February 9th, 2014 was a special milestone in my violin development. It was my first public performance without using a shoulder rest or pad whatsoever. The concert was with the Sinfonia de Lanaudiere in Quebec, and I felt completely at ease. Though it may not seem like such a big deal, it has been a long, difficult, but fulfilling journey getting to this point.
My ‘rest-less’ adventure probably began back when I first watched Isaac Stern on ‘From Mao to Mozart’ as a very young beginner on the violin. One scene that always stood out was when Stern showed the Chinese public around him his ‘little secret’. By that, I mean the little shoulder pad that he pulled from underneath his shirt to everyone’s surprise and laughter. At the time, I thought that this was a little weird since I started violin lessons with a shoulder rest and thought that was the norm. I didn’t pay much attention to it at first, but from watching videos of the great violinists of the 20th century later on, I was considering to try and play without my shoulder rest for once.
Of course,without any immediate and proper guidance, it was very uncomfortable at the start and I withdrew the effort not long after. Only when I first attended the Young Artists Program run by Pinchas Zukerman at the NAC Summer Music Institute here in town did my interest in removing the shoulder rest revive itself. However, it wasn’t easy, and I was often discouraged when I experienced discomfort or felt insecure every time an upcoming concert approached. Throughout all those years attending the program, there were periods when I would cycle through my sizable collection of shoulder rests and makeshift shoulder pads. After lots of experimenting and switching around, I decided to play it safe and stick with the shoulder rest. Nevertheless, the idea of achieving what I set as a goal in the future still stayed at the back of my mind.
When violinist Ray Chen came to Toronto last year, I had a chance to chat briefly with him about various things, including his experience playing with only a rosin cover under his shirt. By this time, I was already sensing that the shoulder rest was limiting something in the physical aspect of my playing. I felt a little restricted around my left shoulder and increased discomfort while playing in general. I began experimenting with different pads again, but things were getting to the point where I was losing the lightness and relaxed feeling that made playing enjoyable for long periods of time. Fed up with all the fuss that this caused me in the last few years, I decided to make the ultimate switch in late December.
Almost two months later, I am very pleased to say that I’m very comfortable with my new position. Although it took a lot of effort to rework my technique in the last little while, it was completely worth it for me. Since switching, I have noticed positive differences in my posture and my sound, as there is nothing touching the back of the violin, not even my shoulder for the most part. Everything feels so effortless. Moreover, I realized after all this time just how much tension existed in my playing with the shoulder rest and how I had learnt to hold the violin incorrectly since the beginning. This should perhaps highlight the importance of having the best possible start when learning anything.
In no way is my quest towards continual refinement of my technique going to end soon, but I’m happy to have reached this long term goal. At least, I don’t have to worry about how to fit those awkward contraptions into my tiny violin case anymore!