Shoulder rests are a “big deal” to many people. This is no real surprise, since shoulder rests can change the sound of an instrument dramatically and instantly. (Which, I think on some level is also because even the best practice produces results rather gradually.)
There are two main reasons why people use shoulder rests:
1. Sound production: to create a ‘bigger’ (more resonant) sound.
2. To make playing more comfortable
Very often these two goals can contradict each other – the shoulder rests which are great for sound are not usually the most comfortable, and vice versa. For a long time I used to value sound production above everything else, since as a violist this was even more important than for the violin. However in recent years I have come to think that it’s more important to feel comfortable so that the ability to best put your interpretation forward comes before the acoustics.
There are three main kinds of shoulder supports:
1. Shoulder rests shaped like suspended bars
Suspended bars are the most common of shoulder rests, popular brands for students being Kun and Wolf. The way it works is that by suspending the instrument away from the shoulder, the bottom plate resonates better, and provides a bigger sound. The main problem is that it makes holding the instrument a little more stiff (particularly in moving the instrument left and right), which can have negative effects on flexibility during playing. It is, however, good for tall students to avoid neck pain.
Out of the more advanced models are the Bon Musica, the Comford Shoulder Cradle, and the Mach One. I personally find the Bon Musica particularly stiff, though some say that it fits certain people’s shoulders (particularly the curve) better than others. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the Comford for comfort, the only downside is that it’s really heavy. Professionals tend to recommend the Mach One:
in part because the wood base apparently vibrates along with the instrument (there’s actually a tailpiece connecting gut that applies the same concept, as well the ball ends of the Titanium strings, but that’s another story). It does have a bigger sound – though with certain strings I have found the tone/timbre of the sound can change as well, in terms of balance of the strings.
2. Inflation-based shoulder rests
These supports are filled with air, inflated with some sort of tube. These won’t provide the same kind of projection as the suspended ones, and are more on the side of providing a comforatable experience.
The best known is Playonair, which can be very successful if a few changes are made.
a) A former teacher recommended putting it on ‘backwards’, i.e. with the larger end away from the shoulder. This has the effect of pushing the right side of the instrument up, helping to support a better posture overall, as well as flexibility.
This really depends on how it works with you. The ‘regular’ position of the Playonair has the advantage of propping up the C string to allow for easier bow access, but one has to watch out for the other side effects which may occur to posture.
b) A major problem is that on certain instruments the shoulder can fall off, which actually caused me a serious hand injuries at one time. One easy fix is just to adjust the elastic sections to be tighter. If this does not do the job, experimentation has allowed me another way to fix the Playonair problem:
The part highlighted was originally held in place by the piece of rubber. This piece of rubber also ensured the plastic didn’t scratch the instrument. However, the position (for some instruments) also can cause the whole shoulder rest to fall off, especially when moving the instrument from right to left. As you can see from the same higlighted area, sewing it up can solve the problem, together with moving the rubber slightly lower (adjust to your own instrument) to make sure the plastic doesn’t cause any damage.
A common substitute for chin rests has long been sponge – in From Mao to Mozart, over twenty years ago, Isaac Stern famously surprised students with placing sponge on the inside of his T-shirt. More commonly, various types of sponge have been placed over the instrument using rubber band. The packing sponge for air conditioners is apparently useful because it doesn’t ‘squash’ too easily. The other recommended option (mentioned to me by Prof. James Dunham) is makeup sponge:
which as you can see can be placed without rubber bands. A few layers of rubber cement is used on one side of the sponge, and left to dry. The result is a stickiness that is (in Prof. Dunham’s words) just a shade stickier than Post-It Notes.
There are various shoulder rests being made today which are based on some sort of foam or sponge, though I haven’t tried them personally to say one way or another how well they work.
PLAYING WITHOUT A SHOULDER REST
There are many who advocate not using a shoulder rest at all – that it allows for a better connection with the instrument. It is interesting to note that when the instrument is lifted upwards, the sound projection is said to be better than any other option, because even shoulder rests clamp the sides of the instrument. The problem is that raising he instrument for long periods is often clumsy and uncomfortable, especially during shifts.
I have been through all the various options mentioned here for considerable periods and performances, and am currently on the fixed Playonair. I find each option – including not using a shoulder rest – has it’s pros and its cons and it’s up to each individual player to see what works best for him/her. For students I find it important to try and play with and without a shoulder rest – without this it is hard for students to know what those pros and cons are. There seems to be a misunderstood notion that students MUST use shoulder rests, which I don’t think is accurate – though once again with tall students, I would recommend it more enthusiastically than with others.