If you have ever looked closely at someone playing a viola, you can see that it is, unlike playing the piano, say, a very unnatural activity. You hold the instrument under your chin with your left hand, your left elbow pulled way underneath more or less as though you were bracing a rifle for target shooting, and you pull the bow across the strings with the right hand -- that is unless you are Cary Grant in that great old romantic comedy, Indiscrete, in which case you do it all backwards. Everything is fine so long as you are just playing open strings. However, once you start actually playing notes with the fingers of your left hand , and especially if you need to shift into higher positions with your left hand to get at notes higher on the strings, you really need to be able to hold the viola between your chin and your shoulder without actually propping it up with your left hand. That is when the problems start.
You see, most people have a gap between chin and shoulder that is considerably larger than the viola is thick, so either you have to scrunch your shoulder up to grip the viola, or you have to push your chin way down, or you have to put something on the viola that fills the empty space -- some sort of brace or shoulder rest.
Well, these exist, and many people use them, including me. They tend to be padded adjustable metal gadgets that grip the underside of the viola and are curved in what the manufacturer thinks is the precise complicated shape of your shoulder blade. I have always found them monstrously uncomfortable, but I absolutely cannot play without one, so I just have to suck it up.
When I took my viola out two weeks ago after a five and a half year hiatus in my playing, I attached my shoulder rest to the underside of my viola, whereupon it promptly fell off. Apparently in the intervening time the little rubber sleeves that cushioned the prongs gripping the viola had hardened and lost their flexibility. When I drove up to Chapel Hill Strings to get my bow re-haired, I asked the proprietor, Jennifer, if she had any shoulder rests. She took a few out and I tried them, but it was obvious to her that I was very uncomfortable. There was a fancy new shoulder rest, she said, for about sixty-five dollars -- would I like her to get one? Definitely, I answered.
When I returned to pick up the bow, she showed me this even more elaborate shoulder rest, which looked for all the world like the brace the hospital puts on you when you have broken your shoulder. But that was no better. Finally, more or less as a throwaway line, she took out a little round felt pad, three inches in diameter, with a smaller sticky part on the underside to hold it to the bottom of the viola. Needless to say, I was sceptical. How could this little pad do what all those elaborate shoulder rests could not? But I took off the piece of paper covering the sticky spot, pressed the pad to the underneath of my viola, and put the instrument under my chin.
It was magical! The viola sat comfortably on my shoulder. I could remove my left hand and hold the instrument with my chin and shoulder, I could shift up and down the strings, and there was no pain. How much was this little gem? Five dollars!
I don't anticipate giving concerts any time soon, but playing Mozart's C Major viola quintet tomorrow evening should be a great deal more fun.