Shoulder Rests: To Use or Not To Use

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Shoulder Rests: To Use or Not To Use

Postby violaduo » Mon Dec 05, 2011 8:17 pm

There is an ongoing argument in the viola and violin world about whether it’s better to use a shoulder rest or not.

At times these discussions seem fairly tribal. Yankees fans vs. Red Sox fans. New Yorkers vs. Southerners. People who like pineapple on their pizza vs. people who don’t. (Tanya likes pineapple. Feh.)

Each side makes long lists of famous people who play like they do as proof of their superiority.

For a bit of background: I don’t use a shoulder rest, which these days is the exception. I haven’t since I was around twelve years old, when I began studying with Emanuel Vardi. He was ‘old school’ and didn’t like them.

At this point, it’s just what I’m used to. When I try to play with one, I don’t like the feeling of the viola either being on a sponge or small springboard. I also miss the freedom of being able to move the viola around.

That said, I’m not against the use of shoulder rests, and I think some people are just being snobs about the whole thing.

Whether playing on original instruments with gut strings is your thing or fastidiously adhering to every mark in the facsimile of the composer’s score, the world of Classical music tends to admire *old*. Many Classical musicians like the connection to the past, and playing without a shoulder rest is how it was done in the past.

It’s different today, but just a generation or two ago, there used to be even a little shame in using one. Thankfully that’s mostly in the past, but there are still a few people who are *proud* to play without, and I’m not sure that makes any sense. If you’re more comfortable and play better without, play without. If you’re better with, than use a shoulder rest already. It really has little to do with music.

To go back even further into the past is to realize that the viola was held above the shoulder, and the two didn’t come into contact. This was in Baroque times when there wasn’t a ton of fast shifting or really intense vibrato. So of course there is an even smaller crowd that insists this is the only way to play as well.

I think holding the viola above the shoulder (and therefore with the left hand) promotes good hand position and actually makes certain passages easier, so at times I play this way. For other passages with a lot of fast shifts, I’ll let the viola sit on the shoulder.

Some argue that having the shoulder touch the back of the instrument might mute the sound by stopping the back plate of the viola from vibrating. It could be true on some instruments, but I’ve run side by side comparisons on mine, and people can’t reliably hear the difference.

I’ve really enjoyed reading Sam Applebaum’s The Way They Play series, in which important artists of the twentieth century are interviewed about their technique and habits. One thing that always amused me however was how in one chapter one famous string player is telling the world that the only way to do something is a certain specific way, and in the next chapter another famous string player says the total opposite.

Tanya has her left thumb bent at both joints when holding the scroll, but I can’t because I’m not double-jointed. (She also prefers a shoulder rest and the chin rest in the middle.) People are built differently, which at times the rigid Classical world doesn’t take into account.

The only thing I hope we can all agree on is that pineapple on pizza is really gross.

S.
Now teaching live lessons in South Hadley, MA and online music lessons via Skype at http://www.violaduo.com
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Re: The Cold Shoulder

Postby fiddlerintheloft » Mon Dec 12, 2011 4:39 pm

Found this really interesting, I had no idea shoulder rests were such a contentious issue! I've got a really long neck and have never been able to play comfortably without one so just grew up using them. Having said that, I've experimented with all sorts and I'm still not sure I'm quite there in terms of getting the best possible position, but I currently have a wolf, which is alright.
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Re: The Cold Shoulder

Postby tanyaviola » Mon Dec 12, 2011 8:51 pm

With a really long neck, have you ever tried a tall chinrest? I'm not sure I've ever seen one, but I know they exist.

Tanya
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Re: The Cold Shoulder

Postby fiddlerintheloft » Wed Dec 14, 2011 9:02 am

Thanks, I've never heard of these but have just done a quick google search. Sounds like something that is custom-made? I'm going to stick with my current one for now because there are all sorts of other factors coming into play e.g. not v good standing position (which I'm trying to correct). Also, I've just added a new chinrest, the old one was very moulded and didn't allow for much head movement, new one already feels like a big improvement
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Re: The Cold Shoulder

Postby tanyaviola » Wed Dec 21, 2011 11:08 am

Since you got a new chinrest...sounds like that's helping. I'd stick with that. You don't want to keep changing things around, or you'll never find a comfortable position. You mentioned your standing position. How do you stand? Are you hunched over? Is the viola in front of you? Or off to your left? Is it low or are you trying to keep the viola up?

Tanya
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Re: The Cold Shoulder

Postby scusigurl » Tue Jan 10, 2012 12:38 pm

I played for a while without a shoulder rest when I was young, but I'm 6'3" and with my long neck and long arms, I have to have one. I use a KUN Voce on both vl and vla, and Wittner Hypoallergenic chinrests.

For my students, I initially provide a sponge and then later, if they're still enjoying the process and continue studying, I used to have them get KUN Originals, but a new shoulder rest has recently come out which is about half the price of the KUN and doesn't fall off all the time: the Everests. I guess they're new; they're new to me, at any rate. I did some coaching of some children from Chicago and they had them. And then there was a flyer in Strad, advertizing them (this past summer). So my guess is they new, not sure.
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