You can play a fiddle with or without a shoulder rest. If you decide not to use a shoulder rest it will change how you hold the fiddle.
Different types of shoulder rests
The commonest style of shoulder rest is a strip of metal or plastic with some foam or rubber padding, that is shaped to sit comfortably on the front of your left shoulder. This style of shoulder rest has adjustable arms on each end that are used to clamp the rest onto the underside of the body of your fiddle. Each of the prongs of the shoulder rest’s arms will have foam or rubber sleeves that prevent them scratching your fiddle when the rest is fitted in place.
The shaped part of the shoulder rest is curved, and should be fitted so that the convex part of the curve is on the left – this will be the part that sits towards your shoulder, and the concave end will rest on the front of your chest wall. You can see from these two different makes of rest pictured below that the shape can vary a lot from one brand of shoulder rest to another. The Bonmusica shoulder rest pictured below is a more recent style – the heavily curved end of this shoulder rest hooks onto the top of your shoulder when the rest is in position. If you decide you’d like to play using a shoulder rest, it’s really worth trying out several different styles before deciding what to buy.
These shoulder rests all have various aspects that are adjustable. If you’re buying a shoulder rest, it’s worth checking that the arms of the rest can be adjusted to increase the overall height of the shoulder rest. This is particularly important if you have a long neck.
Foam shoulder pads
Some people find a full shoulder rest is too cumbersome, or too large. If you don’t need the fiddle to be raised up as high as the lowest setting of a shoulder rest, you can buy a foam pad to attach under the body of the fiddle – the main purpose of this is to help to stop the fiddle sliding around. The Huber foam pad pictured below is one of the simplest designs, and is held in place on the fiddle with a high tech elastic band!
Adjusting your shoulder rest
If you decide to buy an adjustable shoulder rest, it’s important to set it up so your fiddle is in the right position. The aim of the shoulder rest is that it brings your fiddle up to sit so the chin rest is just under your chin. This allows you to effectively hold the fiddle firmly between your shoulder and chin, without tensing either your shoulder (through having to lift it up) or neck (through having to drop your head down). Your head should be in a totally natural position, with both your neck and shoulder relaxed, once you have the shoulder rest set up properly.
If you play with a shoulder rest, it will position the neck of the fiddle further out to the left than if you chose to play without one (see below).
Playing without a shoulder rest
It’s quite possible to play the fiddle without using any sort of shoulder rest. If you want to do this, it’s important to understand how to hold the fiddle without any tension developing in your shoulder or neck, to prevent injuries.
If you play without a shoulder rest, the fiddle will be a bit less firmly held in position as a result. Many players prefer the freedom playing this way gives them, along with a better sense of connection to the instrument. With no shoulder rest, you’ll hold your fiddle further round to the front – it is angled at ’11 o’clock’ to your head, so the neck is pointing out just slightly to the left of your face.
If you’re not using a shoulder rest it’s really important that you don’t play with your chin permanently in the chin rest. The fiddle sits much lower down with no rest on it, so trying to play with your chin in the chin rest would mean dropping your head down, creating a lot of tension in your neck. The position for playing without a shoulder rest leaves your head free, and the fiddle a little less firmly ‘held’ in position. It’s also important to make sure that you don’t tense your grip on the neck of the fiddle in an effort to hold it still. The fiddle is held in place by purely sitting it on the collar bone.