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ESTA magazine 2009
(European String Teachers' Association)

The image of the drooping and contorted viola player, struggling to defy the pull of gravity on his instrument, is a mirthful one, if not perhaps for the player. (Remember the Hoffnung cartoon: viola propped on half a dozen cushions balanced on the player's knee?) My father, founder member of the Allegri Quartet, used to wear a piece of string round his neck which he looped onto the bout of the viola to stop it slipping - apparently to good effect, because he did so for 20 years, using the same piece of string.

I have become increasingly interested in exploring the factors which make for a comfortable and well-functioning way of holding the instrument, including the choice of chinrest and shoulder rest and taking into account the different shapes and sizes of players.  This short article is preliminary to a longer piece on the subject, part of a research project to develop new teaching material and methods for the viola, supported by the Birmingham Conservatoire.

The starting point, uncontroversially, is a natural, upright and undistorted posture. To maintain this with a viola under your chin is far from easy, and calls for a level of body awareness and an ability to use separate muscle groups independently which do not come naturally to most people. To strengthen and clarify the function of the left arm, try lifting the viola above your head and down again - viola press-ups I call them.  Another exercise is to use the right hand to lift the viola to its position on the collar bone or thereabouts, without shoulder rest, and then swing the left arm up to take the weight. Turn your head slightly to the left and relax it onto the chinrest. It is best not to expect to feel that you could play securely like this, or the left shoulder will almost certainly come forward and up!

The great advantage of a few mintes daily exploration of shoulder-restlessness is that it encourages the left arm to work and to provide an upward thrust. Try playing long notes while slowly circling the scroll in the air - just a few inches is enough. Make sure the arm does the work; quite a few people tilt their whole torso, with arm firmly clenched, to raise the scroll. This is where 'viola press-ups' can help develop an independent and strong enough arm movement.

A good playing position often requires compromise. It can feel comfortable to hold the viola well out to the left, but then it may be impossible to reach the point of the bow, or to keep the bow straight. It may be comfortable to hold the viola quite flat, but this puts greater strain on the hand and wrist when playing on the C string. On the other hand, if the viola slopes towards the floor it slips more easily and can make spiccato more difficult.

Now for the set-up. Many chinrests are oddly designed for the average chin, with unhelpful ridges or mounds, and commonly either too shallow (nothing to hold onto) or too deep (constricting). Make sure the chinrest, once selected, is fitted horizontally to the instrument, with no sloping either way. Chinrest and shoulder rest need to be considered as a linked pair, chosen according to body type. Their purpose, of course, is to provide a comfortable support to holding the viola securely, without tightening the shoulder or doing odd things with the head and neck, or making the left arm lazy.

There is an important relationship between chinrest position and shoulder rest type. A central chinrest will result in the viola sitting further to the left on the shoulder, and this will affect the fit of the shoulder rest. It is normally ideal for average sized shoulders, but for narrow shoulders, a side-mounted chinrest may be necessary if the shoulder rest is not to be too wide. Generally, the central chinrest encourages a flatter viola position, with associated advantages and disadvantages. For people of average build, and people with longer necks, the shoulder rest needs to curve a little over the shoulder and at the other end should make contact with the chest, without the player pushing his shoulder forward or up. Often, to prevent the viola rocking, an extra piece of foam needs to be added to the lower end. The shoulder rest needs to be positioned closer to the end of the viola for smaller people, or it will not fit well. Experiment also with the angle of the shoulder rest to the viola, i.e. where the feet are positioned on the instrument. Remember that this will affect the angle at which the viola is held. And this is best decided on first, considering the length of the arms for reaching to the point, and the ease of rotation of the forearm for playing on the C string.

Players with short necks and more generous proportions need low chinrests, normally side-mounted, and low flatter shoulder rests that do not extend over the shoulder. If the player habitually tilts his head to the right, he probably has too much chinrest and shoulder rest height. Sometimes there is no room for a shoulder rest at all, and a pad or cloth (or nothing) may be best. Any change may initially feel wrong, even if it is for the better. 

So, the first step is to establish a suitable playing position for an individual, and the second step is to find a combination of chinrest and shoulder rest that supports the chosen playng position and fits the body. This often involves an element of compromise. 

A final point: the 'perfect fit', as achieved sometimes with a shoulder rest arching right over the shoulder, can bring with it a fixity to the playing position, making it impossible to move the viola in the subtle ways that almost always accompany free, imaginative and emotionally involved music-making. It is always better, both technically and musically, if the set-up is flexible enough to allow a range of positions while playing, and if the left arm can assume some responsibility, along with the shoulder rest, for holding the viola up.


© Robin Ireland 2009 all rights reserved