Playing without a shoulder rest - then and now

Did Heifetz use a shoulder rest?

Heifetz put it very simply: when a young person came to him and said, "I can't play without a shoulder rest, he said "Take up the cello! The reason is very simple: "You can't develop a sound (using a shoulder rest) because the elbow is flying in the wrong direction".

Isaac Sterns "little secret"

Isaac Stern played without shoulder rest. He explains his "little secret", a small piece of foam under his shirt or jacket, impressively in this video.

Historical Background

Shoulder rests in their current typical form or shape are mentioned for the first time by Yehudi Menhuin. Up to this point the violin had been played without any support including without a chin rest since 1730, from 1831 with a chin rest but still without a shoulder rest.During this time, technically demanding pieces were written and played, which was made possible by using a chin rest.

Yehudi Menhuin

The most renowned violin teacher of modern times Leopold von Auer (born 1845, died 1930 in Dresden, buried in New York) wrote during the 1920s one of the most influential and highly regarded valuable violin schools, that remains valid until today, although it seems that it is threatened to be forgotten (Graded Course of Violin Playing, in eight volumes). The school is unique in its scope and fulfills its claim to cover and thoroughly look into all aspects of violin technique from the beginner level to the virtuoso stage of an aspiring concert violinist.

Leopold Auer taught without shoulder rest and his students played at the highest possible level.

Until today the next generation of students of his original students continue to play and teach without a shoulder rest (e.g. Ivan Galamian, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zuckerman, Isaac Stern, Vadim Repin and many more) using the violin technique developed by Leopold von Auer.

All of these great violinists play without the support of a conventional shoulder rest.

Each of these violinists tries to overcome the disadvantages of playing without support, such as the violin slipping, pressure of the frame onto the collarbone, danger of pulling up the left shoulder when using sponges, cushions and cloths, which were mostly stuck under the coat jacket.Isaac Stern also played without support, here in the picture and film. He explains his "little secret", namely a piece of foam under the shirt or under the jacket, at this link (see also above).

By inventing the conventional shoulder rest (basically a bracket across the back of the violin) that is commercially available in all shapes and forms today, it was thought that these problems had been solved for technically demanding violin playing. Nevertheless, a large part of the famous violinists still play without support of such kind and prefer soft pads or no shoulder rest at all, because the advantages outweigh both sound and technology.

Amongst others, and in addition to the school of Leopold Auer, Tibor Varga (well-known soloist of his time and professor for violin at the University of Music in Detmold, Germany) is a famous pedagogue for playing without support. He developed a well known violin method from 1970 in which he discusses the use of shoulder rests or pads in the introduction.

Below, you find a further excerpt from what he wrote and discussed on the topic:

I must say that I am very much against the use of shoulder devices. For me, the violin is a replacement of the throat. The violin should sing through the F-holes. By not using a shoulder pad I can feel the vibrations much better ... . I am not sure a long neck is a sufficient reason for using a shoulder pad because the real problems in violin playing emanate from about 15 centimetres in front of the point where the chin and shoulder grasp the instrument ... . I recommend an unusually high chinrest to fill the gap ... . I find that people using shoulder pads play with a different attitude – the instrument, which should be an extension of their body, is less a part of them ... . For those (students) who are addicts I recommend a cushion that lies on the shoulder or under the clothing of the shoulder, so they can feel less alien to the violin.

(Quotation from: Applebaum and Roth, The Way They Play: Illustrated Discussions with Famous Artists and Teachers, vol. 10, 201, found in an inspiring Master thesis written by Katherine Lukey, University of Sydney, 2011DEMON OR PHILOSOPHER: THE ARTIST AND TEACHER TIBOR VARGA

"Poldauer" put in context

The Poldauer rest allows the player to benefit from the described advantages of playing without any support and at the same time from the convenience of a support without having to use cloths, foam pads, cushions etc. that dampen the sound.In terms of sound, the Poldauer shoulder rest is far superior to soft pads or brackets because the violin can resonate better because it is no longer clamped or dampened by cloth and the much improved angle to the bow allows it to move more freely. Occupational diseases such as herniated discs and the like are no longer to be expected due to the more flexible posture.The violin is held at shoulder height with the Poldauer shoulder rest, the left elbow remains free (especially when shifting to high positions), the right arm remains more relaxed because the violin can be tipped to play on the G string.From the picture on the right you get directed to a very informative video showing a masterclass with both violin techniques (Vadim Repin without any support and student with the conventional (bracket) shoulder rest).

Jascha Heifetz: Famous representative of the Leopold Auer school. Pay attention to his violin posture, flexibility of the neck and optimal position of the right arm, especially on the G string and in high positions. Without rigidity of the posture (the violin is no longer wedged between the chest and shoulder), the freedom of movement increases along the horizontal axis. This freedom allows him to produce more sound with less pressure, e.g. on the G string with a lower right arm (the violin is held at a slight angle) .This can all be seen very clearly in the video by Jascha Heifetz.

Another famous example of playing without a shoulder rest is David Oistrakh. However, from the late 1950s onwards, Oistrakh used a "shoulder pad" called Poehland Model C, which can be confidently described as a very simple predecessor of our Poldauer rest. The model he used also guaranteed him flexibility in the forward position and turning the violin inward, as can be seen very clearly in the video.

Even today, great soloists still play without solid shoulder rests

There are numerous other still active advocates of playing without solid or conventional shoulder rests and play with a cushion, a piece of foam, a wonder or air pad etc.. To name just a few of these players, e.g. Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Vadim Repin (see master class above).Youngers virtuosos, such as Augustin Hadelich, Alexander Markov, as well as many others are an important part of concert life.

It is also important to mention that baroque players usually play without conventional shoulder rests.