By Lynne Deing
Ask string players why they chose their chin rest and many will reply that it came with the violin or viola when they bought it. Unfortunately, many instruments are sold or rented with chin rest models that fit relatively few people. But by playing with a generic chin rest that “works for someone else” or “came with the instrument,” a player may miss an opportunity to improve technically or to prevent physical problems.
In fact, a well-fitted chin rest can help to facilitate better posture and support of the instrument in an ever-changing balancing act between the collarbone and left hand. But ill-fitting chin rests can cause such problems as clenching and aches and pains as well as sores, due to constant pressure of one small part of the chin rest against one part of the neck.
Signs of Discomfort
Ill-fitting chin rests can cause players to look right and tilt their heads left while simultaneously reaching forward with their heads, in order for the jawbone to secure the instrument. These positions can cause neck aches, headaches, and other injuries as the player compensates for the unnatural head position. In addition, rather than adjust the setup of the instrument, players often adjust their technique in order to make the instrument feel secure and minimize discomfort.
Other signs that the chin rest might not be the best fit are when players allow their instrument to “droop” out of position or play with the chin positioned over the crossover piece of a rest with the “plate” or “cup” to the left of the chin. In this instance, the player is trying to use the crossover piece as a ridge to secure the instrument, probably in response to a chin-rest shape that curves up from the player’s neck, such as the popular Guarneri model.
So what’s a player to do? The search for a good-fitting chin rest starts with a trip
to a violin shop. Finding a chin rest whose shape best suits you may require that you play through many of the dozens of different types of rests. Also, specific models of chin rests, but by different manufacturers, can have variations in shape. This is good in that there are more shapes available to fit more jaws. But these factors make online shopping impractical.
Here are some guidelines to help you find the best fit.
Jaw Shape & Neck Length
Chin rests that fit the two key dimensions of height and jaw shape can allow the head to serve as a counterbalance to the weight of an extended bow arm. This balance can keep the neck and shoulders healthy. The head will feel relaxed and players may say that they have never felt so comfortable.
No two jaws are the same shape, but some jaw types match best with certain chin-rest styles. For instance, round, fleshy jaws are the only ones suited to a flat plate and a long, low ridge across the back of the chin rest. Rests with a higher ridge are favored by players with a long, thin face, while the Brandt model is a comfortable fit for a variety of jaw shapes.
A chin rest that exhibits a downward slope from the rear of the rest will direct the chin pressure toward the neck, providing good leverage.
To avoid skin irritations created by the jawbone pressing on the ridge, the contour of the chin-rest ridge should be lower under the ear and higher on the right side, fitting the jawbone and pulling the instrument in while providing stability and a feeling of security.
The Right Height
The proper height for a chin rest is one that leaves a gap of about one finger-width between the top of the rest and the jaw when the eyes are looking forward (and not looking up or down). If one must nod down in an exaggerated fashion to touch the top of the chin rest, it is too short. If the nod is too shallow, the chin rest is too high.
Here’s a tip: a well-fitted chin rest can be raised to the right height by adding a riser or lift made of cork. Depending on the density of the cork, a piece about 2 mm in height can be glued to the bottom of a chin rest without destabilizing it. Other variations of raised chin rests can be seen at chinrests.com and violinistinbalance.nl.
Flexibility & Placement
Another factor to consider when selecting the proper chin rest is the flexibility of the left shoulder joint. Players who are flexible in this joint often prefer the chin rest placed to the left of the tailpiece. A player who has less flexibility, or narrow shoulders, may prefer a chin rest that reaches slightly over the tailpiece. Due to the breadth of the instrument, violists, who must balance out the weight of the instrument, tend to prefer a chin rest that extends slightly over the tailpiece.
Sound & Technique
A well-fitted chin rest adds a sense of security when shifting down or when performing vibrato—two techniques that can cause a lot of insecurity. There also are health benefits: with the proper chin rest, the bulk of the instrument’s weight is transferred to the collarbone close to the spine, the body’s natural support system. The left collarbone is then freed to move and static tension is avoided—oftentimes, with the proper chin rest, a player may experience for the first time the sensation of being able to move the left arm to the left and right. Also, because the weight is now close to the body, the instrument feels lighter to the left arm and scroll height automatically improves.
There is one additional benefit to sound production: with the proper chin rest, instrument placement on the collarbone next to the neck can allow the violin or viola to create a more ringing sound.
Note to the Teacher: Just because a chin rest fits you doesn’t mean that same one will fit all of your students. Students will play longer when they’re fitted with a proper chin rest, because a good-fitting chin rest provides comfort and security. Also, a well-fitted chin rest can facilitate fine technique and even longevity, because muscles that are not clenched, and playing movements that are balanced, promote ease in playing.