The Backbone of Your Sound, Part One: Body Posture

with Nicholas Bissen

Establishing supportive and effortless posture allows musicians to operate their instrument efficiently and makes more room for musical creativity. Our body and playing position must be set to create our best sound with the least amount of effort. At its best, good posture allows full breathing, free body movement, and clean fingers. At its worst, poor posture crushes your breathing capacity, limits your skillset, and can cause long-term bodily harm! Your posture is connected to every move you make, and today we’re going to dig into a step-by-step procedure that helps you feel the right things as you establish the backbone of your sound.

The following procedure is something I pulled from my vocal background. I find that vocal and choral pedagogy treat the body more respectfully as an instrument, allowing us to notice how the body works physically, which then allows us to make active choices in body position, deep breathing, and tone production. Let’s use the following procedure to build our body posture.

Step 1 – Feet

Your feet are the bedrock of your sound. They should be grounded, equally balanced, and ready to move. To do this, your feet should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Place one foot in front of the other, about the length of your big toe. This will prevent you from locking your knees. Your feet can be parallel, or slightly pointed outwards (not quite as far as first position). Notice how the direction of your toes affects the muscles in your hips and thighs.

Step 2 – Lower body

When aligning the body, it’s important to feel through what you’re doing. Posture is often diagnosed visually, but what our posture allows us to do physically is more important than what our posture looks like – be sure to feel the right answers more than you see them. 

While keeping your feet in the same position as step one, identify the “platform.” This is an imaginary triangle from the tip of your big toe, down to the knuckle of your big toe, across to the knuckle of your pinky toe, and all the way back up to the tip of your big toe. 

While keeping your feet in the same position as step 1, Stand up on your platform and notice your toes sink into your shoes. Pay attention to every single toe and every single joint. Shift your weight and move around to notice more physical details related to your platform. 

When you’re ready, relax back down and lean onto your heels (it may be helpful to balance yourself on a chair or wall). Notice the shape of your heels as you isolate them. How much surface area do you notice your heels making contact with your shoes? It may be more or less than you previously anticipated. 

Return to your step one position and place your hands on your hips. Keep your feet stationary, and move your hips slightly until you feel an equal amount of pressure between your four points of contact to the ground – Left platform, right platform, left heel, right heel. When you are balanced, you may notice that this is different from how you may habitually carry yourself, but you may also notice that it takes less muscular effort.

Step 3 – Upper body

The first time I went through this step was a significant eye opener for me – get ready! While maintaining your position from steps 1 and 2, lift your arms above your head with your palms facing each other. Keep your elbow straight and your bicep close to your ear. Now, as I would say in a lesson, “Fill your lungs with air! Don’t exhale, relax your arms down to your side but don’t move your ribcage don’t move your ribcage don’t move your ribcage relax your shoulders don’t move your ribcage exhale don’t move your ribcage.” For a class of middle school and high school students, the frequent reminder of not moving the ribcage is helpful. At this point, you should notice that you are tall, open, and relaxed.

When building your posture in these three steps, the idea is to build up your skeleton in a way that does not need excessive muscular effort. Your bones should build you up so your muscles can do other things, like breathing and pushing buttons! If your posture has muscular tension in it, you prevent yourself from taking a full breath. Tense muscles cannot expand, and your breathing capacity stops at the muscle tension. 

Training your body to move in a specific way requires patience and persistence. Pay attention to how your body feels when you do something new, and check in frequently when your good posture is new. It creeps away faster than you think! It can be helpful to set a timer for every 5 minutes as a reminder to check in with your body position. 

New body positions take time to build in, but with patience and persistence, you will notice improvements in your posture carrying over to improvements in your breathing, tone quality, and endurance. Happy Practicing!

Click here to learn about about posture and hand position specific to the saxophone!

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About Nicholas Bissen

Nicholas Bissen is a strong advocate for student opportunity and success. He is the owner and operator of the Rose Street Saxophone Room, where his students perform in competitive recitals, place in All-State ensembles, and win concerto competitions, providing a variety of need for high-achieving students. Nicholas has held faculty positions at Lone Star North Harris, the New England Music Camp, and Stephen F. Austin State University as an adjunct professor. Nicholas has been featured as a chamber musician, recitalist, and concerto soloist. He has taught, performed, and commissioned new works as a former DACAMERA Young Artist. Nicholas currently teaches masterclasses and lessons at the Kinder High School for Performing and Visual Arts, and chamber music and masterclasses at the American Festival of the Arts. His private studio is based at the Rose Street Saxophone Room in Houston Texas, and at the Sienna cluster in Fort Bend ISD.

Nicholas’s teaching values lead him to frequently conduct and arrange for saxophone. His arrangement of Delibes’s “Flower Duet” is featured on the trio album by James Bunte, Nathan Nabb, and Hyun Ji Oh, “Jamnaji,” and is available through Murphy Music Press LLC. His edition of Fernande Decruck’s Sonata in C# was performed by James Bunte at the opening concerto concert for the 2018 NASA Biennial conference in Cincinnati. Nicholas’s arrangements of Poulenc’s Sonata for Flute and Piano, and Decruck’s Sonata in C# have been performed by James Bunte at the inaugural Single Reed Summit in 2018, and at several recitals across Ohio, Texas and Missouri. Nicholas’s newest adaptation is Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto in D Minor for Alto Saxophone. He has several arrangements for soloists and large saxophone choir available for purchase. Nicholas uses his arranging skills to frequently create teaching resources. His self-published Saxophone Handbook is available through this website.

Nicholas received his BME from the University of Central Missouri, his MM from the University of Cincinnati, his Performance Certificate from Stephen F. Austin State University, and has received four years of additional instruction from the Frederick L. Hemke Saxophone Institute. These teachers respectively are, James Gai, James Bunte, Nathan Nabb, Frederick Hemke, John Sampen, and Gail Levinsky.

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