? Or using a piece of leather maybe?
    Greetings from Italy!

    1. The thing to remember with those downward shifts (which is the only time I absolutely need contact with my chinrest) is that upward support from the hand is crucial. So if there’s a way to replace your “side” pressure from the index finger with “up” pressure from the thumb/hand, that will free things up. Unless you have a really long neck, don’t raise your chin rest. It will just get in the way. You don’t need contact there all the time. I do use a piece of leather but only on my shoulder/collarbone, so under the instrument.

  35. Dear Nathan,
    Just an update since writing to you on September 2, 2016. My playing has gone from strength to strength. I just haven’t missed playing with a shoulder rest at all, in fact I actually find it more awkward to play with one now. I did put it on for a concert last April, but half way through the concert the thing fell off and caused a small indent in the violin, not even sure why I put it on again, other than the fact it cost me £90 and I hate waste of any sort, especially waste of money. The one important thing that I have noticed is that my violins tone sounds nicer, with the shoulder rest it seems to be harsher, maybe that is just my imagination, but it sounds better to me. Thanks for all your tips and YouTube videos, they have been a great help for me. Regards Vincent

  36. Hello Nathan,
    I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your article. I am a 40 year old mum, who decided it was a good idea to learn to play the violin while my kids were at school. I contacted a great Russian teacher and started my adventure two and a half years ago.
    After all this time, my teacher told me in my last lesson to try and play without the shoulder rest. I am starting to do three octave scales and their arpeggios, and I guess my intonation was driving my poor teacher crazy.
    She taught me how to hold the violin, using the collarbone and holding it more in front of me. However, I have found myself slowly moving my violin towards my left. What advice can you give me, please?
    Kind regards,
    Beatriz

    1. Well, it’s hard to say without seeing you, so since you have a teacher you should definitely see what she suggests. Can you tell why the violin wants to move left? It could be that’s where it’s most comfortable for you. That depends on the length of your arms, since longer armed people will naturally have it more to the left. The danger, for some people, of moving it left is that it gets closer to the shoulder and you can be more easily tempted to raise that shoulder to “help” support the instrument.

  37. As an aside, did anyone notice, during one of the dance scenes in Downton Abbey, supposedly set in the teens and twenties of last century, at least one Kun shoulder rest in the orchestra? 🙂

  38. Hi Nathan!
    Thanks for this! I just took my shoulder rest off a few days ago because I have been struggling with tension in my left shoulder which was preventing me from having consistently clean shifts and continuous vibrato. Going rest-less seems to be the answer to those problems. But after a couple hours of playing I get pain in my upper arm, more of a soreness than pain. Do I just need to build this muscle up since I’m not used to solely using my left hand for support, or do you think there might be something I’m doing wrong? My violin rests on my collarbone and the neck rests right above the middle joint of my thumb (I experimented with my thumb higher but that seemed very uncomfortable and I could not vibrato comfortably). Would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!

    1. Hi, glad it seems to be more or less comfortable so far! If your experience is like mine, I got some fatigue in the upper arm (the outside, the deltoid, in other words the side and rear muscles of the shoulder) from using muscles that I wasn’t used to. You’re right that that should go away once the muscles get used to it, if that’s what you’re experiencing. I couldn’t tell you for sure though without seeing you. If you can distinguish between pain and fatigue, though, you should feel free to experiment.

  39. Hi Nathan! You inspired me to try this today, and low and behold, I felt comfortable! I actually played for Milstein when I was a student, with the hopes that I could get a Fulbright to study with him in London. He told me I would have to ditch my shoulder pad if I studied with him. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out for me to study with him, but the experience was enlightening. AT that time, I was really afraid of tension in my shoulder.
    For some reason, today, it felt very natural, and I could hear my sound so much better, also felt very free in the left hand. This could be from the novelty of it, but I will keep trying and see what happens. I have been using the very expensive KorfkerRest, ($200) which is really amazing, if you can adjust it right. It is light weight, and barely there. I have always wanted to be free of any rest, so this could be a new thing. I liked your description of having the violin more in front of you, but wonder how you keep from raising the shoulder to meet the violin, which is my only concern. Thanks so much for this article!

    1. Hi Leslie! Thanks for sharing, really happy this seems worth looking into. We can learn new tricks! As for the shoulder, part of it as you say is having things more in front so that it’s not as much a temptation to have shoulder come up. Then also, realizing that it’s OK for there to be space between the shoulder and the instrument. That’s what will let it resonate freely. As long as the arm is supporting the instrument, you’re good to go.

  40. Since the instrument is resting on the shelf of the collarbone, the left hand must necessarily be used to keep the instrument raised. This is the manner that the old masters used; Heifetz, Milstein, Szeryng, Stern, Oistrakh, Kogan and countless others. Heifetz referred to shoulder rests as “scaffolding”. Paganini played with no chinrest. There are some contemporary violinists that still employ the old method; Perlman, Zucherman. Others use the shoulder rest; Hahn, Bell.
    Today, any string educator who advocates this type of support is scoffed at. Students in a classroom setting are given sponges or bar shoulder rests and are taught the weight of the head must hold the instrument thus freeing up the left hand and arm to shift unhindered. This has become status quo for most professional violin/viola musicians.
    I have had bouts of bursitis in my shoulder from tension in supporting the violin with head a shoulder. I have tried going restless and supporting with my left hand. My difficulties have been in descending shifts as well as vibrato shaking the violin. I would love to see a tutorial on doing thumb preparations as Flesch teaches. I would love to be able to utilize this technique that the greatest violinists in history have employed. Any advise would be gratefully received!

    1. I hear you! I do plan a video or series showing more detail on how I transitioned to playing without the rest. It was almost all left-hand work, much involving the thumb as you mention. It’s a big mental hurdle to get over: that involving the left hand in support can actually make it feel and act more free.

      1. Recently I have watched the Menuhin violin tutorial series. In his masterclasses he speaks frequently about the left shoulder and head being frozen and tries to encourage students to go restless. Alex Marcus also has some useful videos. I have some time this summer and plan on devoting some time to trying to free up my left side!
        Your videos and blog have been so informative. I am so inspired by your playing!

        1. Thanks so much! Yes, for many people going restless (including me when I started this process years ago) the shoulder/head relationship really frees up. It is, of course, possible to still have that freedom with the rest on, but it can be difficult to gain when you’re used to those three elements being fixed in relation to each other.

  41. I’m going to have to read this entire [long and getting longer] post several times to get all the goodness out of it. Speaking of that leather panel that you fling over your shoulders in your video, and the source for which you so kindly provided above, I sent Brettuns an email requesting prices and got an answer back within 2 hours… on a Saturday. $12 a panel includes shipping. “We also sell this same suede to violinists – the leather goes on your shoulder to help hold the instrument in place. As of today’s date we’re not aware of any of our customers using this while dancing AND to hold their fiddle at the same time.”
    https://www.brettunsvillage.com/leather/suede-leather-hides/chrome-suede-splits-dance-shoe-suede-leather-pieces/

  42. Hi Nathan,
    I find your posts, videos, and podcasts very useful and encouraging.
    I recently began experimenting with playing without the shoulder rest. Would you please explain:
    • how you exert bow pressure (using weight from the right arm, pronation of the right forearm, etc.) and
    • where you feel counter-pressure (in your left thumb, collarbone, upper “movement” of the left arm, etc.)?
    I feel that my head tends to do the counter-pressure (old patterns). That’s neither healthy nor pleasant.
    Best wishes,
    Lucija

    1. It’s hard to get too in-depth in text form, but basically you don’t need much weight or pressure for the bow. Your arm is big and the bow is small! There is pronation of the forearm, which an observer wouldn’t see because the force would go into bending the bow stick. I feel an upward pressure of my thumb into the leather of the bow.

      I support the violin mainly with the left thumb, which is not all the way underneath the neck but can move freely depending on what’s needed. There is also contact with the 1st finger. However I never squeeze the neck between thumb and finger. The left hand helps push the instrument into my collarbone as well, very gently. So yes, I feel the counter-pressure there. I like as little downward pressure of the head as possible. I need that little friction for some down-shifts but otherwise very little is necessary. Yes, you can do quite a bit of playing (or at least practicing) with your chin completely off the chin rest!

      1. Nathan, thank you for your detailed explanation. I will practice with my chin completely off the chin rest and compare sensations in my body when I play heavy accents, fiery fortissimo or sul ponticello passages, with sensations in my body when I play soft, pianissimo strokes. I’ll have to do a MVP check more often, because other fingers (1–4) try to compensate for the lost weight and stability from my head as well.

  43. Duffer beginner here; I am still on the sponge. But I sometimes experiment with chin up and will work more with that, as well as ditching the sponge to see.

    Thank you for all, and thanks to Akiko.

  44. Hi Nathan,
    You have inspired me to go “restless”. I only have 1 year of practice but since a month I have to stop playing due to neck and shoulder pain caused by stress and 8 hours seated daily in front of a computer. I have a long neck, but weirdly enough I was raising my right shoulder and cramping my neck when using a shoulder rest. Without the rest, the neck and shoulder position seems more natural. I will have to adjust lot of things, but at first try it looks promising.

    Thank you for your post.

    1. Great, it’s an exciting time! Don’t worry if it doesn’t “take” the first time around. Be patient and you’ll find what works best for you. I agree that a long neck is not necessarily a disadvantage.

  45. Dr. Ellyn Singer

    Dear Nathan

    My 15year old daughter will be having double jaw surgery in a years time. She is devastated to learn that she can not put any pressure on her jaw for three months. We will definitely show her your article ! Do you have any recommendations for how she should begin?
    Thank you

    1. I certainly wish you guys well! I would suggest gradually increasing the support of the left hand so that she can take her chin off the chin rest at times. Eventually she can move to shifting exercises with the chin completely off the rest.

  46. Mr. Cole,

    Great article! Quick question,

    How important is physique in playing with/without shoulder rest and being relaxed in your playing? I’ve played with sponges for a while now and it’s always been super comfortable to me until recently when I’ve had a lot of tension in my shoulder and neck. I have a very long neck and use the 42 mm SAS chinrest (which actually isn’t tall enough to fill the gap between collarbone and jaw). I was wondering if maybe switching back to a shoulder rest would help this? I like the idea of playing restless much better and find that I still have some tension with the rest.

    Thanks!

    1. I recognize that what works for me may not work for everyone, and certainly you’ll see a lot of different experiences in the comments here. But I would encourage you to get the most out of left arm support that you can, whether or not you use a shoulder rest. You may find that in the end, it’s not necessary to completely fill the space between collarbone and jaw!

      1. Thank you! “it may not be necessary to completely fill the space between collarbone and jaw!” – what a great piece of advice! I’ve always thought that all the space needed to be filled, but as soon I considered that maybe that wasn’t necessary, I could relax and play much more naturally! Many thanks! Supporting more with the left hand has been very helpful too.

  47. Hi Nathan, thank you for crafting such a helpful and interesting article! I am a student who recently discovered the flexibility of playing without a shoulder rest. My first instructor gave me a sponge as a beginner. Later on, double stops caused me to change the shape my left hand so much that I ditched the sponge to give my hand more freedom. My choice was also inspired by my love for the baroque era. Elicia Silverstein’s lovely performances also inspired my choice to ditch the sponge in order to let the instrument resonate more freely. I’ve since discovered a deeper connection with the instrument unlike anything I’d ever experienced.

  48. I know that this is a late response, but I’ll share it anyway. I am quite neutral on this topic, as I am neither for or against shoulder rest use. I have read a TON of discussions on shoulder rest vs no shoulder rest online, and I have concluded that it really depends on what suits your unique physiology and playing style; some people are in huge trouble without shoulder rests while others find them totally unnecessary or even annoying. I do, however, think that at least 80% of violinists and violists do benefit from something to stop the instrument from slipping; even a small cloth or sponge counts. I also think that going restless generally requires a certain body structure, plus a healthy way of balancing the instrument between chin, collarbone/shoulder, left arm and left hand.

    The bottom line is, use whatever is most comfortable and allows you to play with the most physical ease and comfort, whether it is using a shoulder rest, a piece of foam, or nothing. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this shoulder rest vs no shoulder rest debate is just plain silly and pointless. I think this debate stems from dogmatism, aka the idea that everything MUST be done in one, very particular way. If we can be more open to the unique needs and wishes of each individual (which many of us, thankfully, already consider), this debate would not be nearly as heated.

    Personally, I started with a sponge and eventually got a Kun and have been very happy ever since. And yes, I also love my Wittner chinrest. I’ve tried going restless for fun, and often when I’m trying violins, I’ll go restless because it’s more convenient. I can manage for short periods of time. Long term, unless I’m wearing clothing with lots of padding in the shoulder area, I find it very hard to balance the instrument because my physical structure means that the instrument only seems to touch a very small part of my collarbone, which doesn’t provide nearly enough stability even if the chinrest is the right height and shape. I could pull my shoulder forward to make my collarbone more exposed, but that doesn’t seem healthy either. I just really need something to stop the violin from slipping in the long haul; even a sponge will do, if the shape fits me, of course.

    I think shoulder rests can affect the sound a little, but the difference is so small it doesn’t matter to me. Without a shoulder rest my violin and viola ring a bit more, but again, the difference is small to my ears.

  49. Always interesting to see what everyone is saying on this. I went through a whole cycle. In my teenage years, I played without a rest and wound up chronically hiking up my left shoulder. Then I tried various Wolfs and used a Kun for a long time. Somehow, I decided to move to an Acoustifoam pad (middle of the height range), while hiking up my chinrest a bit. Extra cork underneath, so it cleared the tailpiece, and then a Strad Pad on top. Better still.

    An advertisement for the Acoustifoam– it has hardly any contact with the violin or my shoulder. Just a bit of friction, which is quite liberating.

    This week I went back to the old fiddles I hadn’t used forever and replaced their (very!) low chinrests from my teenage years with Flesch flat ones. Those plus the Acoustifoam are doing remarkably well as a combination. Could probably do without the pad underneath, but I am sticking with a winner. Next step is to move the Guarneri chinrests off the modern fiddles and see if that adds to comfort on those.

    Thanks for tolerating the late-night raving.

  50. Hello,

    Which model of the Viva La Musica shoulder rest did you use? I’m looking for a new shoulder rest. (I currently use the comford shoulder cradle, which while comfortable, is really large and annoying to carry around)

  51. Great article. I am 66 years old and began playing the violin about five years ago. I assumed a shoulder rest was a must, particularly for me who is 6’4″ with a long neck.
    At the Milwaukee Irish Fest a few years ago, I saw an impressive fiddler who was swinging his unencumbered instrument around like a toy, but I thought his impressive technique was out of my reach.
    One week ago, I only had a few minutes to practice so I skipped the shoulder rest ritual. Result: an unexpected and totally religious experience with an immediate improvement for all the reasons you and other commenters stated. It took only a little time to acclimate to it. I hardly use the chin rest anymore for even more comfort and freedom.
    I thought I was doing a real bad and better reform. Instead, I looked-up the topic online and found your encouragement. I will never go back. Thank you, Dennis

  52. I can’t use a chin rest because the metal parts in my neck kill me. So I stopped using it and found out it is much more confortable not to have one, even the central one. I like to rest directly on the violin, it’s more confortable and a nice resonant feeling. It also made my left shoulder (in which I felt constant pain and developed bursitis) feel A LOT better. Like 80% better. But I can’t find a proper shoulder rest (or a good position without one since I started trying chin off). I still feel the 20% of the pain, even though I’ve been to 4 physiotherapists. What can I do to play confortably (not even talking shifts, I have trouble finding the right balance for the instrument already in first position…)
    Thank you so much, I can’t thank you enough for your video on spiccato technique…

  53. I just returned to the violin after stopping in about 1976 – 44 years ago. I played in a big city youth symphony at a pretty high level and honestly don’t remember a single violinist using a shoulder rest. I didn’t even know what one was. I don’t feel a need to try one. I did have to get a high chinrest back then and now to comfortably hold the fid.

  54. Thanks for the great article. … I’m 6’2″ with a longer neck. Viola is to me what violin is to shorter dudes. Yet, I love the violin and have suffered through a myriad of both commercial and home made rests. I had read Leopold Aeur’s anathema of rests and began wondering about the deeper dynamics of feel and movement. Played around with no rest for a few weeks and then I found Ruggieri Ricci’s article, [https://www.thestrad.com/playing/the-secret-behind-paganinis-amazing-technique/5453.article] … Changed my life. Seems Pagannini was totally unorthodox in his playing. Pointed it down, held it close to the ribs, said there was only one position, and kept his elbow locked against his side. Worked on these new dynamics for about another two weeks and must say it has made a world of difference. The hurdle is not easy, but if you stick with it you will definitely love the results. No more neck pain. The Bursitis is going away. Lots of control. Yes, you lose some in the exchange but I am certain you find ways to gain it back. This coupled with learning how to EQ my tone and sensitivity by modifying the bridge. My Tononi copy of circa 1820 feels like it wants to be played. No struggle to get a clean sound. Have a renewed hope in ascending to a much higher level of refinement. Hope this encourages y’all.

  55. Oh, one other thing. I chucked my chin rest, too. Took a cloth napkin, rolled it up and made a large knot in the center, then tied it around the tailpiece. Does not affect sound at all. Let the knot hang to the left side. Seems that’s all I need to keep the violin close by. Feels really great on the chin. My posture is as Aeur recommended; body natural and squared off; head erect and not leaning but looking straight ahead. The violin is off slightly to the left side but not much. This has helped to feel relaxed. All that has resulted in greater control, dexterity and freer movement.

  56. Now four months later I finally deferred to Aeur and threw out my shoulder rest and did as he said … tuck the violin firmly into your neck on the collar bone, keep it OFF your shoulder, keep it high and look straight ahead with nose pointed over the scroll. As I poured over the photos of him holding his violin I noticed how natural and relaxed he looked. The same idea of how the bow should be placed in the hand when it is simply hanging restfully, so too the violin well seated on the body. I have a slightly modified chin rest to accommodate my long neck. The main thing here is that when I pull my hand toward the scroll the violin remains snugly positioned under my neck. What I gained is control I have never known. Holding up the violin forces my thumb in the right position opposite my fingers which are now properly aligned directly on top of the strings. I used to tilt the violin but no more. I also noticed in the photographs of Aeur that his head was oddly tilted toward the right rather than what you would expect toward the chin rest. That gave away his secret. As I began to experiment with this the pain in my left shoulder subsided, and I began to have the clear hope of developing greater mastery of the instrument. The sound increased and subtle vibrations and tones began to appear which I am better able to negotiate. Also, accessing the G and D strings improved. Who knew, right? Habits are hard to break, but Aeur says if you stick with it … it happens. I think he was right. After all he produced Sasha.

  57. Hi Nathan,

    So I’ve been shoulder restless for a while now, and I’ve started to notice that I tend to raise my shoulder up a bit while playing. Usually I only feel the discomfort after I finish playing. And since my neck is long I switched to the 32 mm SAS Chinrest. Its lowered my tendency to lift my shoulder, but I still do it. I love playing without a shoulder rest, and it’s improved my technique a lot, and I love the vibrations of the instrument, but what can I do to stop lifting my left shoulder. Thanks!

    1. Key for me was realizing that the instrument actually could be supported by the collarbone and the left hand. My guess is that you could still support more with the hand but of course I haven’t seen you play! I highly recommend Jennifer Johnson’s writing to understand the role of the shoulder and arm, and how we misuse those terms sometimes. But I’m glad you’ve already gotten some benefit from exploring your options here.

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