This is part of my ‘Wellbeing for Accordionists’ series, a short blog that turned into a lengthy and self indulgent article that I have split into smaller, more approachable chunks. I’d recommend that you start at the beginning.
Hold Your Horses
Before I get into how playing an accordion will affect your body, it's sensible to first consider how the body should behave when not encumbered by a musical typewriter.
We’ve all had people tell us to ‘stop slouching’ or ‘stand up straight’ but has anyone actually taught you how? You may have heard of the technique where you imagine a piece of string connecting your head with the ceiling to help you sit up straight but if you imagine that, are you relaxed or tense? Good posture should be comfortable. If you don’t have great posture it’s probably because your body has learnt bad habits. Those bad habits fatigue some muscles and weaken others. So if you have chronically bad posture you need to strengthen your muscles before you can regain healthy posture.
Good posture doesn’t come naturally to me and amending bad habits isn’t easy or quick. I’m hoping to do more work with an Alexander Technique Teacher in the near future to improve further. I don’t really have personal experience of what having good posture feels like, so here’s an expert opinion:
‘Good posture feels effortless, which is why traditional ‘good posture’ suggestions like throwing your shoulders back and sticking out your chest may feel uncomfortable too. Instead, listen to your body. Make minor adjustments while standing and sitting. Which position feels the easiest and most graceful?’
When you start looking into posture, you’ll find that a common issue is that the vast majority of people or companies want to capatilise on bad posture by selling you something. Some will help more than others, some will help in specific scenarios and some will simply make things worse. There is some great content on youtube with particular exercises to help with your posture, but the big problem with a video is that it doesn’t know anything about your body, so there’s no telling if it actually applies to you. The best way to correct bad posture is to go to a professional who can see you in person, prod and poke you if necessary and give you advice that’s tailored to your body.
I’ve had some absolutely fantastic physios and massage therapists, I’ve also seen a really good Alexander Technique teacher and a good osteopath. But I’ve also had bad experiences too, and I wish that I’d had the confidence to cut ties sooner. In short, if you don’t feel like it's a good match, then don’t be afraid to swipe left! (or right? Whichever the one is that means ‘no thank you!’)
Timing is everything
‘In most cases, concentrating on other tasks (such as work) can direct attention away from any feelings of physical discomfort. Get into the habit of regularly tuning into your body. If you feel muscle tension or fatigue, move into another position.’
Better Health Channel (fully funded by the Government of Victoria, Australia)
Something that I have found helpful is to set timers or alarms with my phone, to regularly remind myself to check my posture and gently correct it.
Whilst regularly revising your posture is an excellent step, the good it can do will be limited by extraneous factors like the chair you're sitting on, driving position or what height your computer monitor is.
Take A Seat
I recommend playing sat down
Playing whilst sitting on a chair rather than standing increases your stability and it decreases how much work some of your muscles have to do. I’d thoroughly recommend playing exclusively when sitting down. Having said that, it’s really important to get something that’s the right height and isn’t too squishy. Pick a chair that allows a gentle slope down your upper legs towards your knees but that still allows you to plant your feet firmly on the floor. If you’re using stacking chairs it can be helpful to stack one on top of another, but this can be less stable which can do more harm than good. You can buy various seat wedges and wobble cushions but not all posture aids are designed with the same ethos in mind.
A wobble cushion is a thick air filled disc that is designed to destabilise you and force your core to engage and your muscles to work. When performing an intense activity like playing the accordion, you don’t want to use anything that is going to make your body work harder. So I think that wobble cushions are to be avoided. Some wobble cushions are sturdier than others, but even the firmest are too wobbly to play on.
Seat wedges also destabilise you. They force your leg muscles to engage and can help to engage your core but they don’t encourage stability and so I think they are also to be avoided. (See my suggestion below)
Several years ago, one of my physios suggested that I try using a saddle seat whilst playing. If you're not familiar, a saddle seat is roughly what it sounds like; it resembles a horse's saddle but it lacks the horse. They are sometimes used by dentists and beauticians. Some saddle seats use a split design, with gap in the centre. Sadly I just don't have space for one of these at home and they aren't terribly portable for gigs, so I haven't bought one to try.
This cushion Has Actually Helped
I may not have been able to try a saddle seat, however, I looked for seat cushions that would mimic that effect. This Feagar Orthopaedic Seat Cushion was the closest that I could find and since I first bought it I have recommended it to many people. I bought a spare to live in the car so that I wouldn't get to a gig and realise that I didn’t have it with me. For me, it has become essential when playing. This cushion encourages good posture, and it raises your sitting height slightly, but it’s firm enough that it doesn’t destabilise you. I’d thoroughly recommend it.
Correct Me if I’m Wrong…
Posture correctors can actually weaken your back muscles and core
There's a plethora of posture correctors out there (I'm talking about this sort of posture corrector) and they can be useful if used occasionally, but it's important to understand how they work. Bad posture weakens your back muscles and your core. Sitting and standing with good posture maintains your strength. A posture corrector can help cultivate good posture but it achieves that by standing in for your muscles, so your muscles will get weaker.
How To Use a Posture Corrector
You can become dependent on a posture corrector
I’m not saying that you need to go and buy a posture corrector, you don’t. But some people may find it helpful. Buy one that’s sturdy, with a firm, semi-rigid back piece. If you use it too often your back and core can quickly become dependent on it. I’ve found that it's best used in very short bursts to remind your body what good posture feels like. If you’re about to play, do your warm ups first, then put your posture brace on and play for a few minutes. Don’t play for more than 5 minutes. Put a timer on to encourage you to stop. Whilst you play, think about how you are sitting, where your shoulders are and consider the gentle curve of your spine. Take the posture corrector off and try to replicate those feelings. Play for a smidge (once through a 32 bar tune is ideal if you're a folk musician) and then reevaluate your posture and try to replicate those feelings again. Steadily your body will learn this new position and it will become your default setting.