And Why You Should Fix Them!
by McKenzie Clawson
When I went to institutes as a young Suzuki student, I came up with a theory that you could tell who belonged to what teacher by their shoulder rest. It seemed like every student in a particular studio would have the exact same shoulder rest to the point that it almost looked like an uniform. I don’t think this is as much the case anymore. Nowadays, I see teachers everywhere are trying to tailor their students’ set ups to their individual bodies.
That is what my studio looks like. Almost every single one of my students has a different shoulder rest or sponge, depending on their body type. Finding an unique solution for my students to help them play with comfort is one of my top priorities.
In high school, I struggled with pain in my shoulders and wrists every time I played. I kept trying shoulder rest, after shoulder rest, after shoulder rest, and nothing worked. I couldn’t practice for very long, and symphony rehearsals felt like torture. So, when I went to college, my new teacher immediately started working with me on changing my chin rest and shoulder rest combo to better fit my body. This is the solution we came up with:
I never imagined that I would play with just a sponge because I have such a long neck, but works. The adjustment was difficult but I was soon rid of a raised shoulder and clenched neck muscles. Because of this experience and my belief that playing the violin can actually feel good, the first thing I do with a new student is talk about their shoulder rest.
There are a few common misconceptions that I think can cause a lot of pain while playing.
1. Your chin rest is for your jaw, not your chin.
I spent the first part of my violin career laying my entire chin on the rest. Sure, my violin was not going to go anywhere, but that’s because it was locked in place by tension. Once my teacher showed me that the corner of my jaw should touch the violin and balance it in place, I felt free.
2. The bottom bout of your violin should touch your collar bone, and not just hang free.
When I used my collar bone instead of my shoulder to hold up my violin, I realized that raising my shoulder didn’t help me at all. This one is much harder for me to fix with my students, especially those with narrow shoulders, but I think it can really help those who play with pain.
Here are some things I look for in a good setup:
Balanced violin between the hand, collar bone, and jaw.
The first finger and thumb cradle the neck of the violin and keep it from sliding down the body.
The strings are at a slight downward angle so gravity is sending the weight of the violin down to the collar bone.
The corner of the jaw bone is balanced against the chin rest to keep the violin in place.
No squeezing, no “holding.” Just balance.
Here are some things that scream “fix me!”:
Squeezing thumb. This tells me that my student doesn’t feel secure so they’re grabbing at their violin.
Low scroll. Violin is sliding away from them.
Raised shoulder. Violin is probably balanced too far out on the shoulder.
This list is definitely still a work in progress. Each new student presents a new challenge (and ideally a new solution.) This is one aspect of my teaching that I’m constantly learning from and changing.
So give me your best tips. Do you have a favorite shoulder rest? How do you feel about balancing vs. holding the violin?
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