Does perfect posture for piano – or flute, or singing, or trumpet, or cycling, or anything else, for that matter – exist? This is a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, as I’ve recently started teaching Alexander Technique to a new class of music students.
Perfect posture for the piano – or perfect posture for whatever instrument my student studies – is usually high on a student’s agenda at the beginning of a course of lessons with me. If they’re in my teaching room to learn Alexander Technique, they’ve probably booked the appointment because they’re having trouble playing to the standard they’d like. And a lot of the time they’ve been told, often by a teacher or coach, that their posture is poor and needs fixing.
So they’re in my teaching room. Wanting to learn the secret of achieving perfect posture.
I’ve been reading a book called Piano Notes by noted pianist and critic Charles Rosen, and he very much writes what I have experienced in my practice – that looking for an externally verifiable perfect posture is to look at the problem completely the wrong way around.* Let’s investigate.
If there was a perfect posture, then it would have to fit everyone. I other words, any pianist would have to sit the same way, use the same hand technique, and so on. And for this to work for everyone, all pianists would need to be roughly the same size physically and have the same hand shape.
But we know that this isn’t true. Rachmaninov and Richter had famously large hands. By all accounts, Ashkenazy has quite small hands. Casadesus had famously stubby fingers. Is it reasonable for us to expect that all these players should use the same fingering technique and the same hand position? And what about seating position? Should we expect all sizes of people to sit in the same way?
If there was indeed such a thing as a perfect hand position or seating position, we may well be left with the uncomfortable conclusion that those people who weren’t physically suited to it shouldn’t play piano. Hm.
And what about perfect seating posture at the keyboard? If there were such a thing, then there would also be a myriad ways to sit which were not perfect. But what if, in order to get the effect the composer demanded, you had to sit or move in such a way that you left the ‘perfect’ position? That would be a tricky dilemma!
Perfect posture punctured!
Put simply, my students are having trouble maintaining ‘perfect posture’ as they play, because it doesn’t exist. There is no one right way, because there is no one right person. There are so many different shapes and sizes of performer, and so many different demands placed upon them by different pieces of music, that to try to make firm and fixed rules is doomed to failure.
And I think my students know this in their heart of hearts. But they still want fixed rules to follow, because it is somehow more comforting to think that there is a perfect answer out there, and if they just have the secret of it, they’ll never have to think or worry about playing again.
FM knew all about this very human desire for rules we can follow unthinkingly, which is why even in his very first book he was at pains to point out that instructions that helped one student could be troublesome or even detrimental to another. That’s why he didn’t give lists of instructions on how to sit or stand.**
So in the end, we need to work out for ourselves what is likely to be best for our bodies, whether we are playing musical instruments or just chopping the veggies. But how are we to do this? Are there any guidelines that can help us?
Look to the anatomy, and learn from basic principles of how we’re structured. For example, a 90 degree angle between forearm and upper arm is always going to be beneficial to aim for, because it’s where you arm has maximum torque (turning power) and thus the most potential and freedom to move.
Work out what is required of you. For example, if you’re playing piano and come across a section of music that the composer intends to be loud and forceful, make note of this.
Check out the externals. Is the piano stool high, or low? Is the veggie knife sharp? Is the music stand high or low?
Once you know all the contributing elements, you can design your own optimum solution for the circumstances you’re in right now. Just remember that today’s optimum might be different to tomorrow’s!
*Charles Rosen, Piano Notes, London, Penguin, 2004, pp.1-3.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT ed., pp.155-157.