There are players who prefer not to use one, usually for reasons to do with convenience or authenticity: Old-style fiddlers didn’t use them, poor players couldn’t afford them, it’s more natural to just pick up the fiddle and play than to stop and attach an accessory first, and some say they feel the vibrations better without a rest. Sometimes I go without it myself, if I need to quickly pick up the fiddle and play, but it doesn’t feel good to do it for long, or I have to keep adjusting my position so I don’t overuse certain muscles and get a cramp or strain.
I recommend that students use shoulder rests for two main reasons: better physical health, and to allow the left hand to do its job.
Health-wise, it’s better for your body to play with both shoulders kept down in a natural position, and for the chin to stay back in its normal position rather than jut forward to accommodate the chinrest. Neither shoulder nor chin should apply pressure to squeeze the fiddle in place; that’s a recipe for muscle strain and misalignment.
As to allowing the left hand to do its job, take a look at the article about the joints of the left hand and arm, called “Controllers of the Left.” Without a shoulder rest, the left hand tends to feel it needs to help hold the fiddle up, and this usually involves collapsing the wrist to use the palm as a support. Some traditional players do this, though one constantly touring fiddler told me she taught herself to straighten her left hand because her hand was getting numb — the collapsed wrist was cutting down on circulation. There’s an interesting theory that before the chinrest was invented (1820), players kept their left hand in one place, with the thumb halfway up the neck, allowing them to move up or down the fingerboard using the thumb as anchor, but that is a whole other technique of playing.
With a shoulder rest, Continue reading Shoulder Rests