Next in the list of first world problems after consuming way too much food and guzzling down copious amount of the wrong beverages, is posture. We sit at our desks for hours, we lean further into the monitor as eye strain and/or myopia take effect and we look down at our phones. The result is something like that old guy I see walking around my work’s industrial area who fits an engineer’s stereotype, looking like he’s been hunched over a soldering iron for too long. His shoulders are so slumped he looks like he has to lift his chin up to look straight ahead.
That guy is a warning to all young people to look after their posture.
I remember my folks drilling me on posture as a kid as if it were as important as manners. “Get your hands out of your pockets…” was to allow the arms to swing while walking. Then there was the 3-4 years of ballroom dancing I did up until the age of 13. I remember the ‘wall treatment’ (standing with one’s back to the wall in order to flatten out the shoulder blades) and the reminders to keep the head tall and shoulders down; all things to help you look like a million bucks on the dance floor.
Those things stick too, because 22 years later I took up salsa dancing and the body naturally wants to return to those positions. Curse my desk job that threatens to unravel it all again.
Posture in music performance
Posture in incredibly important for performance music too, yet students often twist and contort their bodies into all sorts of odd looking positions.
Yesterday’s sax student (much like many before him) find it difficult to stand tall and ground both feet; they stand there with one leg crossed behind the other and they begin to sway. Naturally this completely messes with their sense of pulse; in fact, swaying like that is evidence they currently don’t think about pulse at all while playing. It should be next to impossible to maintain a sway that is counter to the actual pulse of the music.
For the younger students, standing isn’t practical because of the weight of the instrument. Some even struggle to have their feet touch the ground and so have to sit at the very front of the chair. Sometimes the weight of the instrument means they have to rest it on an instrument case.
Once they get taller though, there’s no excuses. “Sitting is standing from the waist up” I think I heard at a ballroom dancing class, yet some students will attempt to cross their legs (I’ll stop that pretty quick), or wrap their feet around the chair legs (can’t tap when that happens), really, anything that is not feet flat out in front of them is a bad idea.
Sax to the side vs. centre
“Bring your instrument to you, not your head to the instrument…” is some advice I heard once. Often times a student gets themselves in all sorts of odd shapes by being influenced by how they’re holding the instrument.
I had to demonstrate this with the saxophone yesterday. I took off the neck strap and demonstrated standing nice and tall, holding the saxophone with my right hand. I can pull off the staunch, one-handed demonstration because I’ve got big hands and strong arms but it was an amusing looking struggle for my more diminutive student. Still, it was just a demonstration. I said, “look, I’m standing tall, both my feet are grounded. I’m looking forward at the music and my chin is level. I’m essentially at a neutral position. Now, bring the saxophone to you… and nothing about your posture should change.”
The result should be a saxophone that is positioned in front of you, not the side. Despite the fact that the saxophone keys look designed for a right side bias, this compromises your right hand position and makes you less agile. Having the sax to the side also brings it too close to your body, making you cramped and angling the mouth piece down too much resulting in a less jazzy sound.
Also, you look like a complete ass.
If you’re no longer a pre-teen, do yourself a favour and hold the saxophone out from your body. The right thumb will pivot the instrument to your mouth, the left thumb will act as balance, the mouth will assist in stability and the neck will take the weight.
When I was 12 years old, my school teacher took away my seat because I was swinging on it. You’d think that’s a bit counter intuitive to learning; perhaps there should have been a class engineering assignment of designing a better seat so that one doesn’t want to swing it, or perhaps a seat design that was swing resistant or absorbed swing forces.
Anyway, the chairs in my music studio are the classic welded metal square piping type and they don’t take to being swung very well. One of my students snapped a chair at the weld joint by swinging while playing (to be fair, the chair had probably already been re-welded)
Students sometime have their seat so far away from the music that they sit on the very front of the seat then lean it forward to get even closer to the music. In the act of swinging they’re stuffing up the pulse of the music again. How can you swing out of time to the beat? Answer, they’re not feeling the beat, which is why they’re swinging. It’s important to cut that out, if not for fixing their timing, you at least have to think about looking after the chairs.
Don’t perform sitting in a mini-skirt
A pro-tip, don’t go playing saxophone at an all-boys school assembly in a mini skirt. You’ll struggle to hold those legs together for the entire set. “What was I thinking?!” proclaimed the 2nd sax player from my school’s Big Band. Plus, unless your 6ft and playing an alto sax, that saxophone is going to be to the side again and result in all the aforementioned bad stuff.
Music performance is like theatre, you have to look like you’re owning that stage, you have to look like you’re owning the pulse, the beat, the rhythm, everything. None of the musicality can afford to accidentally work. Instead, you’re entire physical presence has to give the audience reassurance that there’s not going to be a train wreck, allowing them to sit back and enjoy the show rather than feeling nervous for the person performing (well, that’s how I feels sometimes when watching those talent shows. Yikes).