UNL study looks at small hands, smaller piano keyboard

Released on 11/30/2005, at 2:00 AM
Office of University Communications
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Lincoln, Neb., November 30th, 2005 —
Color JPEG of Brenda Wristen
Color JPEG of Brenda Wristen

Brenda Wristen said she never gave much thought to the ergonomics of piano keyboards until she woke up one morning years ago and couldn't move her arms.

She was in graduate school at Texas Tech University, and "needless to say, that got my attention," the University of Nebraska-Lincoln piano professor said. "I found a solution to address the problem, but what that experience gave me was an immediate and very strong interest in learning what factors contribute to injury development among musicians."

Wristen generated a master's thesis on what was then called overuse injuries and wrote her doctoral dissertation on biomechanics applied to piano technique. Her research progressed to focusing on piano injuries and how to prevent them, and since her arrival at UNL in 2001, she has collaborated with biomechanicists to study scientific study of pianists' movement at the piano.

She also began to challenge the belief that one keyboard size is appropriate for every pianist.

A year ago Wristen attended a conference and began talking with Pennsylvania textile manufacturer David Steinbuhler about his seven-eighths-size keyboard and her research. Steinbuhler's smaller keyboard is built around a mechanism that can slide into a conventional-sized grand piano.

"The smaller keyboard seemed to me to be a plausible solution to a very real problem," Wristen said.

Wristen last spring received a $20,000 interdisciplinary grant from the UNL Research Council and a $5,000 grant from the Hixson-Lied Endowment Fund for her study, "Electromyographic Study of Muscle Activity in Small-Handed Pianists."

The study, conducted in collaboration with Susan Hallbeck, UNL industrial and management systems engineer, examines whether the seven-eighths-size keyboard contributes to the physical ease of small-handed pianists, compared to conventional keyboards. (A small-handed pianist is defined for the study as having a full extension stretch between the pinky finger and thumb of less than eight inches.)

Data collection for the ergonomics study was completed in November on 16 expert and 10 intermediate small-handed pianists using computerized joint angle and muscle exertion equipment. Each pianist played the same piece and was assigned to practice for up to 10 hours on either the seven-eighths-size keyboard or the conventional keyboard. They each then played three trials on the instrument they had practiced on and were asked to select their best performance. Each participant then moved to the other instrument and played for 30 minutes to allow time to become reacquainted with the instrument. During this time, they played the same excerpt at 5-minute intervals, and in between, played practice music. During the time the pianists played the excerpt, their muscular exertion and joint angles were recorded and analyzed.

The pilot study showed that the participant who learned the piece on the small keyboard was very fatigued and tired after moving to the full-sized keyboard, Wristen said.

Findings from the pilot study were presented at the 49th annual meeting of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, and have been accepted for publication in the journal, Medical Problems of Performing Artists.

Hallbeck, the ergonomist collaborating on the research, said "typically ergonomic studies focus on industrial jobs, but the repetition, forces and awkward positions during piano playing for the small-handed pianist can be as damaging any industrial job." Both Wristen and Hallbeck said collaboration between the fine arts and engineering is unusual, but productive.

The university's undergraduate research program UCARE also provided $2,000 for Alexis Wismer, a senior from Lincoln majoring in industrial and management systems engineering, to participate in the project. Wismer assists with data collection and data analysis and will be writing her senior thesis on the project.

Wristen said her long-term goal is to establish an interdisciplinary center devoted to researching and developing practical applications for rehabilitating musician injuries. While continuing to pursue studies of this nature, Wristen said her next step is to seek physicians and allied health professionals with related areas of expertise and apply for larger grants to fund her musician wellness center.

CONTACTS:Brenda Wristen, Asst. Professor, Music, (402) 472-1428; and
Susan Hallbeck, Assoc. Prof., Industrial & Management Systems Engineering, (402) 472-2394

Associated Media Files: