Suzuki Sunday: Posture

Today, a note to musicians, and parents of musicians, about posture:

The way you carry yourself says a lot about who you are -- and nowhere is this more true than when making music!  Good posture is important because it affects not just our performance, but our attitude as well. Think about why you remind your child to sit up straight, to offer firm handshakes, to make eye contact while talking to someone.  It's not just because you want her to avoid a compressed spine and develop proper hand-eye coordination; it's because these acts help remind her that family meals, introductions and conversations are important and should be taken seriously.

Posture at the piano is no different: done correctly, it helps reinforce proper attitudes about practicing and music.  There are two easy ways to explain what proper posture entails. For an older child or adult, the simplest thing is to say that the body should be at 90-degree angles: feet and floor to lower legs, lower legs to upper legs, upper legs to torso, torso to lower arms and hands, fingertips to keys.  Perhaps the hardest of these to remember is that the feet should be flat on the floor, supported by a bench or cushion if necessary to maintain the proper angle.  Kids spend a lot of time in school with their feet tucked under their chairs, which distributes weight unevenly and causes the body to be unstable.  I encourage you to rethink your home setup if you notice that your child tends to do this.  If he is not able to keep his body at the proper angles, he may need more support for his body or his feet.  Other instruments come in smaller sizes to fit smaller children, but as pianos only come in one size, it's our job to make the child fit the instrument.

For very young children, I use Michiko Yurko's analogy of a tree: their feet, like roots, should be planted firmly; body, like the trunk, straight and tall; arms, like branches, moving only slightly; fingers, like leaves, moving the most.  This is a fun, imaginative exercise.

Hand posture is perhaps most important of all.  For this reason, I am extremely strict about fingernail length; I know from experience that it makes a difference in the quality of a student's playing.  Over the years, I have seen students develop great technique and poor technique, and the single most important determining factor in their success is their parents' vigilance in keeping their nails very short.  When the finger is properly curved (as if holding a tennis ball for a child, or a softball for an adult) it should be able to tap the key, with conviction, soundlessly.  If you hear a click, the nail needs trimming.
Because I've played the piano (and so kept my nails short) for over 20 years, they grow very quickly and require trimming more than once a week.  Your child may require more or less frequent trimmings; the best thing is to check each time you sit down to practice (just one more reason parent-supervised practice is so important and necessary!)  Over time, long nails can lead to longer nail beds, making trimming painful and difficult, so if you haven't been careful about this, you may need to gradually work up to a shorter length.  Don't give up, though!  :)

Proper hand and body position is difficult to train in the beginning, but once it becomes habit, students are very good about remembering for themselves.  If you've ben lax about enforcing this at home, try a creative method for reminding them: come up with a funny signal that will make them laugh instead of scowl, or fill a jar with coins or Magic Notes and remove one each time they need a reminder.  At the end of the week, you can buy an ice cream cone or a small toy with the change they've earned.  Whatever your method, make sure you don't nag your child in a negative way.  At lessons, I try to remind each student only once, and after that I simply touch his knee or lower back to remind him.  This is much more positive while keeping him mindful of his posture.

It is an absolute joy for me when I notice a student has developed the good habit of curved fingers, a straight back, or supportive, still feet.  I make sure to praise her for it: "What wonderful, curved fingers you have!" wins me a smile and ensures she will continue to practice the habit. As with all areas of music (and life), take the opportunity to praise good behavior wherever you notice it -- it's a guarantee that you will start noticing it more often.