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How To Choose a Shoulder Rest

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Centuries ago, practically no string players used any sort of shoulder rest at all. Yet today, it’s difficult to find a violinist or violist who would even entertain the idea of playing without their shoulder rest! Sometimes nominally confused with the chinrest by beginners, a shoulder rest is simply a support or cushion attached to the underside of the instrument and removed after playing, whereas a chinrest is sold as part of the instrument, attached to the top of the violin or viola where the player’s jaw rests. Chinrests are sometimes overlooked as a solution to posture or tension problems; if you feel the position or comfort of your jaw does not match up with your chinrest, or if trying a large number of shoulder rests you are still left uncomfortable, then you might also want to look into a new chinrest. Still, most people find the shoulder rest to be the easiest way to improve comfort and relaxed posture.

Shoulder rests, like people, come in a great variety of shapes and sizes. Because every player's body and style of playing is different, trying a few shoulder rests to see what works best for you is always a good idea. To help you choose, we gathered a few SHAR staff, all with completely different preferences, and here are the answers we found:
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Why so many Shapes and Sizes?
Most players want basically two things from their shoulder rest; help holding the violin correctly under the chin and comfort while playing. You probably already have an idea of whether you want a larger shoulder rest, or if you want something smaller. Perhaps you are not sure, so there are other things to ask yourself too. Do you want something extra soft with lots padding like a foam or air cushion rest? Maybe you need more structured support and help holding the instrument. In that case, an ergonomically shaped clip-on shoulder rest that is contoured to your body could be best.
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What about shoulder rest height?
The correct height is important to consider too. Generally, if you have a longer neck, you will need something a bit taller. Our tallest options include the Wolf Forte and the tall Comford Cradle. If you have a shorter neck often just a thin pad will suffice, like the popular red sponge shoulder pads or the small Xeros Shoulder Cushion. Clip-on shoulder rests have always been popular because they are usually height adjustable by screwing the “feet” in or out. They also can be found in a variety of colors, or in very attractive wooden designs, and are typically very easy to attach to the instrument. Finding the right height (often in combination of the right chinrest) is very important for any player to reduce tension caused by lifting of the shoulder, or craning of the neck. Shoulder rest shape and placement are also important, and that is where many clip-on shoulder rests are less adjustable than a “stick-on” rest like the Xeros Shoulder Cushion, or rubber band attached foam shoulder pad. Still some clip-on or “bar” shoulder rests can be bent to shape by hand (like the Pirastro Korfker Rest and Bonmusica) or can be easily angled, like the Viva La Musica shoulder rests.
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Does a Shoulder Rest affect my sound?
This is a contentious argument between various shoulder rest designers and players! Some feel that a shoulder rest that is flush against the back of an instrument, like a sponge, can cause a muting of the instrument's tone by absorbing vibrations. Others feel that “clamping” a clip-on style shoulder rest to the instrument reduces vibration more, or suggest that weight is a greater factor than how it is attached. Some feel that the material the shoulder rest is made out of matters. There is no definitive answer, but your sound is most affected by your ability to play with proper posture and reduced tension, so finding a shoulder rest that offers proper support and comfort should be the priority! After that, if you still find there are a number of options that work for you, you can certainly compare the effects the shoulder rest has on your instruments sound.
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So what does it all mean?
At the end of the day, it all comes back to personal preference, and you might have to go through some trial and error in order to find the right match. One of the differences here at SHAR is that we are always happy to provide you help and advice, and with our 30-day return policy, you can try several shoulder rests and return those that don’t work as long as the rest and packaging are returned in new condition. Please give us a call at 800.248.7427 and we will be glad to help you find the right shoulder rest.
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Notes from a SHAR Apprentice
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Christine Beamer - 2010 SHAR Apprentice space

Shoulder Rests: Choose your own Adventure!
by Christine Beamer

Like most violists, I have tried pretty much every shoulder rest out there in search of a perfect fit. While some people find a shoulder rest that fits them to a tee, do not panic if you love the height of one shoulder rest but the curve of another! There are many ways to customize a rest so it fits your personal body shape - here are just a few to get you started.

1) Cosmetic Sponges: These sponges come in thick and thin widths, and they are perfect for adding a little bit of extra height to your rest. Slip them underneath your sponge's rubber bands to add substance to a sponge, affix them to either (or both) sides of your bar shoulder rest with rubberbands, or made a shoulder sponge entirely out of cosmetic sponges (gluing them together with rubber cement usually works well).
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2) Mix and match your feet: Makers of clip-on style shoulder rests like Kun, Everest, and Mach One sell replacement feet separately, and usually offer taller versions of feet. Each brand’s foot has a slightly different length and method of gripping the instrument (to address pesky problems like the shoulder rest slipping off the instrument) yet many feet are interchangeable between brands.
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3) Use some rubber tubing: Have a Comford Cradle, Resonans, Wolf Forte or older version of Kun rest with worn out tubing on the feet? Add a new piece of rubber tubing to rejuvenate that old rest, or add it to a new foot to tighten the grip of a rest that is a little loose. I find that a little soap goes a long way towards getting the tubing onto the foot.
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Hilary Lewis space

Chinrest vs. Shoulder Rest: Multiply your Shape Options!
by Hilary Lewis

Being a violist with an extremely long neck, I find it helpful to think of choosing shoulder rests not simply in terms of height, but consider the shape of the shoulder rest. I kept looking for taller and taller shoulder rests until I found that using a chinrest with a hump provided structure which matched my jaw shape, and I didn't need more height at all. The main reason for this is that the shoulder rest and chinrest must work together by providing opposite forces (a cantilever, if you will). The shoulder rest pushes up from underneath the instrument and the chinrest counters that force, giving the instrument its position in regards to the body.

This all sounds fine in the abstract but let's get down to actually choosing one. Here are a few questions you should ask of your shoulder rest/chinrest relationship: Is my shoulder rest pushing the instrument out from under my jaw? Is it because the shoulder rest is too tall/short or is it because I need a different shape of chinrest? Would my posture benefit from more structure or does my stance feel too rigid?

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Katherine Thompson space

Check Your Setup!
by Katherine Thompson

While Christine and Hilary have tried everything in the way of shoulder rests, I've had my trusty Kun Bravo for 8 years. Before that... I used a Kun Original. What can I say? I'm a creature of habit. That's not to say that I was always and automatically comfortable. For years, there would be a few comfortable days and then a day where I was in terrible pain. Since it was sporadic, I eventually concluded that the pain was due to my posture rather than the hardware of my violin. If my story sounds familiar, you might want to check your posture! Try a few of these techniques:

1) Experiment holding the violin more toward the front, or more to the side.
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2) Shrug your shoulders and sigh to see where your shoulders sit when they are relaxed.
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3) Bring your violin to your body (rather than your body to your violin). Talk to your teacher about ways to relax your stance and your posture so that you have a clean slate for trying all your shoulder rest options!
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Good luck on your quest for the perfect rest!