Navigating Sitting and Standing
All of our flute work is done either sitting or standing (unless you are one of those rare persons who likes to play lying down!) Here I want to address questions about sitting and standing that have recently come to me.
1. Should I sit at the front of the chair or lean against the back?
I hear this question a lot. We want to consider this in relation to sitting in a balanced way. Many conductors want players to sit at the front – it looks better, they say, and you can breathe better. But it is perfectly possible to sit comfortably upright, breathe freely and be alert while using the chair to support your back.
It’s important to remember that in sitting we want to get support from the sit bones – the large protuberances at the bottom of the pelvis. You can find your sit bones by sitting on your hands and feeling the weight of your body delivering into your hands.
Looking at the skeletons below, notice how in #1 the weight of the head and upper torso is balanced right over the front of the lower spine (called lumbar spine) and those sit bones. Most of our weight is in the torso, so we want it to be supported by the biggest and strongest bones. In #2, the weight is over the lower back, and in #3 the weight is far forward of the spine. Experiment with these three ways and notice how you feel your weight is supported.
If you can comfortably balance on your sit bones in a chair, then it shouldn’t matter whether you are on the front or the back of the chair. (Tip – if you can’t seem to find your balance on a chair, sit on a fitness or exercise ball. Bounce gently until you find a balance that makes it easy to feel the buoyancy of your spine, a release in your lower back and the weight of your head supported by the spine. Then transfer this feeling to sitting on a chair.)
(Illustrations by Benjamin Conable. Used with permission)
Some factors that may make a difference:
2. I can play comfortably sitting down but when I stand to play my back gets sore. Why is that?
This happens to many flutists. It is useful to have a friend video or photograph you from the side playing in both sitting and standing position.
Compare the pictures, in particular looking at the lower back. When you stand, do you tend to arch your lower back a little? If so, you are putting the weight of your head and upper torso right over the vulnerable lower back vertebrae, as in the skeleton #2 above. There is very little support in the lower back – few muscles and only the processes of the spine, not the big solid vertebral bodies.
If this is the case, then you will want to practice moving back and forth between sitting and standing, paying particular attention to what you do with your lower back when you begin to arise. Do you use it to push yourself up? Or do you stand well, only to park your upper torso on your lower back once you get upright?
Chances are, if you tend to stand with your upper torso parked over your lower back, you are not mapping your hip joints as the halfway point of your body; you may believe that the waist is the middle point. This is a very important mapping concept to clarify. Without support for the torso from the hip joints, you may end up putting extra effort into your arms and limiting your breathing.
Spend some time re-mapping your hip joints and the incredible weight and thickness of your spine.
(Illustration by Benjamin Conable. Used with permission)
3. One of my teachers told me to stand with the left foot in front; another told me to put weight evenly on both feet. Which is better?
I recently examined most of the American and British pedagogical materials about standing, and found folks pretty evenly divided on this one. As with all suggestions from other people, we must try each on and see what works best for our body. In the end, these ways of standing are fairly similar. The latter has you starting with weight on both feet, bringing up your flute with your arm structure rotating around your torso so the flute is at an angle to your body, and turning your head. The former has you starting with left foot in front so your body is already at an angle, and then bringing up the flute.
What is important is not how it looks on the outside, but how it feels on the inside. Can you feel well supported by the floor? Do your spine and torso feel buoyant? Can your arms rest easily and move freely? Can you breathe fully? We are always in micro-movement when we play, so finding a way of standing that facilitates ease is useful.
4. I’m short and all the chairs at rehearsal are too tall for me. What should I do?
I have this same problem, and I am medium height. Ideally, a comfortable height for a chair is when our legs and torso are at a 90 degree angle, more or less. (Some people prefer to have the sit bones slightly higher than the knees.) It makes it easier to deliver weight into the sit bones, freeing up torso muscles for arm movement and breathing. This is of course an individual preference. Here are a few solutions I have found.
Experiment at home until you find chair height that really feels comfortable to you and allows you to be in balance and play your best. Measure it! Carry the measurements so you can adjust seating situations whenever possible.
5. I play alto and bass flute in a flute choir. We rehearse 2 1/2 hours once a week. I can barely make it through the rehearsals because my back hurts so much. Can you help me figure out how to get through them?
First of all, find something to support your flute while you are rehearsing. Most of us never practice large flutes for that long, so we are not adept at supporting them over a sustained period of time. You can support the flute, or your right arm, or your left arm, whichever works best for you. Rest your elbow on an extra chair, a stand, or a bookshelf. Some people have invented supports similar to what a bass clarinet uses – a metal pole that rests on the ground. Be creative.
Second, pay attention to where your back hurts. If it is your lower back, you may be trying to use your lower back too much – see question #2 above. If it is your upper back, you may be letting the weight of the flute pull your head forward, putting an extra burden on those upper back muscles. (For every inch your head is forward of balance, its weight is doubled!) With large flutes it is even more important to be balanced and supported by the sit bones (sitting) or the legs (standing) with good freedom of movement at the hip joints. Investigate your understanding of hip joints to make sure you have them clearly mapped.
Third, be sure to rest often. Make sure your flute choir director knows that you need that opportunity either to stop or to sit out every so often. When other parts are being rehearsed, give yourself a nice stretch by draping your torso over your legs and hanging your head to the floor. Fold your arms so you get an even better stretch in your back. Bend your hips and knees a little so it feels comfortable.
6. Can you wear heels while performing?
Well, I can’t, because my feet are so wide it’s hard to find heels that fit them!
But you may be quite comfortable in them. The important part is to make sure you are delivering all of your weight into those tiny shoes. When you think of it, the weight of or whole bodies is delivered into a very small area – our feet! If, when you make that area smaller, you feel yourself holding tension in part of your body, then heels may not be a good match for you. You have to feel completely comfortable in your breathing, making sure that you are not compensating for the smaller area of support by tensing abdominal muscles or going off balance. Occasionally you have to practise in heels.
In terms of biomechanics, a wider base of support offers more stability. Some of us need all the stability we can get! It’s really up to the individual. If you continue to cultivate your kinesthetic sense and move in balance, eliminating rigidity, then you may be quite successful wearing heels.
Other options? Ballet slippers, long skirts or trousers that cover your feet (just be careful not to trip). We have lots of choices in shoes these days – pick those that make you feel your best!
Bottom line for all these issues:
Every body is different. And you feel different every day.
Learn to be adaptable by cultivating your sense of balance, noticing how moving in different ways frees up or limits your arms and breathing. We MOVE for a living: becoming more and more aware of how we move will help us find comfortable ways of sitting and standing.