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  • Writer's pictureCraig Birchfield

12/3/2013 Pain Is Not Gain – Part One

My wife used to be a dental assistant. Most of the dentists that she worked for tried to minimize the discomfort of their patients as much as possible but at least one she knew seemed to be oblivious to his patient’s discomfort or at least it appeared that way to her. Some old school dentists four decades ago seemed to regard pain as the penalty for not caring for your teeth. A few old school musicians still regard pain as the price we pay to become really good. I think that is hogwash.

You know the old adage: No pain, no gain. I am here to dispute that today at least when it comes to playing violins and violas. Now before you verbally castigate me let me qualify this and say that I am not talking about some sore fingers in the process of building up calluses or the occasional crink in the neck from long practice sessions. I am talking about real serious discomfort here. I have heard this statistic from several sources that about 40% of professional musicians have significant pain when they play. There is no way to discover how many children rebel against learning to play a viola or violin merely because it hurts or is uncomfortable. I don’t doubt that a number of promising careers have been cut short because the pain was too great to continue. I believe that in many cases discomfort can be minimized or completely eliminated. I am going to break this topic into two posts and discuss accessories first and then go into some things like posture and body mapping in the second part.

First off, educators and shop owners will do a good service for their students if they take the time to make sure that they have the proper type of shoulder rest and chin rest combo (obviously, I am in the shoulder-rest-is-best-for-most-students camp). The two work in tandem and each body is a little different so what works for one student might not work for the next. For both comfort and successful performance the student needs to have a proper ergonomic support selected for their instrument. I know that teachers have a limited amount of time available in the lesson. I also get busy at the shop sometimes and don’t always spend the proper amount of time on this so I am not being judgmental. Some teachers might do things a bit differently than I do so these procedures are just what works for me. As far as shoulder rests go a spongy pad is probably good for an 1/10th or smaller size. It doesn’t support the instrument as well as a hard rest but the little guys don’t usually have long enough necks to make a hard rest a comfortable option. I have a selection of five or six different types and shapes of spongy rests. They are inexpensive ($3 to $7), designed for their purpose and usually work better than just a piece of cheap foam. The 1/8th size violin is a gray area that can go either way and I think 1/4 size violin or larger should almost always go to a hard rest rather than a spongy because it supports the violin or viola so much better. I find that a Kun or a clone will usually work well in over half the cases but there are others like Everest, Wolf or Artino that are much more comfortable for some people. You may have to compare them back and forth a few times to discover what is most comfortable and most functional for holding the violin properly. I try to always use this test: I put my hand beneath the violin ready to catch it if it falls and have the student try to hold it using only their chin and shoulder with different shoulder rests. Once the basic model is chosen make sure that the height is adjusted correctly (if it has an adjustable height). There are some good videos on about doing Kun adjustments. You want to keep the violin up fairly high on the shoulder as opposed to having in down on the chest. If their is a problem with the violin slipping down onto the chest this can usually be alleviated by wrapping some lady’s hair scrunchies or big rubber bands around the body of the shoulder rest so that it catches on the shoulder and collarbone better.

The chin rest is a bit of a different animal. I have a number of different shapes and sizes in stock but the teachers sometime have an advantage here because they can watch their student over the period of a few lessons and see where the student is typically most comfortable placing their chin and jaw. I know that some teachers keep a selection of different types and sizes in their studios to experiment with. I prefer the ebony or boxwood chinrest over the plastic ones because the chin slips less on them and they can be modified with sandpaper. There are many types of chin rests but they usually boil down to a few basic ones. The default that comes with many violins is a small to medium cup that mounts to the left of the tailpiece. These can be moved around slightly to accommodate different players. The Guarneri type is the largest chinrest and it mounts over the tailpiece with the cup to the left. The Flesch type mounts over the tailpiece with the cup directly over the tailpiece. This latter type works very well for some players. If the Flesch is used I prefer the ones that have no hump. If their is a red mark or bruise under the chin from the chinrest it may be time to try a different shape. It might take a bit of experimentation over time to find the chinrest that works best for the student. Personally, I have no problem whatsoever if a student or teacher wants to modify the chinrest with some sandpaper to make it fit better or be more comfortable – even if it is one of my rentals. Everybody is built a little different. Also, chinrests vary in height over the top of the violin and that can have an impact on comfort and function. Finally, many violinists are unaware that there are padded chinrest covers, gel pads and inexpensive form fit adhesive pads that can greatly improve the comfort of the chinrest. I invite teachers to put in their $.02 on this subject to me because they are really on the front lines in helping their students find an ergonomically successful set-up.

Next week we will look at posture, hand and arm positions and body mapping.

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