Ergonomics of the guitar

A excellent thesis … terrific … I was very impressed and I shall certainly refer to it and use it regularly …’
Dr C Wynn Parry MBE DM FRCS FRCP (Consultant Rheumatologist and Honorary Physician to BAPAM.) 

‘An excellent, original and inspiring study. It is presented in an easily readable style that could be understood by not only medical and health care professionals but also by musicians and music teachers … Paul makes some excellent comments in his Conclusion, for example using the body more efficiently, by developing a greater awareness of use of self, can help to minimise the effort used for any activity …’
Dominique Royle, Physiotherapist. 

‘It was great to see the first installment of your Thesis in the August 2005 edition of ‘Classical Guitar Magazine‘. Everyone who plays guitar – no matter what style- should read this!’
Mrs H Dyson, UK.  

 Here you can read Chapter 1 and extracts from Chapter 2 from my dissertation ‘Ergonomics of the guitar’. 

Chapter 1: Music Ergonomics

Musicians are generally known for having a very personal relationship with their instrument. Likewise, they will spend a large amount of money buying a specific instrument. There is nothing new or unusual in this. The better an instrument is the more beautiful a sound can be produced and the more enjoyable is the work for the musician. 

However, an important aspect in performing and music education is often neglected: ergonomics – the study of people’s efficiency in their environment [i] and the study of humans in relation to their work and working surroundings [ii] 

Music ergonomics deals with the wellness of the performer and how we interact with our instrument. The movement makes the music and the music makes the movement. Because the role of the musician is to communicate we must have complete freedom of movement when practicing and performing. It is therefore necessary as a musician to ensure that one is using the body in the most efficient way in relation to the instrument. The musician should not adapt him self to the instrument but he should adapt the instrument to him. Basic aspects of music ergonomics are for example: how we stand or sit when playing, how high or low the chair is, how the instrument is balanced and/or held in relation to our body, height and placement of the music stand, how we carry our instrument including what it is carried in, changing or adapting instruments, size and weight of the instrument and in the case of guitar playing; how much pressure is needed when presenting the (left) hand onto the fingerboard. 

Throughout this dissertation I often mention the relationship between the mind and the body and the importance of understanding that they should function as one single unit. Being our own ‘ergonomists’ is about observing ourselves when picking up the instrument and playing. It means that whatever change we make it must not affect our playing, instrument, state of balance or our health in any harmful way. Likewise we must consider the impact any change has on our technique in general. 

To enhance our performance and to continue to develop our ability and skills as a performer all movements must be physiologically correct to allow the right interaction between our selves and the instrument. In other words if we are going to improve the use of our selves we must re-educate our selves to the extent that the harmful pattern of tension which interferes with the function of the body is eliminated. This is not just a physical process or about physical change only. Our awareness must firstly be directed towards the harmful thought patterns. When we have re-learned to eliminate these negative thought patterns that results in misuse of the body music ergonomics can start to develop and improve our lives as human beings and musicians.

Chapter 2: Alexander Technique in guitar playing (extract)

Principles of the Alexander Technique 

Without any understanding of the anatomy of the head, neck and back and its relevance to the ergonomics of the guitar, the performer may encounter physical pain and psychological tension that will impair his ability to master the instrument. He may try to solve these problems by practising more, having a massage or some other method. But if he is unaware of the fact that it is his use of his self [i] that is the cause of the problem little will help him in his efforts. If the guitar teacher is suffering from habitual misuse of his body, that is using his body or parts of it in a harmful way, but is unaware of this, he may unknowingly transfer this misuse to his students via his teaching, because consciously or subconsciously students often learn by imitating their teacher. Being aware of how we use our self, the total combination of mental and physical activity, is in my experience as a performer and teacher, of the utmost importance when trying to create a natural technique free of undue tension. 

Although the Alexander Technique was not intended specifically for guitar playing the adaptation of its principles are very useful for increasing awareness of one’s own habitual misuse, eliminating excessive muscular tension and anxiety in performance. Each thought in relation to movement brings about a physical reaction and the Alexander Technique can contribute to install changes in habitual thought and reaction patterns. The pianist and Alexander Technique teacher Nelly Ben-Or describes, by using Alexander’s own terms, the practice of the technique in three stages as inhibition, direction and activity: 

“i) Inhibition of habitual reactions; that is, stopping one’s habitual responses and ways by not ‘doing’ the chosen activity. Instead:

ii) Giving mental directions; that is, focussing one’s awareness on ‘letting the neck be free, to let the head be released forward and up, to let the back lengthen and widen’. These directions gradually replace the immediate habitual response towards doing things in the usual, often strenuous and mal-co-ordinated way. Then:

iii) Proceeding with the chosen activity while continuing the ‘direction’ without interfering with them.”[ii] 

All three stages are appropriate for guitar playing. The importance of inhibition in music making is paramount due to the way we execute movements: 

“Most movements are programmed by the brain, and they use lower-level reflex arrangements as their components. When you do touch-typing, the impulses leave the brain, programmed in time and place to hit the keys in order. Once the impulses are on their way, they cannot be interrupted. You know when you are going to type the wrong letter or the letters in the wrong order, and out they come, wrong; the knowledge comes too late to interrupt the planned movements”[iii]. 

So when our awareness is focused on stopping ourselves from doing the wrong movement by the means of inhibition the brain can give the right command for each specific movement replacing habitual misuse and instinct with conscious directions. 

The attention to the functioning of the primary control should be used in connection with co-ordination of all movements of the body when playing the guitar. This means that before any attention is given to a specific part of the body, such as a hand or a finger, the awareness is first drawn to the alignment of the head, neck and back. 

The continued giving of ‘directions’ whilst playing has another benefit for the performer. It contributes to reducing anxiety. When the body is brought into perfect alignment and the musician is engaged in maintaining this equilibrium, emotional stress and negative thoughts can be eliminated. As the awareness is directed inwards and observation of muscular control in relation to the musical challenges is increased the musician experiences a sense of direct communication between himself, the music and the audience. Tension is still present in the musician but this is only the tension that derives from the music itself. 

How soon we can learn to avoid interference with this primary control and make good use of one’s self while playing depends on the our ability to react upon our kinaesthetic awareness; meaning the “sensation of muscular effort that accompanies a voluntary motion of the body.” [ iv]. When we are suffering from habitual misuse this new muscular sensation may feel ‘wrong’ and the old habit feel ‘right’. It is only through careful and continuous observation of oneself that the required change can be brought about. 

[I] “Use” here is to be understood in Alexander’s own words as “a much wider and more comprehensive sense applying to the working of the organism in general”. The Use Of The Self by FM Alexander. Chapter 1, page 22.

[ii] Tension in the Performance of Music by C Grindea et al. (Kahn & Averill, London) Pages 90-91.

[iii] The Oxford Companion to the Mind by R L Gregory et al. (Oxford University Press, 1987) Page 520.

[iv] The Art of Changing by Glen Park. (Ashgrove Publishing, 2000) Chapter 3, page 39.