Searching for the Proper Set-Up by Aaron Conitz

One of the biggest challenges we violists face in playing such (at times) an unwieldy instrument is finding the most comfortable and efficient way to put it on our shoulders and underneath the chin. A number of variables come into play here: How high is your neck? Are your shoulders broad or narrow? Do you have long or short arms? The list continues to grow longer as we search for that perfect set-up with which we can deliver the biggest sound with the least amount of harmful tension.

The two most obvious elements in one’s set-up are the shoulder rest and the chinrest. I believe that these two elements have equal importance and playing around with the various ways that they can individually affect your overall set-up is incredibly useful. The third, less obvious variable that I usually consider is the thickness of the viola. Because no standardized set of measurements exists for our instrument, this element can profoundly affect the products selected as the chin and shoulder rest.

Rather than speak abstractly about the various elements that go into the process of discovering one’s set-up, I thought that I would present a documentation of my own process and experience in finding the right equipment. When I acquired my current instrument, I faced the challenge of finding (again) a new set-up. The viola was a bit smaller in thickness than my previous one and was equipped with a very thin chinrest, mounted on the left side of the tailpiece. I knew that I had a long neck and needed to increase the amount of material (whether it was in the form of a chin or shoulder rest) between my shoulder and my chin, but I also had to factor in the reality that my shoulders slope downward. I figured that because the chinrest was so thin that I would need far more height underneath the instrument to be compatible with my neck length than I was comfortable with, so I decided to also increase the overall height using a thicker chinrest. However, I figured that I should deal with one variable at a time to reach a more accurate conclusion (scientific method, anyone?).

Thus began my search for a shoulder rest. In the past, I had found success with a simple mousepad grip and the Play-on-air methods, but I definitely knew I wanted more height than either of these options could offer, but I also felt that the aforementioned choices cover a significant portion of the instrument, limiting overall resonance. A shoulder rest with raised feet seemed to be the best idea; the question now was which one? Each option came with a host of pros and cons. The BonMusica seemed a bit too restrictive, taking away some of the flexibility I wanted in my shoulder. I liked flat platform style of the Resonans and Wolfe’s, but they weren’t solid enough and felt flimsy and insecure on my shoulder. I turned to the ubiquitous Kun-style rest and, after some experimentation, learned that I liked the solidity of the platform but didn’t care for the shaped wood. I then followed a colleague’s recommendation and tried the Kun Bravo; while the high price tag was initially deterring, I bit the bullet and bought one. Surprisingly, the difference was huge. The contour was much more subtle, and the wood felt more secure than the plastic (and, yes, it is much prettier). I still missed the flat platform that the Resonans offered and decided to start modifying the shoulder rest with some cosmetic sponges and rubber bands. By adding one sponge to the contoured end I was able to achieve a more flat surface—et voilà!—the perfect combination. Depending on what type of shirt or jacket I’m wearing I have to adjust the height of the feet, which the rest does quite easily.

After a few years, I decided it was time to experiment with chinrests. I wanted something that would allow me to bring the viola a bit into my chest so I wouldn’t have to push out my bow arm as much and figured that something mounted above the tailpiece would allow me to achieve this. I tried several center mounted rests and wasn’t quite convinced it would ultimately solve the situation; how about, I thought, something that combined both the side and center mounted ideas. I discovered the Ohrenform chinrest that mounted over the tailpiece with a flat platform (not raised or molded like other models) extending from the tailpiece so that I had both a center and side-mounted chinrest. I was able to place the viola a bit more on my collarbone and have a greater range of movement in my head due to the flat platform of the chinrest.

Through this taxing and lengthy (sometimes seemingly endless) process, I reached a number of conclusions:

•Evaluate your physical needs before considering the options; each of us is physically unique so what may work for “most people” might not necessarily work for you.

•Listen to your body; if something feels strange or uncomfortable, trust your instincts.

•Talk to your colleagues. Your teachers and fellow violists are an incredible resource allowing you to try their own equipment or offer advice.

•Be patient! No matter how frustrated you become, the end product will be worth it.

•Be creative. Sometimes you have to think outside of the box to reach the right fit.

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