The Underrated Chin Rest
When someone decides to start taking violin or viola lessons, here is the typical list of equipment:
For some reason, music stores and music teachers talk a lot about the different kinds of shoulder rests available and how to adjust them to fit the shape of your shoulder. But we almost never talk about the importance of getting the right chin rest, even though they are easy to replace, inexpensive, and play a critical role in how comfortably you can hold up your instrument.
Most chin rests mount to the left of the tailpiece, even though only about 30% of the population fits this style. The rest of us need some version of the center-mount chin rest, because that is where our jaws naturally fall when the instrument is properly balanced on the left collarbone. (Btw, it really should be called a “jaw rest”. You don’t put your chin on it, you rest the side of your jaw on it.)
Even if you need your chin rest on the left, there are several different shapes available and the one you have on your instrument might not be the most comfortable for you.
I’m currently teaching a beginner viola class at an elementary school (a terrible way to learn a stringed instrument, btw, but we do our best for the kids who will never take private lessons) and for most of these kids, holding their instruments correctly is really uncomfortable. They try to adjust by holding the viola in front, “viola beard” style, because it doesn’t hurt that way. How do you tell a kid that even though it hurts, they are doing it right? “Play” is supposed to feel good, not hurt. That goes for playing an instrument too.
And so, I wish that every music store that rents violins and violas would stock a good variety of chin rest styles, and that they would spend time helping the student get the right chin rest for them, just as they make sure the student gets the right size instrument and the right shoulder rest. It should be a standard part of fitting a student to the right instrument.
Here’s how it works:
Have the student stand facing you. Tell her not to move anything, but to let you place her hands/arms/head around the viola. Balance the instrument on her left collarbone, all the way against her neck, parallel with the floor, at a 45° angle. If you are standing in the middle of the room facing a wall, the scroll should point into the front left corner.
Place the student’s left hand in playing position with the palm of her hand up against the shoulder of the viola and her fingers hovering like an umbrella over the strings.
Have her move her head up and down and side to side (like saying “yes” and “no”) to make sure her head is comfortably upright and centered. Then help turn her head slightly to her left and gently rest the left side of her jaw down on the instrument. Her head should drop just an inch, and the natural weight of her head should make it easy for her to hold the viola up with her arms down at her sides.
Is the current chin rest cupping her face comfortably? Or is it off to the left, and her jaw comes down on the edge of the chin rest, or sits on the tailpiece? Does she instinctively want to stick her chin out, or cock her head, or move the viola higher on her shoulder or down in front of her?
Try different chin rests until you find the one that sits directly underneath her left jaw and feels comfortable. It should feel to her like the viola is nestled comfortably, not pulling away from her. There should be no sharp edges poking under her jaw or hard lumps pushing her head out of the way. She should be able to turn her head to look forward and back down the fingerboard.
Here are several styles to try: https://www.sharmusic.com/Accessories/Chinrests/
If you are renting your instrument, keep the chin rest that came with it somewhere safe so that when you return it, you can put it back on.
Contact me if you have any questions.
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Quodlibet: A piece employing several well-known tunes from various sources, performed either simultaneously or in succession. (Schirmer Pocket Manual of Musical Terms)