The Integrated Approach Dr. Teresa Dybvig, Director

Proper Seating at the Piano

Teresa Dybvig

Read here about how to be comfortably seated at the piano, handy tools for adjusting your seating, and some illustrations of adjustments four of my students made to play comfortably, and answers to a couple of frequently asked questions.

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Kids like these lightweight interlocking gym mats, and they don't squish down the way pillows and cushions do. They are also excellent for people who travel to different places for practicing, teaching, or accompanying, because they are so lightweight. We use them at The Well-Balanced Pianist programs to quickly adjust bench height, and add height to practice piano benches.

Carpet samples work better for adults, and are more dignified too.

Our local piano teachers group uses this PE-2 Pedal Extender for our recitals and competitions.

Comfortable seating at the piano

Good piano playing is only possible if we are comfortably seated at the piano. Therefore, at the beginning of every lesson and practice session, we arrange our piano bench so that it's the best height for playing and the best distance from the piano.

The best height is one which both allows the elbow/upper arm to fall freely from the shoulder, and allows the forearm to be parallel to the floor when the forearm and hand are in their natural shape -- the way they are when the hand is hanging at the side.

The best distance is one which allows our elbows to rest slightly in front of our center line when our hands are in a neutral position on the keyboard, with our hands in front of the elbows (i.e., not in front of the body or at the extremes of the keyboard).

I don't want to give the impression that we are ever in a rigid position when we're playing. What I've described is less a position than a starting point for easy movement.

The upper arm feels quite easy and normal -- not heavy or held, not lifted up or reaching forward. The forearm and hand are at ease, but not so relaxed they are heavy. They are in the shape they are in when hanging at the side, filled with the life that makes movement possible. The wrist is in one piece with the hand and forearm, not holding up or falling down.

Where to sit on the bench

We sit on the front of the bench. Our torsos need to move from the hip joint, so the freedom of the hip joint is one thing to check to see if we're sitting in a good place. We sit far enough back on the bench to feel stable enough that we do not need to hold ourselves in place (it's not good to feel perched). We sit forward enough on the bench to allow the hip joint to move freely. If too much of our thighs are on the bench, our torso is forced back and it is difficult to move forward from the hip joint.

Adding height to the bench

It's very common that even adjustable benches can't raise people up high enough so that their hands, arms, and shoulders -- their playing mechanisms -- are comfortable. Therefore we often find ourselves adding height to the bench (illustrations of my tricks for adding height are at the left).

Adding height to the floor

People whose feet can't reach the floor won't be able to feel easily balanced forward into the piano. There are some official-looking stools on the market for children with shorter legs, but other things work too. We found this footstool at an antiques show, and made the shorter footrests out of telephone books covered with sturdy cardboard boxes.

You can also find pedal extenders on the market. This gives children whose legs would otherwise dangle above the pedals the chance to experience the full range of sounds the piano can make, while sitting advantageously. To the left you can see the pedal extender my local piano teachers group (Suffolk Piano Teachers Foundation) uses.

Learn to play comfortably at The Well-Balanced Pianist
New York
June 2019

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"Ever since I've been using the gym mats to position me at the proper height, most of my back pain is gone. I guess all that effort trying to hold myself up to the proper height created a lot of muscle pain. All these years I've been sitting too low, not realizing what I was doing to my poor back!!!!"
— Chris Thompson, Collaborative Pianist

A few illustrations of comfortable seating at the piano

Here you can see four before-and-after illustrations of solutions my students and I found so they can sit comfortably at the piano.

The bench is too low for Tom. His elbows are a little low - they would look lower, but as you can see, his wrists are compensating by pulling up to give some support to the hands. It is admirable of the body to try to create balance even though it is deprived of the best conditions, but it is not ideal. His arm and hand are out of alignment at the wrist, the top knuckles are flattened out because of the high wrist, and the fingers are also too extended.

Just two carpet samples, and, voilà! Tom's forearms are parallel to the floor, his wrists are an easy one piece with the forearm and hand, and his knuckles have returned.

The bench, is too high for Allison. It's at its top height because everyone else who uses this bench has to add things to it. When she sat down, she laughed because she felt so strange, and said, "I just don't feel like my arms can rest down." The longer she sat there, the more tempting it was for her torso to fall forward. Allison is very aware of her posture. If she weren't, she would have given in to a slump to get a more solid feeling in her hands and forearms on the keys. As it was, she had to hold herself in place to avoid slumping.

We lowered the bench, and lowered it some more, and finally she felt like she can rest down. She said, "All the strain is suddenly gone."

The bench is too low for Laura, and so is the floor! Her elbows are low, and her heels are off the floor. Laura knows and likes the feeling of balancing forward toward the piano, so she's arching her back to get there. If she weren't used to the feeling of balancing forward, she would be slumped back because her heels aren't on the floor.

Two carpet samples later, and Laura's elbows look like they're in the right place, but the heel situation is worse. She has to reach even more now. This is compromising her back, which is still arched, and her hands, which are reaching to be on the keyboard.

She is looking comfortable now with the addition of a small footrest. (Shoes with high heels can help in a similar way). Forearms and hands in one piece, wrists easy and part of the one-piece hand and forearm, and hands in their natural shape, the way they are when hanging at the side. When we got to this photograph, Laura said, "It feels so much more comfortable when I'm set up right."

Catherine is not set up well! Her elbows are very low, so her wrists are lifting way up out of alignment with her hand and forearm, and she's really reaching for the keys. Her toes barely touch the floor.

As we were taking "before" photographs, Catherine's shoulders inched up. We quickly took a couple of these pictures, just to illustrate this common reaction in the body to a low bench. Then we started adjusting, because she was so obviously uncomfortable.

The first thing we did was add things to the bench. And add them, and add them! We ended up with all four of my interlocking gym mats, with one carpet sample underneath. The elbows, wrists, and shoulders look a lot better, but she's leaning back away from the piano because her feet have nothing to rest on.

Finally, she's feeling good. When we got the footstool in place, I asked Catherine what she thought, and she said, "I feel more relaxed and comfortable this way."

Answers to a few common questions

1. Will I adjust every bench the same way? Answer: No. Some benches are higher than others, and some pianos are higher than others. We always look for the most comfortable position for the pianist.

2. Will I sit at the same height every time I sit down? Answer: Surprisingly, no! Depending on the time of day, you may sit slightly higher or lower. An Alexander Technique practitioner mentioned this on the now-defunct Well-Balanced Pianist Forum, so I decided to make no assumptions and keep looking at my bench height. Sure enough, I have noticed that I, and my students, will best sit slightly higher or lower depending on the time of day, how awake we are, or how fatigued our muscles are from recent exercise or stress.

3. Once the bench height is set, will my child or I always sit at that same height? Answer: Not necessarily. As your child grows, her proportions may change along with her height. As your playing changes and grows, you may find yourself releasing in places so you need to sit higher, or firming up in other places, necessitating a lower seat.

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Copyright © 2003 - 2014 Teresa Dybvig
The Well-Balanced Pianist, LLC