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.
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!