Music Prep Ergonomics, Part 1

A while back, I was asked by a reader to address the issue of ergonomics and studio setup for the electronic musician, a term which takes in most of us these days. This topic has two fundamental areas of focus: (1) finding the most comfortable, injury-free setup to get the job done, and (2) maximizing efficiency by cutting time wasted on repetitive tasks. Ergonomic strategies abound for the digital composer/producer/engineer, but orchestration and music copying carries slightly different demands which merit additional discussion.

I once had the misfortune to rupture a disk in my neck due to the massive music prep workload for the music performed by the Atlanta Symphony for the entire opening and closing ceremonies of the ’96 Summer Olympics. The protocol of that job required that we do it all by hand, and I worked for 36 days without a break, 8-10 hours a day. Despite our usual precautions of slanted table-tops, good posture, adequate lighting, etc., I still found myself about a week later conducting a recording session with a right arm that was growing more sluggish by the minute. The quick of the story was that 36 days of being locked into a position had caused the muscles in my neck to inflame and spasm, pulling it out of position enough to rupture a disk, with consequent pain and diminished nerve flow. Fortunately, most such neck problems relax and work their way out in several months. (Mine did.) The moral of that story is that too much of anything, even work, isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Obviously, now that we do the job with lasers and toner instead of pens and ink, our posture has changed, but not the potential hazards of physical overwork due to poor planning. Let’s start with the basic setup. For each micro-task we do, if we could mentally draw a graph, with one axis measuring time spent and another showing how often we do it, the resulting plot would help us prioritize and strategize the positions of our tools to save time and avoid personal injury. Take into account things like standing and sitting (knees,) leaning (spine,) head position (neck,) unvarying depth of visual focus (eyestrain,) chair height (leg circulation,) speaker placement (ear strain,) etc.

Here’s how my analysis dictated my basic setup (your mileage may vary…)

(1) Monitor placement: directly in front and slightly down, since my emphasis (scores, parts, etc.) is graphic and therefore visual. I use two monitors stacked vertically, as notation primarily demands vertical real estate, compared to sequencing’s obsession with the horizontal.

(2) Computer keyboard/trackball: at elbow level, directly in front of and nearest to me, as more time is spent editing than strictly inputting.

(3) Midi keyboard: front-to-back, between computer keyboard/mouse and computer monitor, and slightly elevated. (Not the optimal position for hours of playing, but the need to maintain body orientation through constant back-and-forth on the two keyboards wins out.)

4) Workstation orientation: When possible, and for both acoustic and ergonomic reasons, placed with its back to one of the short sides of a rectangular room, but not forcing one to look at or out a window (glare and shadow.) Allow space between workstation and back wall to minimize speaker/wall interaction, allow access to component/network wiring and, not insignificantly, for video monitor placement at a different focal depth from the computer monitor, forcing you to change focus frequently to avoid eyestrain.

(5) Telephone: within easy arm’s reach without leaning, preferably on the same side as the more skilled arm (for dialing.)

(6) Printer: Again, within arm’s reach, both for retrieving completed prints and for manual feed access.

(7) Easel: For holding scores, manuals, etc., at eye level. Since this is used less often, but for longer stretches, I built one onto an old-style computer/video monitor platform with a swing-out arm to be available when needed, or quickly swung back and folded out of position when not.

(8) Chair and floor: Rolling chair, obviously, and raised enough to allow feet to rest comfortably on the floor without folding your legs back under (leg circulation.) Pick one with arms, so that you don’t fall in the habit of resting the weight of yours on your wrists. Create a hard floor surface, even a plastic floor mat, as carpet strains your body and your chair through castor-level resistance when your propulsion is higher up.

(9) Lighting: Both overhead and swing-arm lamp are needed for the different requirements when relating to paper music on an easel and data on a monitor. For the easel, you want the light coming from over your shoulder for maximum brightness but with minimal reflective glare. When your focus is all-monitor, light from overhead works fine.

These are only the most fundamental concerns of the healthy music prep workstation, allowing you to function safely and comfortably on those parts of the job you encounter most frequently. Elements beyond these fall more solidly in the time-saving/efficiency arena, and will be discussed more widely next time. Until then, take a critical look at everything you stare at, touch, or listen to throughout your workday with an eye to maximizing variety (of eye focus, muscle tension, ear sensitivity, etc.,) minimizing repetition (of task, limb or sense activity, mental process, etc.,) and minimizing physical

2 Comments

  • November 19, 2009 @ 10:39 am

    This is a nicely written and useful article for an audience that probably doesn’t often think about ergonomics and yet could suffer pain if they don’t consider how they set up their workstation. One comment to add, we offer chairs that come with swing away arms so the user can move them back out of the way when they don’t need arms, and yet have them for computer work and such. This feature has been quite popular with musicians. I just wanted to share this option so your audience knows they can “have their cake and eat it too” and have a chair that serves both armless and “want arms” uses.

  • March 29, 2015 @ 5:45 am

    If your business is one where clients may come to your home office, then you’ll want to
    try to locate the office in a room with a separate entryway from the
    rest of the house. The years of unpleasant plastic sun loungers
    are over. It has been obvious for a long time now that people in these capacities,
    who have to sit for long periods of time – much of it in front
    of a computer – absolutely must have chairs that will provide proper musculoskeletal
    support.

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