Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the set up of violin and viola players. One would think that to improve as a musician, one must practice, practice, and practice – which is entirely true, but it is also possible that a person’s set up can actually be the factor inhibiting their ability to play. If I see a student who is having playing issues, my first step for a “diagnosis” would be to check their set up. A faulty set up will cause tension and pain, preventing one from playing as fast or sounding as good. A proper set up is very important.
It has been a strong fashion to play with a guarneri chin rest and a kun shoulder rest. Every instrument rental company supplies instruments with this set up. However standard this set up may be, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is right for everyone. It certainly wasn’t the case for me.
If the student is playing with their head leaning really far over the instrument – yes – that can mean that they are passionately listening but it can also mean that their chin rest is too short, which in turn will affect their sound production as their body is twisted off-center. Even if their neck doesn’t look like it’s too long, it could be possible they are accommodating the gap by tucking their chin down and/or raising their shoulders.
One way I begin to find the proper set up for my students is to remove their shoulder rest and have them rest their instrument on their collarbone in a playing position, making sure their strings are parallel to the floor (scroll slightly raised), and keeping their neck long and head facing forward in a neutral position, not trying to contact the instrument. In my approach to playing, I try to contact the instrument with the back of my jaw, and not grip by the tip of my chin (this would lock my head to the side and tense my neck muscles). Noting the length of the gap between the chin rest and that back part of the jawbone in the student, we can find a solution. The gap can be filled by:
1. Blocking up the chin rest with strips of cork. Rolls of cork sheet can be found in hardware stores and should be cut to stack perfectly underneath the pre-existing cork of the chin rest.
Attempting to bridge the gap solely by using a higher shoulder rest (such as a Wolf) could potentially work, but it may be unstable and prone to collapsing or allow the instrument’s scroll to slope downwards. Especially with a heavier viola, having the instrument resting on the collar bone with the scroll slightly raised will help balance the weight of the instrument into your body – causing less back strain; and the angle of the strings will help to keep the bow near the bridge – thus keeping a warm, focused sound.
Now, who would’ve thought that just holding the instrument would be so complicated? 😉
From my personal experience, finding a proper set up is a very time-consuming process which involves a lot of trial and error, but it is WELL WORTH IT! My best advice would be to go to a music shop and try as many different styles and combinations of chin rests and shoulder rests as you can. Call this another part of a musician’s education. 🙂