Accessing Positive Posture at the Piano
by Jeremy Woolhouse
Piano instruction books often depict ‘the right posture for playing piano.’ They may illustrate a pianist with a straight back, feet on the floor, and forearms parallel to the floor. There are advantages and disadvantages to presenting images like this. If a student were to hold this position, the holding may become very limiting for piano technique, not to mention tiring! Through an investigation into positive poise, we can explore some principles of coordination for playing.
Looking for correct posture
In any consideration of posture, looking for the ‘correct position’ is misguided. An ideal of alignment is only ever transitory. The movement from in-breath to out-breath is enough to require the body to realign itself. The gestures we use at the piano require a constantly updating-recruitment of musculature.
Our bodies are wired to respond to our intentions for action and don’t respond well to intentions for holding a posture. It may be more helpful to consider the relationship between parts. Thinking in terms of relationships instead of position, allows for motion, and doesn’t require clinical anatomical study.
As an example, in trying to fulfil a teacher’s instruction to “pull the shoulders back”, students may end up tightening across the back, immobilising the shoulder blades, lifting the ribs and constricting breathing.
The instruction may have been intended to address a slumping or dropping of the shoulders. But if the instruction brings about the above result, it is no more effective for playing the instrument.
To reframe the instruction from the perspective of relationships might instead “invite motion of ribs under shoulder blades”. This implies mobility and buoyancy of shoulders and encourages breath - an essential part of healthy postural support.
Another variation could be to “intend the shoulder blades be dynamically poised in their sling of suspensory musculature.” It is the duty of the teacher to notice the effect of his or her instructions and the skill of the teacher to create ones the student responds positively to.
Alexander Technique is specialised training in the skill of creating similar self-directed instructions. It builds knowledge of the anatomical structure by working with various relationships, rather than imposing positions.
An intention for qualitative change is a means of initiating improvement in position.
Refining quality will have its own merits regardless of position too. If there is a certain technical problem, we may attempt to get the fingers or wrist in the right position. If we work instead on improving the quality through the whole body, including fingers and wrist, we are creating the optimal conditions for the right position to be possible, technically effective, and comfortable.
Following this process makes the quality of all positions better. With poor quality, what looks or feels like the ‘right position’ may be dysfunctional and uncomfortable. Conversely, the technical issue may cease to be problematic if the quality of coordination is improved.
The experience of playing with a good coordination is described by pupils as connected, free, light, or fluid. It is characterised by an efficient balance of muscle tone and availability for motion.
In absence of a teacher’s guidance, and in practice in between lessons, the aspiring pianist can experiment with different ways of thinking about technique. Forming different intentions or directions, observing the outcome, and refining accordingly, is again the specialised realm of Alexander Technique, but can be practiced by anyone with imagination!
General to specific
Improving the quality throughout the whole body as fundamental to improving quality of the hands at the interface with the piano is an important teaching of Alexander Technique.
A preoccupation with placement of fingers and wrists puts the pianist at high risk of compromising the coordination of the whole for the sake of the specific. If the whole self is not included in a refinement of technique, there is no scope for the hands and arms to have support from the rest.
Prioritising the general coordination ensures the health of the whole self is maintained whilst working on the specifics of piano technique. It also orchestrates all the supportive structures which the fine movements of wrists and fingers require.
Sitting up straight may be overrated
“Sitting up straight” usually conjures an image of shoulders pulled back, head pulled back and spine stiff. In order to play piano, we need shoulders to be mobile to work with the hands and arms in front of us. The head needs to be dynamic on the spine to optimise capacity for the whole body to move. The spine needs to shape its graceful curves fluidly to be able to effectively keep the head supported while dealing with all the moving-around of arms and legs.
The idea of posture at the piano is often confused for something static. It is possible to keep the torso visually still while playing, but if it becomes rigid, it cannot support the arms in making the motions they need for playing. The torso also needs to be mobile to facilitate breathing!
The sense of effort associated with the stereotyped “sitting up straight” is often strangely rewarding. It may make pianists feel as though they are “trying hard” and that this effort is a good thing. If we are interested in refining our poise at the piano, we may need to also recalibrate the sense of effort we are putting in. Aside from limiting movement and breath, rigid upright postures are also tiring. The resulting collapse into a slump is a relief, but one which creates other problems.
Rather than approaching posture at the piano as a way to ‘find the right place and keep yourself there,’ let’s consider an alternative. If we are looking for the torso to support the arms, legs and head in performance, this can be done with some dynamism.
The quality of poise we are looking for is one which is buoyant. By its nature, buoyancy is going to lead towards “sitting up straight”, but avoids the stigma of rigidity that comes with ‘posture.’ We could also say that we want our movements and poise to have a quality of expansion. As we reach for a note, this can be done in a way which is expansive through the hand, arm and whole body.
The constant mobility of breath and the perpetual losing and regaining of balance are natural expressions of healthy dynamism in poise. In the most still moments of piano performance, the pianist is well served to promote subtle movement through the whole.
When the concept of piano posture is one of being held immobile, an excess of tension is required to maintain this. Releasing the excess tension allows for an appropriate muscular tone to be engaged. In such a state, large or small movements are latent - we are ready for action!
Optimal posture may be considered one which has the most options available.
Resisting the conventional idea of ‘sitting up straight’ may relive the pianist of the fatigued slump which is its common corollary. A slump may also occur by either not having enough, or not using enough muscle tone throughout to start with. The irony of this is that the arms and hands may end up very tight. Deprived of a positively supportive torso, the musculature of limbs has to hold itself up while simultaneously trying to make the fine movements of piano technique.
Thinking of relaxing at the piano may give relief from too much tension, but can leave the pianist with insufficient tone to support the demands of playing. Rather than relax, for postural support and limb action, we want to have the appropriate musculature engaged to an appropriate amount, and for an appropriate duration.
Animating the postural musculature is a particular forte of Alexander Technique. A typical Alexander Technique lesson invests time in refining the act of sitting in a chair. The procedures and processes are varied and personal, and beyond the scope of this article to detail. We can say for now that the pianist is well served to have a clear intention for buoyancy, whilst refraining from trying to put him or herself into a ‘position.’
An awareness of the base of support is useful. The bottom of the pelvis has two points we refer to as ‘sit bones.’ These are the points of weight bearing. In the US, they call them ‘rockers’ due to the curved shape and capacity for rocking forward and back that they have. To intend for the head to release away from the sit bones as one rocks forward and back is a process which can animate the spine into length and help create integrity through the whole back.
An expanding spine or lengthening back, with an integrity in the torso, creates a positive balanced support for head, shoulders, arms and hands. Engaging this buoyancy is an antidote to collapse.
Practice like this also addresses the problem of the pianist actively, but subconsciously, compressing through the front of the body. This habit may give the impression of being slumped, but is a symptom of over-toning rather than under-toning. In either case, we work towards a balance of muscular tone.
Working with the whole
The concepts of buoyancy and expansion are intentionally introduced without reference to an exact definition of buoyant or expansive. We are looking for a quality in the performer. This is not even limited to physicality. A positive attitude to performance will include emotional and psychological buoyancy - even playing the darkest music. As performers, we want our music to express drama or perhaps elicit emotional response in the audience. We do not need to feel in ourselves the drama, emotion or tension which our music might portray.
The antithesis to buoyancy would be an overall disposition of heaviness and compression. These are qualities which make playing piano uncomfortable and create obstacles to technical facility and expressive capacity.
Making it look easy
When one is well coordinated, playing has an efficiency about it. Music naturally requires energy to create, but when the performer is well-organised, energy is channelled into performance. The result is a pianist who looks graceful. When the audience says ‘the pianist makes it look so easy,’ they are responding to a general quality of the performer. It looks easy when the effort of the performance is in the performer’s thinking, rather than in the physicality. For most music, the piano doesn’t require a great deal of physical effort to play. But any musical performance will require a great deal of effort in forming clear intentions - for coordination and for musicality.
About the author
Jeremy Woolhouse is a VCA music graduate and qualified Alexander Technique teacher practicing in Glen Iris. His Alexander Technique instruction is oriented towards giving students an independent ability to manage performance related pain, RSI or anxiety and to sustainably optimise performance. Jeremy publishes monthly articles on Alexander Technique and music at www.poisealexandertechnique.com.au