Give your guitar a rest – a player’s guide to keeping both feet on the ground

Give your guitar a rest
- a player’s guide to keeping both feet on the ground

Holding the guitar is not as simple as it sounds. There are many many things involved, especially posture and its effects short and long term, and the interaction between posture and mental process. The following is a short discussion of the topic.

Posture itself is not implicated in injury or stress, and there are many people who have technically unbalanced postures who nonetheless manage to play with great relaxation and freedom and poise. BUT! – everything else being equal you are more likely to experience those desirable qualities if your posture is helping rather than hindering, and the use of footstool alternatives is the single most important contribution to that. Players who seem to me to achieve perfect balance using footstools include Williams and David Russell, with both of whom I have discussed this, and basically, yes, they are fine as they are! Whether they could be even finer with two feet on the floor I am not in position to speculate.

For most amateurs and even us more lowly professionals, it is wise to assume that there is tension in the system that is causing a proportion of the difficulty we face in managing the instrument. If there wasn’t any we would be an awful lot better! So, finding not only variations within our established posture which reduce tension, but also considering radical departures, is very much a live issue for those who really want to move forward.

The basic principle is this: you have to do some muscular work to hold yourself up on the seat, or you’d fall off; you have to do some work to hold your fretting hand up to the strings, and some to hold your plucking hand in place, and some to keep you head in the air. These are necessary or useful tensions that do an essential job. Any work that your muscles do above that necessary minimum is what is slowing you down, or to be exact, contributing to a muscular state in which energy is being misused to the detriment of your playing.

This can mean anything from raising the heels off the floor, to pushing up with one or both legs; from the twisted sideways torso (takes energy to do that you know!) to the holding up (and rigidity) of shoulders; and the real big ones – holding the head too far out, with the allied issue of spinal curvature (its called staring closely at the fingerboard!) which causes massive work load for the neck, back and shoulder muscles, and the rigid holding of elbows and wrists.All of these over-tensions contribute to a. physical and mental fatigue b. the risk of RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) c. failure to breathe deeply enough d. technical shortcomings at fingertip level.

You may wonder how lifting your heel off the ground affects your fingertips. Well, its a symptom of an unbalanced sitting posture, with the real or imagined (probably subconsciously) fear that you are falling forward. Pushing with the legs is a sure sign of tension further up. But its the big ones that need addressing most; a package of postural horrors all calculated to impair muscular performance. The head is a big weight, even among people who don’t think they play brilliantly :>] and it often pulls the whole body awry. The muscular tension in the back and shoulders affects the fluidity of arm movement, causing difficult shifts on the macro scale, fixity or RH position on the medium scale and locking up hand positions, denying the necessary flexibility of movement for finger placement on the micro scale. Failure to breathe not only makes you giddy, it robs your muscles and brain of oxygen (you knew that), and it robs your body of a natural self-massage. When you inhale deeply your shoulders rise and fall, flexing all the muscles in that region (the ones that were fighting to stop the head falling off), and the tendency to arch the back crushes the lungs, reducing their volume and further knackering their ability to keep you functioning.

The answer is simple. Do the opposite of all these things. Rather than letting the small of the back collapse, keep it tucked in. This pushes the backbone into place, expands the lungs (feel the fresh air rushing in when you do that), and tends to make the head sit where it is designed to go – balanced nicely on top. So now the fingerboard has disappeared from view! Fine – either learn to play without looking or change your posture so the instrument is not so vertical.

Now I’m sorry if this seems to be getting ‘off topic’. It’s not because you use a guitar cushion or whatever that you will automatically improve your posture; you can still do those nasty things and you will get no further, just make the cushion maker happy. But, using a cushion or an A Frame or the little black plastic things that come from the Czech Republic (“Rakrest” as sometimes called) can help, because the spine is not twisted, and so the whole system is easier to monitor in terms of balance – ie where your centre of gravity is, how you can sit so everything stays in the air with no more effort than you would use doing nothing. So call some of the larger guitar centres and ask them about ‘guitar rests’ – you will probably find local shops just have footstools. And don’t take the first thing mentioned – if at all possible get there to try them all out as they differ in method and result.

From 1990 to 2002 I used a Swedish thing called a Classica. Wood, it has two sets of suckers on adjustable arms, and it sits on the left leg. The A Frame also has suckers but it combines a hinged arm with an adjustable strap and goes over the leg. I now use the Arm’n'Track, made in Norfolk by one Bob Carman – ­ which as the name suggests runs an arm along a track to get the adjustment. Its not cheap but I think its the best solution I have seen.

The cushion is the original I think. It’s not adjustable, and the guitar just sits on it, so it does not feel too fixed. It has its adherents – I’ve just come back from watching Julian Bream in the Barbican, and he first started using a cushion about 1991. Doesn’t change his tension problems though! The Rak rest has a single sucker and a small arm. It looks like it should not work, but it does! It’s the cheapest alternative I know of – little more than a good footstool, my new pupils just don’t get told about the existence of footstools, they get one of these. I couldn’t justify making people buy something more expensive, as the others all are. Oh, and there are a few other designs on the market. But you can’t decide in the abstract, you really have to try one out on your instrument for some little while to know whether one or another will work for you.

The guitarist with the most innovative approach to holding the guitar is called Paul Galbraith. His guitar is attached to a cello spike and is held like a cello between the knees. However Paul is a one off, and his holding the guitar vertically in a cello manner is not actually to do with posture so much, rather the search for freedom of right hand. He actually plays with a right hand that is totally free of the instrument, giving him great fluidity of gesture. On top of that the instrument is attached via the cello spike to a box that goes under the chair (fore and aft) and the vibrations transmitted to this box considerably enhance the sound of the music. Plus the small fact that his instrument has a high A top string and a low A bottom string and the frets fan out like and orpharion, and you can see this fellow is quite something. They’ve called it the Brahms guitar because it was developed to play the Brahms Variations Op 21 no 2. In case you were wondering. And it was made by David Rubio. To go to the reviews page, wherein is covered recordings by Galbraith, click here.

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