How To Improve Your Saxophone Posture

How To Improve Your Saxophone Posture

One of the first things I like to address with any new student is posture and playing position with regard to the saxophone or clarinet.  Saxophone posture seems to be a big issue with most students and professional players alike.  Bad saxophone posture can lead to a variety of painful conditions, including Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.  The dreaded Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is carefully described here at Wikipedia…..https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carpal_tunnel_syndrome.

I have had my share over the years of pain and flare ups,  and have only solved some of these in the last decade after nearly 45 years of playing the saxophone.  I have suffered from neck and back pain, minor joint pain in my wrists and fingers, and various shoulder ailments.  As a result I’ve come to the conclusion that bad saxophone posture often affects playing technique, both in terms of sound quality and technical facility.  Good posture and playing position prevents injury and pain, it’s that simple.  Repetitive motion in the hands and arms is an issue that should not be taken lightly.  Thinking back to graduate school, where student musicians were practicing six hours a day, there were many that were in pain a fair amount of the time.  Making corrective changes to the saxophone posture of my students has yielded great results…So let’s take an in depth look into what I’m talking about here….

Here is a before shot of a high school kid I work with….

The above student is a textbook example of what I frequently see with young saxophone students.  Often the alto saxophone student is the one that displays this sort of poor saxophone posture.  Once the student is tall enough to hold the alto saxophone in front of them, I think it makes a lot of sense to place the instrument there, directly in front of them.  Younger kids, who often play sitting down, usually have the instrument to their right side.  One must be careful not to cock or bend the neck, and keep the eyes forward.  Often you must raise the music stand up pretty high to keep the music at eye level, especially as the music descends down to the bottom of the page.  The pictured student is a relatively tall high school junior, and you can see in this before picture how uncomfortable he looks, how his head is cocked, how his shoulders are not level, and how the weight of the instrument is hanging painfully to the right side of his body, place stress from the neck strap on his neck on the left side of his neck while pulling the instrument away from him.  You can also see how his hands are placed awkwardly on the instrument.

Here is the after shot, look how much more stable and comfortable he appears…..shoulders are level, instrument nicely balanced and directly in front of his body, eyes straight ahead.  I like this playing position a lot more than where he started.

Here is a student that is showing some poor form and posture……

His neck is tilted down, his eyes are down, and his shoulders are a bit uneven, his right shoulder is higher than his left.  He just looks awkward and uncomfortable here.

And here is a photo of a kid that is showing some great form, notice the differences.  This student looks a lot more comfortable, eyes straight ahead, saxophone hanging naturally, shoulders level.

What follows are a few general guidelines for good saxophone posture

Keep your eyes straight ahead, with your head in it’s natural position, and pull the neck strap up until the mouthpiece fits right into your mouth WITHOUT MOVING YOUR HEAD.  Do not reach your neck or chin down or sideways to find the mouthpiece.

Keep your shoulders level.  Tension is your enemy, as is fatigue.  A good sitting or standing playing position should include level, relaxed shoulders.  This will allow you to relax your whole upper body, including your arms and fingers, and will allow you to breath naturally and deeply.

Keep your elbows relaxed and close to your sides, do not “chicken wing” your arms…..I have observed Eddie Daniels at close range many times.  He is so very relaxed, and although he mostly plays clarinet, he is a monster saxophonist as well.  Take a look at Eddie on video, and see how he keeps his elbows very close to his sides when he plays.  He wastes no movement and he is very economical with his body.  His fingers do the talking, that’s for sure.  With his elbows softly against his body he assures he will be very relaxed while playing.

Keep your feet flat on the floor if sitting.  I often see decent posture with some students, but with their legs extended out in front of them.  Keeping your feet flat on the floor when sitting will allow you to play longer without becoming as tired.  You will increase the support with your lower body, and find a general balance that will give you greater support for your instrument.

If standing, do not lock your knees.  I have to remind myself of this all the time as I have a general tendency to lock my knees when playing standing up.  I try to look in a full length mirror and watch my tendencies.  It is surprising how much knee flex you can incorporate into your stance and how good it feels.  Try to play standing and lock your knees, and see how long you can maintain this position, and what your knees feel like after an extended period.   Don’t hurt yourself but you will see what I’m talking about here, it can be very uncomfortable after a very short period of time.    

Here is a photo of me standing that shows some good saxophone posture and form.  Notice the eyes straight ahead, the shoulders level, and the saxophone balanced and slightly to my right.  My hands are relaxed and my arms are close to my side…..and the weight of the instrument is not hanging around my neck!!!  Lo and behold, the invention of a lifetime, the saxophone harness!!!!

Something to seriously consider, this saxophone harness.  You can see how this works clearly in the above photo.  I have found it to be a pain reducer, and I swear by the saxophone harness.  I use one made by Neo Tech, but there are several out there.  Taking the weight off of your neck and distributing it evenly onto your shoulders is a much better arrangement for practicing and playing long gigs.  I started using the harness more than 10 years ago and have not experienced neck or back pain from playing the saxophone since.  Neo Tech makes a small kid size harness that many of my younger students have had great success with.  The instrument hangs a little differently, which takes a little time to get adjusted to, and you do have to adjust the straps to get them to the right length, but once you are set up, you are ready to go.  If you have not yet tried one, by all means, give it a try!

For us rapidly aging saxophonists, whether you are an amateur weekend warrior or someone who plays several hours a day, I have another tip—–keep your back, shoulders and core in good physical shape.  Core strength and flexibility workouts will counter balance the wear and tear that playing the saxophone will exact on your body.  Don’t play through pain and take frequent breaks when practicing. I also like to roll out my shoulders with a small physical therapy ball a couple of times a day, and stretch often to break up any tension that might arise in my upper body.  My teaching day can be anywhere from three to five hours per day, and I get very stiff if I don’t get out of my chair.  I have found that a small therapy ball and a few minutes of rolling out my shoulders is a good way to break up the tension that accumulates in my upper body, and some basic stretches also go a long way towards making me more comfortable.  If you find that you are getting tingling in your fingers, arms, neck or back, it is time to evaluate what is going on because these are signs that your body is getting stressed and tense while you are playing.  A good physical therapist and/or a good personal trainer are great resources for exercises that can strengthen your body and alleviate stress and pain.  Don’t be afraid to consult one or both if you are experiencing any symptoms when playing the saxophone or clarinet.

With proper posture and good body maintenance and mechanics you can play your horns pain free for hours every day and not hurt yourself.  Work smart and strive to build habits that will make playing fun, cause less fatigue and ultimately won’t stress your body.  I think you will find that you can play better and for longer periods of time when you are relaxed and comfortable.  A holistic approach to saxophone is a healthy concept we should all embrace.  To your health!

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