Have you ever practiced the piano and felt pain, tension or fatigue during or after your practice session? Maybe your hands or arms felt tight. Or, your neck or shoulders were sore afterwards. Perhaps your back was tired.
Pain and tension are very normal body responses to any type of repetitive activity, especially when we use too much effort or or don’t take into consideration how the body naturally moves.
We may have some ideas about what “good posture” at the piano means. But first, we need to be aware of what habits are using too much effort before we add a new ideas about using the right posture on top of that.
Ultimately, your awareness is your greatest asset when figuring out what works for you. Here are some helpful tips for setting up your practice to avoid injuring yourself at the piano.
Related: Piano Posture and Injury Prevention
Notice what your usual set up is in relation to the piano.
How far is your bench from the piano?
Can you reach the entire length of the keyboard comfortably?
Start by having the bench out further then you would think. Your arms and legs need plenty of room be used at their full length. Being too close to the piano can cause us to tighten our arms towards our torso. Making ourselves smaller generally leads to more work or tension. Letting yourself take up more space is a great place to start.
You should be sitting on the front half of the bench and adjust your distance based on the length of your arms and legs. Your arms extended should be able to just reach the fallboard of the piano. If you’re arms are squished or bend, try moving further away.
Sit on your sit bones. The anatomical name is ischial tuberosities but we’ll just call them sit bones. You have two sit bones at the bottom of your pelvis that are like little rocking chairs.
When rocking on your sit bones, you can easily find two different extremes. When you’re rocking back you’ll find yourself in a “slump”. However, rocking forward so your belly goes forward of your head and pelvis and you are looking up a bit will take you to the opposite extreme. We’ll call that a “strut”.
After going back and forth between a “slump” and a “strut”, find some place in the middle on top of your sit bones. It might feel very bony if you’re not used to sitting on them. But, when we don’t balance on our sit bones, other parts of our body have to work very hard to stay upright.
Try all the positions between a “slump” and “strut” while lifting your arms slowly. See which positions make your arms feel light or heavy.
We have large muscles in our back that support the arms so when we slump or strut, we can interfere with that support making the muscles of our neck and upper shoulders do all the work.
Your arms should generally form a 90-degree angle at your elbows at the piano, but there may be some variation based on what height your bench needs to be to provide a stable base for your feet. If you notice your wrists dipping lower than the keys or lifting higher than your hands, then check to see if your bench height is too high or low or if you can bring the wrists to a more neutral position.
Do your hands look soft? When all our finger joints are engaged our hands form a shape like a rounded bridge. Notice if one of your finger joints is collapsing. If you’re having trouble finding a soft, rounded hand shape, try this: Squeeze your hands tightly to make a fist. Then, release your hands at your side to see your natural hand shape. This shape takes no work is what we want to bring to the piano.
When using the pedal make sure your right heel keeps contact with the floor and use your ankle joint to move the foot up and down. It can be tempting lift the whole foot or to make our whole leg work in this movement but experiment with how little effort you need when you move your foot from the joint.
It is also easy to forget about our left foot if we aren’t using it for pedaling. Remember that it is providing support if you find yourself pedaling with a lot of tension.
Allow Movement & Necessary Tension
Notice throughout your practice if you get stuck in the slump or strut positions we just explored. Movement helps ease tension so these positions aren’t bad. But, if we get stuck there, you’ll notice movement and breathing becomes more difficult.
Tension usually gets a bad rap. We obviously need some effort in our muscles to do an activity, but the key is to use just enough. Playing the piano should feel easy when we use our own body weight and the support of the ground, bench and the piano. Effort comes into play when we lift ourselves away from our support.
Always take a moment before you play to notice how and what you feel. Can you feel the ground, the bench and the space around you? Can you hear the sounds in your space?
Notice if this awareness changes anything or if you were able to sense yourself holding somewhere. Do you need to hold that?
Taking inventory before you begin is a great practice but remember that habits are automatic so they are something you can keep reminding yourself of during your entire practice.
Notice if your shoulders like to creep up close to your ears or if you feel you must raise them to create more power in your sound. If your neck, back or shoulders start feeling tense tune in to these things:
- Where you are on your sit bones
- If you are breathing fully
- If you feel like your body can move freely
Sometimes a small adjustment is all you need.
Connect To Your Back
It would make sense that to achieve a louder, more powerful sound at the piano we would need to play harder right? Well, let’s continue experimenting.
Try playing a chord pushing into the keys with the effort coming from the hands, arms, and shoulders.
Now shake it out.
Bring your fingertips to the keyboard allowing them to rest while your elbows can hang and move freely. Notice if allowing your fingers and elbows to be easy and rest brought in a bit of a slump. It’s easy to lose all tone and create too much slack when we try to ease up in one area.
Without strutting or slumping allow the arms to be easy and sense the connection of your fingertips to your pelvis. Our power is coming through the entire length and width of our backs, not only the upper shoulders. Play a chord again. Notice if connecting to the back of you offers more support while letting your arms not work so hard.
While it is very common to experience pain and injury as a musician it doesn’t have to be your experience. There are many tools and modalities available. Even if you have experienced pain for a long time, there are many ways to alleviate it. We can always train our bodies to play the piano in a more natural, supportive way. If something hurts, don’t ignore it and play through it. Study what you’re doing or find a professional to help if you’re insure.
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