Violin and Viola Shoulder Rests
by Philip Pan
As a professional violinist and an enthusiastic student of Barbara Conable and her methods, I would like to share my experiences with obtaining/creating the optimum chin rest and “shoulder” rest (a misnomer – more on that later) for any violinist or violist. First, I strongly encourage you to read Appendix II. If You’re an Instrumentalist from Barbara’s book, How to Learn the Alexander Technique. The opening paragraphs delineate the goals of proper instrument setup: freedom of movement, lack of tension and proper spinal alignment providing for Primary Control. With these goals understood, here’s how you may find the best setup to hold your violin or viola:
1. Stand in front of a mirror. Release as much as possible any habitual tensions resulting from trying to accomodate ill-fitting setups of the past. Remove your current shoulder rest and bring the instrument up to playing position without falling back into old tensions. With your neck and shoulders free and balanced, support your instrument entirely with your left hand. Make sure the scroll sits as high as you like it, and that the lateral angle (tilt) is also to your liking.
2. Now look in the mirror and notice the space above the instrument, if any, that needs to be filled-in. Check the relationship of chin to chin rest. SAS (web page www.viva-sas.com) makes a unique chinrest with adjustable tilt in various heights – do you need that? The chin rest is less of a factor in securing the instrument than the shoulder rest, but it should be comfortable and not slip. My chin rest has a pronounced lip that tucks under my jawbone and feels very secure, even when slick with sweat. It’s right for me; others find it intolerable.
3. Look at the space and the part of your body below the instrument, the “violin shelf”. Also feel it with your right hand. Specifically, determine what shape and size object is needed to fill the gap directly above your collarbone. The shoulder rest should not sit on the shoulder, for that is a point too far away from the counter-weight of the chin/jaw above and also inhibits freedom of movement of the shoulder. Now start trying different pads and objects to fill that gap. Try your old pad and notice its deficiencies: wrong height, angle, support area? Can you use a wadded-up towel or sponges to fill in the gaps and make it work?
4. Some pad recommendations: the Kun or SAS pads are a good start, for they are available in many heights and have a good, basic ergonomic shape. The wooden SAS is more rigid than the plastic Kun, and it has very nice non-slip feet. The Wolf line is also quite adjustable. All of these have a flat cushion surface amenable to having additional padding glued onto it, should this be needed.
5. If you go with a Kun-type pad and you find that the tallest model is still too short, you can add material permanently to the pad, or you can use a towel for extra thickness. If you must wear jackets with built-in shoulder pads, you may wish to fit your pad while wearing a jacket and then use a thick towel to compensate for the missing bulk when you play without it. To add permanent padding, obtain some closed-cell foam, such as that used in camping pads and boating cushions. Open-cell foam is too compressible. Cut it neatly with a very sharp blade, (I use my Henckels 8in. chef’s knife), to the exact thickness and shape that you need. If you have spent a lifetime with too-short pads, you may be surprised at how much additional padding you require with a tensionless shoulder and free neck! Be sure to cut the foam to the required shape, for you may or may not need a wedge-shaped pad to maintain the correct tilt of your instrument. Cut and try before gluing until it feels just right. Then use contact cement to fasten it all together. If the foam is not black, you can color the exposed sides with a magic marker after final gluing and trimming. If the foam against your body is too slippery, try gluing on a final strip of automotive inner tube, (thoroughly washed first!). It is very grippy, but it does leave black marks on white clothing; perhaps a grippy cloth would also work. If you get it all together and at some point decide to modify it, you can rip it apart carefully without damage to the Kun. If everything has turned out well, you should now be able to fully support your instrument exactly at the height and tilt you like with a dropped, tension-free shoulder and a neck fully and naturally lengthened. The simple weight of your head, not neck muscles, provides the clamping force which secures the instrument against your collarbone. Notice how other parts of your body now feel, (including your bow arm), and enjoy re-learning to play with greater naturalness, efficiency, and fluidity.