Music & Entertainment

How to Set Up Your Violin: Violin Setup Guide

Written by MasterClass

Jun 6, 2019 • 3 min read

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Itzhak Perlman Teaches Violin

The violin is not a naturally comfortable instrument to play, but there are some ways to make it as comfortable as possible. Your individual combination of chin rest and shoulder rest can help a great deal. When deciding what to use, consider the shape of your shoulders, the length of your neck, and even the shape of your jawbone. There are many kinds of chin rests and shoulder rests, and your combination of the two is often referred to as your set-up.

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What Is a Chin Rest?

A chin rest is attached to the top of the instrument. Though it’s called a chin rest, it’s primarily a
rest for your jawbone. Chin rests come in all sorts of materials and models; they can be made from a variety of woods, including boxwood, rosewood and ebony, and a few are even made from hypoallergenic plastic.

  • Guarneri-Style: Clamps over the tailpiece (center-mounted), but the cup is to the left. It tends to be medium in height.
  • Side-Mounted Model: These chin rests are mounted on the left side of the violin and come in a number of shapes and heights. The Dresden-style has a contoured cup for the chin. The Kaufmann-style has a flatter cup for the chin. The Morawetz-style has a considerable lip at the front of the chin cup.
  • Flesch-Style: Clamps over the tailpiece (center-mounted), and the cup sits over the center, too.

What Is a Shoulder Rest?

The shoulder rest attaches to the back of the violin and rests on the shoulder and collarbone. There are many to choose from:

  • Clip-On Shoulder Rests: These rests have “feet” on either side that attach to the rim of the instrument. They are often adjustable both in terms of height and also the angle at which they can be attached to the back of the instrument. A few of the most popular brands include Kun, Wolf, Everest, Viva, Korfkerrest, Mach, and Resonans.
  • Foam Shoulder Rests: A foam shoulder rest can be made at home using a foam sponge and a rubber band. (Just attach the sponge to your instrument, and voilà.) There are also pre-made cushioned shoulder rests that shape to the shoulder, as well as small round pads and sponges that self-adhere to the back of the violin.
  • Air Cushion Rests: This is an inflatable cushion, usually made by the company Playonair, that straps to the back of the violin. Some violinists, including Mr. Perlman, opt to go without a shoulder rest. Whatever your choice, make sure it feels comfortable.

How to Perfect Your Violin Set Up

If you are uncomfortable with your set-up on the violin, don’t overlook your chin-rest as a possible solution. Consider a couple of factors: does your chin and jawbone actually rest in the cup of your current chin rest, or are you placing it somewhere else? There are chin rests made to put the cup to the right, the middle or the left, so choose one that fits where you actually rest your chin. Also, is it the correct height? If you have a short neck and a very high chin rest, you may want a shorter one. Likewise, a tall neck with a very short chin rest can be uncomfortable, and you might want a taller one. Be sure to choose a chin rest that places the cup in the correct place for you and gives you the right amount of height.

How to Choose the Right Violin

Your set-up is only as good is your instrument. If you buy a new violin from a reputable violin shop or luthier (violin maker), you will probably be buying the violin, bow, and case separately. Most violin shops have a room where you can play a violin that you’re considering, and most will also allow you to borrow the violin (or several) for a period of time to see if it is the one you wish to buy.

Play a variety of pieces on the violin to assess its tone, responsiveness, and volume. The tone is the sound quality. The responsiveness is its clarity in responding to fast passages and various techniques. The volume is simply how loud it is—does it carry in a hall? It can be helpful to have someone else play the violin for you and to test in it different settings, such as your room at home, a church, and a concert hall.

Remember: A low-quality violin will frustrate you with both bad sound and bad functionality, with issues like pegs that don’t work properly, bad strings, or a bridge that doesn’t fit the violin. Chances are you’ll spend a small fortune making the faulty instrument usable—and that’s money you could have spent on a better instrument to begin with.

Learn more about the violin in Itzhak Perlman’s MasterClass.