ERGOBRASS - Old Habits Die Hard

Posted on 29 June 2018


ERGOBRASS playing supports for brass instruments have been around for more than 15 years. There are approx. 6500 sets in use in 50 different countries worldwide. However, like with any new inventions, also the idea of playing supports was been met with some suspicion, although open-minded players have taken to the idea already.

When we talk about brass instruments, we must remember that they are hundreds of years old. To make any major changes in the way they are to be played is really a huge task. Therefore, it is not surprising that people have prejudices toward this new idea of playing supports. Old habits die hard even if there are obvious rational reasons which would speak for a change. When the seat belts were introduced into cars in the 60s and 70s there was a huge resistance and most drivers tried to avoid using them. Luckily this has changed during the last decades and most drivers use the belts automatically nowadays.

What were the real obstacles which the car drivers needed to overcome when the seat belts were introduced? The answer is simple, it just did not "feel" right. Emotional resistance towards change is one of the most basic manners of human behaviour. But sometimes our emotions prevent us from seeing the potential and usefulness of a new idea. This is what I have experienced working with ergonomic supports for brass instruments during the past 18 years. 

Usually when a player tries the support for the first time, they are surprised and they do not know how to react: 

"This feels good but it is a bit odd...". "The support really makes holding the instrument a lot more effortless and the grip feels quite sensitive, but... I do not think I need this..."

These all are emotional reactions to a new idea.

On the other hand, if you put a trombone or a French horn with a playing support into someone’s hands who is not a brass player and then after a short while ask him to hold it without the support. Then you always get the same question: “Why would anybody ever like to play this instrument without the support? This is really heavy!”

The person who has not played these instruments at all, has not developed any emotions or images of how the instrument has always been held and played. When the person has no preconceived ideas about the whole thing, then the obvious rational reasons can be seen more clearly.

Saxophone and bassoon players usually take the idea of brass supports a lot more positively. It is also very understandable, as they have always used neck straps, harnesses and other types of supports for their instruments. 

What do we know about the facts of ergonomics in brass playing? A report of a research project about how playing supports impact the player's physics was concluded in December 2017. The research started in 2012 and was carried out by Kevin Price, head of music performance at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and PhD Alan Watson at Cardiff University. (You can watch a short video documentary about the research project here:

The results confirm the initial expectations and assumptions. The playing supports really lessened the muscle activity of keeping the instrument upright in a playing position. The players were monitored with electromyography recordings while playing both with the playing support and without the support. Statistically significant reductions (15-30 %) were seen in many of the muscles when using the support; some players even showed larger reduction (up to 70 %) in their muscle activity. The research also asserted that the more the player is familiar with the support, the more it usually reduces the excessive muscular activity thus enabling the player to stay more relaxed. This was no surprise.

The playing supports are not designed for the disabled or injured players - even if they work great for them - but for all players. The goal is to provide more relaxed and comfortable ways of playing. It is simply so much better when the player can stay more relaxed and feel comfortable when holding the weightless instrument. Also, the posture will stay automatically better. And this is especially great for children.

However, also the health aspect is very important. In one of the earliest large scale surveys of musicians’ health, 32% of brass players disclosed that they had had a musculoskeletal problem sufficiently severe to have an impact on their performance at some stage in their career. In a more recent study, almost twice that percentage reported chronic pain lasting for more than three months, predominantly in the shoulder, neck or back. There are a lot of problems due to the weight of the instrument and the “normal” static way of holding it upward.

Ergonomics is something that has become more and more important in our daily life in our working tools, chairs, spaces and in our normal activities. This is mainly due to better understanding of how problematic our modern work with monotonous movements is. This is hazardous for our health. During the last few decades, ergonomics has, without a doubt, played a great part when designing new and better tools

My goal during the last 18 years has been to bring the ergonomics to brass playing as well. Our instruments were designed hundreds of years ago with no understanding of ergonomics. Is it really OK that we keep on playing exactly the same way as we have always done disregarding the ergonomic concerns raised?

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