Anyone who has taken music lessons has probably absorbed enough instructions about posture to feel like a raw recruit at basic training: Stand straight! Head up! Toes forward!

Leah Jordan, who is starting her senior year at Washington State University, says not to worry about forcing yourself into the “proper” position for playing an instrument. In fact, she says you’ll probably play better if you don’t—and she has the hard scientific evidence to prove it.

Leah Jordan
Leah Jordan has found her true position. (Photo Robert Hubner)

Jordan converted her personal experience as a trumpet player into an honors program research project that showed that most players play better if they stand the way their bodies naturally want to, never mind what the instruction books say.

When her trumpet teacher and academic adviser David Turnbull first met her, he noticed that Jordan’s right leg appeared to be shorter than her left. That wasn’t news to Jordan, who had felt lopsided for years. “I was crooked, and felt like I was leaning all the time,” she says. Turnbull suggested they try putting a heel lift in her right shoe to compensate for the leg length discrepancy. He’d experimented with lifts in the past, both with students and with himself, and been pleased with the results.

“I was not expecting anything,” says Jordan. “I thought he was a little bit, you know, crazy. But then we started putting these things under my foot…”

And just like that, every aspect of her playing improved. The tone was better, she could reach higher notes than before, and she had more stamina.

“It was really weird. I’d play, and it was like, ‘whoa, that was nuts,’” says Jordan.

She thought an exploration of how body position affects trumpet playing would make a good thesis project. With a double major in music and genetics, she was well-equipped to plan and carry out the experiments. Seventeen WSU trumpet students volunteered for her study. Jordan tested variations in four aspects of leg and foot position. To change leg length, each person stood (in stocking feet) on firm rubber pads of 3, 6, 9, or 12 millimeters thickness under one leg and then the other. In another set of trials, an adjustable wooden ramp tilted the player’s feet to different degrees, either toes-up or toes-down. A third variation tilted the players’ feet toward their outer or inner edges. Finally, the players stood with their feet flat on the floor but the toes angled in or out.

In each position, the player ran through a series of musical and physical tests. They played a C, the standard tuning note for trumpets, and scales, going as high as they could. A computer recorded the sounds and registered their loudness and their overtones, an indication of the quality of the sound (more overtones produce a richer sound). While Turnbull orchestrated the trumpet-playing, Jordan monitored the recordings. She also tested the players’ respiratory function in each position, measuring their total lung volume, how much air they could expel in one second, and how fast they could blow air out of their lungs.

The study yielded two very clear results. First, position made a big difference in both respiratory function and quality of playing. Second, every player had a different optimal position.

“Based on the background research that I’ve done, it has to do with the fact that your foot position changes your pelvic position, and your pelvic position is directly related to your spine position and your respiratory function,” says Jordan.

In most cases, she says, “the person’s ideal posture for trumpet playing is their body’s default position—that in making someone stand with their feet straight and everything in alignment, you’re actually working against their body’s desired natural position.”

It was exciting hearing the differences when a new position suited a player especially well, says Jordan. Some of the players effortlessly extended their range by nearly an octave.

Her results fly in the face of conventional wisdom that there is one correct posture for playing an instrument. Turnbull and Jordan think the importance of individual differences hasn’t been fully appreciated, and that teachers often assume that what works for them will work for everyone.

“That’s how come you get a bunch of different teaching methods that are all seemingly conflicting,” adds Jordan. Each method is right, but only for some people.

Turnbull says the study has already influenced the way he teaches.

“I’ve always worked with the individual to try to find out what’s best for them, but this project has made me think that direction even farther now.” He says some music teachers and schools resist what they see as the intrusion of science into the world of music, but he thinks if a little experimentation can lead to better music, it’s foolish not to give it a try.

“You’re using science to help you create your art. And why not? Why not?” he says.

Turnbull says the students who have continued to use the leg position they did best with during the study still play better than they did before. The effect has not worn off over time.

Jordan used the lift until a doctor determined that her apparent leg-length discrepancy was due to rotation of her pelvis. Several sessions with the doctor corrected the rotation and allowed her right leg to achieve its full length, eliminating the need for the lift. She still uses one other adjustment the experiments pinpointed for her: she lets her right foot toe out while she plays. That’s what it wants to do, she says; and the results speak for themselves.

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Video: Poised for playing