Yes, this is a violin (and viola) technique post: I had a very successful lesson with a student today, so I thought I would share its "spoils" with people who might be interested while I am still thinking about it. I send my kind greetings to non string players, and I understand completely if you don't feel like reading any further.
I don't use a shoulder rest. I never have. My students, who enjoy their "elite minority status," don't want to use shoulder rests either, so when it comes to teaching them how to shift I need to explain and demonstrate the technique of shifting without a shoulder rest very carefully. Shifting, particularly down-shifting, without a shoulder rest (and without tension) has everything to do with balance; and for people with less-than-adequate left hand positions, the act of practicing shifting properly without a shoulder rest can be a problem. The good thing is that holding the violin properly and shifting properly gently, and with time, "coerces" the left hand into finding its optimal position.
I have always thought of having three points of contact when holding the violin. These three contact points are vital when down-shifting. (I never "learned" this from anyone--I just figured it out, so there is no "authority" I can mention to add validity to my "argument") The three points form a kind of triangle. The first point of contact is the left thumb, which, because it is attached to the hand and the arm, supports the instrument. The thumb should be relaxed and rest slightly under the neck of the instrument. It should not be bent, but it should be flexible and relaxed enough to bend if it needs to, once in a while.
A shoulder rest, because it acts as a kind of a lever, takes a lot of weight off the hand, thus making the idea of thumb support (which is one third of my personal "burden") not necessary. I think that people who learn to play with shoulder rests have a different sense of their left thumbs than people who play without shoulder rests. But I wouldn't know, having never played with a shoulder rest.
The next point of "contact" is the shoulder. I always hold the violin with my chin in the center, over the tailpiece, and I tilt the instrument slightly so that the upper part of the fiddle rests on both my collarbone and on my shoulder. I use my chin to lightly stabilize the violin, but rather than "gripping" with my chin, I gently use my arm (which naturally needs to be under the instrument) to nestle the instrument in towards my voice box. (That positioning of the violin helps me feel like I am singing while I am playing.)
My shoulder-collarbone combination and my hand (with that all-important supporting thumb) act as a kind of two-point shelf support, like the kind you have in a bookcase to support a removable shelf. I have a very strong left bicep (mainly due to practicing), so I don't have any trouble holding my arm up for extended periods of time. I tell my students that strength is one of the perks of being a string player.
The next point of "contact" is the middle of the bow. The weight of the middle of the bow on the string acts like a kind of lever to keep the violin elevated so that it can simply sit on the "shelf supports" created by my left thumb and my shoulder. Since the bow is always moving, the middle-of-the-bow weight can take up a good portion of the bow and can last a long time--as long as my right arm keeps in contact with the string. The left arm pushing slightly upwards and the right arm consciously letting its weight go into the strings of the violin, stabilizes the instrument. When the instrument is stabilized, the left hand can easily shift upwards or downwards. It simply isn't necessary to grip with the chin in order to stabilize the violin.
There are many benefits to playing this way. You get the benefit of the recoginzing the relationship between the two hands "through" the instrument, and the added benefit of an improved sound and range of nuances through awareness of the bow's physical contact with the strings. Your left hand position will improve because form, over time, follows function. You will develop strength in both your arms, and strength in the left arm allows more energy to go to the left hand and the fingers, resulting in a more secure stopping of the strings and pitches that are more true-sounding, especially when you use vibrato.
There are a few drawbacks. I can't wear silky dress shirts with collars or shirts with buttons when I play. The collars get in the way, the shirt material makes the instrument slip, and the buttons buzz and rattle. I can't wear turtlenecks either. (I look lousy in both anyway). I can't wear earrings when I play because of the close distance between the top of the violin (which I tip forward to sit on my shoulder and collarbone), and my ears.
Tags: violin playing, shifting, shoulder rest, playing without a shoulder rest