Viola Setup

Yesterday I got a phone call from a local orchestra teacher who had a quick setup question. I've been meaning to blog about this particular issue for quite a while now, so am inspired to finally do so!

What's viola setup, and does it really matter?

When a violist has her viola set up correctly, it means she can effortlessly balance the instrument between her collarbone and the corner of her jawbone. It means the viola fits the body, rather than the body contorting itself to fit the viola. It means the shoulders are relaxed, the arms are free (including that pesky left thumb, which tends to gang up with the index finger and grip the neck), and the hand is freely able to maneuver from first position to tenth and back, because the hand is not holding the viola in place-- the viola is balanced on the body.

So, the answer is a resounding YES. Setup REALLY matters.

Over the weekend, I was in Tennessee, participating again in Dr. Hillary Herndon's truly inspiring Viola Celebration weekend. If any of you live anywhere within driving distance of Knoxville, I HIGHLY suggest you go next year. It's a fantastic event. My students and I always leave inspired and excited about what's next in our collective and individual viola journeys. Anyway, I was teaching a shifting workshop on Sunday morning, and one of the participants was a tall (almost as tall as I!) young lady, who was having a hard time shifting because her viola wasn't properly balanced on her body. She wasn't able to shift, because she needed the support of her hand to keep the viola from crashing to the floor. Just imagine how hard it is to shift if you don't have freedom to move your hand!

Once I saw what her issue was, I asked if I could adjust her viola. I elongated the feet of her shoulder rest to give her as much height under the viola as possible. That helped a little. Then I asked her to get the blanket from her viola case. I folded it up and put it under the thin end (i.e. chest side) of her shoulder rest, once it was on her viola and she was in playing position. Immediately the viola was supported in a MUCH healthier way-- instead of having her viola rest on her chest (so the strings were more or less perpendicular to the floor and parallel to her body), it rested on her shoulder (so the strings were more are less parallel to the floor). She smiled hugely and said it was SO MUCH MORE COMFORTABLE. And low and behold-- because her viola was in a more healthy position, she no longer had to HOLD the viola with her left hand, and she was able to shift with much greater ease and accuracy!

Will this solution work for everybody? Of course not-- some people are built like this young lady and I. We're fairly narrow, with long necks. Other people have short necks. Some people are built like football players and have a lot of bulk in their pectorals-- these folks generally don't need any padding on the chest side of their shoulder rest. It's all very individualized. But here's how you can test it out; have a friend help you. Stand completely relaxed, with your feet under your knees under your hips under your shoulders. Let your arms hang from the shoulders as though they are the sleeves of a coat hanging on a coat hanger. Now have your friend bring the viola to your body. Resist the urge to TAKE and HOLD the instrument. Just relax and let the instrument come to you. If there is space between the shoulder rest and your shoulder, or there is space between the corner of your jaw bone and the chin rest, or if there is space between the front side of the shoulder rest and your chest, you likely need to tweak your setup.

Here's a picture of my viola lying on the floor. Look at how high the chest side of my shoulder rest is. Look at how tall my Kréddle chin rest is, and its angle. With these tweaks, by viola is able to easily balance between the corner of my jaw bone and my collarbone, leaving my arms free to play.

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Almost all of my students now use Kréddles. I'm a huge fan! They're a bit pricey, but completely customizable. If you are long-necked, I especially recommend a Kréddle or a SAS, but I (personally) prefer the Kréddle (and no, I'm in no way affiliated with the product nor do I get a kickback for saying so).

But what's on my shoulder rest?

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Believe it or not, it's a terrycloth applicator pad used to wax cars! I buy them at AutoZone. I've folded one in half and covered it in black felt, then tied it to the end of the shoulder rest with some black yarn so that it isn't ugly when I'm on stage.

What’s great about these sponges is they don’t deflate like other sponges. I fold them in half and attach with a rubber band to the thin side (i.e. chest side) of the shoulder rest for students. The one that’s been on my shoulder rest has been there for years and years and years, and it’s still soft and perfect. :-) The padding added to the front side of the shoulder rest means the viola stays in a better position, and then the head and neck don’t have to fall or collapse to keep the instrument in place.

Final result is that my body is neutral and free to move around the instrument. Check out this photo from Viola Day 2015. Michael Hall and I are playing a duet-- notice that his viola is set up exactly right for him, and mine is set up exactly right for me. Both of us are comfortable, our violas are more-or-less parallel to the floor, our shoulders are relaxed, and our hands are free.

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Let me know if you have any questions. And join us for Viola Day 2017 next Saturday, September 30th from 10 AM to 6 PM with guest Dr. Hillary Herndon. You can learn more register here.

Happy practicing!