What exactly is good posture and how can players know when they are practicing it?
How one looks, feels, and sounds is inextricably linked when it comes to playing stringed instruments. Good posture is often the easy solution to melding these three pieces. When posture is “good,” bones are properly aligned and joints, muscles, ligaments, and tendons are strain-free, promoting movement efficiency and stamina.

Muscles like to be in positions of the least strain and the least effort. Data indicates an increased risk of injury if work necessitates adopting awkward postures, fixed (or held) postures, or stiff body positions. These are undesirable as they load or put stress on joints in an uneven or asymmetrical way. Yet, many times these postures are unavoidable, especially when the nature of work seemingly yields no other options.

But what exactly is good posture and how can players know when they are practicing it? It can be a tricky thing to recognize and often requires breaking a series of bad habits. For string players, risky postures are those that strain necks, torsos, and shoulders. Good posture means all three of these areas are in balance and in the position of least strain.

Risky Postures

Are you a violinist who lowers your head or turns it to one side to hold the instrument? Or are you a cellist who looks down at the fingerboard when you play in thumb position? These behaviors result in strain and tension in the neck. Having to support the head constricts the muscles in the neck and shoulder area, obstructing blood flow and compressing surrounding nerves, many of which extend down the arm. Over time, this tension can bring on disc or nerve problems, headaches, and eye strain.

It is important to keep one’s head erect and neck relaxed. The average head weighs approximately 15 pounds. When a musician tilts, rotates, or cocks his or her head forward or down, the body is holding this weight, and that means additional stress on the cervical spine. It also adds tension and strain to the muscles and tendons in the neck and shoulder area, compressing nerves that originate in the neck and travel down the arm.

It is essential to sit in the position of least strain.

If a musician bends, turns, or twists the torso, or leans forward or backward, he is straining all the muscles and tendons in the back and stressing the spine. Cellists are tempted when playing on the A string to turn their bodies towards that side, inevitably twisting the torso. Violinists may have a tendency to arch the backs and lean back. When players feel tired, they often slump.

These postures are more work for the body because they are unnatural, and holding an unnatural position requires sustained muscle tension. Any leaning makes muscles work harder on one side of the body than the other and over time can cause injury. If you allow your torso to collapse, you may compress discs in the spine, causing a reduction in blood flow to muscles and tendons, which will “starve” the tissue.

Be aware that some wear and tear is inevitable in string-player bodies because holding arms up for long periods of time is absolutely required to play the instruments. Lower your arms often, or whenever you can. Violinists and violists, do you lift your left shoulder when holding your instrument? Cellists, do you raise your shoulders when going into the thumb position?

The forward shoulder position destabilizes the arm during this movement, making its motion more difficult. It is tiring work for the body to lift shoulders. Lifting shoulders also contributes to tension in the trapezius muscles located in the upper back and shoulders. Drooping shoulders, on the other hand, make it difficult to sit upright, resulting in hunched or collapsed chests. Over time, this causes pain and may lead to injury.

Finally, holding arms away from the body at or above shoulder level for long periods of time is tiring and is a position of strain when maintained. Good posture entails keeping shoulders relaxed and down.

Muscle Tension

Muscular activities are categorized in the medical field as either static or dynamic. Static postures include sitting or holding up an outstretched arm, as we would when we hold the bow, especially at the tip, or in a violinist’s left arm, while he holds his instrument. And for cellists, it’s in the left arm muscles, especially when playing in higher positions, that require lifting the arm above the shoulder level, where players complain of fatigue. This is because in a static position, muscles become compressed or contracted and blood, responsible for oxygen replenishment and waste removal, does not readily flow through them. Bodies cannot continue a static or held muscular effort for long before fatigue and, eventually, pain set in.

Meanwhile, dynamic efforts, such as walking, are easy to sustain for long periods of time because fresh oxygenated blood can flow freely to the muscles.

Held positions occur in almost all activities. Unfortunately, only when lying down is the body totally relaxed.

It is the “static” or held component of a position that is the most important to analyze because it is the more strenuous type of work for our muscles. Prolonged and excessive static work over time can weaken joints, ligaments, tendons, and discs. Bodies that hold instruments in awkward positions on a daily basis must be vigilant.

Some string players, especially violinists and violists, who use a chin rest tilt or rotate their heads and, over time, can cause muscles to become imbalanced. The muscles on one side of the neck become shorter and stronger than on the other side, leading to joint dysfunction and nerve compression.

To avoid this type of injury, keep the head erect, chin in, and shoulders down. Violinists and violists should refit chin and shoulder rests to reduce “holding” tension. There are many different shapes, sizes, and heights of shoulder pads and chin rests available. Experiment and, if necessary, have one custom-fit in order to completely fill the space between your head and your shoulder. Also, maintain as neutral a head and neck position as possible: one that minimizes the need to tilt or turn your head.

Cellists should avoid thrusting the head down and forward when getting into the higher positions or when performing a long shift. Instead, the neck of your cello should be above your left shoulder, not on it, and away from your face. This allows your neck and left shoulder to feel freer. Avoiding tension in that area allows you to keep your head more erect and it promotes more efficient left-hand playing in the lower positions.

Angle your cello slightly across your body, that way your head and neck can feel free.

Rigidity is the enemy. Remember to keep moving to release tension. Sometimes we are susceptible to neck tension and stiffness despite our best efforts. Always warm up to make your neck more limber. If you are injury free, try the following frequently and gently before practice, during practice, and before performance. To release tension, try nodding, looking side to side, tilting your head (left ear to left shoulder, right ear to right shoulder), shrugging shoulders, and doing shoulder circles frequently.

Be vigilant about your music stand placement. Align it in such a way that the stand allows you to keep your head level and looking directly forward. To see the conductor or the music, vary the position of your chair and your whole body, rather than just turning your head.

Au Naturel

Sitting is another example of a held or static body position. Most string players must sit to play and it is important to maintain a natural position.

Try this: stand against a wall with your heels, upper back, head, and shoulders touching the wall. Now slip one hand behind your lower back above your waist. This natural curve needs to be maintained while sitting. Still standing against the wall, notice that there is a natural curve in the neck as well.

Now bend your knees and mime playing your instrument as if you are sitting in a chair. You may discover that this position feels “wrong” and does not correspond to your accustomed playing stance.

Perhaps without realizing it, you tend to play while tilting or turning your torso, or thrusting one shoulder more forward than the other. Good posture should be balanced and relaxed.

You shouldn’t be straining to maintain it.

Keep your lower back in as natural or neutral a position as possible, that is, maintain the natural curve that is neither exaggerated nor flat.

Also, keep your shoulders down and level, not pulled upward, backward, or forward.

A forward shoulder position, or “hunching,” destabilizes the arm during movement, making its motion more difficult.

When sitting, your center of gravity and your body weight should be on your sitting bones and your feet. Do not play when your legs are crossed at the knee or ankle, or while curling your legs around the chair legs. This throws your back into a “C” curve, preventing you from distributing your weight evenly throughout upper body and pelvis, and it prevents you from keeping your weight on your feet.

To test your sitting posture, put your instrument aside and sit with your feet flat on the floor. Now try to get up. Your weight, if balanced far enough forward, will allow you to get up without any major re-shuffling in your position.

Bring the instrument to you, keeping it closer to your body as you play, rather than compromising your posture to reach for your instrument. Avoid twisting or leaning to either side, backward or forward.

Most often string players must sit to play, and musicians who are able to play while standing should alternate while practicing. Maintain that proper, aligned posture while sitting and make sure when standing that you maintain that natural curve in your back. Avoid a sway back by keeping your knees slightly bent instead of locked and your shoulders and hips level.

Your body should feel fluid.

Those who cannot play while standing should wiggle in their seat, move, take frequent breaks, and get up and move around. While sitting, shift leg positions frequently. For cellists, one foot slightly in front of the other seems to work well.

Tension in your back muscles from long hours of sitting in awkward positions can proceed from your muscles to the discs in your spine.

Careful avoidance of twisting or turning your back and neck, or thrusting your head and chin forward can literally save your spine.

With your pelvis correctly positioned, and with your head in a neutral position, the spinal alignment follows naturally, freeing your ribcage and allowing free breathing.

Remember, any awkward position or poor posture that is held can produce fatigue, which can eventually lead muscle pain, but also long-lasting damage to joints, tendons, and ligaments.

Musical Chairs

Chairs sometimes force us to make compromises in our posture. Many chairs are too low, or molded, and sometimes slope backward, forcing us to adjust to our chairs rather than vice versa. Tall people feel that their knees are “in their face” and short people’s feet dangle.

It is important to sit in a position where your knees are lower than your hips and your thighs slope downwards. Forward sloping seats are advantageous because one’s center of gravity is placed forward over the sitting bones rather than thrust backward. Tall musicians should look for a chair with a seat height that reaches a level above their kneecaps, if possible. This ideal position can be achieved by using cushions, such as portable foam wedge seat cushions to “raise the seat.”

Blocks placed underneath the chair’s legs to raise the seat can also work. Several of my colleagues have made their own blocks to raise their chair height: four three-inch squares of wood with a height of either one, two, or three inches (depending on the height of the musician), with a groove in the center of the block in which the chair leg is placed. Make sure it is stable! Another solution to a low chair is to put the entire chair on a platform while keeping your feet on the floor.

Try to choose a seat that is higher at the back than it is at the front. Short musicians should sit forward in the chair until feet are flat on the floor and weight is shifted forward. Build up chair backs with cushions. Fortunately, there are several companies that have manufactured ergonomic chairs and several types of seat and lumbar support cushions for the long hours and stress of musicians’ work.

Don’t settle for the dismally hopeless “multi-purpose” chair. Experiment so that you can maintain proper back posture at all times. Try to avoid the urge to freeze. Keep tension from building up by taking every opportunity during practice and performance to move and wiggle, to dangle your arms, to shrug, to stand, to pull your arms back and to stretch your neck.

Any posture that is rigidly held for any length of time is exhausting. If you move around when you play you are making the position dynamic rather than static. Take breaks. A minimum of 10 minutes per hour is a good guide.

Janet Horvath is the author of Playing (less) Hurt—An Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians, which is available online at playinglesshurt.com

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