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Proper chairs for music programs: sitting, playing and staying healthy


William J. Dawson Associate Professor Emeritus Department of Orthopaedic Surgery Feinberg School of Medicine Northwestern University Evanston, Illinois

Nicholas Quarrier Clinical Associate Professor of Physical Therapy Ithaca College Ithaca, New York

Jodi Tuthill Product Manager Wenger Corporation Owatonna, Minnesota


This white paper addresses the importance of specialized music chairs for at least three key reasons:

  1. Increasing a musician’s health and wellness

  2. Optimizing musical performance

  3. Improving a musician’s ability to focus and classroom management

It’s time that the needs of seated musicians merit the same consideration given to computer workstation furniture, where specialized ergonomic task chairs are accepted by many educational facilities as “de facto” standard equipment. In a similar way, every musician deserves a chair designed to support and optimize music performance.

Medical experts and academic research attest to the fact that music- making is strenuous physical activity. Without proper body support and appropriate equipment, musicians can suffer overuse injuries that inhibit learning and diminish performance. The pain and distractions caused by such discomfort can lead to disruptive classroom behavior in younger students. For older musicians, such irritations may discourage or prevent further music participation.

The “No Child Left Behind Act” classifies music as a core academic subject in K-12 schools, and chairs are key equipment that enable attentiveness and concentration in the music classroom or performance environment.

Why are proper music chairs important? Whether you’re a music director, department chair or administrator, ask yourself these questions:

  1. How happy and healthy do you want your student musicians to be?

  2. How well do you want them to play?

  3. How many do you want to still be playing a year from now?

If your student musicians are sitting on uncomfortable, poor-quality chairs, they are going to be unhappy, playing in pain, and playing poorly. Eventually it could predispose them to injury and you might lose them as music students. The right chair helps students fine-tune their instrument to sound the best and perform better.


By William Dawson, Northwestern University and Nicholas Quarrier, Ithaca College

Increasing Focus on Student Wellness, School Environment The overall healthfulness of the educational experience and school environment for students today – of all ages – is carefully monitored, regulated and legislated. For elementary and secondary students, the goal is to promote healthy, well-adjusted children who can fully focus on the learning process and receive maximum benefits from our society’s investment in education. If these children later pursue post-secondary education, their objectives will include increased knowledge, focused career/vocational training and further preparation for “real world” responsibilities.

For school facilities and campuses, concerns over violent crime and indoor air quality are just a few issues that make headlines across the country. For student wellness, topics such as nutrition, obesity and physical activity are important concerns of parents, teachers and administra- tors. The foundation for a healthy lifestyle is established – or undermined – during these formative years.

And there is cause for concern about student wellness. During 1980-2008, obesity rates tripled for children – approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 are obese.1

And as American students are getting heavier, so are their school backpacks. This excessive weight has received criticism for causing discomfort and pain for students. One U.S. study of students ages 11 to 15 years found that 64% reported back pain related to heavy backpacks, with 21% reporting the pain lasting more than six months.2

The American Occupational Therapy Association warns that “improper backpack use leads not only to back pain in youths but also impedes proper physiological growth and functions.”

Music Students Also Feeling Pain

Although currently out of the media spotlight, the unique aches and pains being suffered by school music students have been recognized in medical studies. A survey of Australian children studying instrumental music, aged 7 to 17 years, found that 56% reported playing-related musculoskeletal problems (PRMP) within the past month, and 30% reported an inability to play as usual within the last month.3

Seventy-nine percent of incoming freshman music students at a Midwestern U.S. university school of music reported a history of playing-related pain. The pain frequency varied by instrument class, ranging from 61% among voice students to 100% for percussionists. For strings, keyboards, woodwinds, and brass players, it was consistently 84 to 87%. The author suggests the majority of these students had already encountered

music-induced pain as high school students or younger.4 Why aren’t these injury and pain statistics causing concern? In U.S. schools alone (grades K-12) it’s estimated that approximately 40 million students participate in band, choir or orchestra, nearly 70 percent of total enrollment.5 In higher education, approximately 20,000 music education degrees are awarded annually.6 Why doesn’t the subject of pain and injury among student musicians make head- lines? One reason may be a lack of appreciation and understanding about the physically demanding aspects of making music.

Playing Music Requires Physical Strength, Dexterity and Endurance Intense physical and emotional demands are placed on all musicians – whether professionals, amateurs or students. Coordinated physical movements, often performed at a high rate of speed for prolonged periods of time, are required to play a musical instrument. Many instrumental musicians must partially or completely support the weight of an instrument weighing anywhere from 2 to 25 pounds. With certain instruments – such as trombone, strings and percussion – a significant amount of arm motion is also involved. Finger dexterity, fine and gross motor skills and coordination are also required.

Psychological endurance is also necessary, as musicians strive for perfection to please the teacher, conductor, audience, judges or self.

Musicians must often maintain a relatively static, seated position for extended periods of time. Certain instruments require static and awkward positioning, which may contribute to fatigue.

Vocalists and wind instrumentalists must perform rapid diaphragmatic (abdominal) breathing, necessary to move high volumes of air either through vocal cords or an instrument. For wind players, they must maintain the proper facial structure and embouchure (mouth position in relation to the instrument’s mouthpiece).

There are many similarities between what the human body is asked to do in sports and in music. Heart rates go up, breathing changes, the body gets ready for the adrenaline response – fight or flight. This is true whether an athlete is running a race or throwing a discus or swimming 100 meters, or a musician is playing an instrument or singing.

All of these physical and emotional demands predispose the musician to postural dysfunctions and overuse injuries.

Proper Posture Crucial for Spine, Respiration

To minimize discomfort and pain, thereby maximizing musicianship potential, the position of the spinal column and respiratory system are crucial:

Spinal Column In the normal standing posture, the spinal column forms what is called a natural sacro-lumbar curve (see illustration below). When this happens, the organs and upper body weight supported by the spine are in balance. This state of balance means the fewest possible muscles are required to maintain this position, freeing up muscles to fully participate in the music-making process.

Read more by downloading the PDF file


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