In recent years manufacturers have come up with new shoulder rest designs and materials, and new dependable models have appeared both at the low end of the market and at the very highest. Femke Colborne talks to the makers with an eye on improvement, and to those who feel they are already catering for customers’ needs
This article was originally published in The Strad’s Accessories 2016 supplement, so the pricing of individual products may have changed
The design of the violin might not have changed significantly in more than 400 years, but there is plenty of room for innovation when it comes to the experience of holding and playing the instrument. In a bid to improve comfort and reduce the risk of injury without dampening the sound, accessory manufacturers have come up with all kinds of weird and wonderful chin rests, shoulder rests and other items – from pieces of sponge and cloth to bendable wood and high-tech carbon-fibre compounds. Over the past couple of years, the shoulder rest in particular has been the focus of a number of manufacturers’ efforts to improve the experience of playing the violin. There’s a broad spectrum of options, from high-end professional models to cheap Chinese-made versions aimed at beginners. At the very top end of the market, at $1,100, is the Pirastro KorfkerCradle, a kind of über-shoulder rest only available to players who can afford to buy it. This product has some unique features to justify its cost: the cradle design allows for especially secure attachment to the violin, as well as superior adjustability. The rest is also made from high-end maple to ensure the lightest possible weight and maximum sound projection. But not everyone can afford such luxury, and two years ago Pirastro responded to demand from lower down in the market by releasing the KorfkerRest – at $210 around a quarter of the price of the KorfkerCradle. Though much simpler in design than the cradle, the KorfkerRest incorporates many of its features: it is also made of maple, and can be moulded to fit around the shape of the shoulder. It is also extremely light, with diamond-shaped holes cut into the wood to take out as much unnecessary weight as possible – ideal for orchestral players who spend several hours a day with the violin at their shoulder. Rubber feet to avoid scratching the instrument are another attractive feature.
Dutch violinist Berent Korfker, who developed the KorfkerRest alongside Pirastro, says: ‘The KorfkerRest uses many of the discoveries made during the development of its big brother, the KorfkerCradle. In developing the KorfkerCradle, my aim was to make a rest that first of all would have a negligible effect on the sound production and sensitivity of the violin, secondly would offer players unique adjustment possibilities and thirdly would be superlight. There were many rests on the market claiming to be the lightest, most comfortable or most sound-enhancing. Over many years, I tried the most promising of them and found that most of those claims were unfounded. I was disappointed with what was available to me as a player, both in terms of comfort and sound. Moreover, manufacturers were constantly adding models to the lower end of the market while the top end remained stagnant. From my experience as a player and educator I knew there was a demand for a high-end shoulder rest which would actually do what it promised.’
But a top-end shoulder rest is beyond the means of many, and what’s interesting about a number of the models that have come on to the market since the KorfkerRest is that they combine some of the features of a high-end shoulder rest – such as high levels of adjustability, light weight and a polished appearance – with a much lower price tag. As a result, the technology behind the best shoulder rests is becoming accessible to a much wider market.
Earlier this year, Czech–Canadian luthier Peter Mach, inventor of the Mach One shoulder rest, unveiled his latest creation, the Mach One ‘Hook’: a viola rest with the same design and contours as his signature model but made out of plastic instead of maple, to keep the cost down. The new rest retails at about $40, compared with about $80 for the wooden viola model. Mach has been making plastic shoulder rests for the violin for years, but he had not previously ventured into the viola market because of the cost of creating a separate mould. However, he now believes demand for the cheaper version will be high enough to justify the investment.
‘We have made plastic violin rests since the very start, 19 years ago,’ Mach says. ‘There is not so much of a demand for viola rests, but we wanted to do something new. The shape is very similar to the wooden one, but the new one is absolutely basic, with no extra features, no screws or bolts. Some people will always prefer the old one because it is made of maple, like the back of the instrument, so it matches. But I am always experimenting and listening to customers.’