How to Practise, Part 1: Posture
There’s an almost infinite amount of content out there on what to practice, but very little in the way of how to go about it with maximum efficiency and efficacy. I’m going to kick this one off by absolving myself of any responsibility whatsoever:
DISCLAIMER: I am not a doctor or physical therapist, nor do I claim to be one. Any suggestions towards specific movements, exercise routines, alternative therapies or diets are based on personal experience and may not be suitable for everybody; please consult a qualified medical professional before making any significant lifestyle changes.
The following are some ideas that I’ve arrived at over the last 18 years of playing the bass and roughly a decade of teaching; I’m pretty badly constructed from a physical point of view and have had numerous back problems and other soft tissue injuries over the years including tendonitis, so I’ve put a fair amount of time and effort into optimising my posture and movements for playing bass (and life in general).
Whilst it’s not generally top of of most bassist’s to-do lists, posture is the first essential element of interacting with the instrument and it comes before technique; the physical aspect of playing the bass is often taken for granted (if not ignored completely) by many players and teachers.
This video gives a brief rundown of the seated and standing postures outlined in this post:
New Kid in Town
The main issue when discussing posture is that the electric bass has only been around for 67 years and, as such, we haven’t quite reached a consensus on the best way(s) to play it – contrast this with more elderly instruments, like violin or piano, which have well-established teaching methodologies and definite guidelines for best practice that have been refined over hundreds of years. If you look at five different bassists that you’re aiming to emulate, chances are that you’ll see a huge amount of variation between them in their stance, strap height, neck angle and hand position.
First port of call is realising that playing the bass is a fundamentally unnatural and asymmetrical task for your body to perform – we’re placing a load of between 3 and 5 kilos on one shoulder for an extended period of time. Playing will always be a compromise between what is natural or comfortable for your body and what is necessary to get around the instrument in a relaxed, musical fashion. No one particualar posture is perfect – all have pros and cons – but some make more sense than others.
Most of us have to deal with the fact that we sit down to practice but are forced to stand up when it comes to gigs – sitting on a gig basically out of the question unless you’re in a theatre pit or you happen to be Anthony Jackson. Because of this, we need to make sure that our sitting and standing postures are complementary rather than contradictory, otherwise we’re sending our body mixed messages about how to play and our practice time will have been wasted.
Here’s the first essential element of the posture checklist: your strap height needs to be the same whether sitting or standing. Why? If you spend hours sitting and practising without a strap and then get on a gig and have your instrument slung low then your hands will suddenly be in a completely different position relative to the bass. Get over the fact that having your bass somewhere around where your abs ought to be doesn’t look particularly rock ’n’ roll; if you sound great then nobody will care how you look.
Seated posture: option 1
Choose a seat that allows your thighs to be pretty much parallel to the floor – my preference is to use a drum stool, as I find that almost all chairs are the wrong height for my long limbs. Practise with a strap, even when seated, so that your arms aren’t having to do the work of balancing the bass and are free to deal with the complexities of whatever you’re working on. If you’re reading music, then make sure your music stand is at a decent height and you’re not dropping your head forward and looking down to see the dots.
Pros: upper body position is almost exactly the same as standing posture, bass balances easily on the strap, comfortable enough to sustain long periods of practise.
Cons: I find that as the practice session wears on I tend to collapse over the bass, slumping forward with my head, shoulders and upper back.
Seated posture: option 2
I stole this from the classical guitar – here you use a footstool under your left leg (reverse if you’re left handed…) and sit the bass between your legs; this means that you can get rid of the strap and the bass will balance by itself by leaning the top horn against your chest. I find that this allows me to maintain a more erect upper body posture (you at the back, stop giggling!), maintaining balanced shoulders and an open chest without collapsing forward.
Pros: Arms, shoulders and chest are not encumbered with the weight of the bass, all areas of the instrument are within easy reach.
Cons: The bass is in a more ‘diagonal’ position compared to how most people play when standing, I also find that I get pins and needles and the occasional dead leg if I practise for too long without a break as my feet and hips aren’t balanced – this might well be due to my dodgy physical construction.
Get up, Stand up: Standing Posture 101
Think you know how to stand up? I certainly thought I’d got the hang of it after 30 years of being vertical on a daily basis, but spending time in various health professionals’ treatment rooms brought up some things that I’d been ignorant of. The main point that I’d missed is the importance of spreading your weight equally through your feet – if you don’t properly ‘ground’ yourself then it’s hard to maintain a decent posture with neutral position for your pelvis, spine and head.
Regardless of the posture that you happen to adopt, the main thing to focus on is being relaxed – if you’re holding tension in your muscles, or holding your breath when you play (a surprisingly common occurrence) then your playing will sound tense. Your posture is your sound and your sound is your posture.
Alongside relaxation come the ideas of balance and symmetry. A common problem that I was guilty of for years is allowing my left shoulder to rise up over the course of a gig in response to the weight of the bass – I wasn’t aware of this until I saw pictures of myself onstage looking rather unbalanced. As much as possible, we want to reduce (or eliminate) harsh angles in the wrists – having the bass relatively high up means that we can keep the wrist of our fretting hand relatively straight, but this posture tends to emphasise an acute flexion of the plucking wrist. Having the bass lower down reverses the problem; the plucking wrist can straighten out, but the problem is now transferred to the fretting hand.
Life outside of bass playing will have a huge impact on your postural habits as well as your general health and wellbeing; if your day job involves long hours sitting at a desk, driving or hunching over a laptop, then chances are that your range of motion is less than optimal (when was the last time you were able to touch your toes without fear of tearing something?). To paraphrase the great Russian strength coach Pavel Tsatsouline, your body most readily adapts to the positions that you spend the most time in – spending an hour a day in a good bass playing posture will not undo the countless hours that you’ve spent at your desk, in traffic or slumped in front of the TV. Having some sort of regular movement practice is vital for counteracting the poor postural positions that life often puts us in.
What’s a movement practice? These are all movement practices:
- Strength training/weightlifting
- Rock climbing
- Martial arts
The importance of movement cannot be overstated – your physical health is intrinsically linked to your mental wellbeing and your musical output; whilst we can all cite many players that are obviously not taking care of themselves physically it’s important to remember that they’ve succeeded in spite of this rather than because of it.
Becoming a Supple Leopard by Kelly Starrett – brilliant book, stupid name. If you need to restore mobility to any part of your body, then this is for you.
The Bassist’s Guide To Injury Management, Prevention and Better Health by Randall Kertz, D.C.
Relax into Stretch by Pavel Tsatsouline – yes, he is half-naked throughout, but this is the most effective stretching method I’ve ever encountered
Anatomy of Stretching by Brad Walker
The Mindbody Prescription by John Sarno – I’d been suffering from tendonitis for over 18 months and then fixed it in a week by reading this (some injuries, it seems, are psychosomatic)