Technique Matters - Problems with Posture

 

by Hao Huang
Professor and Artist Pianist
Scripps College

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ne of the most overlooked, yet most elementary, problems in piano technique involves posture. Far too often, piano teachers witness the most extraordinary efforts by piano students to compensate for uncomfortable posture at the keyboard. This can involve hunching over the keys, bending the neck or bobbing the head, popping up the wrist and other excruciating positions. If students sit too low, fingers will labor under the burden of static arm weight; if they sit too high, often the playing becomes rigid and non-nuanced, with accompanying tension in the wrist and shoulders. Pianists must address the question of posture as a prerequisite to playing the piano efficiently. We must not allow our students to waste energy and time in trying to cope with incorrect body attitudes at the piano. I will begin this discussion with a brief overview of some of the more significant works on keyboard technique and posture.

 

 

 

The question of posture has concerned keyboardists as far back as Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-88), whose "Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments" (Versuch uber die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen) advocated sitting in the middle of the keyboard with forearms suspended slightly above the keyboard. Fingers were to be arched and muscles relaxed, and flexibility was recommended for crossing fingers, stretches and passing of the thumb. Muzio Clementi (1752-1832), who suffered defeat at the hands of Mozart in a competition staged by Emperor Joseph in 1781, ushered in a new physical approach to a recently developed instrument, the pianoforte, in his "Introduction to the Art of Playing the Pianoforte", remarkable for its allegiance to legato and its directions to keep the hand level with the forearm, to curve the fingers as appropriate and to allow little arm movement. This was followed by a three volume work by Mozart's pupil, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, entitled "A Complete Theoretical and Practical Course of Instructions on the Art of Playing the Piano Forte Commencing with the Simplest Elementary Principles and Including Every Requisite to the Most Finished Style of Performance". His instructions for sitting at the instrument require an upright torso with elbows turned toward the body, forearms level with the keyboard, rounded hands turned slightly outward, and rounded fingers close to the keys. Beethoven's student Carl Czerny (1791-1857) wrote a four-volume pedagogical work, "The Complete Theoretical and Practical Piano Forte School, from the First Rudiments of Playing to the Highest and Most Refined State of Cultivation; With the Requisite Numerous Examples, Newly and Expressly Composed for the Occasion". This espoused sitting with the upper arm slightly extended, so that the elbows are four inches closer to the keyboard than the shoulders, and the elbows about an inch higher than the upper surface of the keys, so that the forearm and hand are horizontal.

Ludwig Deppe (1828-90), the father of weight technique, recommended sitting low enough to bring the forearm to an incline from the elbow to the wrist, thereby allowing the fingers to produce tone solely by the weight of the hand. Rudolph Maria Breithaupt (1873-1945) followed with a book, "The Natural Piano Technique" (Die Naturlische Klaviertechnik), which represents the high-water mark of arm weight technique, which suggests that the player sit low in the initial stage of training, with the wrist and elbow somewhat lower than the level of the keyboard, a position conducive to suppleness in the joints and relaxation through passive suspension of arm weight. Joszef Gat's (b. 1913) major work, "The Technique of Piano Playing", recommends a sitting position at the keyboard in which forearm and upper arm are free and the body moves forward and backward easily, which movements can raise the elbow somewhat higher than the keyboard for octave and chord playing, or lower the elbow and forearm somewhat lower than the keyboard for velocity and dynamic control in finger passages. He acknowledges that sitting height depends upon the length of the upper arm, and the distance away from the keyboard will depend on the length of the forearm.

This brings me to the question: should we advocate a policy of basic posture for piano students? Given the differences in body size and proportion among human beings, are there any truths which remain constant? I believe that the answer is quite simply, yes, at least at the beginning. Students must be introduced to basic principles of position which affect motion before they evolve their own unique technical habits. Bench levels must be adjusted so that forearms are lined up with the key beds, that is, slightly below the surface of the keys themselves. This permits an easy access to arm weight without effortful pressure. The sensation of hanging from the keys, using arm weight, also mitigates against a frozen high wrist, which is the single greatest nuisance among beginning and intermediate pianists. We also must encourage students to sit towards the front edge of a chair or bench, emphasizing balance and active body orientation in leaning towards the keyboard. This allows the lower back and hips to provide power and weight in playing, instead of using harsh, percussive hand banging. Sitting back creates a terrible inertia which renders any contact with the keyboard tenuous. Furthermore, it prevents grounding the body with feet anchored to the ground; floating with feet in the air creates an unbridgeable chasm between the body and the keyboard.

It is also important to sit far enough away from the keyboard that elbows find some latitude of motion, so that they do not keep bumping into the torso as arms cross the body. One of the worst technical mistakes is to lock the elbow against the body, ensuring rigidity in that joint and limiting mobility for all other connected body parts.   Posture also involves how the head is held. Most pianists suffer terrible tension in the jaws, neck and shoulders. Begin by relaxing the lower jaw and learning to breathe from the belly (diaphragm). Although I do not promote Michael Jordan-style tongue hanging, his is a telling case of facial relaxation and what it does for the rest of the body. Sit with the head erect, with the neck extended, instead of emulating the stiff ideal of ramrod straight. Feel that an invisible string is being stretched from the top of the head to the sky. Bring the shoulders down -- in fact, I remind my students that ideal shoulder position is achieved not so much by pressing shoulders down, as much as bringing them back and away from the neck. Lifting the sternum orients the breastbone outwards instead of caving it inwards. Keep feet flat on the floor when not using the pedals, or use the heel as an anchor when pedaling. Separate the knees, aligning them over the feet. Be careful of where eyes focus; much unnecessary hunching is caused by myopic concentration on fingers scrambling over keys. Raise the eyes away from the hands as much as possible, trusting instead on the tactile sense. Keep the chin up and away from the lower front neck and chest. Try to balance the torso over the hips, and maintain flexibility and mobility of the body by maintaining open and relaxed joints, especially the wrists. Evoke the tone you wish to produce in your inner ear, and try to match it with your hands, not just your finger tips. By effecting a conscious control over posture at the piano, the pianist becomes prepared to make music.

 
 
 
 
 
Page created: 3/24/98
Last updated: 01/30/15
 
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Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1, http://pianoeducation.org
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