We gathered materials from many sources to allow students and researchers to experiment making their own substitute shoulder rests.
This process helped the musicians to discover what they did or did not want from a shoulder rest. During equipment fittings, these materials were often used to construct a substitute shoulder rest or to alter an existing one. Students also devised their own interim or final designs.
Substitute shoulder rests were especially useful in the middle stages, when re-training of cramped muscles required that old equipment be temporarily abandoned to allow for new options; old equipment tended to elicit old patterns of muscle contraction. When the equipment was changed or removed, the musician was free to search for new ways to move.
Substitute shoulder rests also made the choice of a chin rest clearer, because the feedback from a store-bought shoulder rest could be bypassed temporarily, leaving the musician free to interact with possible variations of his chin rest.
After the chin rest was adjusted to give more support and control while playing, and after experimenting with the shoulder rest substitutes, some of the musicians had made substitutes that they preferred to commercial shoulder rests. Others could go back to a more informed use of (often adjusted) commercial shoulder rests without excessive clamping.
Here are some of the materials that we used:
Anti-slip sheet rubber
Strangely enough, these sheets of anti-slip rubber were one of the equipment staples during and after the project. This sheet-rubber is easy to find, as it is sold in hardware and department stores as shelf lining for kitchen cupboards to keep porcelain plates from slipping. We found it in Holland in small sheets in bright colours, and in the United States in larger roles in black. We wrapped it around sponges or balls, rolled it around strips of woollen cloth, or used it by itself to create endless options for shoulder rest substitutes. It added that little grip between skin and violin, or skin and sponge, that helped keep the instrument from slipping. All students used it during transition periods when trying new equipment, and some opted to incorporate it in their final shoulder rest.
Some materials came from unusual sources. These flattened balls came from the Eprex company, which manufacturers them for training nurses in giving injections. Because of this, they are as springy and solid as human muscle, and hardly dampen the sound, providing excellent support of the instrument from below and functioning like an extension of the violinist herself. We cut them in different shapes and placed them on top of and/or below the collar bone. When covered with black anti-slip material they could be used in rehearsals or concerts without being seen. (During the middle of the research period, in one orchestra concert at our school half the violin section was using the balls to support their instruments.)
The balls were most useful during the middle of the research period when players were getting used to new chin rests and learning freedom of movement in the left shoulder. The Eprex balls made students feel safe enough to experiment freely, providing necessary support without causing constriction of the chest and shoulder muscles. After the musicians learned to balance the instrument more freely, the Eprex balls were replaced by other options.
Commercially designed violin sponges and other materials
These sponges, called “the Loft Sponge” made by The Loft Violin Shop in Ohio, come in six sizes both hard and soft. We chose the firm purple sponges for the research. The musicians often used these sponges when they were undecided about what they wanted in a shoulder rest. Some also decided to use the sponges long-term. Often a sheet of anti-slip rubber was wrapped around or completely covered the sponge to further prevent slippage and to hide the purple colour. The sponges were also very popular with our teachers who work with small children, because they could easily be fitted, gave support without limiting movement, and cost very little.
We acquired foam rubber of different consistencies and experimented by cutting it in various shapes to suit the individual player. We obtained a foam rubber from an upholsterer that was firmer than we could find in retail stores. A gift of the foam rubber taken from a car seat was also used. Although the spongy material dampened the sound, it was useful to try out different options for support of the instrument from below. We also used the same material to modify the shape or height of commercial shoulder rests.
The most useful shape we cut was a wedge-like shape that fed the instrument onto the collar bone of the player. It was near the neck of the player, thickening out away from the neck. The thin upper end on the collar bone meant that the sponge did not push the instrument up off of the collar bone. The thicker lower end kept the instrument from slipping down. Only a narrow wedge was needed, and by placing it under the clothing the dampening effect of the sponge could be minimized.
Miscellaneous materials: chamois leather, wool and cleaning sponges
We made our own pillow supports of chamois leather, or anti-slip rubber sheets filled with foam rubber, or (more successfully) real lamb's wool in its original form, or even cuttings taken from old wool blankets. Wool provided a stability that the foam rubber did not, and formed well to the curves of the collar bone and chest, but it had to be replaced every few months, as it tended to flatten out. Commercial cleaning sponges were popular with some players. We found one that was covered with chamois leather on one side and a plastic scouring surface on the other. The scouring surface provided an ant-slip surface against the clothing of the violinist, while the chamois leather was a safe surface to come in contact with the instrument.