ðrew vervan Rotating Header Image

do you need a shoulder rest for your violin?

[Note: The point of view from which I approach the advice offered here is that of personal experience; in other words, I’m sharing with you what I have discovered. If you have something constructive to add, please email me (drewvervan@drewvervan.com) – I’d love to hear from you.]

For most players, this may seem like a silly question.  If you use a shoulder rest, you probably think, “well, of course you need a shoulder rest!”  If you don’t use a shoulder rest, you probably think, “well, of course not – no one needs a shoulder rest!”

So, we can safely say that players probably feel quite strongly about their own personal setups.

The short answer to this question is simply based on the space between your jawline and your collarbone.  The short answer says, if this space is small, you may not need a shoulder rest.  If, however, this space is larger than the height of the violin and chinrest combined, then you probably need some kind of shoulder rest.

The long answer is a bit more involved.

To begin, let’s think a bit about violin (or viola) playing in general.  From my point of view, as a player and a teacher, I feel we need to achieve as much freedom of left-hand movement as possible.  At the same time, we should also maintain good playing posture. 

Good playing posture means that, while holding your violin in playing position, your body does the following things:

  • Your head and neck are comfortably straight, not tilted toward either side.  Your head may be tilted – slightly – forward.
  • Your back is also straight and relaxed – not twisted in any way.
  • Your left shoulder is not at all raised to help hold the violin – that is, your left shoulder is completely relaxed.
  • With these positions in place, your left hand has complete freedom of movement up and down the violin neck, while providing only the slightest support to holding the violin. 

That last point is where the two thoughts on violin technique diverge.  For some fabulous players who don’t use a shoulder rest, supporting the violin with the left hand is the only way to hold it.  These players learn to move around on the fingerboard and also change positions up and down the neck, while also providing support to the violin.

Personally, I find this impossible.  I can hardly play at all without a shoulder rest.  My shoulder rest elevates the violin off of my collarbone and gently wedges it underneath my jawline.  In this way, I can completely support the violin with my head and neck – yet also remain completely comfortable and relaxed.  My left-hand has complete freedom of movement.

Now, you can achieve the same thing in alternative ways.  For instance, you might try installing an elevated chinrest.  This would, essentially, accomplish the same thing as the shoulder rest.

Also, how much shoulder rest you need depends on how much space you need to fill.  For some people, a low chinrest and a simple folded cloth will provide all the support they need.  Others may require a shoulder rest and an elevated chinrest.

The goal, regardles of how you get there, is to maintain a comfortable, relaxed playing posture.

One more point to consider: Does a shoulder rest, or the lack of one, alter the tone of the violin?

This is a debatable point.  Keep in mind that many great players who produce gorgeous tone play with and without a shoulder rest.

Logically, I feel that with the violin against your body, you are somewhat muffling part of the tone.  Another way of looking at this is that muffling the tone is part of the sound you are trying to create.  So a bit of personal taste is going to come into play here.

I like using a shoulder rest, mostly for the freedom of movement, but also because it elevates the violin off of my collarbone and clothes, and allows more of the violin’s true sound to come out.

So, do you need a shoulder rest for your violin?

Well, for you, it depends on how much freedom of movement you can achieve without one, and also what type of tone you are trying to produce.