Some Thoughts on Posture and Holding the Guitar
Published: 1990 Author: Graham Wade
THE HOLDING OF MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS such as flute, oboe, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, euphonium, violin, cello, etc, is universally acknowledged as being one of the most crucial aspects of fundamental technique. Musicians, whether practising alone or performing in orchestras for long hours, must assume a playing posture utterly compatible with the natural disposition of the body. Sitting at instruments such as the organ or pianoforte should also involve a good sense of posture. With wind instruments the physiological requirements of playing, the erect spinal column, the free dia-phragm, the well-controlled breathing, and an overall naturalness of posture, are intimately related to the mechanics of creating sound from the instrument.
With keyboard instruments the question of posture sometimes seems more associated with the well-being of the per-former than with the actual playing. Many leading pianists, both classical and jazz, have a posture at the keyboard which is somewhat unhealthy, with slouched shoulders, head dropped forward, and a bent back; despite this they still produce excellent music.
But in recent years great attention has been drawn to the need for all musicians to maintain a healthy posture. Even if the mechanics of playing the instrument can apparently be mastered despite bad posture (as some great pianists seem to have done), the effects of unhealthy body positions over the years can lead to strain, stress, tension, and illness.
Musicians have become especially interested in physical fitness, the principles of Yoga and the methods of the Alexander technique for correct use of the body in all aspects of daily life. Some of this interest has been applied for remedial purposes after physical problems have occurred. When a musician has a problem brought about by years of bad posture the application of sound postural principles is indeed like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. Therefore good teachers of all instruments now regard the postural questions as being of maximum significance in the development of the whole musical personality and potential.
Moreover, it is now emphasised by all practitioners of postural techniques that the body is an entity, a complete organic unity. Players of all musical instruments have a need to take many component aspects of posture into consideration, including the uprightness of the spinal column, head alignment, shoulders, position of legs and arms, etc. As each person is of a shape and size different from every other person (with the possible exception of identical twins) it soon becomes obvious that generalizations about playing positions are often inadequate. The differences between for example, an extremely tall, heavyweight mature male and a young girl of about seven years old, when it comes to positioning the guitar, extend to considerations of arm length, size and shape of fingers, and distance from the wrist to the end of the fingers. Standardisation is only possible with robots,
A playing position, especially where the guitar is concerned, is often a somewhat dynamic commodity – in other words, it tends to change according to the exigencies imposed by the act of playing the instrument. To acquire a physiologically correct posture is one thing, to keep it throughout all aspects of technique is more difficult. The ideal objective is to achieve a holding and playing position which is both ‘natural’ and sustainable. The act of practising and performing for a long period of time with a musical instrument is not in itself a ‘natural’ activity. It can be achieved only by long and arduous preparation.
It is therefore particularly important to find one’s way to a convenient, comfortable and appropriate playing posture which will both help the technical development, and never, or hardly ever, inhibit or cramp in any way the muscles, tendons, joints, etc, which constitute the areas used in manipulating the instrument. It is now recognised by the medical profession that performance on a musical instrument can cause displaced tension of many kinds and that parts of the body, such as the shoulders or lower back, not immediately used in the mechanics of particular instruments but an organic part of the entire person, can be adversely affected by bad posture.
Problems and Possible Solutions of the Holding Position
The primary problem of holding the classical guitar is its weight and point of balance. The force of gravity tends with many players to pull the guitar this way or that, and the player then has to erect a muscular countering effect, either with the right arm, and a touch of the left hand, or with a combination of both right arm and left hand.
The classical guitar can nowadays be quite a weighty instrument and as its weight has increased the difficulties of holding it have not lessened. To overcome these problems many players adapt their body to the necessities of holding the instrument rather than fitting the guitar to a natural holding posture. The first indication of bad posture is usually a deformation in some way of the spinal column. In playing the guitar it is essential that the back should be naturally straight, not curved or distorted along the line of vertebrae. Similarly the head should not be drooped forward from the neck but should sit upright on the spinal column. Inclining the head forward from the upright is a tiring and distorting process which over the hours of practice can be a source, at the very least, of physical stress.
The problem of the guitar’s shifting position through gravity was directly addressed by Dionisio Aguado who invented a tripod to hold the guitar in position. One of his reasons for using this was to allow the guitar to vibrate perfectly freely. Another was to avoid ‘using energy to steady the instrument which should be occupied entirely by the fingers of both hands to produce the desired effects’. This use of energy to steady the instrument is one of the most deleterious aspects of bad guitar positioning. It does not just occur with beginners, for sometimes even advanced players (to the level of recitalists) can be trapped in this syndrome.
Over recent years the traditional method of holding the guitar, as propagated by Tárrega, Pujol, Segovia and many others, has come to be severely questioned. In particular the footstool, the treasured adjunct to the nineteenth-century schools of playing, has been considered by many as a source of tension in itself. The act of raising the left foot onto the footstool and leaving it there is said by anatomists to impart tension and twist to the lower part of the spine and torso, especially when maintained for several hours a day over many years.
As a result new methods of holding the guitar securely have been introduced. These range from a specially made pad under the guitar on the left thigh (a process which makes the footstool redundant), to the re-invention of a holding device akin to Aguado’s tripod (used by virtuoso players such as Stepan Rak), and to the placing of a strip of foam rubber across the knees allowing sufficient friction to hold the guitar in place without needing pressure from the arms to secure the guitar firmly. (I am grateful to Arnaud Dumond for this last suggestion.)
The Posture of the School of Francisco Tárrega
Tárrega, unlike Sor, Aguado, Carcassi and Carulli, did not compose a guitar method. His teaching comes to us diffused through the writings of his pupils and in the content of his compositions, transcriptions, pedagogic exercises and studies. Perusal of a photograph of Tárrega’s playing position reveals many of the essential characteristics of his approach. The left foot is placed on a footstool. The left hand, usually photographed in the barré position, is placed extremely square to the fingerboard, the knuckles as near parallel to the strings as possible. The right hand has the fingers very close together, the thumb gracefully curved, the knuckles of this hand also being totally parallel to the strings. The playing position shows Tárrega’s index finger to be just forward of the rosette, the thumb therefore well over the soundhole extending almost to the beginning of the fingerboard.
The Tárrega position was usually considered in the early twentieth century as a kind of ideal classical guitar posture and in various ways influenced Andres Segovia, though not entirely. Even nowadays many teachers (perhaps subconsciously) take various aspects of the Tárrega posture as their basic concept or blueprint. For Tárrega himself it certainly was the ideal position, carefully formulated with the help of his Torres guitars, which, with their different dimensions from the previous Lacote and Panormo models, necessitated new concepts of posture and playing position. Earlier nineteent-century masters had neither agreed on nor adopted any uniform playing posture, each having his own ideas. Tárrega’s position was, in contrast, carefully imitated by his students.
It is certainly worthwhile investigating the inherited precepts of Tárrega’s teaching if only to establish how one’s own approach might differ from this kind of orthodoxy. Pascual Roch (1860–1921), for example, provides one of the earliest statements for ‘the School of Tárrega’ in his Método Moderno (1921).
(How to hold the guitar)
The student should be seated in an ordinary chair, neither too high nor too low, the left foot resting on a footstool from twelve to twenty centimetres high (according to his height and physical formation); the height at which the foot should be placed being such, that the left thigh forms a slightly acute angle with the body, and the right knee so far away that the body of the instrument can be comfortably adjusted.
Roch recommends that the guitar presses against the left side of the chest, the right foot remains firmly on the floor, the lower bout of the guitar rests snugly on the left thigh, and the player should not lean to the left or stoop. The neck of the guitar should reach the height of the shoulder and the twelfth fret be in line with the player’ s head. The position of the guitar itself should be vertical with no backward tilt.
Another authoritative explanation of the principles of Tárrega is to be found in Escuela Razonada de la Guitarra by Emilio Pujol (1886–1980) first published in 1934, and based on the principles of technique of Tárrega’.
Pujol suggests a sloping footstool, fifteen to seventeen centimetres high at the front and twelve to fourteen centimetres at the back. Having placed the guitar on the left leg, with the guitar against the chest, Pujol recommends the player to lean forward slightly. The pressure of the right forearm provides one of the instrument’s points of support. The head and body should lean forward as little as possible, the machine heads not being allowed to pass the line of the shoulders. As with Roch, a photograph of Tárrega provides the example of the sitting position.
Contemporary Advice on Sitting Position
Descriptions of the sitting position put forward by Guitar Methods often follow the general outlines of the Tárrega traditions. They often, for example, begin with the fairly obvious advice that the chair should be without arms and the player should sit forward to allow the downward bout of the guitar to be clear of the chair.
Most conventional sources of advice also recommend the use of the footstool as a standard part of the guitarist’s equipment. A certain refinement of detail may also present itself. Vladimir Bobri, for instance, in The Segovia Technique, mentions how Segovia’s left foot ‘rested on the near edge of the footstool’, thus leaving the heel and leg with some flexibility. (Other authors suggest that the foot should be flat on the footstool.)
The question of the points of support recur frequently in writing about posture. Bobri suggests in this connection that the guitar is supported at four points, ‘the right thigh, the left thigh, the underside of the right arm, and the chest’. In contrast Abel Carlevaro in his Escuela de la Guitarra advises five points of contact, adding the left hand as a point of contact; Carlevaro refines the matter further, differentiating between ‘active contact points’ and ‘passive’, but affirming that three contact points are ail that are necessary to control the guitar’s stability.
Changing the pattern, Carlevaro suggests the use of a cushion on the left leg to prevent sliding, the cushion being made from sponge or slip-free material such as latex. The problem of the guitar’s ability to slide freely is a crucial matter. Many players become accustomed to the guitar’s inherent mobility and actually move the instrument slightly during recitals and practice sessions. Others, particularly those who employ Carlevaro’s concept of a sponge cushion, or Dumond’s foam rubber friction holding the instrument, become used to a more or less fixed guitar which cannot shift and around which the player’s hands move rather like a pianist’s hands over the fixed plane of the keyboard.
In such a situation the positioning of the right arm becomes less significant as a means to the guitar’s fixture during playing, the hold being taken by the legs, not the traditional points of support. Similarly the left hand is then not tempted to hold the guitar in place in any way. Some players, sometimes without realising its full extent, do use the left hand as a way of stabilising the guitar and inhibit its manipulative functions by so doing.
To the fundamental osteopathic charge that the footstool applies immediate twist to the lower spine and back area, little can be said. As with athletes, musicians are often willing to put up with considerable inconvenience to achieve the fulfilment of their ambitions. The built-up cushion, known as the Dynarette, now on the market, allows the left foot to be placed flat on the floor, the height usually given by the footstool now being taken up by the width of the cushion on the leg. The Dynarette in itself does not allow the guitar to be self-supporting unless used with chamois leather on the right leg.
Some guitarists using the footstool employ non-slip material on the left leg, but still keep the guitar essentially in position with the right arm. In this way the guitar has inherent mobility but is also fairly stable, halfway between the traditional posture and the entirely fixed, static position.
Examination of the posture of leading guitarists today shows far more variety than ever before in the holding positions with many of them now concerned about the physical effects and tension problems brought about by anatomically bad posture. Long hours of practice with bad posture can lead to backache, distorted spinal positions, bad breathing posture with collapsed diaphragm, an unhealthy forward movement of the head, and tension in the shoulders, back, and forearms. The easy and total solutions for all problems in the holding of the guitar have not yet been reached. Unfortunately, the teaching of posture to pupils is also frequently inadequate, with teachers eager to move on to more exciting aspects. On certain occasions one can observe teachers and pupils sharing the same weaknesses in their approach to posture.
An ideal upright posture can be seen in a player such as John Williams whose upright back and apparent perfect naturalness of posture is a superb example of the traditional holding position. Some guitarists, such as Laurindo Almeida, Siegfried Behrend, and Gabriel Estarellas, evolved a position by which the guitar was placed on the right leg, a posture sometimes adopted by jazz guitarists. Though in individual cases it seems to work weil, the guitar on the right thigh feels rather unstable to many players, especially in higher position work.
Guitarists of all standards are well advised from time to time to evaluate their playing position, with the help of a full-length mirror. The advice of a postural specialist such as an osteopath or practitioner of Alexander technique is indis-pensable (though this kind of expert advice is usually asked for when a musician has experienced problems rather than at an earlier stage). A playing position may not remain the same from year to year and constant revaluation of sitting posture is advisable. ln this respect the use of a video camera may prove particularly welcome to reveal to the player unsuspected postural inhibitions that have begun to infiltrate without the person’s realisation. It must be stressed again that sitting in a correct position with the guitar may be one thing, but the act of playing strenuous pieces may produce a change to other habits of tension and stress which reflect in the player’s posture.
Role models and casual observation of players in recital can be deceptive. Each player’s physique is unique unto itself, and while general principles may be formulated, particular individuals ultimately need to establish specific requirements relating to their own physical make-up. Personal enquiries to established players usually reveal that most performers have a coherent and complex philosophy concerning the holding of the instrument developed over years of practice. Such players are very willing, in the right context, to explain their postural concepts to other guitarists.
For many instrumentalists over a period of time, it is in the minutiae of tiny, unnoticed adjustments that problems occur. Such adjustments steadily make themselves permanent and cause various degrees of tension progressively. This is indeed a problem that ail musicians share, whether soloists or orchestral players, and is by no means confined just to guitarists.
1. Methods containing instructions on posture:
Aguado, D. New Guitar Method, Tecla, 1981
Almeida, L. Guitar Tutor, Criterion Music Corp, 1957
Arenas, M.R. La Escuela de la Guitarra, Book One, Ricordi Americana, 1923
Bobri V. The Segovia Technique, Macmillan, 1972
Carcassi, M. Méthode complète pour la Guitare, Part l, Schott
Carlevaro, A. School of Guitar (Escuela de la Guitarra): Exposition of Instrumental Theory, Boosey & Hawkes, 1978
Carulli, F. Méthode complète pour Guitare, Op.27, Studio per Edizioni Scelte, 1981
Duarte, J.W. The Bases of Classic Guitar Technique, Novello, 1975
Duncan, C. The Art of Classical Guitar Playing, Summy Birchard, 1980
Femandez-Lavie, F. École de Guitare, Max Eschig, 1972
Gilardino, A. La Tecnica della Chitarra, Bèrben, 1981
Mills, J. The John Mills Classical Guitar Tutor, Musical New Services, 1981
Pujol, E. Escuela Razonada de la Guitarra, Volume l, Ricordi Americana, 1956
Pujol, E. Guitar School, Books One & Two, ed. Ophee, Editions Orphée, 1983
Quine, H. Introduction to the Guitar, Oxford University Press, 1971
Roch, P. A Modern Method for the Guitar: School of Tárrega, Volume 1, G. Schirmer, 1921
Romero, P. Guitar Style and Technique, Bradley Publications, 1982
Shearer, A. Classic Guitar Technique, Volume l, Franco Colombo, 1959
Sor, F. Method for the Spanish Guitar, trans. Merrick, Da Capo Press, 1850
2. Useful texts on postural problems:
Alexander, F.M. The Use of the Self, Methuen, 1932
Barker, S. The Alexander Technique, Bantam Books, 1978
Barlow, W. The Alexander Principle, Gollancz, 1973
Grindea, C., ed. Tensions in the Performance of Music, Kahn & Averill, 1978
Havas, K. Stage Fright, Bosworth, 1973
Hittleman, R.L. Be Young with Yoga, A. Thomas & Co, 1963
Menuhin, Y. Life Class, Heinemann, 1986
Sandor, G. On Piano Playing, Schirmer, 1981
Szende, O. and Nemessuri, M. The Physiology of Violin Playing, Collets, 1971
Whone, H. The Simplicity of Playing the Violin, Gollancz, 1972
Copyright © 1990 by Graham Wade