Every harpist has a seat preference. It may be a bench, a stool, a chair. Obviously comfort is key. But what are the factors that go into sitting comfortably at the harp?
There are a few clear requirements. Your seat needs to be flat and stable. A certain amount of cushion is nice, but too much will impede the abdominal support that is critical to sitting well at the harp. Naturally, your chair or bench needs to be steady with no wobbles or - heaven forbid - wheels.
What’s important about the way you sit at the harp is that it should prevent strain on your back. It should allow your shoulders to be relaxed, your feet flat on the floor (or resting on the pedals) and your head erect. All of these conditions will be met when your seat is at the correct height. Determining the correct height for you involves experimentation, and even the experts are hesitant to commit themselves.
Bochsa, who has more method and instructional books than just about any other harpist I can think of, hedges his bets on this subject. He writes that a harpist should choose a seat “in correct proportion to his figure and the size of the instrument.”
Henriette Renié is only a little more explicit, writing, “Above all it is necessary for the harpist to be at a height which will favor a good ‘natural’ position without fatigue.”
And in the Method for the Harp, Lucile Lawrence and Carlos Salzedo warn us, “Never sit low! To sit low puts the harp at an ugly angle and gives the player the appearance of being overpowered by the instrument. Do not sit high! To sit high makes the player appear clumsy.” The instructions are clear but exactly what makes a seat too high or low is not.
Those experts do agree on a few points, however. The harp should rest lightly on your right shoulder. If the harp seems to fall away from your shoulder, you are sitting too close to it or too high. If the harp feels heavy on your shoulder, you are sitting too far away from it or too low. Many harpists also use the inner side of the right knee or of both knees for additional support. I call this “the triangle of support,” using the shoulder and both knees to balance the harp.
Since every harpist’s physique is different and each size harp has a different balance point, there is no single exact number that is the perfect height for everyone. The best way to know if you are sitting at a good height for you is to have your teacher evaluate it. If that isn’t an option for you, here are a few guidelines to check on your own.
After you have checked the above items, make a quick video of yourself playing. Look at it with as objective an eye as possible. Compare it to other master harpists you see on YouTube. Are there differences you see that you might want to correct?
Remember that the correct seat height should allow you play without discomfort. If you feel strain in your back, adjust the height of your seat by an inch or so and see how that feels. Also, feel free to adjust your seat height. Our height actually changes during the day as our spine compresses; an inch adjustment in your bench height during a long practice session or at a different time of day can save your back.
One last bit of advice: be sure to place your music stand as close as possible to the harp so you don’t have to swivel your head!