What is the right bench height?

I have been experimenting with different bench heights, to find one that gave me the most flexibility and freedom of movement in terms of hand posture and finger shape. For about a year I tried sitting a little higher so that my elbows were a couple of degrees above key level when my fingers were at rest on the keys with good hand posture.

Yet something was not quite right. So I tried sitting higher. That was plainly wrong — I felt restricted and lost some control over feel and arm weight. Then I started to wonder why a few pianists, most notably Vladimir Horowitz and Glenn Gould, sat so low at the keyboard. You can see how low Horowitz sits in the many videos of him on YouTube. Gould sat so low at the keyboard that if he got any lower he’d be under the piano.

Glenn Gould - How low can you go?

So a couple of weeks ago I lowered my bench so that my elbows were fractionally below key level. It felt uncomfortable at first but very quickly I discovered three things:

  1. I had more freedom of hand posture and finger shape. In particular I found it helpful to sometimes flatten my hand and fingers because it gave me more control over dynamics;
  2. I had more control over arm weight;
  3. I had fractionally more hand span.

We’ve all read that pianists like Horowitz and Gould were freaks, and that their respective postures at the piano worked for them but were wrong as a rule. Well, after what I discovered, perhaps a more accurate rule-of-thumb is to sit low to the keys, but not too low, and experiment to find the best (approximate) height.

When I get back from the current business trip I’m going to experiment with slightly lower bench heights. Can’t wait!


4 responses

  1. The caption below Glenn Gould’s pic sounds kindda unflattering and degrading to the genius of Glenn Gould.

    • Ummm…you are reading the caption out of context. I wasn’t referring to his playing nor interpretive skills, but to how low he sits at the piano. 🙂 For what it’s worth, I own both copies of his recordings of the Goldberg Variations.:D

  2. I agree … absolutely. I have a strained right pinky from playing some huge chords a few weeks ago. Tried all kinds of solution (given the fact that my hands aren’t truly “small.”) Finally I lowered my bench 2 inches and discovered the same things you wrote in your post!

    Truly amazing.

    I used to sit quite high up i.e. my elbows were a little above the level of my hands (you know what I mean). It seems (or so I thought) to give me more strength with fff chords when I lean forward.

    Now, I have a little more apparent hand span (since my fingers are spread out flatter) when needed, and EXCELLENT control of dynamics.

    PS: Are you still practising? Haven’t heard from the “singapore gang” for some time in Piano World.

  3. Haven’t been practicing much because I have been traveling a lot for work, a vacation, and a wedding (my brother’s, in Sydney). Now trying to get my stuff fully unpacked before Christmas.

    Haven’t been visiting PW much. 😛

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