By Patrick Sullivan | From the July-August 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Sebastian Schwelm still remembers the feeling of relief. After starting to play the violin at age seven, Schwelm used the same shoulder rest for some 15 years, even as he grew up and his body changed dramatically.
Then he took an Everest shoulder rest for a test drive.
“I tried it and switched the same day,” he recalls. “I’m a tall person, and the way it scooped over my shoulder made me feel a lot more comfortable. I was pretty surprised.” Now an instrument and bow restorer at Triangle Strings in North Carolina, Schwelm says his early experience underscores how important shoulder rests can be—and how problems can sneak up on musicians. “Even longtime players should consider trying out something new,” Schwelm says. “You may just be used to something that has actually grown a little uncomfortable over time.”
Violinists got by without shoulder rests for centuries. They came into increasingly widespread use over the last 100 years, but some players avoid them even today. Bluegrass and old-time fiddlers, for example, often don’t use them. Others are concerned about their effect on sound, and some argue they encourage bad posture. But most classical players employ them at least some of the time, and a properly fitted shoulder rest can greatly benefit a budding musician.
“If you’re not comfortable, you’re not going to pick up the violin,” Schwelm says. “There’s no way you’re going to put in the time needed to make progress.”
A young musician’s first shoulder rest may be a sponge, but life gets more complicated as she or he grows, notes R. Todd Ehle, a professor of violin at Del Mar College in Texas. “The goal of shoulder-rest use is to provide tension-free support, but since everyone is built differently, a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work,” says Ehle, who is known as professorV on YouTube, where his videos have attracted more than 50,000 subscribers.
So how do you find the right shoulder rest and ensure it’s fitted correctly?
Instructors should play a major role in advising students, says California teacher Dennie Mehocich. They need to help students figure out what setup gives the left hand enough freedom to do its crucial work and move independently of the shoulder.
There is no magic shoulder rest that will make you a better player, of course. “Only hard work will do that,” says Mehocich, a violinist with the Marin Symphony Orchestra who has played for 50 years. “But if you want to be an Olympic sprinter, you should have the best shoes. You want to be the best musician you can be, so you need the best fit with your shoulder rest.”
In an ideal world, a student will visit a violin shop to experiment. A typical shop might stock half a dozen different brands for full-size violins and violas, with fewer choices for fractional-size instruments. Most cost less than $30, though you can pay much more for high-end products.
At Triangle Strings, it typically takes about half an hour to find a good fit—though Schwelm says he often lets a player take a shoulder rest out on trial to get his or her teacher’s opinion. “I see the student playing for ten or 15 minutes, but the teacher sees them for an hour every week,” Schwelm says. “Their opinion is invaluable.”
His number one piece of advice for visiting a shop? Be candid. Beginners can be a little overawed, in his experience. “They worry about asking a wacky question that comes out of left field,” Schwelm says. “Please ask those questions. Because you have no idea what’s going to trigger the thought process that will help me figure out what will work for you.”
Measurement can be a useful early step. It’s helpful to measure the distance from the chin to the collarbone and then subtract the height of the chinrest and violin. The difference, says Ehle, is the required height of the shoulder rest at its narrowest point. “Measuring like this doesn’t guarantee perfect results though, because shoulder shapes can vary greatly from one person to another,” Ehle notes. “A protruding collarbone can also cause difficulties.”
Once things are fitting pretty well, it’s time to take a close look at the student’s resulting posture: The shoulder should be staying down and the head shouldn’t be leaning at an angle. If the height looks good but the student isn’t entirely comfortable, Ehle adjusts the angle. “Initially, I’ll move the rest clockwise or counterclockwise, trying to find a spot that works,” he says.
He also tries to have the instrument come off the shoulder roughly in line with the left foot. “Too far to the left will impact bowing at the tip, and too far to the right will cause the violin to slope toward the floor,” Ehle says.
And don’t underestimate the importance of the chinrest, which is easier to change than many beginners realize. “I’ve seen a setup become perfect just by adding a chinrest with a slight lip at the edge, but for someone else that lip might cause jaw pain,” Ehle says. “I also think a better solution than jacking up the shoulder rest severely is to try a higher chinrest.” When the violin is elevated, he notes, the right hand has to reach higher with the bow, which can eventually cause shoulder pain.
To further complicate the issue, new materials and designs are shaking up the shoulder-rest world. You can now buy shoulder rests made with a 3D printer or composed of carbon fiber or composite plastics. “Innovation in the violin world is always good—we have a tendency to be a little complacent about things,” says Schwelm. “With advanced composites materials we are able to gain stiffness without adding weight, which can be beneficial for tone.”
When it comes to high-end options like the Pirastro KorfkerRest, Schwelm says he has had clients who claim tonal improvements along with comfort. “I would think that these are mostly appropriate for advanced and professional players, where small tonal changes and weight savings over a full concert program can make a big difference,” Schwelm says.
Yet Ehle says that physical comfort comes first in his world, given the risk of injury. “The great violinist David Oistrakh used the old Poehland Model C pad, which made full contact with the back of his violin,” he says. “When asked if it robbed his Stradivari’s tone, he said the violin could take it. My takeaway from that is the pad made him more comfortable.”
There is definitely some tradeoff between sound and comfort, Mehocich says, and flexibility is key. She uses a lightweight carved maple rest that she found more than 20 years ago. “Is it perfect for me? No. There are times I find it annoying,” she says. “So instead of using it sometimes I’ll just fold up an REI wool hat and stick it under my bra strap. You hope like hell it stays there.”
This “hat trick” boosts her instrument’s sound, Mehocich finds, but that doesn’t keep her from using her shoulder rest at other times. “It’s a balancing act,” she says, “like everything else with this instrument.”