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Choosing the right shoulder rest can be a tricky task

by Richard Ward

 

I won't tell you how long ago I started violin lessons, but let's just say that those were the days before synthetic-core strings and almost no one used a shoulder rest. I don't think there were more than two on the market, the Resonans and the old Kolitsch (no longer available). You were expected to learn to live with the discomfort of learning to play. It was the price you paid for being a violinist. Today, most violinists and violists use shoulder rests.

A proper shoulder rest gives support and security so that your left arm has less work to do and is freer. Not using one often forces you to lift your left shoulder to support the violin, causing muscle strain. But the use of a shoulder rest is by no means universal. Some string players feel that it restricts movement and flexibility. Bill Barbini, a well-known Northern California teacher and performer feels that "most shoulder rests are not designed properly. The violin is held at too steep an angle, not horizontal." He also says that "the shoulder pad can be deceiving because it doesn't really support the instrument. The violin still needs to be gripped between the jaw and the collarbone.

A number of performers share Barbini's feelings, but most accept the use of the shoulder rest as a necessity.

Get Your Rest

Bring your instrument to the shop and try out several types of rest to see which fits your anatomy and playing style. When testing them, check to be sure the shoulder-rest platform covers your shoulder (the curve of the rest should comfortably match the curve of your shoulder). Does your chin feel stretched? It shouldn't, nor should you need to raise your shoulder. The shoulder rest should help you remain relaxed while playing and shouldn't create discomfort or tension. Ask the person you're shopping with or a shop worker if you seem to be showing any signs of tension in the neck and shoulder.

Once you've purchased a rest that feels right, you can "fine tune" it at home, because most models have some degree of adjustability for height and shoulder position. Don't pick a rest just because someone said it was the best—the fit of the rest is a very personal thing. The best rest for you is the one that feels comfortable and natural—one that you aren't even aware of while you play.

The Shopping List

There are so many different models on the market, the search for the right one can be confusing. Some shoulder rests are classics that have been around for decades, such as the Kun and Resonans. Others are new, designed to address specific needs, and offer some variants on existing designs. The best-known models are outlined here.

Kun shoulder rests have been on the market for decades and are available anywhere, including many general-music stores. They offer a great degree of adjustability, allowing you to change the height and the position on your shoulder. There are four 4/4 models:  Classic, Super, Collapsible (with folding feet), and the deluxe Bravo (made of maple with brass fittings; many musicians feel that a wood rest enhances the sound of the instrument). The Classic, Super, and Collapsible models are made from composite materials with brass fittings and latex-rubber feet. There's also a Junior model for 1/2 and 3/4 instruments and a Mini for sizes from 1/4 down to 1/10. For players with long necks, Kun makes longer replacement feet. At press time, Kun was preparing a lightweight carbon-fiber shoulder rest (a first), which will be available soon. It has a new, high-tech appearance, a big departure from the traditional Kun design. The feet are collapsible, with rubber molded on. Kun claims superior acoustic properties for this rest. Be very wary of the cheap Kun look-alikes. Classic $49.95, Super $50.95, Bravo $89.95 (www.kunrest.com).

Wolf Products is another well-known old company. Its original rest, the Super Flexible, is still available (with many modifications over the years) but the Forte Primo and Forte Secundo models are by far the most popular sellers. Both models offer a tremendous degree of adjustability and are often chosen by players with long necks because of their height (they can be raised about three inches). The shoulder platform can even be bent by the player to fit the shoulder. Although the 4/4 models are supposed to fit a 3/4 instrument, I find that this rarely works. Forte Primo and Secundo $42. (www.wolfproducts.com).

Viva and Viva La Musica are made by a craftsman in Slovenia. The feet sport a unique design that includes rubber grips to hold the instrument more securely, and the foam pad is thicker and softer. The Viva is made of plastic and is available in a variety of colors and in three sizes: large (4/4–3/4), medium (1/2–1/4) and small (1/4–1/16). You can get an extra-tall foot, and Viva provides replacement pads. Viva also can be purchased in a compact collapsible version. The deluxe Viva la Musica is of maple with metal fittings in either gold or black. Viva $34.95, Viva la Musica $64.95 (www.viva-sas.com).

Bon Musica is an unusual rest from Germany with a longer metal platform that wraps over the shoulder. It offers a great deal of adjustability and the platform can be bent to a small degree to customize the shape. Some players really love it and others don't. Those who don't complain that it immobilizes the instrument too much. Others like the security and stability it offers. It is a bit large and won't fit in some violin cases. $54 [No website; contact your local dealer for information].

Mach One is the ultimate in simplicity and elegance. It's very light and compact, which is an advantage; but it offers almost no adjustability (except for height). There is also very little padding. If it fits you "out of the box" and you don't mind the padding issue, the Mach One could work for you. It is available in plastic and wood versions. Small sizes (1/2 to 1/4) are also available in the plastic model. Wood $89.95, plastic $39.95. (www.machonerest.com).

Play on Air is a different kind of rest: an inflatable (hence the name) pad that fits flat against the back of the instrument, and is held on with elastic bands. It is fairly thin, even fully inflated, so it isn't a good choice for someone with even a moderately long neck. It is quite comfortable, but it has a tendency to move around and sometimes it falls off. It is available in several sizes (including the Deluxe, Deluxe Jumbo, Crescent, Junior, and Junior Jumbo). $21.95 to $27.95 [No website; contact your local dealer for information].

Resonans was one of the first shoulder rests on the market and is unchanged after many decades. It's simple and one of the least expensive, but because of the way the foot is designed, the rest has a tendency to damage the instrument if you're not very careful. Be sure to change the rubber tubing on the foot at the least sign of wear to avoid damage. The Resonans is available in 1/4-, 1/2-, 3/4-, and full-size models, and in Medium (2), Low (1), and High (3) heights. (High is available only for 4/4 size.) $13 [No website; contact your local dealer for information].

Comford Shoulder Cradle is a new shoulder rest and an entirely new concept, featuring a resonating chamber said by the manufacturer to enhance the sound of the instrument. It's very comfortable on the shoulder, but it's heavier (7 oz.) and larger than other rests and offers no adjustability. In fact, the Comford Rest is so large it won't fit in most cases. It's quite secure on the instrument, but takes a bit longer to install because of the size and the way you need to 'spring' one of the legs. It is available in three models (gold, silver, and plastic, which is slightly lighter) and two heights (medium and high). Each model is said by the designer to provide slightly different tonal characteristics. It also is available in a junior model (3/4 and 1/2) and for viola. $29.95 to $59.95, depending on the model (www.goldencomfort.com).

Foam Pads are another option. Most shoulder rests, even those designed for the smallest-size violins, may be too big and tall for very young students. For those players, a simple foam pad held onto the instrument with a rubber band may be sufficient. You can go to a drug store and get a bag of cosmetic sponges or to a foam store for foam scraps. There are also commercial foam shoulder rests available, such as Fiddle Friends shoulder rests (manufactured by the Enterprising Rabbit, based in Canada), the "We-Bad," and some brands from Zaret. $5.95 (www.peterzaret.com).

When you choose your shoulder rest, take time to get used to it. Experiment with height and position. A few players make their own custom adaptations to their shoulder rests with foam and rubber tubing. You can add more foam to the rests' foam pad to make it more comfortable or to add support where it's needed. (See "Ahead on Your Shoulder" below for an example.) If you're like me and many other players, you'll develop a collection of shoulder rests over the years, switching from time to time as your physical needs or playing style change.


Ahead on Your Shoulder

Thinking about modifying a shoulder rest to better suit your needs? Take a tip from Strings contributor Tom Heimberg, who successfully created his own hybrid shoulder rest.

Heimberg uses a patented Menuhin Pad (a broad-footed pad, with feet about four inches apart) that he bought at Cremona Violin Dealers and Makers in San Francisco. "Although I liked the support, I found it a little too hard. So I cut off the pad and got down to the metal structure," says Heimberg. "Then I replaced that hard material with a high-tech, pressure-absorbent material used in knee pads—I bought it in a store selling workman's clothing."

Heimberg says his rest is firm yet soft and yielding, thanks to the added foam padding. "I cut it to form, and put it on the metal frame and it doesn't fall off. I also wrap the pad with a nonskid material—like the type put under carpets—and I use sections of an old bicycle inner tube as rubber bands to hold the material in place. They look reasonably professional, are just the right size, and they hold up well," Heimberg adds.

—The Editors


Excerpted from Strings magazine, March 2005 , No. 127.


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