Why you should you care about how you sit? It’s not about how you look. It’s about health and freedom of movement. Correcting posture issues can go a long way in relieving common pains and injuries while practicing.
What is Piano Posture?
I don’t know if “posture” is the best word to describe it. “Technique” may be a better term, but then it is often confused with actual technical facility, like playing quick and accurate scales or octaves. When I talk about your “posture” in this post, I’m referring to the way you sit at the piano, how far your bench is from the keys, how high you’re sitting, how your fingers are curved (or not curved), where your shoulders are, where your elbows are, how your feet touch the ground (or don’t touch the ground). Basically everything that has to do with your body and the way that you use it at the keyboard will be referred to as posture.
Why is it Important?
Who cares how you sit, as long as you play well right? Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.
Yes, it’s possible to get injured when you play the piano. I’m not talking about bloody fingers, I’m talking about serious injuries that can affect your ability to play into the future, like carpal tunnel or tendinitis. Some teachers will say playing music that is too hard for you will cause injuries. I say that playing any music will cause injuries if you’re doing it wrong.
Carpal tunnel syndrome can cause numbness, tingling, and weakness in your hand. That’s not a good thing for a pianist. Trust me. There is a space (kind of like a tunnel) where a nerve and tendons attach to four of your fingers (not your pinky). Here is an example:
If pressure is repeatedly placed on your carpal tunnel, it can swell up causing pressure on the nerve. This is what causes carpal tunnel syndrome.
If your wrist is too high or too low while you play the piano, you will constantly be putting pressure on this area of your wrist. Eventually you can develop carpal tunnel syndrome. This can be fixed with surgery, but often if you just stop playing incorrectly the swelling will go down and there will be no permanent damage to the nerve.
It’s not exclusive to piano playing of course, but if you think piano playing is what caused it, then you’re probably playing quite a bit. The rough part about fixing it is you have to stop playing for weeks, maybe even months. Even after stopping, when you do come back you have to change your wrist posture or it will just come back and lead to permanent nerve damage.
Intense right? Fixing bad habits is hard. Keeping your wrist in a neutral position will help you avoid this problem in the first place.
So You Can’t Move Your Wrist?
Of course you can. All pianists do. You have to move your wrist to play just about anything in piano repertoire. Your resting position should be with a neutral wrist though. The repetition is what causes carpal tunnel, not the act of moving your wrist. If your hand is primarily in a neutral position while you play, you shouldn’t have a problem. Moving your wrist at the end of a phrase, or for octaves, or for a multitude of other piano techniques should be fine.
This isn’t to say there’s no way to get carpal tunnel syndrome if you’re playing correctly, but you’re much better off if you pay attention to relaxing that wrist.
The Natural Curve
Your fingers have to be curved to play the piano right? Well, no they don’t. There are plenty of professional pianists that play with flat fingers pretty much exclusively, and they do just fine. Even pianists that swear by curved fingers will play with a flat finger once in a while. Even though flat fingers aren’t necessarily wrong they are typically not the optimum position for our fingers to be in.
How Curved Do Your Fingers Need to Be?
Imagine yourself holding a ball or an egg. Do you see how curved your fingers look? That’s not how they should look.
Surprising? A lot of method books, and unfortunately teachers, will teach you to hold a ball or an egg for an ideal hand position. For children’s hands, using a ball or an egg may be closer to the correct position, but for an adult it’s just completely wrong.
Depending on the size of the ball, you’ll need to open your hand up, or perhaps even close your hand a little bit. For an egg, you would definitely need to close your hand to really grasp it.
If your hands are open, you’ll be playing with flatter fingers. If they are closed you’ll be playing way too much on the tips of your fingers. The ideal curve for your hand is the “natural curve”.
Relax your arms and hands to the side of your body. See how your fingers are naturally curved? That’s how you should play the piano. It puts the least amount of stress on your fingers and your hand.
Just like everything else, though, there are plenty of times where you will need to deviate from the natural curve. That’s ok. If at all possible, though, you should try to come back to this natural curve as often as possible.
Young Students Understand the Natural Curve
Teachers try to create images for young students to understand, so they say imagine you’re holding a ball or an egg. Students typically imagine imagery better than a dictionary explanation. Using imagery is a good way to teach. But students don’t really need that imagery for something so elementary. They can see the correct way to play by just relaxing their hand. I’ve found that students as young as three don’t have any problem understanding this concept. Implementing it may differ from student to student, but for the most part understanding is not difficult. It’s because it’s natural.
How to Sit
You should typically sit on half of the bench, and your feet should be flat on the floor. You should be sitting at a height that your wrist and arm are parallel with the ground and right above the white keys of the piano. Your shoulders should be relaxed.
If you’re using the pedal, your heel should always stay on the floor.
They key is balance. The weight of your body should be going directly into the bench through your “sit bones”. When you’re unbalanced, your body needs to use your muscles to keep yourself from following over. You do this unconsciously. How you sit and move at the piano is a topic that needs an entire book. This small article won’t do the trick.
Luckily there’s a book that was written about this! If you are a pianist, or a teacher, and you haven’t read What Every Pianist Needs to Know About the Body you need to order a copy now. While I was in school I spent months reading and adjusting my playing.
Before I worked on this, I had a lot of pain in my shoulders and back. After reading the book (and after a lot of work) the pain was gone. I could practice for hours every day with little to no pain.
Make Adjustments When Needed
If you’re sitting at the piano with a chair, get a bench. With a chair you’ll likely use the back rest. This puts you out of alignment, and it makes it difficult to reach the keys. A piano bench is a better way to go.
If you already use a piano bench, you’ll need to be prepared to adjust the height. You can use books to sit higher on the bench (that’s what I always used in college), but if you want a little more padding you can buy a cushion. I’ve even heard of students using gym flooring to add a little padded height.
Sitting on something extra always feels a little confining for me, so I always prefer an actual adjustable bench. If you need to buy a bench at home, you should really think about investing in one.
If a young student can’t reach a pedal, they often scoot forward almost completely off the bench so their legs can be extended and they can reach the pedal. You can’t really get worse posture than that. But they have to use the pedal! So what do you do? You buy a pedal extender. There are quite a few on the market. They are typically adjustable, so you can make them higher or lower depending on the student, and they work really well.
Instead of a pedal extender you can always just get a foot stool. It’s not ideal because then the student can’t reach the pedals at all. If the student isn’t using the pedals, and they don’t have a pedal extender at least this will get their feet on something solid to balance their weight.
You must make sure whatever stool you get is not toohigh. If it’s too low, you can always adjust it with books or something else underneath it. If it’s too high, there’s really nothing you can do but get a shorter one.
Not All Professionals Play Correctly
You can be an incredible pianist, and still have a posture that could potentially injure you. Vladamir Horowitz was one of the best pianists of the 20th century. He sat extremely low and he often played with flat fingers. Yet somehow he was incredible.
Poor posture doesn’t always lead to injury either. Think of it like smoking. You have a much higher chance of getting lung cancer if you smoke, but it doesn’t guarantee that you ever will.
How Much Should Teachers Focus on Posture?
If you’re a piano teacher, have you ever had a student that practices for 20-30 minutes a day that got carpal tunnel or tendinitis from playing the piano? Are these students ever going to go to school for music? As a teacher I bet you know exactly which students are going to go somewhere with music. It’s not a matter of talent necessarily, it’s a matter of commitment.
Ideally, every student would sit and play correctly at the piano, but I think we need to pick our battles. If a student already has an ingrained habit, how do you fix it?
Really the only way to fix it is to focus on it. They need to stop playing the wrong way. Every time they sit down at the piano and play incorrectly they are reinforcing the bad habit. It’s fixable, but will you turn the student off to piano lessons if you try? That’s a decision you have to make for yourself. If they don’t play very often, it’s unlikely they’re going to get a piano related injury even with bad posture.
You must make a decision on a student by student basis. If I’m the student’s first teacher, I can reliably make sure they play correctly from the beginning. If they’ve already played for a while, though, it may take a little more work. I’ll always try, but then we have to assess the situation and determine whether fixing a small problem is really worth the time.
This is just a small summary about what you need to think about as a pianist or teacher in regards to how you sit and play the piano. If you’re looking for more, don’t forget to read this book. If you have an Alexander Technique teacher near you, that would also be very helpful to understanding your body and how you should be moving at the piano.
Have you ever had to deal with pianist related injuries? Let us know about your experience in the comments.