When asked about school chairs, FM Alexander is quoted as saying “We need to educate our children, not our furniture.” The same can be said about the piano stool - it is far more profound and fundamental to learn to change one’s coordination than to learn where to put one’s stool. The former also informs the latter. We can look to Alexander Technique not for a prescribed position of piano stool, but for principles which can guide our decision making.
The best kind of piano bench
Two criteria are most relevant when choosing or adjusting a piano stool:
Does the stool help the pianist play the instrument?
Does the stool make it easy for the pianist to maintain easeful poise?
Your intention to play piano is best served when it is paired with an intention to coordinate yourself. A piano stool must be appropriate for the task of playing piano. If it also makes it easy for the pianist to coordinate, it will be an asset.
A stool with overly soft cushioning will deprive the pianist of a reliable support from which to move, and make it difficult to feel the base of support. A chair with a reclined seat will require the pianist to make compromises which affect both performance and ease. Most piano benches are designed with understanding of this and are flat and firm.
Setting yourself up to play
Before we look at stool height or position, we need to consider the overall orientation of the pianist.
If one starts out with a slump and arranges the stool to be in the right position for playing with a slump, then the position of the stool is going to promote the slump.
Since the pianist is already set to play, there may also be resistance to positive postural changes. The pianist may feel as though becoming upright is taking him or her away from the possibility of playing. The stool’s position may even make an upright posture impossible to play from, and demand the pianist return to slumping, in spite of efforts to be well poised.
Starting by engaging a positive poise
If one begins by establishing an expansive upright balance, then goes on to organise everything else around this, the ergonomic changes will make it easier to stay comfortably upright. The expansive coordination can then become the baseline for playing.
A positive general coordination makes change more accessible. It is a clear reference point for how specific piano technique can be supported. The process of creating a sustainable upright poise suitable for playing piano is discussed in companion articles to this. For now, let’s say that as a precursor to arranging the stool, we want to be buoyantly upright, rather than slumped or rigid.
Height of piano stool
If we have inspired in our pianist a healthy buoyant poise at the instrument, we may then consider finding the optimal ergonomics to maintain that quality. Note that we are not looking to maintain a position or shape, but a quality.
If the pianist’s forearm is slightly above the level of the keys, he or she can take advantage of gravity in depressing keys. Having the wrist level with or lower than the elbow creates efficiency in keeping this relationship.
Approaching the keyboard from below will lead to extra muscle work being required to get the key down. It would also deprive the pianist of the chance to use the key bed as a supporting structure.
The height of the stool can be calibrated to optimise the advantage of gravity.
If the stool is too high, the pianist may end up compressing through the whole torso to get near enough, or develop a ‘pushy’ kind of hand and finger action.
If the stool is too low, the pianist may end up elevating elbows or shoulders to overcome this altitude deficiency. This is tiring and has been associated with RSI symptoms. Unfortunately non-adjustable benches are too low for many pianists. Using a book to increase seat height is sometimes a necessary compromise. A large and firm surface like a book may give a more functional additional support than a cushion.
Reaching the pedals
The pianist’s most demanding work is in the hands, so supporting hands is fundamental. If the bench height optimal for hands and arms makes reaching the pedals difficult, then sitting on the very front edge of the stool may help. If reaching the pedals is still not possible, and playing with pedals is an essential for the music being performed, then one may have to compromise on the optimal height for arms and hands. It will be at cost, but sometimes this cannot be avoided.
Distance of stool from the piano
Sitting a long way from the piano creates a challenge for keeping arms integrated with the torso. It becomes tempting for the pianist to pull forward in the shoulders or upper back, or to round over the whole spine. Both these arrangements compromise on sustainable ease at the instrument, and usually become associated with scrunching the neck and pulling back the head.
The requirement for hands to move across the body and to extremes of the piano may lead the pianist to think that sitting back is a necessity. Sometimes this is the case when a pianist is immobile in the torso. If one can spiral around the spine, the whole keyboard is in comfortable reach even if sitting quite close. However if rigidity is the habituated state and a graceful spiral is unavailable, the pianist may end up pushing the seat back to reach.
It is worth noting that whilst the spine is quite capable of flexion, lateral movement and rotation, combining even two of these motions is highly demanding and puts the spine at high risk of injury. If one is flexing the spine (eg slumping), then rotation is a liability. Avoiding rotation is one way to deal with this. More functional for pianists is to minimise flexion to facilitate safe and comfortable rotation.
Regardless of seat position or reaching notes, we’d like availability for mobility to be the norm for our selves - at the instrument and away!
A bench positioned too close to the piano may lead the pianist to pull back from the instrument. This creates a contradiction with the intent to get the keys down! Such a situation is likely to cause a high level of tension in arms, upper back, neck and torso. Breath is also likely to be compromised.
A pianist trying to pull shoulders back in order to sit up straight with ‘good posture’ may have created a arm-torso relationship which demands a close stool. If we have prioritised easeful poise, this eventuality is avoided.
If the pianist efficiently improves on upright poise and achieves a positive balance of tone in the shoulders, this will help him or her function in an appropriate relationship to the torso. The pianist working on optimising coordination learns to recognise when the seat position is confounding this intention.
Changing the stool vs change in the pianist
It is critical to note that these compensations may be practised in. If one’s technique has these as habitual defaults, then they need to be addressed in order for the optimal stool height to be actually functional for the pianist.
Optimal stool height creates conditions for the pianist to sit and play with greatest ease and efficiency. It may immediately improve the comfort and technique of the pianist. However, this is like downloading a new operating system. We then need to update all the apps for them to take advantage of, and operate in accordance with, any change.
A change in ergonomics requires a change in whole body poise, and an accommodating refinement of specific instrumental technique.
Interacting with the piano stool
Sitting on a Swiss ball gives us an experience of being buoyed up from below. Sitting on a piano bench is less dynamic; however the same principle of physics applies. Weight placed on the stool is met with an opposing force upwards. Letting weight release down into the stool, and accepting the support from the stool are two sides of the same coin. The key here is that there are forces both down and up.
In order not to be collapsed down on to the stool, or pulling ourselves up off the stool, we need to balance our interaction with these forces. It is analogous to bouncing on the Swiss ball - release down, and accept the rebounding pulse through the whole body to buoy you up. On the piano stool, this play of buoyancy and gravity becomes a subtle way to animate one’s seated posture.
Moving relative to the piano stool
The technical requirements of playing give us cues for movement. Music itself also gives us so many opportunities for responding with movement. Since our interest is a piano technique which integrates the whole performer with instrument and performance, the pianist's movement relative to the piano stool is indispensable. The tradition of using benches to play piano instead of chairs is to enable this movement - not just to reach extremes of register.
The constructive ways to engage with a stool are varied. Creating new arrangements is fun, can imbue music with nuance and gives the body some novel input. Sometimes music demands a deviation from normal sitting. In these occasions, one can move out from the norm with confidence if two conditions are met. Firstly, the moment must be consistent with the positive coordination of the whole. Secondly, there needs to be some home base - a balanced neutral to return to at the appropriate time.
Stability and mobility
There is a balance to consider between stability and mobility. A hyper-mobile pianist moves at the expense of stability. A rigid pianist maintains stability at the expense of mobility. In each case, there will be a corresponding response in the music - out of control or constrained, respectively.
There is no one right position. Only the pianist can determine the correct placement of the piano stool and the optimal orientation while playing.
A photo or drawing of a pianist cannot demonstrate this dynamic. Any arrangement at the piano is positive if it supports both your piano technique in achieving desired musical outcomes and your whole self in sustaining easeful coordination.