Healthy violin technique

Yes, I know I am a guitarist but I’ve loved the violin for a very long time now and have been very fascinated with violin pedagogy for some years now. In my own spare time, I do a lot of research on classical violin pedagogy. I’ve interviewed a number of violinists and violin teachers and for an instrument with such a rich pedagogical history, I was very surprised to learn that still today there are lots of misconceptions and highly contradictory information being passed around. This intrigued me greatly, and it made me want to investigate it more.

I came to understand that violin pedagogy for many teachers is almost like a cultural tradition, where knowledge is passed down from teacher to student with very little independent research or questioning of why one does X or Z. The student grows up and teaches what they learned from their teacher and so on. This resulted in a number of schools of thought where one teacher might say one thing, and another will say the complete opposite.

I was also surprised to learn from interviewing a number of teachers, that in some instances, I knew more about the history and evolution of the instrument than actual violin teachers. This confirms the theory of “cultural tradition”.

Another issue that is still misunderstood today is the idea of healthy violin playing. One can simply search the various online discussions of healthy violin playing and you will find countless threads of  fiery debates. Everyone has their idea of what the ideal posture and set-up are. Then we have the dreaded shoulder rest vs no shoulder rest debate and many professional violinists don’t know exactly how to teach proper set-up. It’s normal because they only know what worked for them.

For those of you who are not violinists, one of the unique characteristics of the instrument is that the way to hold the instrument greatly depends on various factors related to your playing style and/or body type. Unlike a piano where you just sit down and play (OK, maybe you adjust the seat a little), or the guitar, where you pretty much just put the instrument on your lap and you’re ready to go, the violin needs to be supported in a specific manner. How exactly it is supported is where it gets complicated; there is no one size fits all solution.

Nowadays, it is very common to use two tools to help with violin support: a chinrest and a shoulder rest.

The chinrest was invented in the first quarter of the 19th century. I’m not quite sure when it became a standard accessory among all violinists, but prior to that the violin was “naked”. Paganini, himself, born in 1782, had to learn to play without chinrest and shoulder rest. For a lot of violinists today, this way of playing is a big mystery and only fairly recently has there been a revival in the old way of playing.

Basically, a chinrest fills the space between the jaw/chin and the collarbone for those who may need it (and that would be 99% of violinists today). Most pedagogues would agree that generally, the edge of the violin should rest on the collarbone, and the neck is supported by the left hand. Think of the violin as a bridge that is held straight by the two extremes : the collarbone on one side and the left hand on the other. If someone has too much space between the top of the violin and the jaw/chin at the area where instrument is resting on the collarbone, then the chinrest helps fill this gap so that the head can remain in as natural a position as possible. A chinrest that is too short will result in the violinist having to bend their head and neck in unhealthy ways. Conversely, a chinrest that is too tall will force the head to extend in unhealthy ways as well. Last but not least, the chinrest should be shaped in such a way that is comfortable for the violinist. This shape depends on everyone’s individual chin/jaw. Some people have chins that are compatible with most shapes, some need something more specific. There is no one shape fits all solution.

If 99% of violinists today are so dependent on chinrests, how did they play it before the 19th century? That’s a great question and I’d like to know, myself. Ss far as my research is concerned, it’s not easy to find information on it. For starters, some would argue that the technical demands of music composed before the 19th century were not as high as those found in the repertoire today. Certain techniques that are considered standard today and that are made very accessible thanks to the chin rest were  not used as much either or to a much lesser extent.

I have a strong feeling that some people were blessed with short enough necks to be able to manage the instrument. Those with longer necks probably had more trouble and could only progress so far. In that sense, you were either born to play violin or you weren’t. Nonetheless, experts on early music, such as Stanley Ritchie who is one of the first in America to explore the old school of violin playing, have claimed that it is possible for tall necked people to play as well. I would have to investigate this further.

The invention of the chinrest evened the playing field for most people, and that’s when the technical standards for violin skyrocketed. Today, average 12 year olds are playing what were considered virtuoso pieces back in the day.

The shoulder rest was invented much later, and people started using it fairly recently, after the second half of the 20th century. Today, I would say that the vast majority of violinists play with one.

So what does a shoulder rest do? Whereas the chinrest fills the gap between the violin and the chin at the area where the instrument is resting on the collarbone, the shoulder rest fills the gap between the violin and the shoulder, allowing much more freedom on the left hand. In some instances, the left hand does not have to support the instrument any more. One could remove left hand support, and the violin would sit perfectly still. Some teachers teach this way and insist that the left hand should NEVER support the violin (oh how history is easily forgotten!).

As you can imagine, now that the left hand doesn’t have to support the instrument, it has so much more freedom, and once again the average technical level for violinists skyrocketed once more as students are able to tackle much more complex techniques at an earlier age. This, at the expense of learning how to support the instrument with the left hand. As one violinist said to me “What’s the point? Why waste your time learning to do that when you can have the shoulder rest hold the instrument for you?”.

So, if the shoulder rest gives you tremendous freedom on the left hand, then why is there still a small but dedicated army of violinists claiming that the old way is better? There are a few arguments for that. One of them is that you develop a more intimate connection to your instrument by learning to support it with the left hand. It is significantly harder in the beginning because you have to adapt all your techniques to this way of playing, but once you learn how to do it, you a deeper understanding of how your body relates to the instrument. Basically, a person who forgot their shoulder rest at home might not be able to perform, whereas a person who learned how to play without shoulder rest could potentially easily put one on and still play. I say potentially because a good set-up is still important.

One of the other arguments is health related, by putting on a shoulder rest, your violin is essentially stuck in one position so you have less freedom of movement. No shoulder rest advocates claim that it can lead to health problems. I would say the following: it seems that there are people who play with no health problems from both sides of the camp just as there are players who experience tremendous pain from both sides of the camp. I think the key issue is proper set-up.

If you give a short necked a person a set up with a tall chinrest and a tall shoulder rest, they will inevitably feel pain just as a longer necked person would feel pain playing with a short chinrest and no shoulder rest. Of course, everything also depends on the technical requirements of the repertoire. If you’re playing music that is not technically demanding at all (no shifting, no vibrato, everything in first position), then theoretically you could hold the violin in the most absurd and unhealthy way and play without any pain or technical difficulty. There are videos of self-taught folk violinist on Youtube who have the most unorthodox technique and strangest posture, but they manage just fine because their repertoire does not ask much from them, and it’s totally fine. So how you choose to use your technique is also very important.

It is therefore extremely important to understand the difference between a chinrest and a shoulder rest before one can start to explore the possibility of optimal set up. Optimal set up will depend on so many factors:

-the repertoire you plan on playing (see my example above)

-the length of your neck

-the shape of your chin

-the shape of your collarbone

-the length of your arms

-the length of your fingers

-the size of your hand

Any combination of the above (and more) will affect which set up will work for you or not. Too many parameters to say with certainty what is best.

One of the common things to do today is to look for a shoulder rest before looking at a chinrest. I don’t want to name names, but there are very reputable teachers advocating such things, and I could easily post links to demonstrate what I mean. Whether one wants to play with a shoulder rest or not is not important to me, it is a personal choice, but what is important is to find the chinrest that works for you before looking at the shoulder rest option. The two accessories don’t have the same function at all, and the priority really should be on the chinrest. It is the main point of support and the shoulder rest is an extra safety cushion. That said, some people are still able to play at a high level with minimal tension using less than optimal set ups or even the “wrong” type of chinrest. Like I said, still today, some people are just born to play the violin. Yay them!

For others though, set up is extremely crucial. So why don’t people look at chinrests first? Maybe tradition? I’m not sure, but until recently, the variety of chinrests that existed on the market were fairly limited. Visit almost any violin shop and they all carry roughly the same models with the same height. I remember going to the one of  biggest violin shops in Montreal recently to see their selection. They only had a handful of them, and the difference between each model was rather small.  Recently small manufacturers have been making alternative chinrests, but you can mainly still only get them online. The same can be said for shoulder rests though, so maybe it is really just an issue of tradition. Things were done this way for whatever reason, and people kept doing it this way.

So where do I fit in all this? My love for the instrument has motivated me to create a documentary series that will be published on my music business DC Music School. Since everyone has a different idea on how to set up an instrument and/or on how to play the instrument. I thought it could be interesting to interview the world’s leading soloists, orchestral players , pedagogues, and other violin health experts. I would like to get their thoughts on all the topics discussed above and more. More importantly, I will ask them to demonstrate what they mean on video. Ultimately, I will leave it to the viewer to form their own opinions.

The following series of videos on Youtube are not directly related to my actual project, but they are a preliminary test. About 10 years ago, I was introduced to Peter Purich who lives in Montreal, Quebec. Peter is a teacher who specializes in healthy violin playing. He is also a luthier and has been custom designing chinrests  and other tools to help players with unique needs. He has been doing this for over 40 years now and has had clients from all over the world. In the following videos, I brought a young jazz violinist studying music at university to see Peter for a consultation. It is almost 3 hours long but if you’re fascinated by the violin, it can be worthwhile to see Peter’s scientific approach to teaching and to finding the right set up for violinists. After the consultation, the young violinist told me it was the best lesson on violin technique he ever had.

This footage will not be used for my actual project, but I will want to interview him once I get my project officially started.

This is the first part of a series of videos, the other parts will be added ASAP.