Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Playing standing up

I've never been comfortable playing standing up.

The bassoon is a heavy, unwieldy instrument that doesn't balance well when suspended for playing standing up. Standing with it puts greater weight on the left hand and shoves the right arm/hand behind your back. When suspended by a neck strap there is a lot of weight put on the neck. These factors can lead to bad posture, poor breath support and even injury.  

However, playing standing up looks better and allows the bassoon to project a little better. The audience can see more of the performer standing than when sitting. Also, the music stand doesn't tend to camouflage the performer as much as when sitting. Getting the instrument away from the floor and angling the tone holes out and off the stage a bit more is helpful for projection.

Therefore, playing standing up is the better option for recital and concerto appearances.

The solo recital I'm playing at the International Double Reed Society Conference next month contains some of the most difficult music I've ever played. I really want to be as physically comfortable playing standing up as possible.

Here are some things I've done to make myself more comfortable standing with the bassoon:


There is a tendency to lean forward when playing standing up. This is especially common when a neck strap is used. The neck strap puts all of the weight of the instrument directly on the back of the neck, pulling it forward and the rest of the upper body with it.

While this posture may look "cool", it collapses the breathing column, weakens abdominal support and strains the neck, shoulders and lower back.

Let's back up a minute and look more closely at posture.

In order to have the best support and the least amount of stress on the body, skeleton and muscles must work together as a system. Excellent support is necessary for holding the bassoon and for musical reasons.

The best posture, therefore is one that lengthens the spine and opens the breathing column and abdominal support areas.

This is a Tai Chi "horse stance". Aspects to notice are:
  • head slightly lifted - as though a string attached to the top of the head is being gently pulled upwards
  • chin slightly in - just like the bassoon embouchure!
  • shoulders down
  • back straight, small of back NOT arched, but slightly flattened out.
  • butt down, not pulled out or back.
  • knees slightly bent
  • weight on the mid-sole/heel -- not balls of feet
Bassoonists may note that this stance looks very different from how most bassoonists look when standing up. Most of us adopt the leaning forward, "plastic green army man with rifle" posture.

The "horse stance" grounds the weight of the body from head to toe. The muscles and bones line up to work as a system, not as individual parts. There is great strength in this pose.

This stance is difficult to maintain when using a neck strap, however.


A halter style strap allows the weight of the bassoon to be distributed across the shoulders, chest and back and away from the neck. There are many styles available.


Playing standing up places more weight on the left hand than when sitting down. I have experienced pain and fatigue in my left hand and fingers from practicing standing up. One way to lighten the load on the left hand is to install a balance hanger.

The balance hanger is the long, slightly curved metal piece near the top of the photo.  The holes in the strip are places for the hook from the halter. The higher the hole, the less weight on the left hand. This moves the fulcrum of the balance point closer to the left hand position (just above the top of the balance hanger).

Installing a balance hanger involves drilling a small hole in the top of the boot joint and fastening the hardware to the ring on the boot joint band. Some shimming may be necessary for a tight fit. My balance hanger was made by the Fox Products Corporation.


You're probably wondering what that thick plastic thing is sticking out from my boot joint! This is a baffle made for me by Holden McAleer. It helps keep the body of the bassoon away from my hip, clothing, belt, etc. while playing. It has the side benefit of being a counter-balance and anchor for the halter. If positioned right it almost feels like someone else is holding the bassoon for me!

The baffle is joined to the body of the bassoon using an Ergo Post. Normal handrest posts fasten to the bassoon at a right angle only. This new style handrest is pivotable, allowing for customization of the angle at which the baffle comes away from the bassoon. In the photo you can see the upright portion of the Ergo Post can rotate forwards or backwards. The position is set by the set screw below the thumb screw. The baffle (or handrest) fits in the hole in the top and is secured by tightening the thumb screw.

The baffle helps because it pops the boot joint out and away from my side a bit.

Along with clothing issues, the other problem bassoonists face on the right side is the shoving back of the right arm caused by the angling of the instrument when suspended.  This is a significantly different right arm position from that formed by sitting down. It can be very awkward.

The best solution I've found, is to play with my left side forward a bit. A staggered stance, in other words. This provides better stability than when standing with both feet in line and turns the right side of the body back a bit to give more room for the hand when dealing with the angled-back boot joint.

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