Proper Sitting Position when
Playing the Cello
Proper posture and sitting position while playing the cello is easy to overlook but is vitally important for efficient technique. In fact, it is difficult to over emphasize its importance. How we sit does not simply affect our backs, as important as that is (cellists are notoriously prone to back problems); our posture affects our whole body and especially our arms. If we are out of balance, this necessitates greater use of muscles to counteract this imbalance. When we are balanced we expend less energy to keep ourselves in position and it frees up our back and core muscles to assist our arms for the important job of playing the cello.
Before I continue, I would like to say something about the word "position" as in "sitting position" mentioned above. Position often conjures up ideas of something rigid and inflexible. "Posture" often conjures up similar ideas. By "sitting position" I do not mean something that is held in a rigid manner. Rather, position and posture should be understood within the context of balance.
First, here's the bad news...
Sitting at 90 Degrees Can Be Bad for the Back
In a study at the Woodend Hospital in Aberdeen, Scotland, researchers found that sitting at a 90 degree angle to the chair was detrimental to the back. They concluded that a relaxed position of leaning backwards at 135 degrees was optimal. "Disk movement was most pronounced with a 90-degree upright sitting posture. It was least pronounced with the 135-degree posture, indicating that less strain is placed on the spinal disks and associated muscles and tendons in a more relaxed sitting position" (ScienceDaily, Nov. 27, 2006).
So what does this mean for cellists? It basically means that sitting to play the cello is a necessary evil for us. You need a special chair or your recliner to lean backwards at 135 degrees, besides being impractical for playing the cello.
We can't sit back at 135 degrees but can we keep other principles in mind in our seating position? Absolutely.
Here are some principles we can apply when sitting down to play the cello;
- Respect the natural curve of your spine
- Use a wedge-shape orthopedic cushion and/or cello chair
- Especially avoid chairs that are too low
- Find and use a balanced position for your body
- Balance your head
Respect the Natural Curve of the Spine
This may come as a surprize, but one of the worst positions we can adopt while playing the cello is a straight back. We have a natural curve to our spinal column that is designed as a natural shock absorber. To straighten it eliminates its natural shock absorbing tendencies. Straightening the spine also puts undue strain on the muscles and ligaments in the back by causing them to stretch. There are three areas to which you should pay particular attention.
- Respect the curve of the spine in the lower back
- Do not "hunch over" while playing the cello
- Respect the curve of the spine around the neck
One way we straighten our lower back is by slouching. We've all done this while working at the computer. Although slouching can sometimes feel as though lower back strain is relieved, the results are actually short lived. In fact, slouching eliminates the natural curve in the lower back and can cause problems down the road. Slouching also makes it more difficult to breath while playing, which can deprive our muscles of oxygen.
We should also avoid hunching over the cello while playing. In a study, Postural Effects During Cello Performance (Ueno et al.), the researchers found using an electromyogram that in a "bent posture" position the upper back muscles showed increased activity. This was to counteract the motions in the arms in an effort to keep the upper body balanced. The authors state that with good posture we do not need the upper back muscles to keep the upper body in balance and they can be used instead to support the motions from the shoulders to the fingers. This results in a more efficient transmission of power from the back muscles to the arm muscles. Yes, our upper back muscles will assist our arms all the way down to the fingers if we adopt proper posture! Keep that in mind.
The primary way we lose the natural curve in our neck when playing the cello is by pushing our neck forward. The main culprit is the C peg. What we should rather do is balance our head on our neck (see below).
Use a Wedge-Shape Orthopedic Cushion and/or Cello Chair
I highly recommend buying a wedge-shape orthopedic cushion and/or a cello chair. The forward slant of the cushion and cello chair tilts your pelvis and lower back forward, which has two main benefits. First, it helps maintain the natural lumbar curve of the lower spine. Also, by tilting your pelvis and lower back forward, you no longer sit at a 90 degree angle to the chair, putting your back into a position that is closer to the 135 degrees mentioned above (open pelvis angle).
I recommend avoiding over the counter orthopedic cushions. They are usually too soft for playing the cello and cause instability. Instead, cello seat cushions are available from Judy Johnson Henderson at www.celloseatcushions.com. They come in a variety of sizes and are made from a firmer foam to keep you balanced and stabilized while playing.
Don't wait until your experience back problems to use an orthopedic cushion or cello chair. It is always easier to prevent back problems then fix them once they occur.
Avoid Chairs That Are Too Low
While you want to find a chair that is neither too high nor too low, it is especially important to avoid chairs that are too low. Sitting in a chair that that is high enough so that your thighs have a slight downward slant (i.e. your knees are a little below your hips) allows you to avoid the dreaded 90 degree angle, promoting an open pelvis angle and a natural lumbar curve. Sitting in a chair that is too low -- when your knees are above your hips -- makes it particularly difficult to maintain the lumbar curve in the lower back. Slouching is often the result, putting strain on the lower back.
Here is another advantage to owning an orthopedic cushion; in case you have to play in a chair that is too low, and worse yet, with a backward slant like a folding chair, the cushion can help counteract the poor ergonomics.
Balancing Your Upper Body and Chair Height
Often times as cellists we must use whatever chair is available for a rehearsal or concert. Yet, proper chair height is a big determiner of whether we are balanced in our sitting position and avoiding back strain.
The main issue with chair height is to find a chair that allows us to feel balanced while we sit. If the chair is too low we can feel that we are being forced backwards out of balance. If the chair is too high, we may not be able to have our feet flat on the ground and find it difficult to balance.
I prefer a chair that allows my legs to have a slight downward angle towards the ground. This way I feel I am able to achieve a stable balanced position, feeling some of the weight supported by my feet. While I prefer playing on the edge of the chair, it is not necessary to achieve a balanced position. One can achieve a balanced position sitting in the back of the chair as well.
We also need to be balanced between the extremes of leaning left or right. We should always feel an equal distribution of weight on both "sit bones" in the same way a bass player or violinist would feel equal weight on both feet while playing standing up.
For a more detailed article by A.C. Mandal. MD. entitled, Balanced sitting posture on forward sloping seat, click here.
When talking about the neck, we are really referring to balancing the head. Try this simple exercise to determine whether your head is balanced on top of your neck. Simply nod you head up and down and find the point where it experiences the greatest freedom of motion. Try sticking your neck out and nodding. It's difficult, isn't it? Find that optimal position for the neck where you can nod easily and use that as your position while playing the cello. Also, position your stand so you can keep your chin parallel to the ground. Make sure that the pegs on the cello do not interfere with your balanced head position. If you like your cello lower then do not let the peg poking you in the neck effect the position of your head.
Placement of Feet While Playing the Cello
If the chair height is correct, the feet should be flat on the floor. This helps stabilize your body and remain in a balanced position. Try this experiment; tuck your feet under your chair and be aware of the muscles in your abdomen. Now, place your feet flat on the floor and compare the feeling. Repeat the experiment. In which position is your abdomen more relaxed? Most likely you will notice your abdomen muscles contracting more when your feet are tucked under your chair. This is because your body is out of balance and your stomach muscles are needed to hold you in position. A more grounded position is to have your feet flat on the floor. As in the case of our back muscles, our core muscles or abdomen muscles can assist our arms to do their work if we adopt a proper sitting position.
So you see, a proper posture and sitting position is absolutely vital for efficient cello technique. I wonder how many overuse injuries would be prevented by simply paying attention to this fact.
A special thank you to Cora Enman, Associate Professor of Voice at Central Michigan University, who is a body mapping and Alexander Technique specialist. The information she provided me regarding the back and posture was extremely useful in the writing of this article.