Ditching the Shoulder Rest

Originally posted on 1/24/20 as 'Artist-in-Residence' for the American Viola Society:

According to polls I've seen over at violinist.com, approximately 80 percent of people use shoulder rests, and based on my own observations, I'd say of the 20 percent who don't, many still use their left shoulder to prop up the instrument. Given the number of threads dedicated to this topic, there must be a decent percentage interested in this older way of holding the viola/violin, so I thought I'd use this week's blog post to cover it. I do realize this subject isn't of interest to everyone. 

I can think of generally three main groups interested in playing without shoulder supports: 1. People in the HIP movement who want to play this way for historical reasons. 2. People enamored with how the old-timers played (Primrose, Vardi, Milstein etc.)....so also, in a different way, for historical reasons! and 3. People looking for a more comfortable and natural way to hold the instrument without resorting to scaffolding or contortions of the body. (My personal interest falls more into the latter two categories.) 

When I first played for Mr. Vardi, I was twelve, and he asked me to ditch the shoulder pad I came in with. It took me quite a long time before I figured out how to take my left shoulder out of the act, too, so I thought I'd write up a few tips (some of which I had to figure out on my own), which might help anyone else also on this path. While making this list, I realized that some of this could be made much easier to understand with a visual demonstration, so I made this accompanying video ( https://youtu.be/0tvlZmnvbfM ) to cover these following seven points as well. 

1. The neck of your viola likely has shellac on it. When it heats up, it gets sticky and makes it hard to shift. Get a luthier to buff it out of existence, and when you bring your viola in for some work, always mention not to put any shellac on the neck. Also, wash your hands before you play! Your left thumb needs to be able to glide underneath the neck reasonably smoothly. 

2. On one end, the instrument is held lightly like a vice between the chin and collarbone. (Or, for a break, the jawbone and the collarbone.) I'd recommend putting your chin more in the middle of the instrument, not to the left. The shoulder should not be in contact with the back of the instrument. 

The neck of the instrument leans against the base of the first finger, held in place lightly by the thumb on the other side. (For vibrato, this changes a bit.) I like wearing a jacket since it covers the collarbone. Without any padding, after a while the instrument can dig into the collarbone and be painful. 

3. The problems to be solved are almost all at the left hand, *not* at the collarbone end of the viola. You may have to shift differently from how you're used to. For vibrato, you'll have to find a way to maintain two points of contact, one of which will *not* be the index finger against the side of the neck. (See video.) You'll also need to press less (especially with the thumb), and in the lower positions your arm can be less under the instrument. 

Keep in mind, those etudes we play--- Kreutzer etc. were written before the invention of the shoulder rest AND chin rest. The instrument really was held in the left hand. If you use something close to the original fingerings, you'll see a lot of Kreutzer etudes are about getting the left hand to move around very *quietly* especially in positions below fourth, when you're out on the diving board. (Fourth and above, you're holding the viola very comfortably on the other side, too, with the palm against the bout.) 

4. Until now, you've been literally 'shouldering the weight' of the viola with your back. Your left upper-arm now needs to be developed. It will take a while to build up these muscles, and in the beginning you'll feel it. As with anything new, take it easy. 

5. Some of this is psychological. The distances are smaller than you think. Most shifts can be measured in only two or three inches, and it's possible to find fingerings that avoid many of them ('crawling like a crab'). Also don't jump at the shifts; you likely have more time to move than you think. 

6. The opposable thumb opposes--- don't let it. It needs to be choreographed just like any of the other fingers. When you put a finger down on the fingerboard, the thumb wants to press back. This will make you tired and make it hard to shift. While in the beginning you have to develop strength in all the fingers, eventually you want to be able to perform with as minimal left hand pressure as possible. 

7. Sometimes, under the hot stage lamps, it actually just might be easier to raise your shoulder for a big shift back and then lower it again. 

Past this, if you're interested in learning how to do it, it's probably best to find a teacher who plays this way so that you can get feedback on what you're doing (that's not quite working out.) As this involves quite a few changes, you'll want to be extra careful not to cause any injuries, and an experienced set of eyes watching what you're doing can really help out. Also, the Primrose book about technique by David Dalton has a very good section on this topic worth reading. And, if books by violinists aren't heresy, Ruggiero Ricci's book called 'Ricci On Glissando' covers this topic (and more) very thoroughly. 

Any questions? Put them in the comments, and I'll do my best to answer them! 

Best, Scott

Leave a comment