I'm bored, so I feel like stirring things up and writing about the ever controversial topic of shoulder rests. While it may seem inane compared to say...I don't know...prayer in school, if you want to start a virtual shouting match, go to violinist.com and start a discussion by submitting the question, "Should I use a shoulder rest, or not?" and then sit back and watch the sparks fly! For what it's worth, here are my thoughts.
My decision to use or not use a shoulder rest came about when I was at a music camp. While there, I made friends with Wai and Won, both amazing violinists and students of the concert master of the New York Philharmonic. The two of them sort of took me under their wing, and they gave me violin lessons in our free time. At the time, I was using an inflatable pad, and they noticed that it really wasn't doing much in the way of support or security (the main reasons people cite for using shoulder rests). And then, I witnessed first-hand the kind of heated debate that arises on the subject of shoulder rests. Wai said I should not use a shoulder rest--that if anything was needed at all, it was a tiny cosmetic sponge that would keep the violin from slipping on the fabric of my blouse. Won argued that I should use one, and outlined all of the various ways a shoulder rest would free up my left hand.
Unwilling to take sides in the matter, I brought up the issue with Charles Castleman, who was one of the visiting teachers there. He had me play for him; once with the shoulder rest, and once without. And then he stated nonchalantly that he really couldn't tell a difference either way. Always practical, I compared the $2 price tag of the cosmetic sponge with the $20+ price of a new shoulder rest, and decided to go with the cheaper option. Later on, I discovered that I could do as well with nothing, which cost nothing, and that's how I became a shoulder rest-free violinist.
Though my decision didn't come after extensive research and experimentation, I have since made the following observation--that students who use shoulder rests to improve their posture usually still have poor posture. On the other hand, many who play without shoulder rests seem unable to hold their posture either. A proper set-up is imperative with or without a shoulder rest.
First of all, one should not hold the violin with his chin, neck and shoulder. I was very proud of my ability to hold the violin up with "no hands!" growing up; but I now believe that this is one reason I have so many neck and back problems today. Unfortunately, students are often given a shoulder rest for the express purpose of teaching them to hold the violin in this way.
Secondly, it is a universal truth that young violinists don't like to hold up their violins. They are often given a shoulder rest to help them keep that violin high. However, I often see chins propped up by a shoulder rest, while the violin itself sags towards the floor. Whether a shoulder rest is used or not, the arm still has to be raised to support the violin.
I teach students to think of balancing the violin between their shoulder and their left hand, to shift the weight of the instrument as needed as they learn to maneuver around the instrument. This can be done with or without a shoulder rest. So, if it makes you comfortable, strap it on! Just be aware that a shoulder rest can mask tension, and remember that it should never be used as a crutch.