If you want to find a topic about which most violinists will disagree, the subject of shoulder rests should be high on your list! Every violinist has their own preference about which shoulder rest to use, if at all. Shoulder rests have only been in mainstream use since the 1950s, and some players still view them with suspicion!
Some people argue that a shoulder rest can reduce your agility, and that the violin becomes stable in relation to your body position - it cannot be moved around as easily. Some types of shoulder rest can also cause a slight muffling of the sound. But generally these are not significant enough issues, and nowadays many people prefer to use a shoulder rest (although it is still common for players of baroque violin not to use one).
The purpose of a shoulder rest is to give you more comfort and flexibility when you are playing. This is particularly the case if you are practicing, rehearsing or performing for a long period of time. If a shoulder rest is correctly adjusted, this should also improve your technique and prevent any long term neck problems.
Choosing a shoulder rest is more about finding one that is appopriate to the shape of your own body than that of your violin. The lenght of your neck and the breadth of your shoulders are the most important factors to consider.
You will also need to work out exactly where the right playing position for your violin is in relation to your body. To do this, hold the instrument as if are about to play. Ensure that your shoulders are relaxed, and keep your neck straight, without projecting your head forwards. Once you're in this stable position, you simply need to identify which shoulder rest fits best between the violin and your collar bone.
It is very important that you try out different types of shoulder rest to find out what works most effectively for you. If a music shop gives you a shoulder rest and expects you to buy it without trying it out, refuse! Make sure that you allow plenty of time and insist that a shop gives you the opportunity to try out different types of rest before making your purchase.
Finding the most comfortable shoulder rest is a bit like looking for a new technique in your playing: you need to work out what is most comfortable for you, that also gives you the most flexibility of movement. Experiment with different shapes, and if necessary consider bending the rest into a shape that feels comfortable, or try using a cloth, sponge, or other adaptation to see if you get a better result.
Above all, remember that a shoulder rest is a piece of equipment that is extremely personal to you. By trial and error, and with plenty of persistence, you will find the setup that is right for you.
FINDING A SHOULDER REST
Some players play without a shoulder rest, but some sort of support is often recommended for beginners as it helps to develop correct playing posture. The shoulder rest can help prevent the shoulder from hunching up under the violin, and can aid a comfortable neck position. It also removes the weight of the violin from the collarbone and gives space for the left arm to move freely under the violin.
Conversely, some players find that a shoulder rest can actually limit movement, though in this instance the shoulder rest is not correctly fitted. You should make sure when choosing a rest that there is not too much material pressing into the left shoulder or protruding down over the chest, because this will stop the natural rotation in your shoulder which you need to move around the fingerboard.
So how do you find the best shoulder rest for you?
There are many options. Some rests are soft and cushioned; others give a firm hold that helps keep the violin in place. Shoulder rests come in different shapes and sizes, and physical aspects such as shoulder breadth and the length of your neck are important considerations. Many rests are adjustable and ergonomically shaped to curve with the shape of your shoulder. They can also be positioned in various ways on the back of the violin to provide optimum support.
Again, the best way to find your set-up is to experiment. Many beginners start with a sponge or folded cloth fixed to the back of the violin with an elastic band. This is cost effective, but gives unreliable support and mutes the vibrations of the instrument considerably. Anything that covers a large surface area of the violin, particularly something made from an absorbent material, will affect the tone. A wooden shoulder rest in a design that sits away from the body of the violin will provide more resonance.
There are two basis reasons for using a shoulder rest. Firstly, it can help you to support the violin and secondly it offers comfort while playing. It effectively closes the space between the jaw and the shoulder that is not filled by the violin. You may find you prefer a soft sponge-like rest or perhaps you find a less padded, contoured, bar-shaped rest works better.
The correct height is important to consider too. If you have a longer neck, you are likely to need a taller rest, though most rests have adjustable heights. Foam rests and small sponges are much lower.
Ultimately, the shoulder rest you choose comes down to personal preference. Try different shapes and sizes and see what feels comfortable, but always remember to consult your teacher too. You may find that a rest that initially corrects one problem can cause another, and it is best to be really sure that your shoulder rest is suitable for your body shape and technique. You may also find that as your playing develops you want to try something different. Many violinists experiment with different shoulder and chinrest set-ups, and not many established players still use the exact same accessories they used as students. Be flexible and imaginative, and be open to experimenting, but be careful not to become obsessive. Ultimately, once you find something comfortable that does the job of supporting the violin, relax and enjoy your playing.
Existing set-ups can often be adapted for even more efficiency. A worn bar-type shoulder rest can be revitalised with the use of rubber bands for more friction and security. Some shoulder rests offer extra long adjustable legs. Shoulder rest feet can be rejuvenated with new rubber tubing. Nickel allergies can be avoided with titanium mounted, silver-plated or hypoallergenic plastic chinrests.