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The Piano-Player's Position.


The average pupil sits too close to the keyboard, and as a consequence plays from the elbows in a cramped manner. Such playing always sounds "stuffy" to me, the phrasing is narrow and constrained, and there is a general lack of breadth, freedom, and freshness.
I advise sitting far enough from the keyboard to necessitate an easy and unconstrained reach for the keyboard, so that the elbows instead of poking out behind the back are even with (or a little beyond) the front of the body. Do not permit the shoulders to droop, although a slight tip of the body from the waist forward from an exact perpendicular is best. Swaying the body to and fro is inartistic and unsightly; besides, such motions detract from the playing by squandering energy and power that should be used directly for musical purposes.
I have little use for the revolving stool. One can get no purchase on it. The bench is better if low enough; but the polished surface is objectionable. I have found an ordinary bentwood, cane-seated chair the best, although keyboards differ so in height that such a statement is indefinite. At any rate I prefer to practice with the inside of the elbow-joint just below the level of the keyboard, by which I gain an advantage when seated at a normal height for public playing.
This manner of practice is excellent for many purposes, chief of which is to permanently shift the center of gravity of the playing apparatus from the forearm to the upper arm. Unless this is accomplished there can be no freedom of motion or breadth and nobility of interpretation.—Frank L. Reed.
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Some teachers make it a point to have pupils sit low. The elbows should be a trifle above the keyboard rather than below it, so that the performer may have a position of command over his instrument.
The revolving stool is objectionable on account of its instability. Usually, too, it is so loosely made that it "wabbles." Whether a chair or bench is preferable depends upon the robustness of the student. Personally, I prefer a bench. No one whose physique will not admit of sitting upright without support should undertake a task so arduous as the playing of the piano.
I do not think it wise to call a pupil's attention to his position, unless he shows a tendency to make awkward motions or to assume absurd postures. All players have slight mannerisms, and the attempt to conform to a set model can only result in a very self-conscious attitude, which is perhaps the most disagreeable mannerism of all.
The pianist who hopes to interest his audience must have his mind fixed upon something far higher than himself or the position of his hands and elbows. I believe most of the offensive habits of certain executants proceed from an ignoble mental attitude and a superabundance of egotism.—Harvey Wickham.
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The objections to the revolving stool are: 1. It soons (sic) becomes shaky, and sometimes noisy. Some pupils acquire the habit of sitting in a stiff, constrained position on account of a shaky stool. 2. The child turns it up and down, and almost always sits too high.
The chair (not revolving) with a back and no side- arms is firm and gives a feeling of stability and confidence, and it usually has a more capacious seat. Its general aspect is more inviting and comfortable. The same advantages are apparent in the case of the bench.
Paderewski uses the chair. Hofmann and Macdowell used a bench.
As to the height,—as a general statement it seems best to have the elbow a bit below the level of the keys. Yet in the case of younger pupils it is liable to lead to the habit of playing with the finger lengthened out flat upon the key. This is particulary (sic) true of the little finger. And it rather emphasizes the tendency to droop the hand upon the frame in front of the keyboard.
The height on a chair or bench can be regulated by using a firm cushion.
As to reach and power, it seems best to sit back far enough to allow a free relaxed condition of the whole arm, the elbows coming a little further front than the shoulders.
As to erectness, inclination, etc. Make only necessary motions, but with sufficient latitude to be graceful.—William Benbow.
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If my pupil is a normal individual and knows so much as to sit easily, unconsciously, I spare myself— and him—the trouble and risk of any prescriptions touching the pose and action of the body in pianoforte-playing. He should not know he has a body, and, of course, he should not screw it around on the piano-chair, like a gyroscope, to the confusion, amazement, and constant distraction of the hearer. If he does this I quietly take him by the shoulders once or twice, that is all. If the pupil is a young woman, I lay the case before her as briefly as possible. Just so far as these subordinate matters will take care of themselves I gladly let them. The pose should be free, flexible. If the sounding rhythm be reflected in a certain graceful undulation of the torso, expressive of natural feeling, but never extravagant, conspicuous, no harm is done, but the reverse. But all mannerisms are an abomination.
For my part, I like a chair at the piano. I want to shut my eyes and dream now and then and recline to the back. The height of the chair should be such as to bring the wrist a little below the level of the keyboard's surface, this being dictated by the structure and habitual action of the hand. But for chord- and octave- passages I raise myself a little to throw my weight forward and over the keyboard, attacking it, so, from above,—à la d'Albert. To provide for this, and, generally, for free action of the arms, to command the whole keyboard, the seat must stand at a sufficient distance from the keyboard.
But not one of these things compares in importance with the habit of breathing.
To be a scientific breather is one of the highest accomplishments of the pianist. He can achieve scarcely another single thing which will stand him in so good stead as the habit of long, deep, steady breathing. There is no trick about it; just do it and keep doing it until it becomes habitual and goes on in sleep. Every function will feel the benefit of it, and to that fine nervous balance so needful to the player it is the prime desideratum.—E. D. Hale.
i consider the piano-chair better than either the bench or stool. The chair gives the performer a better position at the piano, and is also much more comfortable than either the stool or bench. As the bench cannot be raised or lowered, it is not practical to the teacher having pupils in all grades, for it would be too high for some and too low for others.
The height most advantageous to the performer can be determined by placing the hand in a correct position upon the keyboard, and having the chair at such a height that the inside angle of the pupil's elbow-joint be a very little higher than the back of the hand.
The performer should sit erect and avoid all mannerisms while playing. Motions of the body and head are not needed in piano-playing, and one who makes these motions attracts more attention to himself than to his music.—Frederick A. Williams.
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My general directions to pupils is to sit erect at an easy range from the keyboard, and directly in the middle; elbow and wrist nearly on a level with the ivory, and fingers at rest curving over the keys. Occasionally, however, the rule must prove flexible to meet an individual case. I have had one pupil who can command greater wrist and arm stroke as well as readier finger dexterity by a low seat and a dropped wrist; another needs an awkward height to gain best command of the keyboard.
By all means, as little bodily motion as possible; no absurd swaying and serpentine contortions of muscles; no facial grimaces; no unnecessary flourishes of the hand.
Of course, the body must not be rigid; a slight bending forward is involuntary and at times necessary. "Play to the wood," as they say in the German. When the keys are once down, the King of France with his 30,000 men couldn't change the dynamics of the tone.
In piano-playing as in oratory the greatest art is to appear perfectly natural and not make matter subservient to manner. The tyro plays as if it were hard work; the artist's hand-work looks like play. As to the desirable seat at the piano,—beyond doubt it is the highly polished bench, at the exact height to suit the individual. But for teaching purposes the barbarous, but practical, revolving stool has to solve the difficulty. Once let these major-minor points of position be settled and the track is cleared for the brain's work.—Florence M. King.
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The revolving stool is preferable in a school or studio, where many persons of different height or figure play on the same piano. For individual use I prefer a rigid chair with four legs and straight back. The seat must be short, so that the pupil, while practicing, can lean back and still have the free use of his legs. If the seat is too deep, the circulation of the blood in the legs is apt to be disturbed. The height of the chair depends on the length of the upper arm (humerus). For myself I require a seat ten and one-half inches from the top of the keys to the seat, so that the elbow is on a horizontal line with the keys.
As the height varies in different pianos, the length of the feet of the chair should be cut accordingly. The Steinways have three different heights in their pianos. In the upright the length from the top of the key to the floor is thirty and one-fourth inches, in the grand pianos twenty-eight and three-fourths inches, and in the baby grand twenty-seven and three-fourths inches. Therefore I am obliged to use with the concert grand a chair, whose legs are eighteen and one-fourth inches long in order to give me the ten and one-half inches from the seat to top of keys. The proper height of the chair is very important. I have suffered agonies in public performances when I found the seat was too high and I was unable to screw the stool farther down. To avoid that I have placed in the warerooms of the Steinway's a chair that is marked with my name and which is sent whenever I play in public.—Richard Zeckwer.
Regarding the matter of position at the piano, I would say that the rules for sitting correctly are those which govern correct position at the dining-table:
Place the elbows close to the sides, forearms extended at right angles to the body, the fingers outstretched; at the dining-table the tips of the fingers should touch the rim of the table; at the piano they must come in contact with the keys. The elbows with shoulders nicely drooped ought to stand about one inch higher than the keys.
A revolving stool is used only for arriving at a proper height for the body, never to enable one to sway from side to side. Sitting far back on the piano-chair will be found to necessitate an erect position; the inclination forward may be slight. Power should never be depended on from the position of the body, or, in other words, from the weight of the arms.—Mary Hallock.
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I have strong preference for the piano-chair with straight back, or one tilting slightly backward, over any other form of seat. The revolving stool and bench should be discouraged, because they have no support for the back. The revolving stool as usually built is too small for freedom and comfort, and is difficult to adjust accurately to a former height after change.
In my opinion, the player should sit at the piano with the base of the spine and the hips supported by the back of the chair. The body, thus balanced, may move easily up and down the keyboard; the muscles of the shoulders, sides, and back can have free play. The body, as I believe, should be practically erect, or possibly with a very slight inclination forward.
No "mannerisms" should be tolerated at the piano. This is the only attitude consistent with artistic dignity. All motion of the body, arms, etc., should be governed by the muscular exigencies of the technical situation. It is often advisable or necessary to assist phrasing by taking the hands off at the end of a musical sentence. In such "punctuation" it is easy to distinguish between an artificial and a spontaneous manner.
As to the height of the piano-chair, and the relative position of the player, this is dependent on various technical and musical considerations. For the average pupil the normal position laid down by Czerny, with the elbows slightly below the level of the keys, is usually the safest and most practical. However, if we observe the usage of pianists of the day in this matter, we find that some sit well above the keyboard, others equally far below, and some practically opposite the tops of the keys.
These three positions have certain reactions upon technic, with which every teacher should be acquainted. Moreover the most advantageous position for the individual pupil sometimes can be determined only by careful analysis of technical conditions, and judicious experiment. The position above the keyboard is conducive to fluent finger-technic; the weight of the arm and shoulder is involuntarily employed. The general increase of facility is remarkable, but with continued use it becomes harder to "devitalize" arm and wrist. In consequence, the tone is likely to become shallow and hard. The position below the keyboard has an opposite effect. There is a decided loss in facility of technic, but the grasping muscles of the hand become developed to an enormous extent. There is obviously more control of the keyboard. It is easy to relax the entire arm, the tone is fuller, with more singing quality. The wrist is more independent, although there is less octave facility. In the "normal" position, with the elbows slightly below the level of the keys, one "strikes an average." There is neither the extreme facility of the high position, nor the equally uncommon grasp and singing tone of the low position, but there is a fair proportion of the virtues of both, and an absence of the drawbacks of each.
No fixed rule can be given to determine infallibly how high the pupil shall sit. The proper solution must depend largely on the acuteness of observation and the power to analyze possessed by the teacher. Consider carefully the technical virtues and shortcomings of the pupil, and prescribe accordingly. Sometimes the best results are obtained by letting the pupil occasionally employ both the high and low position, returning always to the "normal" position. These high and low positions invariably produce technical developments if used with care and discretion, but they are dangerous if abused. Sometimes it is advisable to alternate "high" or "low" position above with the "normal." I have indicated the results produced by these various positions; the teacher must prescribe according to the physique and technical qualities and defects of the individual pupil, using abundantly patience and common-sense. Sitting at different heights will undoubtedly neutralize many technical failings, but the experiments must be painstaking and conservative.—Edward B. Hill.
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One of the most important things requisite to good piano-playing is the correct height and distance from the instrument of the performer's seat. If the seat be too low, one invariably loses power, and cannot easily manage the hand from the wrist in order to allow of the finger's going quickly over or under; unconsciously the elbows will bend outward in an endeavor to bring the hands to a natural position best adapted to do their work. This is one way of determining whether the seat should be raised. If too high, the fingers are deprived of some of their dexterity and freedom, and are apt to be pushed down with force from the arm instead of utilizing their own power, thereby greatly hindering rapidity and giving an uneven effect, which has been appropriately designated by one of my pupils as "thumpy-thump" playing. There is a happy medium, which allows the arm to swing freely in all directions from the shoulder-socket; this is the desired height, and can be easily ascertained by a few trials of the seat at different heights, by piecing the fingers upon the white keys as if playing and using them as a pivot, allowing the arm to swing sidewise as a pendulum, if the seat be too high a feeling of stiffness will be experienced in the muscles between the elbow and wrist; if too low, between the wrist and fingers; but if the right height is attained the arm will easily and freely swing without giving any impression of rigidity; if, however an error is to be made, I would advise that it be made in favor of the lower in preference to the higher seat.
After one has found the height best suited for him I advise one of those plain, stoutly-built, non-revolving office stools with the legs sawed to the right height; or a strong chair raised or lowered by the means of cushions. For studio use I find a bench about twenty-one inches in height suitable for smaller students, and for adults a chair two inches lower, with or without cushions as necessary.
As regards the distance from the piano. Most persons are inclined to sit too near the instrument, thus hampering the loose actions of the wrist, elbow, and arm; rather sit somewhat away from the piano, just far enough to allow the first joint (from the tip) of the thumb to rest upon the white keys, but never, under any circumstances, so distant that the thumb when not in use will hang in front and below these keys. When the correct distance is attained, the arm will easily pass to and fro before the body from one end to the other of the keyboard unhindered.
Sit erect, by all means, as this is the most comfortable position that can be assumed. It allows easy natural breathing. Of a necessity the body will incline sidewise in the direction of a long reach made by either hand toward the ends of the keyboard; or if both hands should be used simultaneously at the extremes; or if a fortissimo finger- passage should demand pressure from the arm, bend the body forward a little over and above the keys, but not so low that people will think that you are near-sighted. At rests raise the hands only high enough to fall upon the next note with the desired power, but with the least expenditure of strength, and make no superfluous exertions, as this is a waste of strength and energy, and pianists as well as singers need reserved force to expend upon the climaxes. —Eugene F. Marks.
Are you afraid to venture because the world offers you no opportunity even if you do work hard and become worthy of success? Do you think there is no chance for you? Well, there isn't unless you have the courage to work and be faithful. You will be pushed aside, and some one who is braver and truer shall win the prize. After proper guidance has been sought only you can do the work, only you can win your success, and only you shall receive the reward.—Eugene Thayer.

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