"ERGONOMICALLY CORRECT" by Robert Fletcher
The following article, Ergonomically Correct, appeared in Lyon & Healy magazine Fall 1997 issue (used with permission).
Robert Fletcher has been a working engineer in the medical device industry for seventeen years and has designed dozens of industrial workstations and production line layouts throughout his career using Ergonomic methods. He is presently working towards his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor). In collaboration with his wife, Patty Masri-Fletcher, Principal Harpist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Robert has helped apply Ergonomic methods to the harp. Mr. Fletcher approaches the subject of Ergonomics from an engineering standpoint, he is not a medical doctor.
HOW A COMFORTABLE HARP BENCH CAN IMPROVE YOUR PLAYING, INCREASE YOUR PRODUCTIVITY, AND REDUCE FATIGUE AND STRESS.
Imagine if harpists were told of a product or a tool that could do the following:
* Noticeably increase their productivity during personal practice time.
* Improve one’s attention span and enhance their ability to concentrate during prolonged rehearsals or performances.
* Reduce fatigue, stress and anxiety, and actually help one to relax during lessons, performances or auditions.
* Provide a sense of comfort and well being when playing the harp and possibly even improve health by reducing leg and back pain.
..they would be clamoring for such an item. Some even wonder if it were legal!
Amazingly, a good harp bench can easily do all of these things. Seating and harp benches are perhaps, next to the harp, the most important tool a harpist can use in their artistic endeavors. Harpists spend more time on their harp bench than they do with their hands on the harp! But, not surprisingly, many harpists choose a bench for how it looks next to the harp, rarely thinking about how comforable it may be. Portability is also important, and so small, lightweight, but very poorly designed benches are popular. This is unfortunate. Good seating is fundamental to successful harp playing. In this article, we discuss why seating is so important and what one can do now to improve the bench they may be using. We also review where seating design is going for musicians and how harpists may be able to benefit from these new and encouraging trends.
WHY IS A GOOD HARP BENCH SO IMPORTANT?
There is one reason why a well designed and functional bench is so important for harpists. That reason is physiological, which pertains to how your body works.
To understand the physiological rationale for good harp bench design, we must take a few moments to discuss (without getting too technical) how the blood flows in your body and your blood pressure along with a brief review of the nerve network in your legs. Admittedly, the explanations here are highly simplified. Obviously, the area of the body we are most interested in for this discussion is the extreme upper back of the leg to where it intersects the buttocks, and the buttocks.
Every cell of your body needs oxygen and nutrients to function. Without oxygen, cells die. Your blood circulatory system brings the needed items to each cell and removes cellular waste. When your heart beats it takes oxygen rich blood and pumps it into arteries which eventually branch into the smallest vessels called capillaries. It is at the capillary level that gases, nutrients, and wastes are exchanged from each cell. The returning blood vessels are called veins. Veins are small at first (capillary size) but they quickly merge with others to form successively larger and larger veins until they return to the heart.
As blood flows through arteries to capillaries the blood pressure, generated by the pumping heart, drops dramatically. This is due to the resistance of the blood flowing through the small vessels. Blood flow from your legs returning to your heart is especially challenging for your body to overcome. When you are sitting or standing, your abdomen, hips, and legs are below your heart. Not only must the heart work to overcome the loss of pressure in transit through the capillaries in the legs, but blood from your legs back to your heart must flow “up hill” against the pull of gravity as well.
An important vein which carries a significant flow of blood from the legs to the heart is located along the back of each leg running from the lower calf up to the back of the thigh. The vein, called the small saphenous vein, lies just below the fatty layer of the skin and can easily be pinched closed from compression when sitting on a hard, sharp 90-degree-edged bench. This restricts blood flow in the leg. If this persists for more than a few minutes discomfort develops; for prolonged periods tissues in the leg can die due to the lack of oxygen.
Your skeleton provides a rigid framework for your muscles and tissues. Two bones (each called an ischium) in your buttocks provide a solid base when sitting for your torso and head to stay erect. However, since they are bones and do not flex or give, if one is sitting on a hard bench the ischium can compress blood out of tissue between it and the bench. As before, if this persists for prolonged periods issue damage will result.
When sitting on a hard bench, a major nerve which runs near the ischium to the back of the upper thigh bone (called the femur) can also be compressed. This nerve, called the sciatic nerve, runs along the back, outer flank of the leg and up into the rounded fleshy part of the buttocks. Nerves carry electrical signals to and from the brain. Any sudden compression of a nerve will cause significant and instantaneous pain. However, slow gradual compression of nerves, and the cutting off of the blood flow, produces the tingling and numbing sensation experienced when your leg “falls asleep.” The sciatic nerve is especially vulnerable to the sharp, front 90-degree edge of a hard bench. Prolonged compression of nerves will result in discomfort and possible nerve damage. This is also why one should never sit for long periods with a wallet, billfold or bulky object in a back pocket, especially when at the harp.
Some of you reading at this point may be tempted to comment that you have an abundance of “natural padding” in your derriere. You may feel you do not need a padded harp chair. Sorry, but it does not work that way. The “natural padding” in your legs and buttocks simply moves out of the way under compression when sitting on a hard bench or contacting a sharp edged seat. You will suffer from the same problems.
WHAT ARE THE NEW DEVELOPMENTS IN HARP BENCHES?
Designers have been working on ergonomically designed office chairs for years. Office chairs have full back support, multilevel seat height adjustment, and a seat pan with, what is often referred to as a waterfall or spillway front which follows body contours minimizing compression on the back of the legs. Unfortunately, while all of this effort was going on in the office furniture design industry, little progress was happening in the music world.
Finally, however, recent design efforts have been focused towards seating for musicians. Concert Design (Toronto, Ontario, Canada) manufactures a new harp bench, the Concert Design Performance Chair, that rivals the best office chair designs. It features a solid five leg base, a multi-positioning gas-shock seat to quickly and easily accommodate all size and height players, and an adjustable back support that is missing from virtually all other harp benches. While its price and somewhat limited portability may not fit everyone’s needs, all harpists should seriously evaluate this bench. Many harpists have found it to be well worth the investment. You, your legs, and back may think so too!
Whichever decisions you make regarding seating, remember that it is a critical component in your harp equipment. An accommodating, comfortable seat will help increase your productivity by improving your attention span and ability to concentrate during prolonged practice periods, rehearsals or performances. A good seat reduces fatigue and stress. Lastly, a good bench can provide a sense of comfort and well being when playing the harp, once again making it a lasting and enjoyable activity for the amateur or professional.