Saxophone's heavy metal neck pain eased by harness
Brass neck: Jim Barrett gets to grips with his bass saxophone
Musicians suffering aches and pains from heavy instruments could be given hope by the work of a design expert at the University of Glamorgan.
Jim Barrett says the expert advice of Judith Hills has eased the back pain he suffers from playing a bass saxophone.
He says a prototype harness developed during the ergonomic study spreads the weight of the instrument away from his neck and more evenly around his body.
Ms Hills presents her findings at a conference on Wednesday.
The paper - Hanging 10 kilograms of brass from my neck: posture problems in bass saxophonists - was based on her study of Mr Barrett, a fellow Glamorgan academic, who plays in the jazz band Wonderbrass.
She was interested in seeing if jazz and rock musicians suffered similar musculoskeletal disorders to those affecting orchestral musicians, which have previously been studied by ergonomic experts.
Her research covered postural and performance differences between the musical genres as well as the different solutions available to saxophonists to reduce the impact of their instrument, which is generally hung from a strap around the player's neck.
"Musicians who stand or walk while playing are likely to display different musculoskeletal problems to those who remain seated," said Ms Hills, a lecturer in design at the University of Glamorgan.
A musician all his life, Mr Barrett had been suffering pain since he began playing bass saxophone with Wonderbrass 10 years ago.
The band regularly takes part in parades at events such as the Brecon Jazz Festival and Cardiff's MAS Carnival.
Mr Barrett, from Pontypridd, said playing and carrying one of the heaviest musical instruments created health problems which affected his working life as well as his musical performance.
Jim Barrett can suffer extreme discomfort days after playing a gig
"At the worst point I was experiencing considerable back problems, having to use two pillows to be able to sleep, in extreme discomfort both standing and sitting - especially in long and boring meetings - and with very restricted ability to play when marching, totally destroying myself on longer marches," he said.
Mr Barrett had already modified his existing harness to shift the weight of the saxophone from his neck to his right shoulder, but it was still far from ideal.
After studying the musician's posture, Ms Hills developed a prototype harness which moved some of the weight to his waist, kept his hips and shoulders level and his head upright.
Mr Barrett said the new design felt much more comfortable and he hoped it would prove to be so over time.
"Judith's design will bring the weight down to my waist greatly improving comfort and posture," he said.
"The idea is, if she can crack the problem for me, it will be fairly straight forward to scale this solution to suit baritone players or even tenor players who are experiencing problems.
"Besides all this, the new harness will be a bit of a fashion accessory and I have requested a music pocket to keep my manuscript book in while on the march."
Judith Hills hopes her findings can apply to other musicians
Ms Hills will present her paper on Wednesday at the annual conference of the Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors (IEHF) at Keele University.
She said she was in discussion with a Rhondda-based company who manufacture musical harnesses.
The next prototype will be tested with players of the smaller and more common baritone saxophone to assess its commercial viability via a wider range of users.
Ms Hills admitted she focussed on the bass saxophone as a "worst case scenario" but said there were lessons for musicians who played other instruments.
"Don't support too much weight on your neck and shoulders and ensure that any straps do not create point pressure - padding is important," she said.
"Try to keep your back in a natural position with the spine vertical and head upright; this should give a small of the back curve and a small neck curve.
"Research has shown that medium to high weights are best supported by the pelvic girdle/hips, as in rucksacks.
"Transferring the weight to a hip strap is the central design issue with the harness I am working on."
This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.