Editor’s Note: This article was inspired by a question I recently received from a reader. It’s actually a great question, and I thought that it would be a fantastic opportunity to tap into the wisdom of Bill Plake. Some of you may recognize Bill as one of the contributors to the Bulletproof Saxophone Playing program. At any rate, he’s a leading Alexander Technique educator – which, in a nutshell, means that he’s an expert in the realm of helping you achieve ease and efficiency of movement, enhanced balance and coordination, improved vocal and respiratory function, and a more reliable sensory perception. You can read more about Bill and the Alexander Technique here.
“Is there a correct, proper, or specific chair that you can recommend to practice saxophone? Right now I am using one of those metal folding chairs with a cushion to make it a bit more comfortable, but it is still uncomfortable. Can you give me any suggestions?”
– Harold Pizer
I think the three most important things here are:
- The saxophonist sitting in good balance
- The chair having the optimum height and surface
- The saxophonist taking adequate rest away from the chair during practice
What’s your Angle?
To play well when seated we need to be on our sitting bones (those two bony protrusions at the bottom of your pelvis) with our necks releasing our heads directly above the pelvis. So no slouching, no overly-straight hyperextension; just simple, easy poise. The height of the chair needs to be one such that our knees are slightly lower than our hips. A good angle between the torso and legs might be 130 degrees or so (as opposed to 90 degrees, or worse, even less). A stool works very well for playing saxophone. It is what I use when I sit to play.
Maintaining an angle of 130 degrees between the torso and the legs is optimal since it tends to open up the hip joints, making it easier to sit in upright balances without over-engaging the hip flexors (the muscles on the front side of the thigh) and without over-engaging the lower back muscles. It is akin to sitting in a kneeling position minus the pressure on the knees, which is very nice for the head, neck, and back (ever seen one of those kneeling computer chairs?)
It’s the Surface Stuff that Matters
That brings me to the sitting surface. It needs to be firm, but not uncomfortable. I actually like using a stool with a wooden seat, but many folks prefer more padding. The firmness of the surface helps to put optimum pressure on the sitting bones, which in turn, naturally send us upright into good balance (again, the importance of letting the head balance on top of the spine above the sitting bones).
Good Things to Sit On
Most saxophonists practice in chairs that are too low for them (less than 90 degree angle between torso and legs) and too soft – inviting them to collapse into compression. If you’re going to sit in, let’s say, a folding chair, consider raising the height of the chair. Placing a zafu (Japanese mediation cusion) on top of a chair’s seat is a very good option here. It’s also a great surface because it is firm but quite comfortable. My Alexander students love them.
Another very good option is something called a Cello Seat Cushion, which is a very firm foam pad in the shape of a wedge that is slightly higher in the back than the front. Both the zafu and the cello seat cushion can be found online, although I think the cello seat cushion is only available through one website (https://www.celloseatcushions.com). Zafus you can find anywhere. Amazon has them. Just make sure that the Zafu has a cotton cover, not silk, and that it is filled with genuine buckwheat kernels, not synthetic.
I’m stating the obvious here, but chairs tend to come in similar, standard heights, but people come in all different heights. Sometimes I think of chairs as “one size fits none”. So the chair height is dependent on the height and proportions of the saxophonist, and needs to be adjusted accordingly.
Keep it Movin’
Finally, the saxophonist has to move from time to time, no matter how good the sitting situation is. Vary your position slightly from time to time during your practice session, still aiming toward balance and poise, and try not to stay seated for more than 45 minutes at a stretch without taking a break.
So to sum up, it starts with the good postural habits of the saxophonist, supported by the chair with the best height and surface, tempered by the habit of changing positions and taking adequate rest.