You know the story of Goldilocks – Papa Bear’s chair was too big, Mama Bear’s chair was too big, but Baby Bear’s was just right.
I have several young students who are still pint-sized. But the scale of a piano fits a full-sized adult. And how we sit at the piano greatly affects our sound and how our hand/wrist/arm technique develops. Teaching tiny fingers how to play without tension is very difficult when they struggle to even reach things on a large-scale instrument. (This is why violins come in 1/4 size, 1/2 size, and 3/4 size, and full size.)
I already have an adjustable bench that can be raised or lowered to suit a person’s individual frame size. A short person usually raises the bench, while a tall person usually lowers the bench. Even at its full height, my bench is still sometimes not high enough for a small one so I use foam play mats cut to size. This year I purchased a footstool/pedal extender for my studio. I am very happy with the difference it is making in my young students.
The students sit on their sitting bones, well balanced in their centre of gravity. Their feet are supported instead of dangling in the air, and they stop sliding off the front of the bench. The pedal extender allows them to reach the pedals. Since they are sitting in a stable position, it is easier for them to have a straight spine. This in turn allows their arms to move freely and the correct hand shape and finger strength to develop.
Here’s how to arrange your bench at home:
- the bench height should be high enough that when the student is sitting correctly and using the correct hand position, the arms form a right angle at the elbow and the wrist is level
- the bench distance from the piano should be equal to the length of the student’s arms (fingers curved into a fist) when arms are stretched from a straight spine to the fall board
Here’s what to look for in your pianist at home:
- sitting bones – sit on the front half of the bench (without compressing the thigh muscles); student should be able to rock from side to side without rolling off the bench when their feet are supported
- feet – flat on floor or footrest, about a shoulder width apart
- spine – straight and tall
- shoulders – hanging loosely from the spine
- arms – right angle at elbow
- wrists – level, with the ability to flex up or down and side to side
- hands – curved structure, with the biggest knuckles forming an apex of sorts
- fingers – firm and curved (as if you wanted to push your finger through a piece of soft bread)
How to achieve this at home:
- sit high enough – if your piano does not come with an adjustable bench, buy some foam play mats and cut them to fit your bench top; your child can stack up as many as necessary until they are sitting high enough
- support their feet – buy a simple wood or plastic step stool (don’t worry about using the pedals; we can work on this at lessons). Or this adjustable footrest. Or even this footstool/pedal extender.
- sit at the correct distance from the keyboard (students often sit too close)
And just when you have this all figured out, your favourite little pianist will have a growth spurt and things will need to be adjusted all over again!