By Richard Ward
Sometimes a string player needs a little support. It’s true in life and it’s true with playing the violin and viola. Violinists and violists use shoulder rests to help support the instrument and to keep it in a stable, comfortable position so that you’re not twisting your neck and shoulders, which can lead to all sorts of physical problems.
So, finding the right shoulder rest for your needs not only helps you perform at your best, it can help keep you comfortable—and injury free. Strangely enough, while most players use one, in the four-and-a-half centuries of violin playing, the history of the shoulder rest is fairly short. The first modern shoulder rests appeared well into the 20th century. Before that, players used various sorts of hard pads that attached to the back of the violin, or more often, no padding at all. (Some performers even had extra padding sewn into the shoulders of their tuxedos or dress coats.) Various products have been around since the 1890s, and some have become successful, while others have disappeared, usually because of low sales or production problems.
Most follow a simple, basic design: a solid platform that rests on the shoulder with a dip that curves around the shoulder, usually with some sort of padding for comfort. On each side of the platform are feet with two prongs that clamp on to the edges of the back. These feet are usually height adjustable and need to attach easily, without slipping, and have enough padding so that they don’t damage the varnish.
Several are offered in multiple versions, usually plastic, wood, or carbon fiber. The wood versions are often elegant and light, but can be quite a bit more expensive than the basic model. Some feel that shoulder rests of wood enhance the sound of the instrument, but I and many others have never been able to hear the difference.
If you’re working with a teacher, they can be your best resource for getting the correct fit. You can try the rests from fellow musicians or your teacher, but like with chin rests your best bet is to go to a well-stocked violin shop with your own violin, and try several.
Take your time. Once you have found two or three you like, try each for a while to get used to it. Make sure there’s no discomfort or tension. Does your instrument feel stable without being locked in? Have someone watch you play and see if your shoulder fits properly within the curve of the rest’s platform. One thing you shouldn’t do is try to choose a chin rest and shoulder rest at the same time. It’s just too confusing!
Like it is with chin rests, nothing is forever and one size does not fit all. Over the years, violin and viola players gather a collection of shoulder rests. Unless it’s unusable or worn out, don’t throw away your old rest. You may use it again some day. And just because your musician friends or a player you admire uses a certain type of rest, doesn’t mean that it’s right for you. We’re all different and need to find our own most comfortable solution.
A Word about Foam Pads
The simplest and least-expensive shoulder rests are simple pieces of foam, usually held on with a rubber band. If you don’t need much height, you can even use a little round cosmetic sponge. There are several brands of foam blocks available in different sizes and shapes, including the Komfort Kurve, Zaret, and AcoustaGrip.
Looking for more in-depth information about buying an instrument? Try Strings’ Your Dream Instrument.