My piano career started mostly self-taught, and there are a lot of things I wish I’d learnt just starting out, even after finding a teacher. This series explores those topics, so you can learn from my mistakes.
One of the first things a music teacher tells you is how important good posture is. This isn’t just sitting up straight; it also includes many subtle, constant motions. Some feel awkward at first, and some come naturally.
When I started, I didn’t have a teacher to show me “right and wrong,” so I picked up some nasty habits, like playing with collapsed finger joints, pictured below.
What is wrong with playing like that? First off, it’s uncomfortable. Second, in bending my joints slightly backwards like that, I was injuring myself slightly each time. It wasn’t enough to feel pain at the start, but if I’d kept doing that for years, it would build up, and I would end up with arthritis in those joints. My teacher caught that right off the bat and scared me into supporting my fingers. Yet, even after years of lessons, there are still some aspects of posture no one showed me, so as a post-grad, I’m trying to teach myself how to not hurt myself.
Most of the “rules of posture” or technique are passed down from those who discovered how to avoid injury. Music should feel good emotionally, spiritually, and physically. You should feel like you could play for hours without muscle fatigue.
For piano, specifically, this starts with the core. No one emphasized the importance of bench height in my lessons, so I’ll do so here. The core, your back, and the angle at which your arms reach and rest on the keys determines how your wrists, hands, and fingers interact with the keys. Having the wrong body posture can make it easier or tougher on your fingers.
Bench height should be taller for short people like me, and shorter for taller people, so that when you rest your hands on the keys, your forearms run about parallel to the floor. The distance the bench should be from the keyboard should make it so your knees are about even with the edge of the keys.
Those are somewhat vague parameters, so it helps to play around with it. I never did until recently, and when I found my sweet spot, I realized I’d been making more work for myself. I sat too low, so I was having to hold up my forearms to play, when they really could’ve just been resting this entire time. You win some; you lose some.
The hands and wrists should be about level with the forearm, and then the fingers should look as if they’re resting over a ball, tips on the keys, but not curled under the hand. To find the position, it helps to cup your hand, palm upward and then flip the hand over. Repeat that until you find the form that keeps the hand looking the same both directions.
It always always always is a good idea to have a teacher to show you the fundamentals of posture at the very least. If you get it right the first time, you won’t have to break old habits, only form good ones. It’s less work that way. In music, as in life, it’s better to “work smarter, not harder.”1
I hope this post helps you newbies out there. If you have any questions or better ways of explaining posture, please share in the comments!
1. I’m not really sure where this adage comes from, so if anyone knows, I’d love if you shared in the comments!