Not that much of what we consider normal (as opposed to, say, crazy historically-informed eccentric) classical performance practice is that old. In fact, a lot of default, even if now slowly being eroded, techniques and habits didn’t crystallise until something like 1880-1920, later than the vast majority of the core repertoire.
The shoulder-rest or shoulder-stand on violins and violas is certainly a comparative latecomer (alongside the metal-framed piano, valved brass, pedal timpani, conductors always using scores and concerto soloists never doing so … there are several separate posts to be written on this). Before the earlyish nineteenth century, these instruments were played ‘bare’, and as a result could not be at all firmly gripped between chin and shoulder. The chinrest (a sort of shallow wooden cup usually braced permanently to the body) and shoulder rest (now normally a highly asymmetrical curving construction of metal and foam, gripping onto the underside of the instrument with rubber ‘feet’) are successive additions over the following century or so. The chinrest is more or less ubiquitous – I don’t think I’ve even seen early music specialists playing without it unless (possibly) using reconstructed period instruments. It is normally fitted as standard on instruments and only taken off if it needs adjusting or replacing.
Arguably, the shoulder stand makes a bigger difference to technique. That extra inch or so of depth and increase in grip and moulding to the body’s shape makes it possible to take almost all the weight of the instrument off the left (string fingering) hand, at least for moments, which goes with the Romantic and after playing technique (especially in solo violin parts) of moving up and down a single string, maintaining tone colour through a melody and conveniently slipping in ‘expressive’ (and now fairly desperately unfashionable) glides between notes.
Folk fiddlers in Britain have traditionally not bothered with it – British Isles fiddle tunes are normally played in first position, crossing between strings where necessary and not going into higher pitches than can be achieved with the hand at the far end of the neck. (An aside: it is fairly evident if you think about it that moving your hand further ‘up’ the strings is feasible, though probably more difficult to do precisely, without the chin-shoulder grip, as the instrument just butts against your neck. the real problem is moving downwards quickly, when you are liable to pull the violin / viola out of its place altogether. There are Baroque passages which rely on the possibility of moving gradually upwards through positions, often repeating motifs at higher and higher pitches … and then give the player a bar or two’s rest to relocate the hand for the next entry!) The tendency is in any case to not grip the instrument hard, possibly to facilitate singing, or calling a barn dance, while playing. However, my observation is more and more folk fiddle players are using shoulder rests, probably just because that’s ‘how it’s done’.
However, as I find myself doing more and more folk among my paid work (most parties do love a good jig or reel set!), I’ve been trying to push into it a bit more and see if I can do it better, or more authentically, or both. And so a couple of weeks back I simply picked up the violin without shoulder rest to play some dance tunes.
It’s a bit of a culture shock of course, and feels awkward – the tendency is to try and grip the instrument anyway, but as I’m really quite thin that means a lot of hard wooden angles digging into shoulder bones! However, for those purposes it didn’t really change anything to my ability to get round the notes as it’s all in the bow arm and the fingers really.
The surprise was that it made any serious difference to the tone. If you’ve come up from the ‘classical’ tradition like me, you’ve probably never set out to compare the sound with or without shoulder rest. But actually you have this quite big and heavy piece of metal and rubber, designed to not resonate or you’d get all sorts of buzzes and echoes that would be really annoying, clamped onto the body of an acoustic instrument. Surprise surprise, it does have a noticeable muting effect. Playing without it isn’t necessarily better for everything sound-wise – even on tone alone, it’s probably not an ideal step for big warm Romantic orchestral textures, or pop-folk ballad string arrangements. But for folk and also for Baroque to (sensu strictu) Classical music, the sound without stand appears to have more sinew, a little more brightness and clarity, definition I suppose (I wish I could intuit enough about frequency ranges to describe this more objectively. Sadly an area I haven’t been taught, useful though it would be for any often amplified or recorded musician to talk to sound engineers).
Of course, my response was to try this on some pre-shoulder-rest classical music – a Mozart movement and a Handel transcription I’m polishing up for the Finezza Quartet demo recordings.
Sadly, this demonstrated the more sophisticated objection. While the obvious loss of no shoulder-rest is quick or frequent position changes, it’s not the only issue. Control over the instrument’s position is substantially reduced, which to my surprise made positioning of the bow to sound clearly without catching an adjacent string (admittedly the geometry of this is objectively terrifying) noticeably less accurate. Even small and upward position changes don’t work quite the same way – you have to slightly ‘drag’ them, with the result that, at least to start with, the hand shifts tend not to go quite far enough and tuning is impaired.
It’s an idea I would theoretically like to come back to. I remain intrigued by the improvement in sound created (apparently – it is hard to judge tone of an instrument under your jawbone!) by playing without the shoulder rest, and the point that it must be possible to play anything up to and including about Schubert without it fairly entirely successfully because that’s what musicians of the time did is a more or less legitimate one (though there are counter-arguments as always). But it seems like getting precision and polish with that approach requires significant extra time and work – and to be honest, I need all the help I can get with bringing greater accuracy to my playing under the current demands on it, not an extra obstacle.