The Correct Way to Sit in a Chair (and How This Could Help Your Performance in More Ways Than You’d Think)

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I remember when my dad bought our first VHS camcorder.

Unlike today’s tiny camcorders which fit in your hand, this thing was huge. ’Twas basically a VCR with a lens on it, so imagine trying to balance that on your shoulder.

Anyhow, it was pretty cool to see yourself on a TV. And if you’ve ever seen America’s Funniest Home Videos, you know that watching yourself skateboard and fall down in reverse is pretty funny.

But for once in my life, I was also able to see what I looked like when performing on stage. And what I saw, was a wee bit horrifying. Shoulders hunched, neck arching forward, tummy jutting out, knees locked – it wasn’t a pretty sight.

In an instant, I understood exactly what a teacher meant when he remarked that I sounded great with his eyes closed…but not so much with his eyes open (which was relayed to me in as kindly a way as possible, of course, but still stung a little).

Of course, none of this should have been a surprise. After all, my posture on-stage was a pretty faithful representation of my posture in the practice room.

Given that I spent most of my practice time sitting, hunched over, this became my default playing position whether I was sitting or standing.

And even though I got pretty good at playing with crappy posture, I wasn’t doing myself any favors. Aside from it being a pretty uninspired visual experience for the audience, it led to a lot of bad technical habits too.

And a recent study suggests that it may have been negatively affecting my performance from a psychological perspective as well.

How so?

Math time

A team of researchers recruited 125 college students to participate in a simple math challenge.

First, everyone took a short questionnaire which asked them to rate their level of anxiety about testing, whether they had a tendency to blank out in exams, how much difficulty they had in math, and so forth.

Two ways to sit

Then, the students were taught how to sit in two different ways. One, was the “collapsed” position. Which basically involved sitting slouched over, looking down, with the lower back rounded. Or, the way most of us sit pretty much all the time, even though we know it’s “bad” posture.

The other way was the “upright” position, where students sat straight, looking up, with a slight arch in the lower back. The way you’d sit if your scary high school math teacher suddenly locked eyes with you and said “sit up straight!”

Serial 7’s

Half of the students were then asked to sit in the collapsed position, while the other half sat in the upright position. As they sat in these positions, they were instructed to count backwards from 843 by 7’s, as quickly as they could, for 15 seconds (e.g. 843…836…829…etc.).

Then, students were asked to sit in the other position, and repeat the task.

Want to guess how the students did?

Posture mattered (but only for some)

Well, unfortunately, we don’t have any data on the students’ actual math performance1.

But we do have students’ ratings of how difficult the task was.

Interestingly, posture didn’t have much of an effect on the perceived difficulty of the math challenge among the best math students and test takers. Their ratings of the task difficulty were 4.9 when slouched, and 4.0 when upright (where 1=easy; 10=difficult).

But it was a different story for those students who did have test anxiety, struggled more with math, and had a tendency to blank out in exams. They found the math task to be significantly more difficult when performing it slouched (7.0), than when sitting upright (4.8).

Why?

So why does a challenging cognitive task feel more difficult when slouching over?

The exact mechanism isn’t clear – but there are a number of other studies which suggest that our posture can affect our mood and mental state, so the findings here aren’t a total surprise.

And given that sitting upright is a pretty easy fix, the researchers suggest that students who get anxious about tests or who are afraid of blanking out in exams, should try making a conscious effort to sit upright in these kinds of pressure situations.

Ok…but if sitting upright is so easy, and we all know that slouching is bad for us, why don’t more of us sit with good posture all of the time?

Well, the problem, I think, is that sitting with good posture is actually not as easy as it sounds – because the way we’ve learned to sit might be all wrong!

Re-learning how to sit

Due to increasing shoulder and back pain over the last couple years (dang…isn’t this the sort of thing “old” people say?), I’ve spent some time trying to train myself to sit with better posture. But I can never seem to find a comfortable position, and I keep reverting back to my default slouchy position…blaming my chair…and daydreaming wistfully about Herman Miller office chairs.

So when I came across a TED talk which suggested that I could sit without back pain if I found my “primal posture,” I was intrigued – but kind of skeptical. Because, you know…what the heck is primal posture?!

Well, it turns out that sitting with good posture isn’t just about sitting up straight. In fact, when told to “sit up straight,” our first instinct is to puff out our chests, which actually makes things worse.

“Untuck your tail”

The key to sitting correctly, according to some, is learning how to sit so that you’re not sitting on your (imaginary) tail. Again…what?!

Freeing your tail shifts the alignment of your pelvis so that your spine is stacked correctly, allowing you to sit upright much more effortlessly – where it actually feels relaxing.

I’ve been experimenting with this all week, and though it does take some practice to get the hang of, feels way better. At least, I’m not feeling quite as resentful towards my chair as I usually do after a long day of writing.

And though it’s too late to turn back time, I imagine that my posture when performing, would have been a whole lot more optimal as well if I had sat this way when practicing.

Take a look at the TED talk below, and see if this makes sitting for long periods of time much more comfortable. After all, sitting is supposed to be a pleasant experience, right?

Esther Gokhale at TEDxStanford

Additional tips

To Fix That Pain In Your Back, You Might Have To Change The Way You Sit @NPR

Footnotes

  1. It would have been interesting, for instance, to see how far students were able to get in 15 seconds, or how many mistakes they made in that time.

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

Comments

8 Responses

  1. On a related note, I find that a lot of chairs are not optimal for my body proportions. I’m short, and my legs are shorter than my torso. With many chairs, my feet don’t even touch the floor unless I scoot forward in the chair. This adds yet another dimension to the posture issue. ( I play horn with the bell on my leg; I’ve resorted to using a block of wood as a footrest.)

  2. I’m surprised that there is no mention here of the Alexander Technique, which excels at teaching its students to identify bad habits in the use of their bodies, and to correct them. Most musicians would benefit enormously from a few lessons with a good teacher.

  3. It’s amazing how the world is connected. I just completed a Gokhale class and it has changed my life in more ways than one. I now sit differently, walk differently and sleep much more soundly. I found your site due to blog from an Arthur Murray dance studio. Thank you for your insightful articles that are useful to all.

  4. Thank you for this article! I am a violinist training to become a Timani teacher, and what you wrote really resonated with me. Timani is the only body-based approach to playing which has been created by musicians for musicians. I can highly recommend having a look at their website, where you can learn how to use your body (and sit!) in the most efficient way, and let your natural technique come through.

  5. I am a retired dentist in my 60’s. Dentist’s tend to have bad backs. The best I investment in my life when I was young was my proactive choice to learn Tai Chi and then to teach it. I recommend this to all musicians. My passion now is music and good posture
    is essential. The general medical approach to pharmaceutically make your symptoms feel like they are cured does not work!
    Noa, this forum you have set up is a magnificent tool. Kudos to you!
    Dr. Barry

  6. I love all the suggestions here for methodologies to improve posture. I really wanted to be a good student when I was a kid, so when the teacher told me to sit up straight with posture like I was standing, I sat up STRAIGHT! I had no idea it was a problem until a year or two ago, I got a lesson with a highly-regarded clarinet teacher, and first thing he said was, “Do you really sit like that?” Soon enough, it was butt all the way back in the chair and using the chair back as a physical cue to breathe into my back. I’d gone to such an extreme with “good posture” that I was out of alignment myself. I would absolutely second the recommendations for Alexander Technique, especially since it seems many colleges offer it as a class.

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