The author of one of my books about bicycle maintenance explains how one determines the height of the seat. It is, he writes, not a matter of preference, it is a matter of finding the ideal height in relationship to the length of one’s legs and the position of the pedals. There is only one way to sit well on a bike: in their stretched position, the legs should be straight but not tense. I followed his advice and, after a period of getting used to it, I found it to be good advice. I am sure that there are thousands of people who disagree and sit on their bikes any which way. I am also sure that really successful professional bikers have spent a lot of time figuring out how to sit properly.
Can this be transferred to professional keyboard playing? Is there an ideal manner of sitting behind the keyboard that makes us play more relaxedly than any other way, that prevents the development of back trouble and that helps us to concentrate on the music instead on tense or blocked muscles?
To prepare yourself for my non-linear answer, take a few minutes break from reading here, go to youtube.com, search for Brendel, Horowitz; Berezovsky, Cziffra; Kempff and Gould and look at some of the videos. High low; high low; high low.
If you manage to return from these fascinating videos to this post, you may appreciate the fact that historically, the ideal sitting position was not a matter of unanimous agreement either. In 1716, Francois Couperin wrote in his harpsichord method l’Art De toucher Le Clavecin, “The elbows, wrists and fingers should form a horizontal line, and the seat is to be adjusted accordingly.”
Seven years after Couperin, in his keyboard method De la mechanique des doigts sur le clavessin, Jean Philippe Rameau offered a more nuanced approach to the height of a harpsichordist’s seat. Rameau writes that the pupil needs to be seated so that the elbows are just above keyboard level. The hands fall naturally on the keyboard and the elbows hang relaxed and neutrally in their natural position, only to be moved in strictly necessary cases. The first and fifth fingers are placed towards the edge of the keys, and the other fingers are curved to form one line with the first two. However, as soon as the hand has been developed, the player’s seat is gradually lowered, until his elbows are just below keyboard level; this is to ensure a hand position close to the keys and a good legato.
I have always found it difficult to understand the reason for Rameau’s change of the seat position. A young student (not even necessarily a beginner), cannot possibly sit with her or his elbows higher than the keyboard, put the first and fifth finger at the front edge of the keys, place the other fingers in between, also along that edge, and not curve the fingers so much that s/he plays on the rim of the finger nails or alternatively becomes tense in many parts of the hand or the arm.
The crucial issue here seems to me the development of the thumb joint and of the surrounding tendons and muscles. A well-trained player can, without much tension, bring the thumb forward to form a line with the naturally curved fingers. Consequently, this player would also find that a higher position requires less strength, which may indeed seem important for a beginner, whereas a lower position encourages a closer key contact. But a true beginner would perhaps not find a higher position easier at all, whereas a lower position would create less tension in the thumb and less curving of the fingers. Perhaps Rameau wrote after observing his own position; he was certainly such a well-trained player – in any case, for a beginner’s training I do not find his advice convincing at all.
The key to sitting properly seems to me to find a neutral point between the possible greater tension when sitting high and the greater force required when sitting low. In this light, Couperin’s sitting position between Rameau’s two extremes makes quite some sense. What a relief that we find it echoed in an encouraging modern book, Madeline Bruser’s The Art of Practicing (Bell Tower: 1997). Even Bruser argues for minimum hand tension and, in agreement with Couperin, arrives at a sitting position where the elbows are level with the surface of the naturals (p. 97-98).
It was here that my trouble started. Following Bruser’s advice, I took a yardstick and tried to figure out how high my elbows were. For some reason this is very difficult. My measuring stick kept giving me totally random results. One moment I thought I was sitting relaxedly, but perhaps I didn’t; once I was grabbing the stick with my other hand exactly where I thought my elbow was, but couldn’t read the numbers; another time my grip slipped, before I could read them. Then I used a mirror, but the measuring stick dropped on the floor…
After an extended exercise that must have looked like a scene with Mr. Bean, I arrived at new measurements and changed my whole way of sitting and playing. I entered my workshop and made a new bench. I played a few insecure concerts with tense arms. Then I noticed that I was sitting a mile too high and, during several weeks of trial and error, I cut loads of inches off the legs of the new bench. Now I’m sitting so that my elbows are somewhat higher than the level of naturals of the lower keyboard, and that feels good.
Entertaining as this may seem, it is absolutely necessary to work out a good playing position. Otherwise, nature takes its revenge, at least if one plans to spend any substantial time exercising at the keyboard. It is definitely not our hauling the instruments that makes our backs collapse after fifteen years of use, it is our tense and uncoordinated approach to the basics of our technique. On the harpsichord, sitting correctly makes all the difference. We have no large keys to knead into in compensation for our lack of key-contact in a too-high position; there is no pedal that helps us to create our personal tone, if our fingers don’t do it for us. The cash register kind of signature-sound of the I-can-play-this-thing-too-sichordist is typically a result of that player being not only mentally distant from the harpsichord but also physically. Sitting well doesn’t solve this, but it helps.
The other thing a good position helps to solve is the fat finger problem. Especially the tiny French-ravalé octave span creates a Serkin-esque* problem for the harpsichordist: some chords have to be played with one’s fingers far into the sharps, and on these keyboards there is almost no safe position possible. If one does not sit at the proper height, and this is a question of half inches up or down, one’s chances to keep clear of the enharmonic undergrowth get substantially reduced.
Print this out and show it to those teachers, colleagues or parents who are making fun of your efforts to find the right height of your piano or harpsichord bench through fiddling (if the bench can be adjusted) or by means of adding bits of phone book or layers of folded dish towels.
* In the biography Rudolf Serkin: a Life we learn among other things that Rudolf Serkin (one of my heroes), had very thick fingers.
Tags: keyboard technique