The first thing any good piano teacher will talk about is how to sit correctly at the piano. This is because it’s extremely easy to get it wrong at first and get into a bad habit. Like anything about learning the piano, it’s worth getting it correct right from the start. It’s much more difficult to fix bad habits later. Sitting correctly at the piano is really important as it affects everything about your playing, from moving your hands in the most natural way, to pedaling effortlessly. So let’s go through the basics.
What type of bench?
What type of seat you use at your piano is extremely important. You don’t want to be sitting slumped in an armchair or sitting in an office chair that has wheels and arm rests. These are not suitable if you want to play the piano well and not get all sorts of problems with your back or neck.
Don’t sit too close
When you sit at the piano, you are not sitting at the dinner table. You want to sit further back, with a good space between your torso and the edge of the piano keyboard, in front of Middle C. This allows for free movement of arms and hands. A good reference is that your knees should be just under the keyboard. If your knees are completely exposed, you’re sitting too far back. If half your thighs are tucked under the piano, you’re probably too close.
There are several types of piano benches available on the market, from basic to very fancy. What you buy you’ll probably live with for a long while, so choose carefully.
Check your seat height
Next, you want to check that the chair or bench you’re using is the right height for you. Some piano benches are adjustable, with knobs at the side that turn to take the seat higher or lower. You will always see these used for professional performances, but they are very expensive so most people don’t have these. Once you get set up, try this lesson on Skoove and watch the videos about where to place you hands and how to sit.
Check your arm angle
You want to make sure that you have a 90 degree bend between your forearm and upper arm and that your hand is slightly lifted, fingers curving down toward the keyboard. You should be able to balance something small, such as a coin, on the back of each hand without them slipping off. Now you’re in place, learn to play “Learn on me”
Get a friend or family member to check on the angle of your arm if you need, or position a mirror beside you so you can frequently check on your posture. As you progress on the piano, you’ll get into the habit of sitting well at the piano and you won’t have to keep checking. But it’s worth being careful about it for a week or two until it becomes natural.
Check your shoulders
Next, you want to be sure that you’re sitting up with your spine straight, but relaxed. Make sure your shoulders are fully relaxed and not raised up towards your ears at all. If you spend an hour at the piano at the wrong height, with shoulders lifted up toward your ears, you’re likely to get shoulder, neck and even headaches. If you do this for a long time, it can cause long lasting problems with shoulders, spine and even eyesight. So don’t underestimate the importance, especially if you plan to play a lot, which I hope you do! And if you plan to play a lot, invest in the best piano bench you can afford to be safe and comfortable.
Place your feet correctly
Some people tend to sit at the piano with one leg crossed over the other. This is bad posture for the piano and should be avoided. If you’re using the pedal, both feet must be in front of the pedals for easy access, and if you’re not using the pedal (yet) then both feet should be firmly on the floor. This ensure that your back and shoulders are aligned correctly and again, wards off aches and pains from sitting in the wrong position for a long time.
Children sometimes like to tuck their legs underneath them on the stool. To encourage them to keep both feet flat on the floor – until they can reach the floor – a foot stool placed directly in front of the pedals works really well.
If you know you’re going to be using the sustain (right) pedal, place your right foot on the pedal, keeping it in the raised position. Your heel should remain in contact with the floor the whole time, with the ball of your foot activating the pedal.
You can reach every note!
I’ve had piano students who move along the piano bench when they have to reach higher notes. One or two have even jumped off the bench and moved it along! This is cumbersome and interrupts the flow of the music. Besides which, it’s completely unnecessary. You can prove this to yourself by sitting with correct posture in the middle of the piano, as described above. Now play the bottom note of your piano with your left hand little finger and the top note of your piano with your right hand little finger. Got it? It means leaning in toward the piano, but it’s not that hard. Most children can just about manage this too. Some very small children can’t yet, but will be able to in time.
So if you are learning a song that jumps around a lot on the piano – just stay seated exactly where you are and move your arms to reach the notes. It’s much easier, looks much tidier, and keeps the music flowing. If really necessary, you can lean to one side or the other (known as one-buttock playing) but it’s rarely called for.
Can you read your music?
Another thing to consider when you’re sitting at the piano is where your music sits. Upright pianos tend to place the music right in front of your eyes, very conveniently. Grand piano music stands tend to be higher and further away from you, which might mean sitting a tiny bit higher on your bench. If you’re considering a new piano and you need some guidance check out our advice about acoustic vs digital pianos.
Also, make sure you have good light on your music stand. There are some very good clip-on reading lights that work well clipped right onto the music stand. Some work from both batteries and USB. Of course, if you’re reading from a device or using Skoove, this isn’t a problem.
Don’t get dramatic – yet!
While you’re learning the piano, it’s really good to keep your posture simple and stable. As you develop your skills, you might find that your body starts to move in response to the music you’re creating. This is great as it’s a sign that you’re really relaxing into your piano playing. But take care not to get too dramatic as it can impede your playing.
Advanced pianists will often sway, duck, rock or perform flamboyant arm movements. Some of this is for show, but there advanced techniques to achieve certain affects or dynamics on a piano that require these kinds of movements.
Have a look at Olga Scheps playing Chopin’s Ballade in G minor, Opus 23 No 1 and see how she moves with the music she’s producing. She expresses the emotion in the music with her body language and facial expression.
Then compare Olga’s performance with Khatia Buniatishvili playing Schubert’s Impromptu Opus 90 No 3 in G flat major. She plays almost completely still and usually with her eyes closed, internalizing the emotions in the music.
One is not necessarily better than the other. It’s just an observation that pianists play differently. You can research more online and watch other pianists.
So now hopefully you will know the importance of getting the right set-up so you can sit comfortably and properly to play the piano so you can enjoy your practice sessions and feel relaxed and encouraged as you go on your piano playing journey.
Why not get settled at your piano right now and play “Light My Fire” to get inspired!