Front and Center
Playing the piano can damage hands and wrists as much as spending hours typing on a keyboard—especially for musicians with small hands.
Susan Hallbeck, associate professor of industrial and management systems engineering, and assistant music professor Brenda Wristen are studying how a smaller piano keyboard may prevent stress injuries in small-handed pianists. (A small-handed pianist’s hand spans eight inches or less from the thumb to the pinky finger.)
The 7/8 keyboard is a smaller keyboard that comes attached to its own action and stack that contains the moving parts and hammers that strike the strings. To switch between a conventional keyboard and a 7/8 keyboard, the musician slides out the action and replaces it with another.
“The fundamental premise of ergonomics is to fit the task to the user, not the user to the task,” Hallbeck said. “Thus, having a keyboard that fits the player and not the other way around just makes sense.”
Wristen became interested in conducting a formal study after discovering that her upper back and neck muscles felt less fatigued after playing on a 7/8 keyboard. Her playing also improved.
“When practicing on the 7/8 piano, I noticed that my kinesthetic grasp of where the notes fit under my hand was very solid from one day to the next,” Wristen said. “Once I learned a passage, it stayed in my hand, which is almost never the case for me when practicing on the full-sized keyboard.”
Hallbeck and Wristen’s study compares whether a smaller keyboard is easier for small-handed pianists to use than a conventional keyboard. The researchers completed their initial data collection in November 2005. The study included 26 expert and intermediate pianists with small hands.
Each pianist practiced the same piece of music for 10 hours on a conventional keyboard or the 7/8 keyboard. After practicing, the musicians had three chances to play a trial piece on the instrument they practiced on and were asked to choose their best performance. Then the participants switched instruments.
Hallbeck and Wristen asked the musicians to spend 30 minutes practicing and getting acclimated to their new instrument. During this time, the pianists played the same excerpt at five-minute intervals and played practice music between the trials. While they played their assigned excerpts, electronic devices recorded the pianists’ muscular exertion and joint angles. Hallbeck and Wristen discovered that the musicians who learned the trial piece on the 7/8 keyboard had a harder time using the regular keyboard. Their accuracy and technique was better on the smaller keyboard.
“There are a number of injured pianists and others who do not become professionals; rather, they remain devoted amateurs due to repertoire that is beyond their capability,” Hallbeck said. “Most of our subjects commented that they had never been able to play a 10th in their life. They just looked down at their hands in awe as they did something for the first time.”
Results from the pilot study were presented at the 49th annual meeting of the Human Factors and Ergonomic Society and will be published in the journal “Medical Problems of Performing Artists.”
The researchers’ next step is to study how the 7/8 keyboard could be used to teach piano to children, who naturally have small hands.
The initial study was funded through a $20,000 interdisciplinary grant from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Research Council and a $5,000 grant from the Hixson- Lied Endowment Fund.