Why playing without a shoulder rest is better – for bowing and fingering.
Heifitz is the key to learning to play without the cantilevered shoulder rest.
I am impressed to read personal stories of violinists who removed their training wheels (I mean, shoulder rests) because they wanted to emulate Heifitz: they could see and hear what the old players had but couldn’t get there. This is because they continued to play by holding their violins with their heads, and no shoulder rest, or tried to hold the violin with the left hand having no understanding that the left hand of an unbalanced violinist is completely different than the left hand of Heifitz, the most easily balanced violinist I have ever seen.
I have more than 30 students and am currently taking them all into well-balanced violin playing where you have to ride your bicycle without training wheels. Yesterday, 3 students set themselves free, they all sounded better, and when I asked, “Did you miss your shoulder rest?” all looked surprised and said no.
As you experiment with the two basic exercises, you will experience new sensations that may be incomprehensible. First stand holding instrument and bow in Mountain Pose.
Look to your left and up. The instrument rests in your left hand, as comfortably as possible. Hold this pose for as long as you are able. Work your way up to five minutes. Feel free to lean left and right, floating on your knees. Tuck in your butt, support your abs, feel your latissimi dorsi (side-back muscles) at work. Get comfortable in your skin.
The well-balanced violinist uses the whole body. And do not expect to be comfortable without your training wheels until you have spent enough time strengthening your core, while relaxing your lungs, stomach, guts, and everything. Be certain to have the left hand under the neck.
Place the fingers on notes. Work the fingers.
Be creative. You can’t do it wrong,
but if you don’t try it, you won’t
be exercising your core.
Twist from side to side. Lift your arms up and down.
Feel the violin resting in your hand and on your arm. You are practicing balancing the violin lightly on your arm, controlled by your hand. The violin must be centered on your arm. You must spend TIME doing this. There are no short cuts.
Historically, playing with the cantilevered shoulder rest changed both our bow technique and our fingering technique. Why? :
Training wheels meant players never needed to learn to balance the violin or themselves; furthermore, the bow and left hand never needed to be part of the instrument. When using training wheels, players never needed to strengthen their core. The cantilevered rest developed neck muscles, which interfered with the freedom of the arms.
Enough explanations. There is no way to explain the transition from training wheels to balance. I cannot describe how it feels to be balanced, except to say that it’s like flying.
RAISE YOUR LEFT ARM AS HIGH AS YOU CAN!
The instrument rests
on your left hand;
it feels lighter
because of the new
balance. You know
what comes next!!
LET THE INSTRUMENT SLIDE DOWN YOUR ARM AS YOU BEND YOUR ELBOW, UNTIL IT LANDS IN THE SPACE CREATED BY YOUR RAISED SHOULDER.
As you lower your arm, letting the fiddle slide into place, you may notice the lats relaxing. DO NOT LET THEM FULLY COLLAPSE. These are the major support muscles for both the bow and the fiddle.
Hopefully, your chin is over the tailpiece. If it is not, then you are not yet balanced. Repeat the exercise until you let the instrument land well balanced on your collarbone and under your chin.
Bend your right arm and play. If you have practiced your strengthening exercises enough, you are automatically holding the violin with your left arm and a well-supported torso.
Now go back to the beginning. Put your shoulder rest back on and play. Is it the same or different? Do you need to depend on your training wheels or have you begun to develop balance and strength? Do not expect instant results, especially if you are doing this without guidance.
Hey friends, I believe we are all self-taught. No matter how many directions I give and exercises I assign, the only students that learn are the ones who think along with the process and adapt it to their own needs. In my first lesson with the legendary Eugene Lehner, he said to me, “You will always be your own best teacher.”
And here’s the second exercise. Lots of pictures, first.
HOLD THE VIOLIN UNDER YOUR RIGHT ARM WITH THE BOW
LOCKED INTO THE STRING
FLIP VIOLIN UPSIDE DOWN, LETTING THE INSTRUMENT REST ON THE BOW, AND USE THE BOW TO PUSH THE VIOLIN UP ONTO YOUR SHOULDER.
This exercise is radically different from the first. It requires no strength at all. It is sort of like practicing a la chitarra, but since the bow must be on the string, and the instrument is cradled touching the humerus of the right arm, it is unique. While cradling the instrument, work your fingers. Play a melody, or a complete dance movement from Bach.
Don’t try to be right but do move with the utmost ease. NEVER TAKE THE BOW OFF THE STRING. You may cross strings with the bow, but do not stroke at all. Silencio!
IF YOU ARE BALANCED CORRECTLY, YOU WILL FEEL ABSOLUTELY COMFORTABLE AT ALL TIMES.
IF YOU FOLLOWED THE DIRECTIONS, YOU ARE NOW DEEPLY IN THE STRING, WITHOUT EFFORT, PRODUCING THE HEIFITZ SOUND!!!
Exercise #2, which you should now repeat, helps develop the sensation of the neck resting on the ball of the first finger. This contact only gets lost when vibrating a low first finger in first position. At all other times, the ball of the first finger has a job to do.
There are no short cuts to learning to balance the violin/viola. Exercise #1 strengthens the core and the arms, while training you to balance the instrument. Exercise #2 relaxes the arms and the hands, while training you to let the instrument rest on the ball of the index finger and using the bow itself to support the fiddle.