More than one way. How high to sit

In the previous article I asserted that the Perl programmer’s motto “There is more than one way to do it” applies to piano playing, and to approaches to learning to play, despite the cocksure attitude of most writers on the subject (and many teachers) that they know the one way that is best.

Here is an example … how high should one sit? You might think that opinions on something as basic as this would be unanimous. Far from it! There have been great pianists that sit high, others that sit low, and everything in-between. Perhaps it really does not matter that much? Yet those who advocate sitting low are almost evangelical about its benefits.

But first, the “standard” advice. It is to sit at such a height that the elbow is a couple of inches above the keyboard, and such that the forearm slopes down ever so slightly from elbow to hand. Note that it is the relationship of the forearm to the keyboard that matters. So someone with a long torso and/or short upper arm may superficially appear to be sitting very low, whereas someone with a long upper arm may seem to be sitting very high, yet both will have the same relationship of forearm to keyboard.

What are the alternatives?

Alberto Guerrero most famously preached the benefits of a low position, but it was taken to extremes by his most famous student, Glenn Gould, who described its benefits, and his mentor’s own technique as “not so much striking the keys as pulling them down.” Some think that this is one of the technical elements that contributed to the great clarity that Gould achieved in contrapuntal works.

It has been speculated that this prevented Gould from developing sparkling octaves, but as another relatively low sitter, Vladimir Horowitz, had octave technique as brilliant as anyone could wish for that is doubtful. When he played Mozart Horowitz’s left wrist would often fall so far beneath the keyboard that he rested the heel of his palm on the wooden rail at the front of the keyboard – a “technique” that would earn a reprimand from most piano teachers, yet it did not seem to prevent Horowitz from achieving the utmost precision in his control of dynamics.

It has also been speculated (by Peter Feuchtwanger) that Gould’s low posture and hunched shoulders affected his circulation and contributed to his early death from a stroke but I am not aware of any supporting evidence for this view.

The example of contemporary Bach expert Angela Hewitt proves that you do not have to sit low to play counterpoint of the utmost clarity. She sits higher than any other pianist I have ever seen, yet she plays the works of Bach, Rameau and other Baroque composers beautifully. Fans of Daniel Barenboim will also have noticed that he sits with his elbows much higher than the keyboard. A little further back in time Artur Rubinstein also sat exceptionally high. He played more of the Romantic repertoire, rather than Baroque and Classical, but whatever he played he played extremely well.  Finally, Liszt is described by several contemporaries as sitting high at the keyboard, so perhaps there is something in the theory that the type of virtuosity required by the repertoire of the Romantic era is best served by a high position, bearing down on the keys from above?

No-one really knows! But so long as you are not trying to play when you are nearly standing up, or with your bottom close to the floor, then I venture that how you use your fingers, wrists and arms is far more important!


One response to “More than one way. How high to sit

  1. I prefer to sit high and adjust the elbow angle by adjusting the distance from the piano. I find this allows me to play with the greater fluency. This is a change in practise, as I used to be a floor hugger.