Sitting with the Guitar

 

By Nitin Arora

The original title of this article was “Sitting and Proper Positioning with the Guitar”. It is now entitled “Sitting with the Guitar”. I came to realize that in my own attempts to combat dogmatic approaches -hooded under the veil of freethinking as they might be- I had done my own aims a disservice by using the word “proper”. Over the years, I have received many positive remarks about this article. I suppose that the negative comments never made their way to my email box. I have, however, received -especially when this site first arose- remarks typical of people for whom the word of this or that “pedagogue” was scripture. Of course, these people fall over like dominoes when pressed to use logic instead of quotation marks. Anyway…

I have and will continue to tinker with and refine this article every now and then in an effort to make it more consistent and clear. If you read the entire article, please email me with a little feedback if you have the time and the inclination to do so. All suggestions and criticisms made in the spirit of betterment are, of course, welcome.

 

Sitting with the Guitar

Nitin Arora

Among the many techniques a classical guitarist must learn and eventually master, the first is that of sitting with the guitar. Yet oddly enough, sitting seems to be the area of technique to which the least amount of thought is given apart from its initial study. Sadly, most guitarists would hardly consider sitting to be a technique. For many guitarists “technique” embodies only obvious functions such as the playing of scales and arpeggios. Technique is much more than this. Technique could be thought of as the physical and mental means to a musical end. Sitting would certainly fall under this jurisdiction. Furthermore, all other functions that the guitarist carries out are in some way linked to sitting position. Excellent sitting position will make the jobs of the hands and fingers easier as well as conserving one’s energy. No guitarist would deny his desire for these things. Yet despite the massive amount of advantages that excellent sitting position affords, it is often physical discomfort or pain that leads one to truly reevaluate their technique with regards to sitting.

As with all other aspects of guitar playing, when the guitarist seeks change he will usually consult with a teacher, either directly or indirectly through a method. Yet, danger -in the form of misinformation- possibly awaits him. Most guitar methods and teachers have discussed the “proper” placement of the guitar on/with/to (which one is it?) the body through use of a certain type of device or guitar support. Methods with better intentions -or just more pretense- will go further to discuss the actual placement of the body itself. This information, while hopefully noble in cause, is often incomplete and unaware. No complete discussion of sitting with the guitar can take place until one first learns how to sit well without the guitar. Moreover, fruitful and easy sitting posture depends heavily upon the chair one wishes to use. This is not something usually discussed in even the most “complete” of guitar methods.

Selecting a chair is not to be taken lightly. Proper chair selection can make the difference between pleasure and pain as well as vitality and fatigue. A good chair can lessen the work the body must do in order to sit correctly while practicing. Conversely, an ill-conceived chair will cause one to expend valuable energy unnecessarily. Energy is better used to play the guitar than to sit with it.

One type of chair that guitarists may wish to try is the forward sloping chair. This type of chair combats the problems that the human body will face when seated in horizontal or backward sloping chairs and allows one to sit more efficiently. A relaxed -or slouched- sitting position in a horizontal chair, such as a piano bench, or a backward sloping chair will cause the body’s natural line of gravity to be shifted behind the sit bones. This will increase bodily stress since the guitarist will need to withstand increased gravitational pulls on the trunk and head region, which constitutes about 55-60% of one’s body weight. Of course, many method books tell us to do otherwise (i.e. ‘sit up straight’) in order to straighten or “align” the spine (Aligned with what?). Many read these bits of information and actively use muscular force to pull their upper torso upwards, thereby getting out of a slumped posture. This causes continual contraction of the abdominal, back, and hip flexor muscles. This contraction often results in the reduction of blood flow and additionally creates metabolites, waste products of muscle work. The build up of these metabolites, such as lactic acid, can cause spasms and pain (Norris 39). Sitting “up straight” like this eliminates the danger of having a slumped spine, but is itself dangerous due to the augmented amount of muscular activity that is required to sit like this for a long time. If one chooses to sit like this then they will have to increase their endurance and stamina, but endurance can only mask -not erase- potential problems. If method authors and teachers promote effortless technique with regards to the hands then why do these same people advocate a sitting position that requires great muscular effort? Using a forward sloping chair will eliminate the “slumped” position and eliminate the need to use force in order to achieve a more advantageous position.

Giving in to gravity when the body’s center of gravity is too far back will cause a flattening of the lumbar spine (Norris 39). While this is acceptable for many activities -due to the fact that it will require less energy than sitting “up straight” in a poorly designed chair- it is not necessarily advantageous for playing the guitar. Playing the guitar for several hours a day in this position can put a dangerous strain on the back and can also limit one’s capacity to breathe. In the words of Richard Norris, M.D., director of the National Arts Medicine Center, “flattening of the lumbar curve results in flattening of the diaphragm, limiting its excursion and thereby decreasing the air flow” (39). A forward sloping chair will redirect the body’s line of gravity over the sit bones and will not only discourage flattening of the lumbar spine, but it will also allow for fuller breathing as well as decreasing the amount of work that the body must do in order to sit upright, thereby reducing the risk of pain and fatigue.

Another aspect of sitting which the guitarist should understand is that there is a definite limit to far the femur, or thighbone, can rotate upwards from within the hip socket. The femur can only rotate upwards (toward your chin) sixty degrees from within the hip socket. Bringing the thighbones up any further is caused by a backward rotation of the pelvis. In fact, it is this backward rotation of the pelvis that causes the aforementioned flattening of the lumbar spine and places the body’s center of gravity behind the sit bones. For example, sitting with the hips at a ninety degree angle (Figure 1) will causes a thirty degree backward rotation of the pelvis which in turn causes a thirty degree flattening of the lumbar curve (Norris 39). Once again, the easiest way to eliminate this is through the use of a forward sloping chair (Figure 2). A chair sloping forward thirty degrees will eliminate the need for the pelvis to rotate backwards and will maintain the lumbar curve through natural means rather than by muscular force. A forward slope of thirty degrees can simply be too much and may cause the guitarist to feel thrust forward. Norris recommends a forward slope of fifteen to twenty degrees, but you should make your own conclusions.

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Interestingly, forward sloping chairs are very difficult to come by (can somebody say ‘conspiracy’?). When experimenting with the forward sloping chair one may simply place pieces of wood under the back legs of their chair. If the guitarist is sensitive enough to feel the advantages of the forward sloping chair he may wish to purchase a wedge cushion, a type of cushion which can turn a normal chair into a forward sloping chair. The ErgoCush(tm) is such a cushion and is available from AliMed Inc. at 1-800-225- 2610. They cost around forty dollars Update, August 2011: Alimed does not appear to sell this particular cushion anymore; a general search for “wedge cushion” should yield some results. I’m sure that there are others brands for sale on the Internet. Please do your own research and make your own choice. You can also try a forward sloping posture by sitting in a horizontal chair and tucking your legs underneath. (Read the Tips section below for some more sitting ‘tricks’.)

Other options to consider in choosing a chair are height and the backrest. Choosing the height of the chair will require much experimentation on the part of the guitarist due to physical differences among players. One should not choose a chair so low that the hips form an angle greater than ninety degrees (as mentioned earlier), which in itself is risky enough. On the other hand, the chair must not be so high that is becomes uncomfortable and difficult to sit with the guitar. The feet should, of course, both be securely on the floor, something not afforded by a chair of excess height.

The decision whether or not to use a backrest while practicing is a complex one. Many backrests are designed too poorly to be used while practicing. In many chairs the backrest tilts backwards and will force the guitarist to lean the spine backwards. This will usually result in the thoracic region of the spine being supported, leaving the lumbar region unsupported. Often, the only way to give support to the lower part of the back is to assume a kyphotic, or slumped, sitting position (Zacharkow 108). This, of course, will reduce the energy required to sit but comes with a price. The guitarist’s ability to breathe will be limited and stresses will be put upon the lower back. Pillow-like lumbar supports are available in many stores. These can be strapped onto the lower part of the chair’s backrest and will allow one to sit while bringing lower back support to the body rather than adjust the body to the backrest. Guitarists may also wish to temporarily experiment with back supports that actually strap on to the body. These are primarily designed for people who do a lot of lifting at work, but they may be helpful for discouraging a kyphotic posture. If using a forward sloping chair or forward sloping posture, you probably won’t even need a backrest of any kind.

Aside: my personal chair solution is to buy an inexpensive, adjustable-height office chair from a office supply superstore. These can cost about $20 (US). I do not install the wheels or the backrest. By sitting on the chair “backwards”, I have a forward sloping chair with height adustment. Besides the low cost, this is more comfortable than any thing else I’ve ever tried. I can sit for hours without any discomfort.

There are, of course, other parts of the body that must be addressed apart from the back, lower torso, and thighs. These are the legs and shoulders as well as the head and neck. Rather than the vagueries of the term of “alignment”, guitarists should be more concerned with symmetry, something which many musicians are forced to abandon, at least partially. A symmetrical seating position is one in which the left leg performs the same task as the right leg, etc. Players who use the footstool and those who sit cross-legged are the clearest examples of asymmetrical sitting posture. Players who employ the footstool have one leg higher than the other and often, if right handed, place the right leg more to the right in order to allow room for the lower bout of the guitar. Many people who use suction cup based supports and such are also guilty of this; however, they are less asymmetrical than players who use the footstool because both of their feet will be placed on the floor. Sitting with the legs crossed, which is common among lutenists and many current flamenco players, is asymmetrical in that one leg is rested upon the other and weight and pressure distribution will be uneven with regards to the buttocks and feet (Zacharkow 73). Asymmetry and uneven pressure distribution can lead to hurried muscle fatigue and uneven blood flow (Zacharkow 73). Furthermore, raising one leg high such as with a footstool or with cross-legged sitting will, of course, cause backward rotation of the pelvis and a flattening of the lumbar curve. In these instances, the reinstatement of the natural lumbar curve can only occur through muscular effort. I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from employing these ways of sitting, but I am trying to dissuade us from being ignorant of what we do. Think of flautists or violinists: they have to be asymmetrical, but isn’t knowing half the battle? If you choose not to be completely symmetrical, you can at least strive for symmetry in a local sense. In other words, if your legs aren’t symmetrical than try to keep the rest of your body symmetrical: don’t lean your torso or head to the right or left, forward or backward, etc.

Proper shoulder positioning is often problematic for guitarists. While the shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body, it is also the least stable (Norris 45). This is due to the fact that the shoulder joint is like an unstable ball and socket; it depends on muscles to hold it intact (Alexander 11). Shoulder problems in classical guitarists are common, especially in the shoulder that corresponds to the hand that strokes the strings. Often guitarists move “the right shoulder forward, so as to be able to lay the forearm flat against the guitar and avoid impinging the underside of the right forearm against the sharp edge of the guitar. This position strains the shoulder muscles and tendons” (Norris 46). Guitarists should realize that if the headstock of the guitar is pointing too far behind the guitarist then the opposite end of the guitar will be too far forward. If the headstock points just slightly forward or is in a neutral position then the lower bout of the guitar will come closer to the body and this will reduce the need to bring the shoulder forward. Also, if the guitar is rotated so that the soundhole is pointing straight ahead or even downward, shoulder discomfort can occur. Players worried about impinging the underside of the forearm against the guitar should pad their forearm with some type of cloth, such as old socks.

Another danger that the guitarist faces is that of neck pain. Usually, this type of pain can easily be prevented. Often guitarists place their music stand too low or too high. Placing the music stand too low or high will cause a forward or backward tilt of the head, respectively. These will increase the amount of weight that the neck must support and can not only lead to neck pain but to headaches and lower back pain as well (Zackarkow 180). Also, guitarists have a tendency to tilt the head forward in order to watch their hands while they play. Guitarists who wish to watch their hands can place a large mirror in front of themselves at eye level. This will allow one to see their hands while preventing a forward or backward tilt of the head.

The following two paragraphs delineate an approach to sitting that I advocate, but you can do whatever you like. Please, just THINK about what you do.

To achieve a well-balanced and symmetrical sitting position after the proper chair has been chosen, one should sit in the chair with both feet on the floor (some people will prefer to have their heels off the floor). The knees and feet should be approximately shoulder-width apart (read the Tips section for more on this) and should point outwards. The spine should not be forced to lean forwards or backwards. Experiment with the possibilities of using the chair’s backrest -if it has one. The natural lumbar curvee shhould be maintained. Do not let the spine curve backwards (kyphosis) in a slumped position or curve too far inwards (lordosis) which will cause the upper chest to stick out. The shoulders should not be raised. The head should not tilt forwards or backwards or turn to favor either the right or left. These basic guidelines should roughly be followed at all times. Slight movements of the body are natural and should not be discouraged.

Once a sitting position has been achieved, the guitar can then be added to the body. As mentioned before, the lower bout should not be too far forward from the body as to bring the shoulder of the hand which strokes the strings forward. The angle of the neck of the guitar should not be so low that the left hand is limited in accessing the fretboard. This can also cause for dipping of the left shoulder. Yet, it should not be so high as to fatigue the left hand and strain the left shoulder. The guitar’s soundhole should also be pointed slightly upwards. This will help the shoulder of the hand which strokes the strings maintain its natural position. It may also help the guitar project better. The guitar should also not be too far to the right or left as to “pull” the player in either direction (this can be an initial problem for smaller people like myself, but with enough experimentation you can probably figure something out. For some, a smaller guitar may be the best solution).

Once the guitarist has found a comfortable position, he can use several devices such as a strap, a suction cup based support, or a cushion to secure the guitar. Other devices that stabilize the guitar to a greater degree than the typical options in stores are available, though hard to come by -at least in America.

Hopefully, these guidelines will help you out. If your way of sitting works for you then that’s great but keep in mind -especially if you are a teacher- that eeveryone is different and we cannot extract rules just because something works for us. If you need help, I hope that one of the supports on the market will work for you; if they don’t, you may come up with a different solution or invent your own device! Good Luck!
References

Alexander, R. McNeill. The Human Machine. Columbia University Press(1992).

Brunnstrom’s Clinical Kinesiology: 5th Edition. F.A. Davis Company(1996).

Mandal, A.C. The Seated Man. Dafnia Press(1987).

Norris, Richard. The Musician’s Survival Guide. ICSOM(1993).

Zacharkow, Dennis. Posture: Sitting, Standing, Chair Design and Exercise. Charles C. Thomas(1988).

*I need to add that the Sor and Aguado methods were useful in giving me ideas.

Copyright 1999 by Nitin Arora


Quick Tips on Sitting with the Guitar

 

1. EXPERIMENT! EXPERIMENT! EXPERIMENT!

ex. Experiment with a forward sloping chair or a forward sloping posture (by means of tucking your feet underneath a horizontal chair, heels off the floor). The easiest way to have a forward sloping chair is to place a piece of wood under the back legs of your chair. You probably want to avoid backward sloping chairs. Seat cushioning should be comfortable but not too soft. Be wary of extremely hard chairs with no cushioning and overly cushioned chairs. Experiment with using and not using a backrest.

Sitting Trick #1: If you have a horizontal chair and don’t like sitting with your legs tucked underneath, then just initially tuck your legs underneath until your upper torso swings forward like a pendulum. You spine will reach a more natural curve. Then bring your legs back to the untucked position by only moving your feet foreword; do not let your upper torso move back to a slumped position, although it may swing back a very small amount.

Sitting Trick #2: To figure out a good placement for your feet and thighs try this: Sit with your feet touching each other. Do the same with your knees. Now, let go of the tension in your legs. Your knees and thighs will naturally move away from each other and point outward. The result is about the angle and placement you want for you thighs and knees. You can then move your feet under their respective knees/thighs. Point your feet in the same direction as your knees/thighs.

2. Try to sit with the entire body in a symmetrical position while still making minor movements and adjustments. Sitting well yet too rigidly makes for poor pressure distribution. Also, try wearing loose clothing as to allow for easier movement.

3. Foot stool users can experiment with a flat footstool or forward sloping footstool. If you use a strap, try tying one end to the headstock, not the upper bout, as this will take weight off the left shoulder.

4. Be careful about where you place your music stand. Don’t place it so that your head must tilt either forwards or backwards; tilt the music stand rather than the head. Music stands should not be too far away or too close, as to strain the eyes.

5. If you must see your hands while practicing experiment with looking straight into a mirror as opposed to manipulating the body in order to see your hands.

6. Get out of your chair and move! Take breaks, walk around, walk in place, stretch, etc. The human body does not like monotony.

7. Ask yourself: “Do I really need to sit as much as I do?” Writing in fingerings, visualization, and having deep and mischievous thoughts about guitar technique don’t need to be done while sitting. Try them standing up or lying down.

8. Eat well and exercise. People in good shape are less likely to have back and neck problems.

9. Be happy. People who can reduce the amount of stress in their lives are less likely to have back and neck problems. Exercise can also alleviate stress.

10. Don’t let impatience be your master. Often guitarists feel that they must be making physical contact with the strings in order to be progressing. Taking a day to work on your sitting position with and without the guitar is just as valid as spending a day working on your rest stroke, composing, reading, writing, watching a film, and thinking about special people. Guitar isn’t everything (I believe it’s a reflection of life, so you have to understand life and humanity -ironically, many musician’s don’t have a clue) and you will actually play better as soon as you realize that. But, that’s not an excuse to not practice!

Copyright 1999 by Nitin Arora

http://humaneguitarist.org/seat.htm

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