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Mix Margaret Dylan Jones

W.A. composer, pianist, teacher, article writer

How Should You Sit

When Playing Your Piano?

Opinions vary on how a pianist should sit, but most teachers agree a pianist's bench, stool or chair should be the correct height for them.

Strangely enough, only two of my six piano teachers seemed to think this was important. Which is a bit strange when you consider that a full-time classical pianist or serious tertiary student may sit at a piano practicing up to six hours each day (36 hours per week), as I have done for periods of many years several times in my life.

It should be obvious that how you sit is vital to your health, as well as  your quality of playing. Playing for hours while sitting badly will cause spinal, shoulder, elbow and wrist problems. These injuries could be serious. Of course, even if you have a perfect way of sitting you still must stand up and walk around at frequent intervals, say every 20 to 30 minutes.

I'll tell you my own story. In the late 1970s I briefly had lessons with my third piano teacher, Madame Alice Carrad, in Claremont, Western Australia. (BTW, she also taught David Helfgott, and was taught herself by Béla Bartók). An enduring thing she taught me was how to sit.

At first it felt very strange and a little uncomfortable, but I persisted with her sitting instructions because a) she was an eminent teacher, b) my parents were paying expensive lesson fees and c) my father was driving me over an hour each way to get there. Such was the logic of a young teenager.

And I'm very glad I kept trying to sit the way she wanted me to because, after a few weeks, the new way of sitting became much more comfortable. In fact, from that day until this I find I can't bear sitting any other way, it simply feels wrong and uncomfortable.

So how do I sit at the piano?

I believe you should sit close to the front of the chair (or bench or stool), so that you are only sitting on your 'sitting bones,' that is, your pelvis. If you sit in the middle or towards the back of the chair you are also unfortunately sitting on your thigh bones, and your pelvis is going to be twisted or angled back causing distortion of your entire spine right up to your neck. Do you really want to do that to your back for 36 hours a week?

By sitting near the front of the chair you can have some body weight going through your feet to the floor, and you can easily and automatically adjust the amount of weight you apply to the keyboard through your arms.

This is where we touch very briefly on piano technique. There are many varying attitudes and ideas about piano technique, and some people use more arm weight than others. I believe that if arm weight is used the weight must be immediately (in milliseconds) taken off the piano to avoid keybedding. In any case, the amount of weight needs to vary considerably from moment to moment, which is facilitated by this way of sitting. If you have got it right, with your feet on the ground, sitting near the front edge, and you were to lift your feet off the ground you would fall forward (so don't try to lift your feet off). In this position you can play with the maximum amount of body weight going through your arms to the keys, and you can also play with zero body weight, and all points in between, automatically and effortlessly.

When you sit in this fashion you can also breathe more easily as your belly is not squashed up, which is particularly important if you are also singing at the piano.

But how high?

Again, opinions vary about the height, and it has a bearing on how your arms, wrists, thumbs and fingers are used. In February 2014 I changed my views on sitting height in the light of finding out more about the biomechanics of piano technique. I now believe you should sit at a height that brings your forearms sloping down a little toward the keys, and with a bit more than a right angle (so more than 90 degrees) in your elbow joints. From this position you can get your thumb onto the keys easily and employ as little or as much arm weight as you want, and distort the shape of the fingers and wrists by the smallest amount. It's all to do with how the hands, arms & fingers are built and how they naturally work. To sit otherwise can cause excessive tension, which is a serious problem for many students.

The chair may need to be a centimetre or two higher in the afternoon or evening compared to the morning, because the spine shrinks during the course of the day. So it's good to have a way of easily adjusting the height.

This is how I teach my students. At first it may feel strange but if they are conscientious after a few weeks it becomes automatic. After this awareness has been achieved any student who inadvertently sits wrongly will instantly notice how awful it really feels and will immediately correct it to this much more healthy and efficient way.

How do I get the chair the right height?

My students use an adjustable piano stool, adjustable piano chair, or a home-made piano chair box placed under an ordinary kitchen chair. See piano chair boxes for info and photos of this.

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