Tong Keat has an M.A. in Violin Performance from MTSU, TN. He is the founder of Just Violin—a free resources site for violinists.
Small Part, Big Difference
Louis Spohr invented the chin rest in the early 19th century, and it has become a standard part of the instrument. The integration of the chin rest into the instrument has to do with the increasingly demanding repertoire of that time. With the help of the chin rest, it allows the left hand more freedom, particularly in vibrato and shifting.
Many students are not aware that the chin rest that came with their instruments might not be a good fit. An ill-fitted chin rest will get in the way of good posture and natural movements and may cause aches, pains, or even injuries.
The height, shape, and position of the chinrest have to be carefully considered when selecting a chin rest as no two individuals have the same physical build-up. Teachers have to be highly alert and quick to recommend changes in the set-up of the instrument when students showed signs of discomfort arising from a bad head angle (twisted neck), skin irritation, or stiff shoulder.
To understand why good posture is important, read Achieving Balance and Ease in Violin Playing.
Generally, the longer the neck of the person, the higher the chin rest he needs. According to Lynne Denig of chinrests.com, there should be “a gap of about one finger-width between the top of the [chin] rest and the jaw when the eyes are looking forward.”
A chin rest that is too high will strain the neck as the player cannot release the natural weight of the skull onto the chin rest, something that is crucial to a good violin support. On the other hand, a chin rest that is too low might cause the head to slope downwards, or even prompting the player to drop his jaw to reach for the surface of the chin rest.
Sometimes people confused the height of the chin rest with the height of the shoulder rest. We cannot compensate the players with long neck by raising the height of the shoulder rest. The lower back end of the violin should always remain in contact with the collarbone. Raising the height of the shoulder rest changes only the angle of the violin but does not provide any solution to the problem.
There are tall chin rests available in the market. Alternatively, we can add an extra layer of cork under the feet of the chin rest to lift it higher.
The shape of the chin rest affects the angle of the head as well as the comfort of the jaw. Players will large, round, and fleshy jaws usually prefer flatter and broader chin rest with a lower ridge across the back. Players with a long and thin face will feel more comfortable with a higher ridge and steeper angle.
According to Paul Rolland, an influential violin pedagogue, the downward slope of the chin rest allows the concentration of support near the neck, leveraged against the weight of the instrument, on the collarbone, which functions as the fulcrum.
Susan Kempter, the author of How Muscles Learn, emphasized the importance of having the head tilted towards the violin instead of away from the violin. A bad head angle is often the result of students trying to look at the fingerboard directly. It is important to know that violin-playing is ultimately an aural-tactile process, where the fingers learn to hit the right note by muscle memory, guided by the ears.
A twisted neck can also be the result of the player unable to find the right alignment between the jaw bone and the ridge of the chin rest. If we think of the chin as the part of the jaw directly under the nose, the head should be in contact with the chin rest to the left side of the chin (in other words, the left jaw). Some people even suggested that it should not be called the “chin” rest in the first place!
Chin rest can be placed on the side (the plate on the left side, with the feet mounted either on the side or over the tailpiece) or in the center (the plate on top of the tailpiece, with the feet mounted over the tailpiece). There are two factors to consider when selecting the placement of the chin rest:
1) The flexibility of the left shoulder joint – When the chin rest is on the side, the left shoulder is required to extend forward slightly to form a good hand shape on the fingerboard. Players who find this uncomfortable will benefit from a chin rest that is placed on top of the tailpiece.
2) The length of the arm – Players with short arms will find it difficult to reach the tip of the bow if the chin rest is on the side. In this case, a chin rest in the center helps to bring the violin closer to the tip of the bow.
People with broad shoulders and long arms tend to use a chin rest on the side, while people with narrow shoulders and short arms will find it easier to play with a chin rest over the top of the tailpiece.
© 2017 Goh Tong Keat