The recently developed sciences of ergonomics and biomechanics can be used to analyse piano technique and determine how the human body can be used most efficiently. The basis of ergonomics is that ‘form follows function’, i.e. the design of tools and appliances need to be in accordance with the dimensions of the human hand. Biomechanical and ergonomic studies have determined that degree, repetitiveness and forcefulness of wrist motions are risk factors in tendinitis, carpal tunnel and other nerve entrapments, and that women are more susceptible to these ailments than men.
Wristen (2000) reviewed established quantitative data from biomechanical studies to describe and analyse the execution of selected piano tasks. She identified several motions and practice habits that have the potential to contribute to injury; these include wrist angle (radial and ulnar deviation, extreme pronation or supination) and repetitive motions of high force.Deahl & Wristen (2003) noted that small-handed pianists are at higher risk due to greater degrees of lateral wrist motion, flexion, extension and deviation that are required than for larger-handed players. Large chords, octaves and arpeggios repeatedly force small hands out of an ‘anatomic neutral’ position. This is consistent with the conclusions of Sakai’s (1992, 2002) clinical studies where he identified the playing of octaves and chords as likely causes of pain and injury.
Boyle (2013) in a presentation to the APPCA Piano Pedagogy Conference in July 2013, presented an analysis of the benefits of reduced size keyboards (ESPKs)* for smaller-handed pianists from a biomechanical and physiological perspective. This paper has reviewed the pioneering work of Otto Ortmann (1929) early last century, which is based on sound scientific principles. He clearly recognized the significance of hand span in being able to play at the highest level, not just in terms of avoiding pain and injury, but achieving performance excellence. For example: ‘The three factors of hand width, finger length and finger abduction, to which, of course, the similar thumb values must be added, will explain a surprisingly large number of technical difficulties that are often wrongly attributed to defects of coordination or studentship’, and ‘Fine dynamic gradation with the fingers in extreme stretches is physiologically impossible’.
Biomechanical disadvantage also leads to increased muscular strain and mental effort, limiting a pianist’s ability to focus on musical expression. Renowned German scientist, Christoph Wagner (1984) hinted at this: ‘Perhaps the most important effect of biomechanical disadvantage lies in the increased load on the central nervous system’.
Refer also to section on Performance Quality below.
*Ergonomically scaled piano keyboards
Boyle, R. (2013). The benefits of reduced-size keyboards for smaller-handed pianists: An exploration of biomechanical and physiological factors. Proceedings of the 11th Australasian Piano Pedagogy Conference: Opening Doors: The Complete Musician in a Digital Age. University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, 2-6 July 2013. http://www.appca.com.au/proceedings/
Deahl, L. & Wristen, B. (2003). Strategies for small-handed pianists. American Music Teacher, 52 (6), 21-25.
Grieco, A. Occhipinti, E., Colombini, D., Menoni, O., Bulgheroni, M. Frigo, C., & Boccardi, S. (1989). Muscular effort and musculoskeletal disorders in piano students: electromyographic, clinical and preventive aspects. Ergonomics, 32 (7),697-716.
Kochevitsky, G. (1967). The Art of Piano Playing. Summy-Birchard Music Inc., USA.
Meinke, W.B. (1995). The work of piuano virtuosity: An ergonomic analysis. Medical Problems of Performing Artists, 10 (2), 48-61.
Neuhaus, H. (1973). The Art of Piano Playing, Barrie & Jenkins, London.
Ortmann, O. (1929). The Physiological Mechanics of Piano Technique. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., London, and E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., New York.
Wagner, C.H. (1984). Success and failure in musical performance: Biomechanics of the hand. In Roehmann F.L., & Wilson F.R. (Eds): The Biology of Music Making, Proceedings of the 1984 Denver Conference, St Louis, Missouri, MMB Music Inc., 1988, 154-179.
Wagner, C.H. (2012). Musicians’ hand problems: looking at individuality. Medical Problems of Performing Artists, 27, (2), 57-64.
Wristen, B. (2000). Avoiding piano-related injury: a proposed theoretical procedure for biomechanical analysis of piano technique. Medical Problems of Performing Artists, 15 (2), 55-64.
Wristen, B. & Deahl, L. (2002). Small hands SOS! Circumventing injury and succeeding at the piano. Music Teachers’ National Association, Cincinnati, Ohio. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/musicpresentations/1/