The shoulder rest: An essential to the modern violinist’s equipment. Today when entering any studio or concert hall, one will notice that the majority of modern violinists — student, amateur, professional, and so forth — play with one. Indeed, shoulder rests are often projected as indispensable to the modern violinist as antilock brakes are to a car’s safety.
To be honest, I never really liked the shoulder rest as a young violin student. When I initially began playing as a six-year-old, all that was attached to the underside of my violin was a small, rectangle-shaped sponge. This continued for another few years until I was switched to a purple sponge in the shape of a shoulder rest. I had no problems with that. Once, I had played without a shoulder rest and practically hated it: Felt so uncomfortable, so “hard” after working with a sponge that I made up my mind that I would never play without one.
However, in fourth grade, I was formally switched to a junior version of the popular Kun shoulder rest. I vividly recall my mother purchasing it for me at the violin shop where we rented my fiddles from and then placing it upon my fiddle for the first time at Suzuki group class. I did not like it at all. No matter how many minor adjustments Mom kept making, I could not set aside the discomfort. It felt so thin, so clunky — just so uncomfortable. I felt the violin was elevated way too high off my shoulder and stretching my neck, whereas with the sponge, it had been close to the shoulder. Nonetheless, since sponges were considered for novices and this was the “grown-up” option, I had no choice but to stick with it, yet I never quite latched onto it. Moreover, due to my previously mentioned experience with no shoulder rest, I resolved that the shoulder rest was the best option.
This changed when I was transferred from the Suzuki school I was enrolled in to the studio of one of Chicagoland’s most prominent violin teachers. No sooner did I enter the studio, I was introduced full-time to the idea of no shoulder rest. My new teacher played with no shoulder rest, relying solely on his special chinrest and a chammy cloth placed upon his right shoulder. Seeing my teacher playing without a shoulder rest and advocating such practice, I began to wonder if it was such a bad idea. The moment I was switched off of my Kaufmann chinrest to the Gotz Strad chinrest that my teacher himself used (and finding it much more comfortable), I began to wonder if playing without the shoulder rest would also be more comfortable. Hence, one day, I took it off my violin, placed the yellow flannel rag I used for wiping my violin across my shoulder, and began playing like that.
Immediately, I felt a difference: A freedom to move my neck around and adjust the violin’s position while playing. I no longer felt that there was something “heavy” on my shoulder, nor did I have to shift the fiddle around until I had found comfort. Though I was on a Bon Musica shoulder rest and had initially liked it better than the Kun, I began to feel that no shoulder rest was the way to go. Each day, I would secretly take off the shoulder rest during practice and play without it using only the yellow rag. When my mom caught me sometimes, I would just reply, “I don’t want it.” Finally, my teacher placed a little sponge on my violin — the first step to no shoulder rest — and confiscated my Bon Musica, keeping it inside his desk so I would not be tempted to use it when not in his presence. But I needed no such drastic measures; I was happy to be rid of it, and I could not wait to be rid of the sponge either, though it was more bearable. True to my wishes, my teacher announced that I was fully ready to discard the sponge the next week; I knew I never needed it. For the entire duration in which I studied with him, I played totally without a shoulder rest, only with a chamois cloth draped across my left shoulder to prevent the violin from slipping. Even with later teachers who insisted that I revert to the shoulder rest, I refused: It just was too uncomfortable for me, and I had never liked it anyway.
Interestingly, as I am now delving into the world of HIPP (historically informed performance practice), I am learning that this “unusual” manner of playing is essential in the art of Baroque violin-playing. Until its invention by Louis Sphor in the 19th century, chinrests were nonexistent, only invented when the new, extreme demands of playing (e.g. playing in very high positions) necessitated such a device. Violinists held the violin either on the tailpiece or on the opposite side of the violin. Furthermore, today’s Baroque violinists not only play in this fashion, but interestingly use a chamois cloth on the left shoulder to prevent it from slipping. Sounds very familiar …
Hmmmmm, looks like I already am on the historically-informed path! When I eventually pick up Baroque violin as I aspire to, I shall not only be used to the Baroque bow and historical technique/playing conventions, but I shall also be ready in the respect that I do not use a shoulder rest even in modern violin-playing and can thus make a smoother transition to Baroque violin. No chin rest, who cares? With how far I’ve come in my HIPP studies thus far, I am sure I shall be able to adapt to that as well!