search articles: 

   from the issue of September 22, 2005

Study to help gauge injury development among musicians


Brenda Wristen 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, and "needless to say, that got my attention," she said.

"I found a solution to address the issue that caused the problem to begin with. 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. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on biomechanics applied to piano technique. Her research progressed to focusing on piano injuries and how to prevent them.

Wristen also began to challenge beliefs that one sizes fits all in the piano world.

Wristen came to UNL in 2001 and started to do more scientific research; she worked in collaboration with UNL educational psychology professor Sharon Evans and the Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital on a study employing innovative biomechanical motion-capture technology in combination with electromyographic techniques to compare motions made by pianists during sight-reading versus repertoire tasks.

"We were trying to quantify and capture these motions made by pianists in four dimensions so that we could describe them qualitatively," she said.

Then, a year ago she attended a conference and began talking with David Steinbuhler about his 7/8-size keyboard and her research. The 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 Industrial and Management System Engineer Susan Hallbeck, is examining whether the 7/8-size keyboard contributes to the physical ease of small-handed pianists compared to conventional keyboards. A small-handed pianist is defined for this study as having a full extension stretch between the pinky finger and thumb of less than eight inches.

The pilot study was completed this spring with two small-handed participants. Each person played the same piece and was assigned to practice for up to 10 hours on either the 7/8-size keyboard or the conventional keyboard. They each then played three trials of the excerpt 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.

"I can't generalize findings based on two trials, but I can tell you that the one participant who learned the piece on the small keyboard was very fatigued and tired after moving to the full-sized keyboard," Wristen said.

The full study on 24 participants begins this fall.

Wristen's long-term goal is that her research might culminate in the creation of an interdisciplinary center devoted to researching and developing practical applications for rehabilitating musician injuries.



Master plan ready for faculty, staff review
Fiesta on the Green
Online carpool service starts at UNL
StarTran program continues to build as gas prices shift
Whitman Archive earns $500,000 challenge grant
Admissions dean outlines enrollment figures
Fossil named for UNL paleontologist
Museum collection open to the public Sept. 24
Rural Nebraskans look to family, friends for help with personal problems
Study to help gauge injury development among musicians