It is a challenge to devise a structure that can suitably describe a subject as vast as violin playing. While I have chosen the Left Hand/Right Hand divide as my approach to organising the material, it is important to remember that the human body works as a whole, and that when we do isolate individual actions for the purpose of analysis, then for proper comprehension we must in turn reintegrate them.
Teachers have often noticed that problems in the left hand may be caused by problems with the bow and vice versa. For instance a vibrato action that is quite fluid in a silent exercise without the bow, can suddenly lock up when the bow stroke is added. Similarly a sautillé that works well on open strings can freeze when the left hand is added, or a jerky shift may become smooth when you change your focus from the left hand to the bowstroke.
If the left hand is causing problems, then it can be useful to look at the whole and examine the seemingly innocent bow arm!
Violin and especially viola playing presents physical challenges that our flexible bodies and our analytic minds need to solve. Some of these challenges are straightforward, such as how to rotate the left arm to the right (for shifting up into high positions) without collapsing down the left side of the body. Some issues, such as the instrument hold, are ones that players re-examine for many years, looking for evermore balanced and reliable solutions.
Work towards equal balance on both feet. Try jumping up and down several times (like a basketball player jumping for goal) so that the body is well-prepared and available to respond flexibly to the many repetitious and refined movements that playing demands.
The violin/viola hold
The instrument needs to be balanced so that we have the stability to shift and vibrate with security while allowing the instrument freedom to move when needed; such as raising the violin to meet the bow for added intensity of sound or making the leading actions needed as a member of a string quartet.
It is often said that the instrument needs to come to the body not the other way around.
Especially in the early stages of learning, walking, bending the knees or swaying can help develop flexible body use while playing.
There is notable variation in players physiques and the length of neck, length of arm, size and stretch of hand, slim build or wide shoulders all affect the way we approach the instrument.
The length of neck is important in that we need to raise the violin enough to meet the chin or jaw. This can be done either by resting the violin on the collar bone using a high chin rest or most commonly (especially for players with long necks) a combination of higher chin rest, a shoulder rest and some support with the left hand. It is also possible to support the instrument only with the left hand playing chin off however this is really only viable for baroque and some classical repertoire.
The length of arm is important in that it affects where the violin sits, whether it is more towards the centre (better for shorter arm players to reach the tip of the bow especially on the G string) or more to the left (possible for players with longer arms).
The size of hand is of course important and many set-up issues can be solved more easily when players have large flexible hands with a good stretch! However in the main, while a small hand will demand more attention, it should not become an excuse for poor left-hand facility. It can be very useful to watch players with small hands who play with high levels of facility and accuracy.
There is also variation in the degree of mobility in our joints including the small number of players with hyper-mobile joints. Very mobile joints can give great flexibility but can also easily collapse. The main task when developing left-hand facility when you have very mobile joints is to work on supporting the finger action without locking the joints. Often quite highly curved fingers can help.
See Introduction to Finger Action for more on finger anatomy and placing fingers.
Shoulder rest or no shoulder rest
There are many fine players who play without shoulder rests just as there are many who play with rests and even a brief look at a web site like www.violinist.com will show the range of debate on the topic.
Consider your physique and whether you already have (or are willing to learn) the differing shifting technique for each style of playing. It is also worth thinking of the specific demands of your playing tasks. A first violinist in a symphony orchestra needs to learn an enormous number of notes and will have less time to program every shift than a solo artist who will have every shift carefully worked out.
Without shoulder rest
It can help give a flexible violin hold, allowing us to easily raise the violin towards the bow to get more friction in loud lyrical passages.
It can allow for a flatter violin position, with less slant to the right.
Playing large descending shifts from high positions such as 5th position down to 1st position without a shoulder rest is challenging as the arm needs to swing back to the left and we do not want the violin to droop down while we are shifting.
When playing up high and when the left thumb has to leave the throat of the violin neck, then the shoulder will have to support the instrument to a certain extent. This is especially true for vibrato in these situations. If the shoulder is lifted here then clearly it is important to release it again when you have shifted down and the thumb is again supporting the instrument.
With shoulder rest
A shoulder rest can help stability in downward shifts and vibrato.
It can become a band-aid solution, that is to cover up underlying technical issues in body use, fingerfall and shifting. Make sure that the left shoulder does not push up against the rest and become unable to move.
Targeted practice without a shoulder rest can help solve some technical issues. If the player tends to lock the left arm and use insufficient arm steering then working without a shoulder rest can free up the swing of the arm. Much as when carrying a shoulder bag on the shoulder we may instinctively push the shoulder up to stop the bag or shoulder rest slipping off the shoulder. Taking away the rest can help us understand what the shoulder is doing and shrugging the shoulders several times will help release any tightness there. Once the shoulder is not pushing upwards it will be easier for the arm to swing under the violin.
If the player has a tight or lazy thumb (a thumb that does not shift up with the hand in the lower positions or does not correctly work as a pivot in shifts down from 5th position) then working without a rest forces the thumb to be active. Of course whenever playing without a rest in order to solve technical issues, the violin will need to sit on the collarbone and the left shoulder must not try and fill the gap and push up towards the violin. Supporting the violin scroll with a music stand or against the wall can be helpful. See Why Use a Shoulder Rest and Violin Left Hand, vol.2, Shifting.
Imagining the body
Basic knowledge of physiology and anatomy is helpful. For example, it helps to know that joints (wrist, elbow, shoulder) are passive and are always moved by another part of the body. Looking at models of skeletons and animations of the body in action (such as those in Francois Rabbaths DVD on the double bass) can help us visualise violin-playing actions.
Working on your body
It is of course important to be fit, flexible and strong enough for the demands of practice and performance on violin or viola.
Fitness helps with focus in practice as well as the demands of performing. Flexibility and body awareness can be developed with the help of qualified practitioners in Alexander technique, Feldenkrais method or clinical Pilates. Our bodies need to be strong enough to give support for the muscles used in playing.
The Violin & Your Body - Why Use a Shoulder Rest
Finger Action - Introduction
Resources - Bibliography