photo of cellist sitting tall“The simplest things are the ones that count.”
–Pablo Casals, cellist
Casals and the Art of Interpretation, p. vi

Have you ever dealt with discomfort caused by sitting?

Most of us sit for hours each day as we practice, study, and use computers.

I’ve observed, though, that few musicians know how to sit optimally, and, as a result, many endure frequent episodes of back pain.

Here are 4 principles that contribute to optimal sitting.

All are expanded on pages 250-269 of The Musician’s Way, where you’ll find additional guidelines as well as dozens of photos of different instrumentalists demonstrating favorable and unfavorable habits.

Four Principles of Optimal Sitting

1. Balance on Your Sitting Bones

To get a feel for balancing on your sitting bones (i.e., ischial tuberosities), try this:

a. Sit at the front edge of a standard-height, armless chair with only your pelvis contacting the seat.
b. Place you feet flat on the floor.
c. Position your knees hip-width to shoulder-width apart.

Next, rock you pelvis forward and back to sense your two sitting bones. Then, cease rocking, and balance on the tips of those bones.

Either remain at the front of the seat or slide back and distribute some of your weight on the backs of your thighs. Employ a seat cushion or lumbar support as desired.

2. Position Your Hips Higher than Your Knees

Positioning the hips higher than the knees helps release the lower back muscles and can facilitate breathing.

Forward-sloping seat cushions are ideally suited to achieving this sort of hip alignment (I’m sitting on one as I write this).

For taller musicians, chairs can also be modified in a pinch with the likes of thick phone books, as demonstrated by cellist Kendall Ramseur in the above image.

3. Release Your Shoulders

To enable unbridled use of the arms, for starters, place your hands on your thighs and allow your shoulders to release down and away from each other (the shoulder blades will move closer together). Then, let your shoulders remain free as you make music or do any activity.

Shoulders can be tricky to coordinate because they’re our most mobile joint. Many instrumentalists, for instance, tend to stiffen one or both shoulders as they bring their hands into playing position.

So, in addition to adopting good shoulder use, take regular breaks during which you roll your shoulders, circle your arms, and otherwise counteract any buildup of tension. Pages 75-82 of The Musician’s Way present instructions and photos to incorporate six such restorative movements into our practice breaks.

4. Align and Lengthen Your Spine

“From your tailbone to your head, let your spine lengthen toward a vertical alignment, and allow your head to rise as if it were a helium-filled balloon.” (The Musician’s Way, p. 252)The Musician's Way book cover

Avoid slumping forward or arching your back like a soldier at attention.

In tandem, instead of holding yourself rigidly or staying in an unchanging position, move as needed and regularly vary your sitting position

To evaluate your spinal alignment, place a mirror or camera at your side; it’s also useful to ask a knowledgeable teacher or colleague for feedback.

*  *  *

Along with applying the above four principles, most of us can discover optimal ways to sit by taking lessons in the Alexander technique or Feldenkrais method.

It also helps for us to have adequate strength in the abdominal and back muscles. If you feel that your strength might be lacking, consider seeing an athletic trainer or a physical therapist for advice about exercises, but bear in mind that strength alone won’t suffice; optimal sitting habits are crucial.

Related posts
Balanced shoulders, open heart
The centered performer
Heeding the signs of injury
Projecting ease
The total warm-up

All content © 2011 Gerald Klickstein