By Scott Flavin | From the January-February 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

When I was a young student, I was encouraged (more like berated and bullied) into ditching any kind of shoulder-rest support. The argument from my mentors typically began and ended with the statement, “The shoulder rest is a crutch! No shoulder rests!” It wasn’t unusual to hear stories about “old-school” teachers (those who taught my generation and those before) who would actually rip shoulder rests off students’ instruments and throw them in the garbage. Fortunately, I was at least permitted to use a piece of chamois leather, which provided a bit of friction so the violin wouldn’t slip; however, no further support was allowed. 

The initial result for me was physical discomfort and awkwardness. Gradually, I became more used to playing without a shoulder rest yet was oblivious to how my body compensated—my left shoulder was constantly raised significantly higher than my right. I now call that stage of my violinistic development the “Quasimodo Period.” My experience as a student stands in stark contrast to what I see now as a teacher: a trend toward the use of extremely high shoulder rests. So what’s the best approach? 

There are a number of reasons why earlier teachers abhorred the use of shoulder rests—beyond the feeling that they serve as “crutches” destined solely for the use of amateurs and dilettantes. One argument: by using a fixed-position shoulder support, players lose shoulder flexibility that is vitally important in several areas—vibrato, hand position, shifting, and color variety. Also important in “old-school” pedagogy is the structural role of the left hand; some teachers would, after taking the shoulder rest away, make students practice without even using their heads on the chin rest for support. The idea was to build strength and support in the left hand. 

A constant criticism of shoulder rests has been that they negatively impact the tone of the instrument. Is this true? Is the sound compromised by a shoulder rest? There has been much disagreement about this issue. On the one hand, attaching anything extra to the instrument might potentially restrict vibration; on the other, if the instrument is resting on the shoulder without a shoulder rest, it seems as if that would dampen the sound as well. Quite often, those teachers who were staunchly anti–shoulder rest would cite great violinists of the past as creators of optimal tone who didn’t need shoulder rests. However, many of those legends used pads under their jackets!


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Eventually, I realized that I was living with a left shoulder constantly raised and tense. I took a look at what I was doing to my body and gravitated back toward the use of a shoulder rest, with the approval (sometimes direct, sometimes tacit) of my teachers and mentors. However, it wasn’t until many years later that I gained an understanding of the larger principles involved.

The Key: Balanced Support

Balance is a key word in almost all areas of string playing; proper balance invites the possibility of reduced tension and more effective use of the body. Indeed, there should be a feeling of balance among the various parts of the body that support the instrument: namely, the collarbone (which may include the shoulder); the weight of the head, acting as a cantilever; and the left arm. Playing an instrument should also involve as little contortion from a natural body position as possible, so it seems a logical place to start to consider what can be gained from a shoulder rest that gives needed support without requiring significant physical adjustments.

Fortunately, the teaching establishment has become more sensitive toward students’ physical health and well-being, and this has led to wider acceptance of the shoulder rest as a tool—gone are the days of an autocratic teacher telling students what they can and cannot use. However, many students today are playing with such excessively high shoulder rests that there are visible signs of negative impact on the body. Some of these signs include a hyperextended neck, with the head sometimes raised upward, as well as a compressed left shoulder, forced down and back, which limits flexibility in the left arm. All of this can lead to restricted breathing, limited mobility for shifting, and a constricted vibrato mechanism. In addition, by having the instrument “locked” in place, tonal variety suffers as well. 


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Support Strategies

Whether your students use a shoulder rest or not, it’s important to encourage them to hone their awareness of how they physically support the instrument, to make sure that their bodies are allowed to be as free and natural as possible. If you think your students might be out of alignment, have them try this exercise to evaluate their support needs.

Using a mirror—first, without the instrument—ask them to notice the symmetry and balance of their posture. Next, have them put the instrument in playing position, making as few physical adjustments to the body as possible. They should observe their position both facing the mirror as well as looking at their reflection over their left shoulder, noting any neck, back, and shoulder tension.

They can use the information they gather in front of the mirror to choose a shoulder rest (if needed) wisely—encourage them to find one that allows for as little change in their natural body posture as possible. If you have a good music store in your area, have them try as many shoulder rests as possible, taking their time, always remembering that they are in charge of how they feel. If there are no well-stocked music stores in your area, they can order a variety of shoulder rests online (confirming first that there is a return policy). Some shoulder rests are expensive, but considering the average cost of a stringed instrument and bow, as well as the importance of one’s physical health, it’s important to remain open to investing in the right support equipment.


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Once a student has chosen a comfortable level of shoulder-rest support, reinforce how they should feel when holding the instrument, striving for balance among the areas of support:

  • Gravity holds the instrument on the shoulder (at least contacting the collarbone).
  • The weight of the head, not pressing down on the chin rest, provides cantilevered support.
  • The left hand also supports the instrument without squeezing the thumb. Gravity allows the neck of the instrument to rest above the crook of the index finger and thumb, like a ball resting between the branches of a tree.

Finding a comfortable, balanced setup should make playing a stringed instrument that much more enjoyable and connected.

Tech Support

A few tips to offer students looking for more physical ease in their playing:

  • Find Balance: Whether you’re opening a door, brushing your teeth, walking, or really doing anything else, strive for minimum effort with maximum efficiency in all your daily activities.
  • Ban Tension: In your practice, and even in performing, reserve a small percentage of your focus to “scan” your body when you play, noticing tension and encouraging release, balance, and ease of movement. This includes breathing, which will oxygenate your blood, lower your heart rate, and improve your musicality.
  • Embrace Movement: Commit to dynamic movement in all you do on the instrument, as the larger muscle groups of the body usually initiate movement. If the body remains static, tension will more than likely occur.