A couple of days ago I received a note asking for my thoughts on shoulder supports; you know, those various and oddly shaped orthopedic devices many players, and virtually ALL young players, attach with unquestioned devotion to the back of their instrument.
They are so ubiquitous now, in fact, that some younger colleagues wonder that the instrument can be played without one. “You don’t use a shoulder rest?!!” they exclaim in shocked surprise upon seeing the naked back of my violin.
Well, no, I don’t.
You see, back in the day, when some of us older players were coming up, there were many bastions of violin playing where shoulder rests were either forbidden or discouraged; Heifetz wouldn’t tolerate them in his class, and Milstein dismissed them with the rhetorical question, “why you don’t hold the violin with your left hand?” – remember, english wasn’t his first language.
It was felt, then, that the left hand should be a partner to the shoulder in supporting the instrument, making the shoulder rest unnecessary. This approach, in fact, encourages efficiency of movement around the violin, especially when the chin pressure is kept light; a very good thing.
Can the violin be played beautifully with a shoulder rest attached? Of course, most of our great artists today use them.
Indeed I, myself, have experimented with various kinds. Yet I have always left off with them, with regret only for the money spent. I prefer the lean, mean feel of the violin with the lowest, flattest chinrest, and a stark naked back.
Now, I should mention, another claim made by shoulder rest proponents, and I don’t know if this has been put to the test in a hall, is that they allow the back of the violin to resonate more freely; it certainly stands to reason. Yet I suspect the difference is negligible, particularly if the player isn’t using a ‘death grip,’ squeezing down hard with the chin, to compensate for the lack of bracing a shoulder support would otherwise supply.
And this brings me to my final point. The violin can simply rest on the shoulder, with or without a shoulder rest; one’s chin is hardly needed. I touch lightly with it, only using a little pressure now and again when I shift, particularly down from a high position. The rest of the time I maintain a light, comfortable balance between left hand and shoulder, allowing the violin the freedom to resonate as freely as possible.
All the best,
P.S. Isn’t it the great, Anne-Sophie Mutter that plays with a bare-backed violin resting on an ever exposed left shoulder? It’s called, “doing it natural!”
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