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, the left hand is free to stay upright, remain in a more natural position, and effortlessly tap the fingers down and spring up to play notes as fast as you like. Fingers don’t do well if mired down by too heavy a grip. The “drumming” exercise is a great physical reminder to your hand of how easy it can be (Technique Video Group 1, video #7, and as discussed in the article about the Controllers of the Left).
How do we find a shoulder rest? There are so many choices and it’s a personal one, but here are a few ideas that may help.
The first step is to choose one; the second and equally important step is to adjust it to your own best use.
Shoulder rests in the midprice range tend to have a good grip, and are adjustable in multiple ways. Super expensive ones are probably not worth their bells and whistles, and the cheap ones are hit or miss — if one works for you, go for it, but they often don’t hold tight or adjust very well.
The shoulder rest essentially lays below your collarbone. The goal is to take up the space between chin and shoulder, without making you feel it is pushing up your chin or making you hunch your shoulder to hang onto your fiddle. Pads or sponges that are very thin usually don’t help much, and sponges that need rubber bands are usually ignored by the player because they’re too much trouble to put on and take off.
Some popular brands are Kun, Everest, Wolf, and a number of similar looking types with feet that hold the edges of the instrument. My own is a Wolf Superflexible, which is very adjustable in shaping itself to your curves, but many others are quite workable. The Bon Musica has a curved part that hangs onto your shoulder — if you learn how to adjust it properly it can be great, but it can also force you to hold your fiddle in an awkward position.
Whichever kind you try, the main task is to adjust it properly. Test out positions that work and ones that don’t. Do it like an eye doctor — is position #1 better or worse than position #2? — and narrow it down to the ideal spot. Sometimes a half-inch one way or another makes all the difference.
The most important adjustment is simply the angle you place the shoulder rest on the fiddle. The part that is on your shoulder needs to actually touch your shoulder (with some kids or narrow-shouldered adults, it can be placed too far away) but keep in mind that the farther it is from your neck the lower it will feel, and the closer it is to your neck the higher. The part that rests on your chest can be adjusted height-wise so that the violin lays more tilted or more level (it won’t end up flat). But again that feeling of height can be also accomplished by adjusting how far away the shoulder rest is from your neck.
Many people settle on a similar position — farther out on the shoulder side, and closer in on the chest side — but try all possibilities to find the right one. I know, it can take a moment to think which is the shoulder and which the chest side when you’re placing the rest on an upside-down violin!
The main task is to find a position where the shoulder rest is in full contact with you from shoulder to chest. This way it’s doing it’s best and won’t slip. Be sure not to let your fiddle drift down toward the center in front of you — not only is that position awkward for your right shoulder, which has to pull back in order to bow, but it also means the shoulder rest may only contact you at two points and not all the way along its length. In this case it can feel uncomfortable, as if it’s poking into you, and it might even slip for lack of contact.
When you get it right, you should feel comfortable holding the fiddle up without gripping by chin or shoulder, and without feeling any need to hold it up with your left hand.
Keep in mind that if you push up on the neck with your left hand, your shoulder rest won’t be doing its job — you’ll be holding the neck up with your hand instead! So allow the shoulder rest to work, and allow your left hand the freedom to NOT hold up your fiddle so it can relax and play all the notes!
Best of luck getting comfortable — it’s always doable, so keep adjusting until it’s right! Then memorize that position so you can recreate it every time.
©2019 Ed Pearlman