FOR CELLISTS: AMATEUR, ASPIRING ............... AND CURIOUS

Seating Posture

Some cellists can play the cello beautifully even while standing. Now that shows incredible natural talent (does anybody ever actually practice this?). Normally however, the cello is one the few instruments that needs to be played from a sitting position – even keyboard players can play standing up, so long as the keyboard is also raised up. This obligation to sit is unfortunate for two reasons:

  • the standing posture allows much greater freedom of movement of the whole body than the sitting position. It is also more natural, more healthy, and more expressive (musical).
  • most chairs are awful.

But our problem is not just that we must play in a sitting position: all orchestral musicians (except for percussionists and bassists) sit to play. Our main problem is that our instrument – unlike most others – is attached to the floor, and to make matters worse it is basically attached to our chest (sternum) and left leg as well.

The fact that the cello is attached to the floor limits enormously our range of movement. This makes playing the cello appear more mechanical than playing the violin or viola. Even when seated, violinists and violists can move their instrument in every direction, but when standing they can move themselves and their instrument all over the stage. Whereas the violin and viola really are just an appendage to (extension of) the musicians body, in the case of the cellist the situation is reversed. The cellist is more like an attachment to (extension of) the cello than vice versa. Not only are the possibilities for movement of the lower body limited by the chair, our upper body movement is also extremely limited by the cello’s points of contact, with both the floor and our chest.

The net result of all these attachments is that there are not many possibilities for dancing with our instrument! Is it surprising then that even many of the finest cellists are relatively immobile while playing (apart from their arms), while others move just their head and neck a lot: there’s simply not much else available to move!

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The subject of sitting posture would merit a large chapter in any cellists manual. Understanding posture at the cello is a complicated business because not only are there are so many factors involved (cello size, spike length, cellist’s size, chair and floor characteristics), but these factors are all intricately interrelated. Whereas some of these elements can be changed immediately and easily (spike length), for others it is more difficult (chair height) …….. and for others change is completely impossible (cellist’s size). We can make more sense out of this complex situation if we look at each factor one by one, observing the chain of effects on the other postural elements when we alter them one at a time. Let’s start however with the most general principles of posture and ergonomics, and gradually get more specific.

GENERAL POSTURAL AND ERGONOMIC PRINCIPLES

As a general rule, any posture or movement that is unnatural or uncomfortable will cause tension in the body, produce unhealthy compensatory postures and movements, and cause us to play less well. If we spend enough hours in these unnatural and uncomfortable postures, we will eventually develop  pain and repetitive strain injuries. Sitting badly can do all of this! Pain is the ultimate recourse of the body to tell us that we have not been paying attention to it and that we are doing something wrong!

We need to be very aware of the levels of tension in the different parts of the body while playing the cello – and also when we are not with our cello! This awareness of tension, with and without the instrument, is a fundamental element of “good” playing – and of “good” body use in general – but it is often neglected  in instrumental pedagogy. It’s normal that learning a new skill involves tension and discomfort, so at first, we just ignore these sensations of strain. Later, we ignore these sensations because we are directing all of our attention to the playing of more and more notes, then later we ignore the physical tension because all our attention is concentrated on the interpretation of the music. But we are creatures of habit, and eventually, we get so used to playing with tensions that we no longer notice if (or where) there is excess, unnecessary tension in our bodies.

How then can we then increase our “body-awareness”? We can start by simply directing our attention away from the music (and from the instrument) towards our body, Observing ourselves in a mirror (while playing!) is also helpful: but making a video of our playing is even more so.

Another general principle of posture and ergonomics is that “movement” tends to release tensions. Our arms and fingers are obliged to move in order to play the cello but other parts of our body can stiffen up through a lack of movement if we are not careful. Deliberately moving the neck, shoulders, back and hips while playing can be a useful way to release tension and avoid rigidity. A very useful trick to loosen up our body while playing is to move our weight from one buttock to the other in a sort of swaying, rocking movement. Benjamin Zander talks about the great advantages of being a “one-buttock-player”. Pianists are lucky because the size of their instrument obliges them to make this movement in order to reach the notes at the extremes of the keyboard. We cellists, on the other hand, have to do this useful movement deliberately and premeditatedly.

BASIC SITTING POSTURE

We want  our basic general “home” posture to be as “natural” as possible, in order to avoid putting the body under permanent unnecessary strain. This certainly does not however mean that we mustn’t ever move out of our “perfect” position. Even a “good” posture, maintained unvaryingly for too long, becomes harmful. Moving the body around freely while we play – even through all of the “bad” postures – is positively great as it keeps us relaxed and loose. Ergonomic danger occurs only when one of these unnatural postures becomes our “home” posture.

So, what then are the vital elements of a good “home” (base) posture with the cello ? The most fundamental elements of a good playing posture concern the two principal axis of the body:

1. THE CELLIST’S VERTICAL AXIS:

Our upper body needs to be either vertical or leaning forwards slightly, but not permanently tipped backwards or to either side.

2. THE CELLIST’S ROTATIONAL AXIS:

We need to be facing forwards without any rotation to either side. Because the cello neck passes to the left of our neck, it can be tempting to have the cello spike also displaced to the left of our body’s central axis in order that the cello be in a straight line (parallel) with our body. This however causes our upper body to twist (rotate) anticlockwise (towards our left side). An alternative solution would  be to displace the spike a little to the right, causing the cello to be slightly angled across the body but allowing the cellists upper body to be once again facing perfectly forwards without any rotation. This requires that our left elbow and shoulder come slightly forward in order to keep the hand square to the fingerboard. In the lower positions this is not a problem, but as we gradually go higher up the fingerboard this posture becomes more and more uncomfortable and un-ergonomic.

Having considered these general principles, let’s look in more detail at the different elements of our posture with the cello. We will start at the top and work downwards.

OUR NECK AND HEAD:

Our neck must be free, mobile, relaxed. It’s normal “home” position should be more or less vertical, neither twisted (rotated) nor inclined sideways, nor tipped forwards or backwards. As the Alexander Technique emphasizes, having the chin tucked slightly in and back (in towards the neck) is much better than the opposite position (with the neck and chin jutting forwards and upwards). However, as Stephen Isserlis emphasises constantly, looking down (at the cello) rather than up and out (towards the public or the world in general), encourages both introversion and tension. And as anyone who has watched Stephen play will know, his head and neck are incredibly free. Not only does he really look up and out almost all the time, he also looks frequently to both sides. The only place he basically never looks towards, is down at his cello! This certainly creates a very communicative, relaxed, open atmosphere.

We need to be very careful not to press our neck or head against the cello (peg box or cello neck). This is unnecessary and totally counterproductive and is both a symptom and a cause of excessive tension (see “points of contact between cello and cellist” below). Unfortunately, cellos  have the C-string peg in the worst possible position. This peg can obstruct the neck and head from being in the ideal upright ergonomic position and can oblige us to permanently incline the head forwards in order to avoid the peg. The fact that  cellos have been made “like that” for 300 years doesn’t mean that the design cannot be improved……… but 300 years of tradition is difficult to change. There are several possible solutions to this problem:

  • replace the C-string peg with a wonderful invention called the “Krovoza Peg” (it’s name has since changed), which does not protrude from the scroll at all
  • make the cello more horizontal (which requires lengthening the spike)
  • angle the cello across the body, with the spike displaced towards the right side and the cello scroll consequently displaced towards the left side, away from the head.

Of these, I would definitely recommend starting with the first solution.

THE SHOULDERS:

Having the shoulders low is very relaxed and comfortable. Raising them up however, gives a very active, dynamic position. I have often observed very fine orchestral group leaders raise their shoulders just before playing a particularly important or expressive passage and then lower them again for the return to more “normal” music. If you are playing many hours a day, having the shoulders permanently elevated in this “active, soloist” position will be tiring and ultimately damaging. Many orchestral players develop right shoulder problems, caused in part by excessive use of this “active” posture.

THE BACK

It is much better to lean slightly forwards than to lean backwards. Leaning backwards permanently with no back support creates considerable muscular tension. If we lean backwards onto the back support of the chair then we are in a very restful, passive, immobile position – good for sleeping and relaxing but not ideal for active music making. If we lean slightly forwards we are in an active, dynamic and balanced position which allows us great mobility around this point of balance. This is much healthier for the back.

It is absolutely essential to retain the lumbar curve. If we let this healthy curve collapse for long periods of time, (either by slumping forwards or backwards) we risk chronic lower back pain.

THE BUM

Question: why do conductors, soloists, recitalists, singers, rock and pop musicians etc almost always stand in performance? Answer: because the standing posture is so much freer and more expressive than the sitting posture. No matter whether we are standing or sitting-musicians: the elaborate dance we do with our upper body when playing, gains in freedom and expressivity when we allow our lower body to participate. While it is not easy to find ways to do this for those of us who are obliged to sit on an unmoving chair while playing, Benjamin Zander does have a very simple but extremely useful suggestion regarding this: he calls it “one-buttock playing”.

When we sit squarely, solidly and invariably on both buttocks, we are in a very stable working position. But we are definitely not in an active, dynamic, mobile, expressive, dancing position! Playing music is not a boring desk-job and too much stability is not conducive to musical or corporal expression. Allowing ourselves to rock from side to side, resting our weight alternately on one buttock and then the other brings important benefits to all aspects of our playing: corporal, psychological, visual, communicative, musical etc.

Imagine a standing performer whose upper body is dancing around but whose lower body remains permanently vertically immobile, without ever swaying from one foot to the other. How unnatural, rigid, wooden and unexpressive this would be! Using the one-buttock concept can help us to avoid falling into this “seat-trap”. Stephen Isserlis is an excellent example of a cellist who “rocks”. Perhaps one of the reasons why rock music was actually called rock music was because it really sways (energetically) from side to side to side! So rather than playing like physical rocks, stuck immobile in the earth, we need to actually rock, which is, strangely, the complete opposite. Now there’s an interesting linguistic question ……

THE LEGS

The “traditional” sitting posture – with our thighs at 90º to our body (parallel to the floor) – is actually quite unergonomic. This posture has been shown to create significant tension in the lower back. When however we sit with our thighs sloping downwards a little towards the floor, this tension is greatly reduced. The only way to achieve this thigh angle on most chairs is to sit near the forward edge of the chair. Unfortunately some chairs are so badly designed that it is almost impossible to sit comfortably on this forward edge (see The Chair).

HOLDING THE CELLO: POINTS OF CONTACT BETWEEN THE INSTRUMENT AND OUR BODY

While our two arms are working away on the cello, the instrument is maintained stable via three permanent points of contact:

  • with our chest
  • with our left leg
  • and – for the cello since almost 200 years ago – with the floor (via the spike/endpin).

None of these contact points are “active”. We don’t actually grip or even really “hold” the cello. The cello simply rests on those three contact points.

Our right leg is also usually in contact with the cello, and sometimes even (hopefully never) we might find ourselves pressing our neck against the peg box or against the cello’s neck. We need to be extremely aware of of the tension levels at all the points of contact between our body and our instrument but most especially at these two. Both of these contact points are not only unnecessary for holding the cello: they are real danger zones. Pressing with either on the cello is not only unnecessary, it is completely counterproductive.

Let’s look now in detail at the three permanent and essential contact points between cello and cellist, one by one, starting again at the top and working down.

CHEST:

The exact location of the point of contact of the cello with our chest is a very personal matter and in my experience we don’t usually have many doubts about where we want this point to be. In fact, when we pick up a cello to play, before we stick the spike onto the floor we usually first find this cello/chest point of contact and we seldom change it while we are playing. This is because a change here displaces the cello fingerboard vertically in relation to the left arm position so we can lose our habitual sense of where the notes (positions) are. Even when we change the spike length we don’t normally change the chest-cello point of contact, preferring instead, for the same reason, to change the cellos vertical angle.

LEGS (AND CELLO ROTATION):

Because the cello’s neck passes on the left side of the cellist’s neck, the cello’s point of contact with the left leg is – unlike its contact with the right leg – permanent and essential. The left leg has two essential functions in holding the cello: it stops the cello from both rotating (on its spike axis) and from slipping away to the left. If a cellist with very short legs places the left knee “under” (behind) the cello, then although the cello cannot rotate (this is good) it still can slip away to the left (this is bad). This double function is a permanent necessity. This contact, although essential and permanent, is still only a “passive” contact: the left leg doesn’t actually ever need to press on the cello, rather it is the cello that just sits on (or leans on) the leg. The left leg doesn’t have to do anything – just be there!

As we discussed above, in spite of the right leg’s relative unimportance for holding the cello, the contact of the cello with the right leg can be quite problematic. The problem is that we often tend to press unnecessarily (and often unknowingly) with the right leg onto to the cello, thus creating harmful and unnecessary tension. We must be very careful not to squeeze the cello body between our two legs. For this reason it is a very useful exercise to practice playing without any contact at all between the right leg and the cello.

Being small is normally a considerable handicap for playing the cello. The only advantage that being small gives a cellist, is that cellists with short legs have the possibility of placing the right knee behind the cello. For this we need to have quite a long spike (to make room for the leg) and a reasonably high chair or stool (which allows us to have our right thigh pointing at a descending angle to the floor). Because of this thigh angle, our right foot may need to rest more on the toes than being flat on the floor. This posture actually (surprisingly) has several advantages:

  • the knee supporting the cello from behind can take off some (or all) of the pressure of the cello on the chest (sternum)
  • this posture automatically eliminates all risk of squeezing the cello between the two legs (a symptom and cause of tension)
  • this is a “leaning forward” posture: very active, mobile, engaged

95% of cellists cannot do this however because their legs are simply too long. Those long legs do however have plenty of advantages for the cellist. Most notably, they allow that the cello be rotated towards the right (towards the lower strings) which provides enormous benefits for playing on the “A”-string for both left and right hands. Short-legged cellists are very limited in their ability to do this rotation because as we rotate the cello to the right, it rapidly loses its vital contact with the left leg. The longer our spike is pulled out, the less our ability to rotate the cello without losing that left-leg contact, therefore one way to maximise this rotation is to use a shorter spike length.

FLOOR:

The stability and placement of the spike/floor contact, together with the spike length. are critical for our comfort. See The Spike for a detailed discussion about these factors.

WHAT ARE THE MAIN FACTORS (VARIABLES) THAT INFLUENCE OUR SITTING POSTURE ?

There are basically five variables involved in a study of any cellist’s sitting posture:

the chair …….. the spike length ……. the cello size ……. the cellist’s size (and shape) …… the floor type and inclination

Let’s look at these factors one by one:

THE CHAIR

Chairs come in an enormous variety of shapes and sizes. The Chair is often a big problem for us and deserves a detailed discussion (click on the highlighted link).

THE SPIKE (LENGTH)

The length of the spike is the single most important element after the chair in determining our sitting posture. It is also the only one of all the seating variables that can always be immediately and easily changed according to our desires. Click on the highlighted link for a detailed discussion.

CELLO SIZE AND CELLIST SIZE

Cellists, like chairs, also come in a  great variety of shapes and sizes. Matching cello size to cellist size is very important for our left hand (see Hand Size), however it is not a very important factor in our seating posture. A small person can sit comfortably with a big cello (although they will probably have problems actually playing it) and a big person can do the same with a small cello. We just need to adjust the chair height and spike length accordingly. A tall cellist will clearly benefit from a higher chair and a longer spike.

THE FLOOR

The contact of the spike with the floor has to be perfectly stable.  A spike holder that is attached to only one leg of the chair (it has to be the left leg) will tend to slide out to the left and this creates instability and tension. Spike holders that are attached to both left and right legs of the chair are far more ergonomic.

Fortunately, we don’t usually have to play on a sloping or irregular floor. A floor that tips you forwards should not be a problem (and could even be an advantage).  Sloping backwards might cause you to fall asleep while playing (as long as you have a good backrest). But a chair (or floor) that slopes sideways will cause major problems. After one performance of a Wagner opera on a sideways-sloping floor, half of the string section of a professional orchestra had repetitive injury problems.