Posture doesn’t always get the attention it deserves by musicians. Meanwhile, even the act of incorrectly sitting with the instrument can lead to ailments or cut your playing career short. Musicians should make posture a priority at the beginning of their training, not just because of health reasons but also because it minimizes technical hurdles later on. Perhaps your tone hasn’t improved due to the way you are sitting or breathing? Make conscious effort to examine and correct basic postures, the more years the incorrect movements are repeated then the more time it takes to correct them.
A quick example of how incorrect posture could be detrimental- if you have the neck of the instrument at the wrong angle it pulls the wrist to a sharper angle, thereby causing unnecessary strain and eventually leading to things like carpal tunnel syndrome.
In this blog I will go over what is and isn’t meant by the word posture. If the word conjures up images of “shoulders back, chest out” I hopefully shall have you thinking about it in a different manner. I will also detail basic movement exercises you can employ during your practice that will perhaps result in less aches and better performance.
First off, let’s go ahead and get rid of the idea that posture is a static, never-changing position. Posture is in fact a DYNAMIC process involving action and movement.
Sitting completely still in a “perfect” assumed position while you play doesn’t bode well for the body regardless of how “perfect” it may seem. Incorrect positions aren’t all you are looking to get rid of, you want to get rid of non-movement while you are playing as well. Anyone that has spent extended periods of time sitting at a desk can detail for you the negative effects prolonged stillness has on the body. Your body was meant for movement.
When you are playing your instrument if there is no movement in certain parts of your body then all the impact forces are distributed into the hands and wrists instead of a more even distribution throughout the body. The goal is a more even distribution taking some of the load off the hands and arms.
Now on to more detailed explanations of posture in motion:
The very first thing to consider-Are you sitting in such a way that allows fullness of breath, breathing from the diaphragm? Anything decreasing your ability to breathe is bad news because deep, full breathing leads to relaxation. The more relaxed you are the more relaxed your sound and tone, the more effortless you will play. I recently observed a young violinist playing with their chin almost touching their chest, shoulders slouched, contorted in such a way that breathing must have been hampered.
Incorrect breathing or worse, holding of the breath leads to tension which affects your sound. In addition, the faster you have to play the more important relaxation becomes. Try it for yourself-Try to tighten your arms and hands on purpose, hold your breath, grit your teeth, exert as much effort as possible and see how fast you can now play? Take note of what impact it has on the sound?
So, with that said, the next time you play observe if the manner you hold yourself is in fact helping or hindering your breathing patterns. Experiment with what allows you to breathe the easiest. Sometimes a mirror or video camera is helpful as they allow you to watch yourself as you play and take notes of things to correct.
Let’s go on exploring motions and movement patterns that might lead to better “posture”; thereby leading to a more relaxed sound.
A few years ago I visited a Feldenkrais Instructor because I was curious about whether I could improve my technical abilities through the awareness practice. I was at first surprised at the impact it had on eliminating some of the pains I experienced in my back and neck from playing long hours. Later on I noticed some of the things actually allowed me to change my tone.
What follows are two items I was given to consider during my practices:
1)First and foremost, your ribcage is not an immobile rigid “cage.” The problem is most people have lost the ability to sense and freely move from it so it’s became this stuck/rigid cage. You can gradually restore awareness of your ribcage’s ability to move by doing the following:
While sitting, imagine your right side raising up while your left side lowers and vice versa. One shoulder will come up with that side of your ribs and the other side will go down. Then try imagining rocking from side to side, slightly shifting your weight on to each of your hip bones as you play. You should feel the weight move through the opposite sides of your body as you do this. See if you can initiate the movement from your feet that are both planted on the floor. Slight movements like this while you play take some of the impact away from your arms and hands. Your hands and arms will no longer have to work as hard. This may alleviate some back pain many musicians suffer from practicing long hours. I found through my experience things like, “Sit up straight”, didn’t actually help me get rid of back pain but conscious thought about slight motions and movements did. The pain wasn’t because I wasn’t sitting correctly, the pain was caused by stillness.
2)Do you ever experience Neck pain from playing? This can be due to the incorrect position of the neck (the neck always looking to the left or the head always looking down). One of the most common errors with the beginner banjo student is always looking down at their right hand. This pulls the weight of the head out from the center of body leading to strain at the back of the neck. Do this long enough and you will feel the effect. Another common thing is for musicians to always look at the left-hand. There is nothing wrong with looking at the left-hand while playing; as long as you don’t look at it in a locked fixed gaze where your head never moves.
As someone who has suffered from neck pain due to hours of practicing I can attest that pain was alleviated by making a conscious effort of one thing-MOVING my head slightly as I played.
Details: Take an easy and simple piece of music, while playing it look down at the ground and slowly lift your head up until you are looking at the ceiling (basically like you’re doing a big nod). Do this a few times while playing. Now try it turning your head all the way to the left and then slowly all the way to the right. This gives you an idea of the range of motion of your neck while playing. You certainly wouldn’t want to have such a large range of motion during performances; however, if you do this during practice a bit you will get the feel of a head that moves around slightly as you play, taking some of the stress off of the lower neck muscles. You will learn to stop locking your head down or to the left and it will become free with natural movement.
Watch this video for the visual depictions of freeing your neck:
I will go over more techniques and exercises in the next installment of this POSTURE series.
For now, the takeaways are
- Never Hold your breath, explore how you sit and hold your instrument to see what allows for fullness of breath
- Your body was meant for movement not to be locked into place
- Explore the range of motion of your neck and ribcage, see how this affects your sound and technical abilities
- Too much motion is just as bad as too little, find balance
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