The Setup Part 1: Chinrests
Setup Series Part 1: The Chinrest
I work hard to find a setup that is complimentary to each student's individual anatomy, and to make certain that playing is as comfortable, ergonomic, and energy efficient as possible. The setup not only effects overall comfort in playing, but can influence technique and development in a profound way.
When I get a new student, I will often make some adjustments to a student's setup. The first place I begin is the chinrest.
What is a chinrest?
The chinrest is the piece of wood (or plastic) that is attached by metal brackets to the left (when facing the violin) of the tailpiece. The term 'chinrest' is a bit of a misnomer. It's more of a jaw rest for most folks. The function of a chinrest is to give a player stability and comfort while playing. The chinrest itself is a relatively new concept, having been invented by Luis Spohr in the early 19th century in response to the increasing technical demands of the repertoire of the day.
Chinrest vs Shoulder Rest:
The chinrest and the shoulder rest perform similar functions. They 'fill in' the space between the instrument, the head, and the torso and provide stability. I prefer to begin with the chinrest rather than the shoulder rest when adjusting a student's setup because I want the instrument in the best possible orientation in relation to the student's head and torso first. I also prefer to fill as much of the space between the head and the instrument with chinrest rather than shoulder rest. I do this because the shoulder rest functions by moving the instrument up and away from the torso in space. This can make things more difficult for the bow arm and right shoulder, because the higher the shoulder rest, the higher the right arm has to reach higher in space to make contact with the string. I feel strongly that the shoulder rest (or sponge, etc.) should compliment the chinrest, rather than the other way around.
What I'm looking for:
Ideally I want a student to be able to hold the instrument without having to scrunch the neck, raise the left shoulder, or grab with the left hand. I also want the bow arm to be as fully utilized as possible, without having to 'reach' too far towards the left side of the body or 'up' in space.
The two things that I see most often are:
Guarneri Style Rest
The chinrest and shoulder rest combination don't provide enough height between them to keep the violin or viola stable between the head and the shoulder/chest.
The orientation of the instrument in relation to the desired location (dictated by student anatomy) between the head and torso isn't ideal. Violins and violas often come with something called a 'Guarneri' chinrest, or something of similar design. While they are very pretty, they don't work for a lot of people.
WHICH REST SHOULD YOU TRY?
There are a zillion different sorts of chinrests available. The rests that I have found to work for many students, and thus are my 'go here first' models are the Teka, Ohrenform/Berber, Flesch (flat), SAS, or Dolin rests.
The Ohrenform and the Flesch are center mounted (meaning they are mounted over the tailpiece) style rests.
Flat Flesch Style Rest
Ohrenform or Berber Style Rest
The remainder are side mounted rests, although the SAS can get very close to the tailpiece, and thus somewhat over the tailpiece, so it's sort of a hybrid.
SAS Style Rest
High Teka Style Rest
Dolin Style Rest
Many of these rests are available in different heights, from 25mm to 45mm. It is also possible to get a luthier to raise your current or a new rest either via cork, or by whittling and gluing a piece of wood to the bottom of the rest.
WHERE TO BEGIN
I have a box of different styles and heights of chinrests, which I loan out to students for a period of time, so they can determine what works for them before having to make a purchase.
At this point, because experience, I can usually tell what will work by watching a student play. However, if you aren't a student of mine or can't make it to Cleveland for me to have a look at you, or your private teacher can't help you, what should you do?
Well, if I can't tell immediately by seeing a student play, here is how I figure out what might work for a student:
Take the existing chinrest OFF. On the metal hardware there are two barrels with teeny little holes in them. You can get a chinrest wrench, or you can just bend a paper clip and use that. Insert, and right-y tight-y, left-y loose-y. Don't scratch your varnish, and when you put a chinrest back on the instrument, don't overtighten. Tight enough not to move around or cause any buzzing is tight enough.
Once the chinrest is off, get in front of a mirror and put your instrument into play position while holding the treble upper bout with your left hand. It will feel like the instrument is very 'low' and you can't get a solid 'grip' on it between your jaw/face and torso. It's totally fine, don't worry about it. In fact, don't bend your neck or raise your left shoulder, if you can help it. Just take note of where it is that you naturally want the violin to be in relation to your torso, shoulder, left hand/arm, and head. Do this several times over a period of a few days. Do it standing and sitting.
Once you've done this, take note of where you want your instrument to be and the relationship between your head and the tailpiece of the instrument. Are you putting your head directly over the tailpiece, a bit to the left, or further to the left of the tailpiece? If you are inclined to put your face over the tailpiece, I'd suggest you get the Ohrenform or the Flesch to try out. If slightly to the left of the tailpiece, the Ohrenform or the SAS. If further to the left, the Teka, the Dolin, or the SAS.
Take note of the space between your jaw/face and the instrument. It works best if you've got a friend to measure, but it's possible to eyeball or use your right hand to get a rough estimate of the space. There are a multitude of different height rests available mass market. It's unusual that a student of mine will need something higher than a 35mm rest, but it's not unheard of. Most players will take between a 25mm and a 35mm rest.
Based on your observations and the data in this article, buy yourself some rests to try out. Your local string shop, Shar, Johnson, Ebay, etc. Just be aware of return policies before purchase.
The adjustment period:
It will take at least a week for you to truly know if something is working for you. Give it some time, and note any tension or pain in your practice sessions. If you have pain, STOP, and talk with your teacher and have them take a look. Tension is a bit harder to pin down, as it may be a leftover of previous setup problems, or a developing issue with a new altered setup. Your private teacher is your best resource for help.
The brackets that attach the chinrest to the instrument can be made of a number of metals. More often than not, the metal is nickel based. MANY people are allergic to nickel. This can cause a nasty rash on the neck and collar bone where the metal makes contact with the skin. If you have pierced ears and can't wear cheap earrings for fear of infection, it's probably because you're allergic to nickel.
Thankfully, there are a number of other materials available for brackets, which can be changed out in most every rest, to suit what works best for you. You can find options that are silver or gold plated. You can even find titanium or tungsten hardware, which is more expensive on the front end, but is lighter, doesn't tarnish, and is more durable. Wittner also makes rests with plastic/composite hardware.
Just be certain you get the correct length barrel for the width of your instrument's ribs. You want your brackets to be mostly barrel, with very little treaded 'screw' showing between the barrel and the rest of the hardware.
Changing Setups Over Time:
Your ideal setup WILL change over time. As you grow stronger, as your technique develops, etc. you will find that what worked for you a year or two ago is no longer comfortable, or gets in the way of more advanced techniques. Or maybe you're young and still growing. Please bear in mind, throughout you development as a player, that your setup should work FOR YOU, not AGAINST YOU. If you feel pain, or you have to greatly alter your posture to achieve a new technique, or you cannot consistently execute a technique, re-examine your setup. Sometimes the answer is that simple.