Your violin set-up needs to fit you, not the other way round, says late starter Lawrence Proulx, whose painful playing position sent him in search of a custom chin rest and shoulder rest

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I started learning the violin almost three years ago, at the age of 53. I had become frustrated at playing the piano and was thinking, ‘Four little strings – how hard can it be?’ Right from the beginning, my biggest challenge was not musical but physical. I should mention that I am six foot three inches tall, longarmed and skinny. When I started playing, not only did I have a multitude of sore joints, but I also found that just keeping the instrument in place was almost impossible. It would gradually slip away from me, or it would suddenly pop out from between my chin and collarbone. My posture and hold were normal according to my teachers, but something was wrong. While the piano has its difficulties, at least you can count on its staying in place, but I could play the violin for only a minute or two before I’d lose it. Or, less often, I would find what seemed like a way to hold it, only to feel after five or ten minutes that I desperately needed to stretch and work out the incipient cramps in my neck.

I tried everything to stabilise the instrument. I visited many shops and tried all sorts of shoulder rests and chin rests. Some shopkeepers insisted that this or that shoulder rest worked for me; others admitted that none did. For a long time I played with a towel draped over my shoulder. I tried sponges, as well as wedges sold specifically for the violin. I made a kind of bandoleer out of rubbery material and tried all sorts of pads, hidden or attached, in the hope of getting things right. I moved the chin rest right, left and back again. What eventually helped, but only to a certain extent, were extra-long barrels for the chin rest, which enabled me to raise it high with the aid of sliced wine corks. I persisted with lessons for a long time, but eventually stopped. It seemed a waste of time to be paying to learn something I couldn’t really practise. And yet my musical intuition had been right: the violin delighted me. At the piano I had had trouble memorising blocks of chords where inner voices changed frequently. The violin didn’t pose that sort of problem. I found that trying to work double-stops into tune was a delightful way to spend time, contrary to all the things you hear about how awful learning the violin can be. Musically I’d found a home, except I kept getting evicted every few minutes.

‘Getting a custom chin rest is not a magic bullet. You then have to unlearn old habits or learn new ones’ – Gary Frisch

Through searching on the internet, I eventually learnt that there were two groups of people working on problems like mine. Crissman Taylor heads a programme in Utrecht in the Netherlands, and Lynne Denig and Gary Frisch have one in Falls Church, Virginia, US.

Taylor’s programme grew out of her own struggles as a violin player. She says she ‘hit the wall’ – intense pain between her shoulder blades – around the age of 20. She found that many violin teachers didn’t want to know about students’ pain. Taylor blames what she terms a ‘maestro culture’, a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality in which concentration on excellence and success is so strong that potentially disabling physical problems are simply too frightening to discuss openly.

After trying yoga, tai chi and other disciplines, Taylor discovered Alexander Technique, a method of postural re-education. She also found a teacher who made her a tall chin rest from a plaster cast. Taylor became a practitioner and teacher of Alexander Technique, and over the course of more than 15 years she assembled a team dedicated to producing better chin rests and shoulder rests for the players who came to her for help. She describes her clients as ‘healthy persons in an unhealthy situation. The violin is their environment, and the violin is twisting them.’ In particular, she says: ‘Tall people are really handicapped, because there’s nothing for them on the market.’ But short people can also have trouble, she adds: ‘Sometimes they are cramped by the shoulder rest and find bowing awkward.’ Based on a design by her late technician Servaas Franssen, she has produced a series of chin rests of variable height called Equilibrio that she says Wolf Music Products will soon introduce on to the market.

In her work, Taylor pays particular attention to the position of the head and is dead set against what she calls the ‘diagonal clamp’, a vise-like grip of the violin between jaw and shoulder. ‘As the head position is distorted,’ she says, ‘the ability to perceive what is going on diminishes.’ She describes the results: ‘Muscle tension, pressure on the joints, and a sort of white noise on the brain that interferes with the perception of sound, sight, touch and even spatial thinking.’

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In Virginia, Frisch, a violin maker and dealer, and Denig, a teacher, teamed up five years ago to examine several dozen students in order to, in Frisch’s words, ‘come up with a systematic way to determine the right contour, the right height and the right position of the chin rest relative to the tailpiece for a given player’. Together, they have sought ways to ‘connect good posture with a support system that focuses on weights and balances, rather than locking the body in place and playing in a static position’.

Like Taylor, they do not accept the widespread notion that a player should be able to hold the instrument steady without any support from the left hand, so that the violin becomes, in Frisch’s words, ‘like a diving board bolted to the end of a pool’.

‘There’s this idea that by clenching the instrument, the left hand is freer for better shifting and for producing vibrato,’ he explains. ‘It seems logical, but most people with really good vibratos have told us, “No, you really have to have your shoulder free.† It’s the same with shifting.’ He blames this clenching for the scars players get on their necks, the so-called violin hickeys: ‘They’re leveraging their instruments with their jaws. How many professions do you know that use ritual scarification as a sign of diligence?’

Frisch and Denig have developed a diagnostic kit used by nine teachers throughout the US and one in southern France. In the kit there are eight or so styles of rests and five lifts of various heights, each lift having two different positions (over the tailpiece or to the left). By trying out the rests at various heights, the teachers, who Frisch explains are not legally his agents and receive no commission, can then advise their students and perhaps order a custom-built rest from him.

‘Getting a custom-made chin rest is not a magic bullet,’ stresses Frisch, as Taylor did. ‘You then have to unlearn old habits or learn new ones.’

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I first contacted Taylor in June 2008, but what with our various time constraints, I didn’t have my first session with her until mid-April of this year. In her office at the Utrecht School of the Arts, she had me play for her while she noted down her observations. In the summary that she sent me afterwards, she reported that my head was generally held erect, but continued: ‘The chin rest gives little hold as the large cup form and shallow edge give him no hold, and the violin tends to slide towards the middle, leaving him hanging on the last left edge of the rest.’ She pointed out during the session that despite my long arms I had trouble bowing to the point, a problem that she attributed to the position of the instrument. And after a careful examination of my collarbone and jaw, she took measurements and entered them along with curved marks on a blank gridded form that would be used by the chin rest maker.

‘As the head position is distorted, the ability to perceive what is going on diminishes’ – Crissman Taylor

A month later I met Taylor at the workshop of Lies Muller, a woodworker and instrument maker. Two hours went by as Taylor watched me and two of her other clients try our new chin rests, which Muller modified to make them more comfortable. Taylor made sure that no clenching was done by having me turn my head slowly from side to side and then execute a slow vertical ‘royal nod’. Irritating points on my pearwood rest were whittled away, especially near the Adam’s apple and jugular vein, and the top centre was deepened to increase the holding effect of the ridge.

The next day I was back in Taylor’s office, playing with my new rest as she took measurements for a shoulder rest. During this meeting it seemed to me that the chin rest was rather high and that I needed to hold the end of the violin quite high in order to have the rest comfortable against my chin. So Taylor had me return to Muller, who looked me over and said that the tilt might need changing and that she might have to start again from scratch.

This, in fact, is what she did, and when I returned in late June, Muller had a new rough-hewn chin rest ready for me. First I met Taylor to try out the shoulder rest, which had been made from very light natural-rubber foam by model-maker Sindy Buissink.

Taylor was pleased with the rest, which was scooped to fit my steep contours. In the evening, I again spent a couple of hours at Muller’s workshop, along with another client, a serious teenage student with a noticeable violin hickey, as our chin rests were modified and adjusted. My instrument was now closer to my left ear than when I’d started and the rest still seemed a bit high, but Taylor said it looked right to her and that a period of adjustment was inevitable. Further modifications could be made in the autumn after I’d had a chance to try it out.

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I finally had my custom equipment about two and a half years after starting lessons. A great deal of my initial enthusiasm, however, was spent, and the persistence of sprainlike pains in my left index finger and my bowing wrist added to my discouragement. Shortly before my last trip to Utrecht I heard a recording of the Chopin G minor Ballade and longed to be back at the keyboard.

But my story is hardly the important point here. All over the world there must be thousands of students who give up the violin, not because they are lazy or unmusical, but because for various physical reasons they can no longer accommodate themselves to it. I was fortunate in that, as an adult, I had enough good sense to know when I was in discomfort and when set-ups were unwholesome. But surely there must be lots of young people, dedicated to their art, who as they grow find their bodies pulling in a different direction from the unyielding physical structure of their instrument. Frisch directed me to a study by Alice G. Brandfonbrener in the March 2009 issue of the journal Medical Problems of Performing Artists that found that over 80 per cent of incoming freshmen string players at a Midwestern university’s school of music reported having had pain associated with playing. Many students, one way or another, adapt their bodies, but what of those who can’t? Is it really inevitable that they drop out?

‘There’s a problem out there,’ says Frisch. ‘If this divingboard way of playing is so wonderful, why are so many people hurting?’ My experience suggests that the average violin shopkeeper and teacher are incapable of addressing such problems adequately. ‘There has to be a change in the education system,’ agrees Taylor. In the meantime, she and Frisch and Denig have taken intelligent and praiseworthy steps to fill the gap.