For many, an antique piano bench can be a prized possession. From their elegantly carved, exotic woods to their varicolored fabrics, they can be a sight to behold. But most of them ought to come with a Surgeon General's warning.
Most people pay little or no attention at all to their piano bench, except under two circumstances: (1) They want something cheap because they blew their whole budget on the piano. (2) They are looking for an antique piano bench simply because it looks good.
This is a grave mistake. Here's what's really important in a piano bench:
... and what's unimportant:
I don't intend to be insensitive to your budget, but price should not be the foremost factor in your decision. You can probably get a genuine concert artist bench for the same or less than the asking price of that antique piano bench anyway, and the artist bench will serve you much better.
Most antique piano benches have a fixed height. (And most aren't even benches, but stools.) If you're a parent and are looking for a piano bench for your little wunderkind, keep in mind that your child won't always be little (and by definition won't remain a wunderkind, sorry!). Children grow, and they'll need an adjustable piano bench that will grow with them. So while shopping for a piano bench, be sure not to fall for the gimmicks. Fixed-height piano benches are like one-size-fits-all shoes.
Also avoid benches with music compartments. True, they're handy, but almost all of them have a fixed height, which is disastrous for your and your children's piano playing. After all, all pianists aren't equally tall. A few models will both have a music compartment and be adjustable. However, the music compartment takes up vertical space, and often it won't be possible to sit low enough. The pianist's chosen bench height is not at all arbitrary, and it is not even simply a matter of personal taste. Most pianists sit too high nowadays, whereas pianists of the so-called Golden Age invariably knew that sitting low was best for their posture and their playing alike.
There are piano stools that are adjustable by spinning them. They're even worse, however! More often than not, piano stools wobble so much you can measure them on the Richter scale. That's a death sentence for your spine. Further, playing piano beyond the very beginning stages frequently demands lateral movement. It's possible to become very off-balance and even fall off a little stool in such cases. Thus, surface area should not be neglected when shopping for a piano bench.
A piano bench needs to be perfectly stable. Therefore, I caution against buying an antique piano bench or stool on eBay, at least if your goal is to play piano and not merely look at it. There's simply no way to test its stability.
And it has got to be comfortable. Don't get a wood-surface piano bench and add a cushion later, expecting that you'll get the same level of comfort and support as an authentic artist bench. It might seem alright at first, but it's quickly going to become a literal pain in the ass.
So what do I recommend? I have two piano benches, both of which I love. The first I got from Steinway, and what's special about it is that the seat can be adjusted so that it tilts forward to keep the spine straight. I found when working with it that a tilt of only about five degrees is sufficient, and my back is happier with this arrangement.
I've had two difficulties with it. The first is that the tilting mechanism was evidently placed atop a standard piano bench, so the bench is too high for me overall. It is absolutely preferable to sit low rather than high at the piano for reasons of mechanical leverage and control of sound. Equally importantly, sitting low (I don't mean freakishly low, nose-to-the-keyboard à la Glenn Gould, just slightly low) is healthier for the crucial musculature, which must not only be allowed to release efficiently, it will automatically develop in response to our seating posture. Therefore, think twice before investing in that antique piano bench just because it fits in with your living room furniture: At best, it might prevent you from extracting all the tone colors out of the instrument, and at worst, you might actually be hurting your spine in the long run.
Though I do love that piano bench, the second difficulty with it was that the surface is simply too hard. It has a nice leather covering, but it's just not padded enough. That might be fine for more occasional practice, but if you're logging hours behind the 88s and don't have much in the way of Sitzfleisch, you'll definitely want something more substantial.
I therefore got a professional artist bench from Bösendorfer, which is an absolute dream! It's the kind with thick padding and the buttons on top, like you see on all concert stages. There's a reason these benches have become standard for professional work, and that is because they are unquestionably the best suited to supporting the crucial back muscles while playing. Now when I speak of supporting the muscles, I don't mean cozy easy chair or some executive office chair or that sort of thing. Those only make your back muscles lazy and can, ironically, contribute to back pain as the muscles only get weaker over time. Your back muscles absolutely need to do the work of supporting the spine, both while playing the piano and doing any other seated activity (except maybe driving). Some pianists use a desk or table chair with a back support, but this is only their instinctive (and wrong) response to back pain. Letting weak muscles get weaker is a vicious cycle that will only lead to greater problems over time.
Back to the Bösendorfer piano bench: This is simply the most perfectly comfortable, stable piano bench I've ever encountered. Although there's of course no back support, my whole spine feels totally supported. I'm able to practice for hours and my back doesn't feel the slightest bit fatigued. That should be your goal as well.
Now for the final checklist. Your piano bench should have the following characteristics:
So forget the antique piano bench. Head to your piano dealer and, if you're at all serious about your piano playing, pick up a genuine artist bench. It'll pay dividends. Next up is how to sit at the piano... stay tuned.