THE STORY OF THE POLY-PAD
It was a hot and muggy day in July 1990. Having just taken inventory of the instruments and accessories used in the string methods class I had been teaching for more than a decade at the University of Kansas, I was reminded of our shortage of adequate shoulder rests for the violins and violas. I was about to put in a request for more shoulder rests when it occurred to me that I had never much cared for what we had been using. In fact, I wasn't really happy with any shoulder rest I had ever used.
In a moment of inspiration (or was it desperation?) I decided to see what it would take to make a truly comfortable shoulder pad. To begin with, what shape should it be? I found a piece of foam rubber, took out a pair of scissors, and began snipping away, setting the foam piece on my shoulder from time to time to see how it felt. Eventually I found a shape that seemed to fit comfortably, but the piece of foam was too large to be practical. I cut it down to something closer to the dimensions of a typical shoulder rest, and it still felt surprisingly comfortable. Thus, on July 22, 1990, was born the first poly-pad.
While cutting out a few more pads of similar shape, I noticed that the design was really quite simple – so simple, in fact, that I couldn't understand why shoulder rests were not already made this way. Why not have something that simply follows the slope and curve of a human shoulder?
I made the first pads using creamy white foam padding, a kind used for seat cushions. While the shape felt right, the material was too squishy to offer adequate support. I managed to find a company that sold foam products of various densities. I chose a charcoal grey polyurethane foam that worked well, and I still use a similar product. I now also offer a blue foam of slightly greater density for those who want a firmer shoulder pad, as well as pink pads in sizes M and smaller.
As the pads were now made from polyurethane foam, I decided to call this thing I had created the POLY-PAD.
So far I had been cutting poly-pads freehand – hazardous, slow, and inconsistent. To make my work easier and safer, I designed and built a simple but effective pad-cutting jig. With this device I've been able to make tens of thousands of poly-pads over the course of over twenty years.
As soon as I began using the poly-pad on my viola, I noticed that my shoulder, neck, and back discomfort previously associated with viola playing began to go away. I told some of my string-playing acquaintances about this. Some of them also began using the poly-pad, with similar results.
After a period of time using the poly-pad and enjoying "secure, comfortable support with a shoulder pad you almost don't feel," I discovered that I could now play fairly well even without a shoulder rest. In fact, I found that I was more comfortable with no shoulder rest than with any commercially available shoulder rest.
For my string class, the poly-pad proved to be much more than a mere replacement for the shoulder rests we had been using. To my surprise and delight, the poly-pad made these novice players feel immediately at ease with their instruments – no more of the usual complaints ("it hurts!"). What's more, the poly-pad enabled the students to learn almost instantly how to hold the instrument correctly, and most of the usual posture problems simply no longer existed!
I began sending poly-pads to colleagues in various parts of the country to try. Their reaction was encouragingly positive, and sometimes quite enthusiastic. Word began to spread, and in April 1993 I began selling these oddly-shaped pieces of polyfoam for $5 apiece. Sales began slowly; that first year I sold 72 poly-pads to players in 10 states and Canada. I could not have envisioned that within four years the number sold would increase tenfold and continue to grow.
In early 1998 a viola student of mine came to her lesson one day and announced that she had set up a website for me at tripod.com. She told me the web address, username and password so I could add to the site. I had absolutely no experience with website maintenance, but I gradually learned enough to edit and add my own text and pictures. Now people world-wide could learn about the poly-pad! As I also compose, I began publicizing my music on this website. And as I have an irrepressible (and quirky) sense of humor, I couldn't resist adding a bio about a mythical ancestor, violist/composer Ludwig Wolfgang von Kimber.
In 1999 poly-pad sales quadrupled from the previous year, with sales in 29 states and six foreign countries. In addition to selling to individual players and teachers, I was now selling large quantities to school string programs as well. By 2007 poly-pads had been purchased in all 50 states, DC, and 20 foreign countries.
For a few years I made and sold only the large size poly-pad. It was a British customer who asked whether I could make a smaller size. This request resulted in the medium size. When I later began making small and extra small sizes, too, Suzuki teachers began spreading the word among themselves. As more and more teachers, studios, and school string programs began wanting poly-pads for their students, local music dealers began to stock them.
I began getting requests for an even higher poly-pad for tall players with long necks. I added extra-large to the list of sizes, but with a cautionary note that anyone thinking they need a higher shoulder rest ought first to consider a higher chin rest.
The newest size poly-pad, created in 2008, is the lily-pad, inspired by a teacher named Lily who wanted pads for her very tiniest violin students.
Apart from the addition of more sizes, the poly-pad remained essentially unchanged for twenty years. From time to time I responded to requests for pads varying slightly from the original design. In the summer of 2010, shortly before the poly-pad's 20th anniversary, I decided to consider introducing a slight design modification that I myself had been using for some time. I sent samples to a number of long-time poly-pad users, requesting their feedback. The amount of enthusiastic response persuaded me to begin offering this new "streamlined" poly-pad to the world.
As a violist and composer I sometimes feel odd that I'm known mostly as the "inventor" of the poly-pad. Then I remember that one of my childhood dreams was to invent something that would be useful to many people; I just had no idea what that invention might be!
Updated March 11, 2014.