How to Play the Violin Without a Shoulder Rest

Technique and Practicing: My thoughts on how and why to play the violin without a shoulder rest

by Emil Altschuler – March 20th, 2012 – Originally posted on Violinist.com

dedicated to Cheryl Corey

This article is intended for violinists who are interested in learning how to hold the violin without using a shoulder rest, or using their shoulder for support. It is based on my own observations, experience, and some of what I have learned from my teachers. There are as many ways to hold the violin, as there are violinists. If you feel comfortable using a shoulder rest or your shoulder to assist you while playing the violin, then by all means, proceed as you are already. This is just one way for violinists that are interested in learning to way to play the violin without a shoulder rest, to do so.

First, the violin isn’t held, so much as balanced on the collarbone and propped up with the left hand. You can think of the violin as a bridge between these two ledges or points of contact. Begin by holding the violin in your left hanging loosely by your left side next to your leg. Bring the violin up with your left hand, and assist with your right hand if you need to, around the lower right rib at the corner. Slightly lift your head up, creating space for the violin to insert into the gap between your chin and your collarbone, and place the back of the lower left bout over your left collarbone. Lower your head down gently placing your chin on the chin rest. The natural weight of you head should be enough to keep the violin in place.

Try to balance the neck of the violin between the lower proximal phalanx of the left index finger and the around the joint between the distal and proximal phalanx of the left thumb. The ideal height of the violin should be about parallel to the ground and you should resemble the form of an archer or gunman taking aim.

Some of you may have collarbones deeply imbedded or very close to your neck. This may be the case especially in children. If so, even a collared shirt may be too thick for the violin to rest firmly over the collarbone. If your violin consistently slips off of your collarbone, try wrapping a cloth around the chinrest and lower bout of the violin for extra friction, or, a piece of chamois (or other fabric with grip such as carpet liner).

The precise way in which you will hold he violin and which body parts it will touch, is impossible to say, especially without observing the person with the instrument in hand. Everybody’s anatomy is different, ranging from different lengths, shapes, widths of body parts, and placements of bones. For example, some violinists like my friend Cheryl, who have relatively long necks and/or combined with broad, sloped, or regular shoulders, may have to hold their violins high in order for the chinrest to meet their chins, and will have the violin considerably off of their shoulder. Others with shorter necks and/or high shoulders will have the violin more adapted to their body shape, and will fit snug, like a doorstop. Their shoulders may even naturally touch the back of the instrument.

Whatever your anatomy, your shoulders should remain down and relaxed while playing. Your spine, all the way up to through your neck, should remain relatively straight with as little deviation from a neutral position as possible. Think of yourself as an athlete. You wouldn’t run, play tennis, soccer, basketball, etc. and keep your neck or spine in a compromised or crooked position. You should be relaxed and flexible at all times to respond to commands and to ensure fluidity of motion in execution.

Try to keep your eyes fixed on the instrument while you perform to watch the bow and/or fingers. It is like looking down the barrel of a rifle when you are taking aim. If you take your eyes off the target, you might miss, or likewise, if you are driving, and take your eyes off the road, you might get into an accident. Violin is a highly complex and sophisticated multitasking operation, and you should use all of your focus and senses to perform it.

The use or nonuse of a shoulder rest is a topic of heated debate in the classical violin world. You may even feel so strongly about using or not using a shoulder rest, that it is a way of life. Here are the reasons why I don’t use one.

1) Tone – In my opinion, the best tone ever produced on the violin is by masters that did not use a shoulder rest. These include but are not limited to Ysaÿe, Kreisler, Heifetz, Milstein, Perlman, and my teacher, Erick Friedman. If you have never heard these violinists before, I would suggest to get acquainted with their playing. Knowing the work of the greatest craftsmen in your field is helpful. As Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

If you decide to not use a shoulder rest, try to avoid clenching the shoulder to the back plate while playing. The shoulder acts as a mute, much the way a hand can stop the vibrations of a bell. This is the most stark and immediate difference when not using a shoulder rest or your shoulder to support the violin. Your sound will instantly be more resonant, deep, variant, and colorful. Basically, you will hear the way the violin was intended to sound. Actually, the violin sounds even more sonorous if you remove the chinrest as well. For more reading on playing without a chinrest as Paganini is purported to have played, visit the virtuoso Ruggiero Ricci’s book ‘Ricci on Glissando.’ I also believe that violinists like Kreisler and Heifetz kept their violins high to project more and to maximize the amount of volume from their instruments. It’s kind of like an old-fashioned amplifying technique.

2) Uniqueness of tone – Using a shoulder rest is more likely to cause homogeneity of tone. I believe the combination of most shoulder rests especially with synthetic strings, set up a limited tonal paradigm. By using more natural support and equipment, the sound will also be more natural, flexible, and “human” like. For example, if you compare most modern violinists that use shoulder rests amongst themselves, I think you will find less tonal variety than if you compare old masters that didn’t use shoulder rests, to each other. If you feel like you need more support to hold the instrument, first try padding your collarbone with foam rubber. You can place this under your shirt, coat jacket, or use a rubber band to fasten it to the back of the violin. The violin is an awkward instrument to play and to keep in position. Be patient with developing your muscles and the stamina to keep it up.

3) Freedom and mobility – Not using a shoulder rest gives you the freedom and mobility to hold the violin at any height. If you ever teach violin, you will notice that just having students raise their fiddle cures many technical issues. One, the bow automatically becomes more parallel to the bridge. Two, the bow gets naturally drawn into the sounding point. Three, it enables the player to dig more deeply into the strings because they are more parallel to the ground. A shoulder rest fixes the violin into a tilted angle, but it should be relatively flat and played with the most athletic natural approach possible. Wouldn’t you rather eat on a flat table rather than a slanted one? Or, wouldn’t you rather play basketball on a flat court rather than a crooked one?

Raising the fiddle will also create more space for your left arm to maneuver. Letting it droop will constrain your motions and make you feel as if you’re playing inside an old telephone booth.

4) Dynamic motion – The violin should not be a fixed and static instrument like the piano, cello, or guitar. Watch Heifetz, Milstein, or Perlman, and you’ll see that the violin is never locked into place, but rather subtly and fluidly moving according to the motions of their bodies. It gives the impression of the strength and fluidity of a spider web in the wind. This is possible only because they play without tension. The most important principle to play the violin well is complete muscular relaxation. The benefits of this are manifold and will be elaborated upon in another article. Imagine you’re cradling a baby bird in your left hand. That will give you the idea of how relaxed you should be.

5) Facility and coordination – Raising the left shoulder with or without a shoulder rest can impede coordination. Think of the circuit from your head to your left hand as a hose running freely. If you pinch or bend a part of it, the flow of water will be restricted. You can prove this easily by playing a fast passage with your shoulder raised and then down, and noticing the difference in facility and coordination.

6) Contact and balance – I believe using a technique that keeps contact and engulfs the violin as much as possible is preferable for many reasons. By removing the shoulder rest, this will happen more naturally. You will notice that your approach to the instrument will become more kinesthetic. Having more contact with the instrument will give you more security of intonation and intimacy, and it will become more like an extension of yourself. You will actually feel the vibrations of the instrument through your bone and the rest of your body, and consequently more likely to be physically moved as well as move your audience.

An adjustment that is helpful when not using a shoulder rest is placing your thumb slightly forward, about opposite your second finger when it is placed on the note F natural on the D string. (This is also suggested by Leopold Auer in ‘Violin Playing As I Teach It.’) Supporting the violin essentially by the hand, you will need to find a more stable balance and more stable fulcrum point. Your tone will even improve slightly with the thumb in this position, because the violin being held with more firmness and security, will allow the bow to draw sound out of the instrument more easily.

Moving the thumb slightly forward will also allow your hand to more easily stretch into the higher positions. The greatest advantage of this technique however, is that in third position, your palm contacts the ribs (and the thumb, the saddle). Watch videos of Heifetz, Milstein, Kreisler (silent), Elman, Oistrakh, and Perlman and you’ll notice that they all do this. Actually, I’ve never seen a great violinist not do this. The greatest violinists always have great contact with their instruments. Friedman conveyed this principle using the analogy of a blind man walking and tapping the wall with his stick to find his way around.

Keeping the violin high also balances the entire frame of the body. When the violin starts to sag, the body follows with it, and starts to put stress on one side of the body. Become sensitive to this and adjust as you play. A good place to start is with the feet. Think of the placement of your feet as the foundation to a building or the roots of a tree. The rest of the body should remain balanced, centered, and upright on top of that.

Having the violin droop down is a natural tendency for violinists especially as they try to concentrate more. Always, remember to reset your posture and not let your focus unbalance your posture.

Another anecdote Friedman told me was about Fritz Kreisler. After being struck by a truck in Manhattan, Kreisler was left deaf. Trying to play the violin again, he asked Nathan Milstein if the first note was in tune, and from there was able to continue using muscle memory. This was an object lesson in the importance of contact with the violin.

7) Aesthetics – Good posture will not only make your sound better but also look better. The violin is one of the most beautiful objects ever created. Some of the most gorgeous, made by Stradivarius, Guarneri, and Amati are enigmatically beautiful and the full glory of the flames of their backs can be exposed even on the stage when played without a shoulder rest. Holding the violin high gives an impression of regalness and elegance to the audience. I have always felt that the shoulder rest looks like a foreign object on the violin and destroys its lines as well as those of the player. Keep yourself exposed as well as the violin. There is no hiding when you are on stage.

8) Philosophy – Lastly, it is my philosophy that if you don’t need a crutch, don’t use one. If you can master your way around the fiddle without the use of a shoulder rest, then you should feel proud. It could be argued, that one is not even playing the violin when using a shoulder rest or their shoulder. Are you really a cyclist if you’re still using training wheels?