Supporting teachers, promoting piano education.
Written by Andrew Eales
All good piano teachers are concerned to teach and monitor good posture to their students, and as players we are hopefully equally aware of our own posture at the piano.
But how about our posture when we are teaching? This, in my experience, can too easily be overlooked as a less important concern.
I am trying to address my own posture while teaching, so write this article to share my experiences and findings, while also suggesting a few easy tricks that other piano teachers can incorporate into their thinking and practice where helpful.
In this article I will hope to touch upon:
- Should we sit less, and if so how?
- What about good posture?
- What other factors have an impact on our working environment?
Should we spend less time sitting?
Most people will be aware of advice and media stories suggesting that sitting down for too long each day can be, literally, fatal. According to the NHS Choices website,
“Studies have linked excessive sitting with being overweight and obese, type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer, and early death. Sitting for long periods is thought to slow the metabolism, which affects the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar, blood pressure and break down body fat.
Many adults in the UK spend more than seven hours a day sitting or lying, and this typically increases with age to 10 hours or more. This includes watching TV, using a computer, reading, doing homework, travelling by car, bus or train but does not include sleeping.”
For piano teachers, it also includes the time we spend sat next to our students listening to them play, and for some of us this alone adds up to seven hours some days!
For working age adults, the NHS site goes on to offer the following tips for spending less time sitting:
- stand on the train or bus
- take the stairs and walk up escalators
- set a reminder to get up every 30 minutes
- place a laptop on a box or similar to work standing
- stand or walk around while on the phone
- take a walk break every time you take a coffee or tea break
- walk to a co-worker’s desk instead of emailing or calling
- swap some TV time for more active tasks or hobbies
But most of these strategies are unable to help us while we are at work teaching the piano. So what’s to be done?
Complicating matters, and as so often seems to be the case, scientists are not agreed about the dangers of sitting. A longitudinal study published in 2015 in the International Journal of Epidemiology (and summarised in plain English by Science Alert here) suggests that prolonged sitting doesn’t, after all, appear to be killing us any faster than standing up would. Specifically, the study concludes:
“The results of this study suggest that policy makers and clinicians should be cautious about placing emphasis on sitting behaviour as a risk factor for mortality that is distinct from the effect of physical activity.”
And there are of course plenty of busy piano teachers who live to a ripe old age, and who don’t develop any of the conditions listed on the NHS site. So any sense of alarm must surely be tempered with healthy skepticism and a dose of common sense!
What about “good” Posture?
We probably all have an idea about correct sitting posture at the piano (and let’s park that question for another time!) but we must remember that the posture we aim for as players and teachers aims to allow for mobility at the piano, for healthy balance to be maintained, and all while considering general issues and the insights of performing arts medicine.
When we are sat listening, however, our physical needs are different and perhaps less complex. Should we choose to sit on a piano stool modelling the playing posture while we are in fact listening and essentially inert we need to exercise care, because the upright posture so often advocated isn’t necessarily suitable for long-time sitting, especially if the small of the back is curved inward.
Here, once again, scientists are not in unanimous agreement.
Research carried out at Woodend Hospital in Aberdeen by a team of Scottish and Canadian scientists a few years ago and reported by the BBC News site here suggests less strain is placed on the spinal disks and associated muscles and tendons in a more relaxed sitting position, as shown in this picture:
News of the 135% tilt quickly spread around the internet and has been widely reported, but not everyone is happy about the advice.
Osteopath Ashley James refuted the BBC article succinctly in this salient blog post, suggesting:
“The problem I have with advising people to recline is that it will cause problems elsewhere; in the upper back/neck. As you can see in the picture (taken from the BBC article), this reclined posture causes the head to come forward, putting an increased strain on the lower neck.”
Once again, answers aren’t clear cut for us as laypeople who are trying to understand the conflicting information that’s in the public domain.
The balance of advice appears to be that when sat at a desk it is best to sit fairly upright, but without inward curvature of the lower back, and without the neck craning forward to read the computer screen – or piano music desk.
More relaxed sitting (which would perhaps be more appropriate while listening to a student play through a whole piece, for example) may benefit from the reclining angle suggested by the Aberdeen research.
Personally I really like the simple conclusion offered by Ashley in his blog post:
“So if you are interested in looking after your backs, do something about it! I suggest you move more. Get up from your desk at regular intervals and stretch! Walk more and sit less when you can. Get some osteopathic treatments to correct your bad posture and loosen all those tight muscles!”
Trying to make sense of all this, my conclusions and advice are:
- Don’t spend the entire lesson sat down. Get up, move around, switch places with the student at the piano, etc. vary posture according to need.
- While listening in a relaxed posture, use a chair that can recline while still supporting the back.
- While looking at the music desk, or using a computer, sit more upright, but stay relaxed and balanced, and don’t lean forward.
- Avoid crossed legs – keep feet flat on the floor where possible.
- Get up between lessons, and if possible walk around for a few minutes, or do some simple stretches.
My Piano Qigong article Sit Up and Shut Down introduces a healthy and relaxed sitting posture that is used within Qigong and other mediative situations – have a read and practice the seated postures described. This will certainly help you become more aware of your own sitting posture.
Before signing off, I think it’s a good idea to consider a few other issues relating to the Piano Teaching Studio and the teacher’s health and welfare:
The Environmental Scientist
A few years back I leant that the mother of one of my students advised businesses about environmental issues. I assumed initially that she lectured them about carbon emissions, but it turned out that her advice was about the positioning of office furniture and ergonomics in the workplace.
She smiled and mentioned that my studio is “fairly good actually”, and I sensed that if I probed any deeper I might be presented with a bill that I couldn’t afford!
Thankfully, when it comes to considering the time we spend catching up with studio admin and sat at our desks, information about office ergonomics is pretty easy to find online.
Here’s some simple and quick-to-read basics on how to improve your office ergonomics. And for a more in-depth consideration of working environment, I found some helpful information on this site, provided by the gloriously named Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors.
Some issues we might want to consider in our teaching environment are:
- Light – is there sufficient light in all parts of the room (especially the music stand and piano keyboard as well as the spot where you may be writing in a pupil’s notebook)
- Glare – is there TOO much light (fit blinds to minimise where necessary)
- Temperature – is the teaching studio warm enough to prevent “cold hands” without being too warm (which is unhealthy)
- Air Quality – is there regular fresh air, as well as air freshener to remove unwanted odours? What about negative ions? I’ve written about this in more detail in this post: The Pianist’s Air.
- Space – is there plenty of room to move? Both student(s) and teacher need plenty of personal space and room to move.
- Cleanliness – is the studio regularly cleaned thoroughly?
- Tidiness – is the studio basically in a bit of a mess, making it hard to find stuff quickly when it’s needed?
- Furniture – is everything in good repair, and selected with a view to the wellbeing of the teacher and students?
These are all factors that impinge on our wellbeing, and are fantastically important in terms of not just our ongoing health but also our effectiveness as teachers on a day to day basis, and our enjoyment of our career.
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