How to Play the Violin Without a Shoulder Rest
Laurie: One more question...the violinists on Violinist.com are very concerned about shoulder rests....
Anne-Sophie: This is a very interesting, and almost crucial moment in life, when you decide with what shoulder rest, or if at all. I remember I went through a phase of almost seven or eight years. First of all, when I started at five and a half, I was still growing, and therefore I frequently changed shoulder rests. I started with theMenuhin thing, and somehow it wasn't comfortable. A few years later I started to use a little pillow, which felt way more comfortable -- I didn't like the metal thing on the violin. But then when I was 11 or 12 and had nearly reached my final height, (the pillow) felt uncomfortable. So I changed from a relatively high pillow to a low rubber thing, which was extremely uncomfortable but the height was good. From that very uncomfortable but otherwise comfortable set-up, I went to a piece of deer leather, deerskin, because I needed something in between the clothing and the violin because the violin didn't feel secure. So the deerskin was kind of giving traction to the shoulder and violin. And then, when I started to play with Karajan, around that time, I discovered that playing without anything was actually the ideal solution. Then the next step was playing with sleeveless dresses -- that gave the ideal traction. So it took me about seven or eight years to finally settle down and find the solution. But there is no real rule one can apply, because it all depends on the neck length and the position of your shoulder.
Most important is that you don't squeeze your shoulder up, that you don't pressure your chin down, because you'll get terrible muscle pains in your neck area. Basically the instrument has to just lie there and you put your head on the chinrest and that's it. There's no force involved. According to the particular needs of the body, everyone has to play as relaxed as you can.
Laurie: Tell me your thoughts on shoulder rests.
Aaron: Let me preface whatever I say by saying, the greatest violinists, past and present, do not use shoulder rests. Those that have a beautiful sound, or particularly a personal sound, do not use the shoulder rest. There's a good reason for it: It's the position of the left arm. Because first of all, the violin doesn't sit on the shoulder, I don't know if that surprises you or not.
Laurie: It doesn't really surprise me, it's more the collarbone, isn't it?
Aaron: It's the collarbone. One of the great violinists, Yehudi Menuhin, explains it very thoroughly in his books. There was a "Yehudi Menuhin Shoulder Rest," but Yehudi Menuhin never used the shoulder rest in his life. He endorsed the thing I guess to make some royalties for his school, but he never used shoulder rests. The violin sits on the collarbone, it doesn't sit on the shoulder. The left arm should hang loosely; it's a fallacy to think that the violin is supposed to sit up in the air, without you holding it. Heifetz put it very simply: when a young person came to him and said, I can't play without a shoulder rest: "Take up the cello!"
The reason is very simple: You can't develop a sound because the elbow is flying in the wrong direction. If you look at pictures of all the great players, the elbow is well under the instrument and the left hand, as a result, is rounded and sitting high, so that the fingertip has more space to roll on the string. It's a different angle of the left hand. That's why those who don't use a shoulder rest have a warmer and individual sound.
Laurie: They can get more on the fingertip?
Aaron: Yes, in fact, Elman used to get on almost the fingernail sometimes, to achieve certain effects that he wanted. Nathan Milstein, who was a very dear friend for many, many years, you see the elbow is well under the instrument. You look at all the pictures of Heifetz and Zimbalist and all the great players, and even the current crop, Pinchas Zukerman doesn't use a shoulder rest, Perlman doesn't use a shoulder rest and Anne Sophie Mutter's playing bareback. I think they've had good careers, and they have good tones!
That's my argument. (Shoulder rest proponents) say the hand is freer, the tone is bigger -- that's nonsense. Because the violin becomes part of your body.
Laurie: If you have a student who comes to you with a shoulder rest and wants to keep it, do you let them?
Aaron: Yes. Because in some cases, when they have an extremely long neck, they seem to be in trouble. Although I always cite the example of Joseph Szigeti, who was long and lanky, with a long neck, and he held the violin down and his bow in a peculiar fashion, and he was a great player. And he didn't use a shoulder rest to accommodate that. You have to hold up your violin. Sometimes you hold it in the crook of your hand, sometimes it rests on your thumb, sometimes the chin is down -- it's a continuous interplay of parts, Laurie.
Laurie: It's not a grip so much as it is a balance, isn't it?
Aaron: Precisely. With a shoulder rest, you've got one grip, and you're sitting like that, and I noticed also that most people play side-saddle, they're never looking at the violin, they're looking down. The violin should be sitting right in front of you, with your eyes and nose going right down the fingerboard. Then you're going to develop a beautiful sound and know what you're doing.
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August 10, 2015 Strad Magazine
I discourage my students from using a shoulder rest, says violinist Aaron Rosand
Only without a shoulder rest can one develop a personal sound that is identifiable, insists the Curtis Institute and Mannes College professor
Position is the most important thing in developing good players, as it affects the tone. Odd as it may seem, no one these days will tell you how to hold the violin. In all parts of the world now, teachers are advising their pupils to use a shoulder rest because they say it makes playing easier.
Heifetz would tell pupils not to walk into his studio if they had a shoulder rest. I’m not quite that severe, but I do strongly discourage them. They place the violin in the wrong position and upset the angle of the fingertip on the string that produces vibrato. The position of the left arm is completely out of place, because in the Auer school the violin rests on the clavicle rather than the shoulder. Your eye should look down the fingerboard to the scroll, and the left arm has to be placed well under the violin. With a shoulder rest, the left elbow flies out because the shoulder rest – not the player – is holding the violin.
The control of vibrato speed is never as good with a shoulder rest. The fingertip rotates on the string and the vibrato often comes from the arm rather than the fingertip and is usually very one-dimensional. Only without a shoulder rest can one develop a personal sound that is identifiable. Heifetz, Milstein, Elman, Oistrakh and Szigeti managed beautifully without one.
If a student has become accustomed to playing with the thumb extended too far forward, it’s very difficult to move that thumb back and, without any pressure on the neck of the violin, to get the fingers articulating independently. The fingers must bounce off the strings like little springs. Every finger has to be independent. Only in this position comes pure intonation. The left hand becomes like a machine. No matter where it is on the violin, the intonation will be perfect and pure.
The shoulder rest also affects the bow arm. If you move the violin to the left, the right arm must be extended, requiring the application of more pressure to the string. That increased pressure employs not only the hand or wrist but also the arm, a fundamental breach of proper position for Auer and all the other great players of the past.