Student researcher examines the factors that lead to musicians' injuries

A pianist's body and hands are his or her most important tools for making music. Much like athletes risk injury from repeatedly pushing their bodies on the field or court, pianists also put their bodies at risk in the practice room or concert hall.

Hours spent at the keyboard put a significant strain on pianists' upper extremities. The force used to press the keys, repetitive movements and the musician's posture – including how the pianist places his or her hands on the keys – are important risk factors to a pianist's overall musculoskeletal health.

One size does not fit all

Small-handed pianists are at even greater risk for unnatural hand posture because they have to stretch their hands and fingers uncomfortably when they play large intervals or chords.  

Eri Yoshimura

Eri Yoshimura

Eri Yoshimura, UNT doctoral student in piano performance, began keyboard studies when she was 5 years old. A woman with small hands and fingers, Yoshimura is well aware of the pain caused by repeatedly stretching her hands to span several keys when playing large intervals or chords.

"I always thought it would be unavoidable to play the piano without pain or tension," Yoshimura says. "Then about 4 years ago, UNT acquired its first 15/16 keyboard -- with keys that are 1/16 narrower than standard keys -- and gave me several opportunities to perform with it. This experience changed my life. As a pianist who had no choice other than the standard-sized instrument, I had never thought to fit the keyboard size to my hand size."

Playing with pain

After she discovered the comfort of playing a keyboard that fit her hands, Yoshimura began conducting research to understand and prevent medical problems associated with piano play. She examined risk factors for piano-related pain among college students and piano teachers and investigated the use of ergonomically modified pianos.

Now Yoshimura works with Kris Chesky, associate professor of music and director of education and research at UNT's Texas Center for Music and Medicine and Rita Patterson and Shrawan Kumar from the UNT Health Science Center at Fort Worth. The team uses sensors and high-speed motion cameras to measure the posture of 30 UNT piano majors' hands and arms and the force generated when they play different intervals at different dynamic levels. The research will help identify performance-related factors associated with pain and ways to reduce and prevent it.

"Our research helps us understand the nature, magnitude and cause of playing-related problems," Yoshimura says. "In order to best use this information, pianists should be objective and analytical about themselves and their performance habits."

Finding a better fit

Yoshimura's goal is to make the 15/16 keyboard more accessible for pianists, especially those with small hands.

"In order to accomplish my mission, it's important to keep collecting scientific data to show that this ergonomically modified keyboard truly helps pianists to reduce playing-related problems."   

Yoshimura recently completed her dissertation about the small keyboard research which includes statistical data supporting the theory that the small keyboard reduces pain and tension in small-handed pianists.

Appreciating the sacrifice

Yoshimura also hopes music listeners grow to understand that musicians, like athletes, need the same care and resources because they also suffer performance injuries.

"Music can be beneficial and beautiful for people, but at the same time we should realize that performing can be harmful and risky for one's health," she says. "Audiences should appreciate the fact that musicians are working hard to get the best results just as athletes do in their sports."

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News video

Watch KDAF Channel 33’s news story about Yoshimura's research of piano-related injuries and the occupational health risks for musicians.


Tips for keyboard players

Yoshimura stresses that you must listen to what your body is telling you and adjust accordingly to avoid long term injury and suffering.

  1. Be aware. Pay attention to yourself, to your practice and performance habits and consider how they affect you.
  2. Understand the risk factors – force, repetition and posture. The amount of force you generate to control the piano's volume is probably different than other pianists you know. Because repetition is unavoidable, resting and releasing tension is critical. Posture is considered the most important factor in piano playing but many pianists may adopt bad posture when they practice for several hours.
  3. If you feel pain, rest. Avoid the "no pain, no gain" mentality.