By KYLE HARPSTER
October 07, 2005
For centuries, pianists have known that not all hands are created equal.
A pilot study published last week by two University of Nebraska-Lincoln professors has provided scientific data to back up small-handed pianists’ perceptions of ease and efficiency when playing a specially designed, smaller piano.
Brenda Wristen, assistant professor of piano pedagogy, and Susan Hallbeck, associate professor of industrial and management system engineering, led the study.
While Wristen is the musical expert, Hallbeck is a certified industrial engineer who specializes as a hand ergonomist.
Their research examined whether it is physically easier for a small-handed pianist to use a keyboard seven-eighths the size of a conventional one.
Wristen and Hallbeck defined a small-handed pianist as having a hand span of less than eight inches.
Because of this limited span, small-handed pianists are restricted in the pieces of music they can play. And although it hasn’t been scientifically proven, it is generally accepted that small-handed pianists are more susceptible to injuries, such as tendonitis.
“Keyboardists in particular are injured at an alarming rate,” Wristen said.
Although many small-handed pianists have experienced these difficulties, they lacked the scientific evidence to quantify the problem.
Wristen first came across the "7/8 keyboard," which is about seven inches shorter than a conventional piano, in spring 2004.
UNL owns two such pianos, one in Westbrook Hall and another in Kimball Recital Hall.
In the pilot study, funded by a grant from the UNL Research Council, two piano players recruited from the School of Music played excerpts of music on both keyboards.
To determine stress levels, the researchers attached sensors on the pianists, measuring muscle activity in their arms, shoulders, wrists and jaws.
Results showed small-handed pianists do have higher stress levels when playing on a conventional keyboard.
Hallbeck said this research is unique because of the two different fields it unites: engineering and music.
Wristen and Hallbeck hope that their research will help the 7/8 piano gain more acceptance in musical institutions, which can be resistant to change. They wish to see a dual standard in the piano world, with institutions having a conventional piano as well as a 7/8-sized piano for small-handed pianists.
In the long run, the researchers hope to discover the most efficient piano techniques and then apply that knowledge to help musicians build a healthy technique, Wristen said.
“This study is merely a single step within that larger research agenda,” she said.
The Daily Nebraskan News http://www.dailynebraskan.com/vnews/display.v/ART/2005/10/07/4345fd7327e38