“I can’t play piano because of an injury and it makes me feel empty” -- Injury Preventative Piano Technique and What You Can Do Today.
There are fifteen of us sitting in a circle at the Salem College music school in Winston Salem, North Carolina. It’s day 1 of her Injury Preventative Piano Technique workshop.
We are pianists from all walks of life and different parts of the world; high school and undergrad students to graduate and doctoral.
No matter where we come from or what we’ve learned, today we’re all on the same level and we are all learning the fundamentals all over again.
Dr. Barbara Lister-Sink sits at the apex point of the circle with a Hamburg Steinway and Sons piano resting silently behind her. She’s teaching us a technique called the “basic stroke” where we each lift our forearms slightly using our biceps brachialis muscles until our fingers are hanging loosely from the wrist (like a mop at the end of the stick) and then allow for a free fall releasing the biceps brachialis muscles.
She scans the room for any unnecessary lurking tension in our upper arms. She comes to me and places her hand on my shoulder indicating that I release my deltoid anterior muscles so I can isolate my biceps brachialis. “Biceps brachialis?!” I think to myself. “Deltoid anterior?!” It’s taking so much mental energy to do this one basic motion that no one consciously thinks about (or so I think). I’ve never had to work so hard to do so little at the piano.
I quickly find out that I’m not alone. Others are also putting in a lot of mental energy to pull off a perfect basic stroke. Of course, the first time you learn a complex concept, it will take many hours of practice to achieve and to internalize it will take even MORE hours of practice
So why is she making us do this? Why as a pianist is it so important to be able to isolate different muscle groups and turn them on and off at will? Well because of athletic sports of course.
“Write your injuries in dust, your benefits in marble” - Benjamin Franklin
The reason I wanted to learn more about Injury Preventative Piano Technique is because I had a student who was showing early signs of pain in his arm. Furthermore I experience pain in my right forearm occasionally and I want to know what to do to prevent it from arising.
I knew that if he had continued the problem would not only persist but progress so action needed to be taken before we could take on more advanced repertoire.
I always teach my students to play in a way that prevents injury but I had reached the pinnacle of my knowledge and needed to seek help from the person who knows about this field the best. And that’s Dr. Barbara Lister-Sink.
Barbara Lister-Sink teaches Injury Preventative Piano technique with her Lister-Sink Method. Her video Freeing the Caged Bird goes through all the stages of this method in detail.
Piano related injuries can include: carpal tunnel, tendinitis in the wrist and arthritis. Have you ever tried to play a Rachmaninoff piece and gone “There’s no way my hand can stretch that far”? Well you’re not alone.
There can be a risk to taking on some pieces especially if you play them all the time. For instance, hyperextending your hand for an extended period of time over years can wear out the cartilage between your fingers particularly between the forefinger and thumb.
Dr. Lister Sink comes from a family of athletes and one of her most intriguing analogies for me was that of sports.
I’ve never been a sports person but I’ve gained a new respect for the world of athletics and the things athletes have to learn about their bodies and injuries.
One thing I find particularly interesting is in contact sports how athletes are taught to stabilize their joints at the right moment. Pianists pay attention because this will all circle back to you.
Think about Ice skaters who have to worry about Stress fractures, shin splints, tendonitis and ankle fractures. Have you ever wonder how they can jump ten feet in the air and land gracefully without breaking their ankle every time?
It’s because they stabilize their joints at the moment of impact and then release their muscle tension so the shockwave of the impact travels and disperses harmlessly through their bodies.
Tennis players stabilize their arm joints when they crack the ball at the moment of impact and then instantly release their muscle tension so the shockwave of the impact travels harmlessly up their arm.
When Martial artists break bricks, they have to stabilize their hand joints at the moment of impact and then release their muscle tension so the bricks break instead of their hand. Starting to see a pattern?
When you play piano, you are striking the keys with your fingers. On the moment of impact we must stabilize our joints and then release them so the shockwave of the impact travels harmlessly up our arms.
This information is not new
Although women are twice as likely to have playing related injuries at the piano, there are quite a bit of men who are affected by it as well. Here are some examples of famous pianists who’ve suffered injuries at the piano.
Robert Schumann famously and permanently injured a finger on his right hand using a contraption to try to gain strength in his weakest fingers. Lang Lang, a current and popular Chinese pianist, has recently developed tendonitis in his left forearm.
In this TedX Talk, Barbara Lister-Sink talks about the problem of injury facing pianists today and what is being done today to change that.
PASK (Pianos for Alternatively Sized Pianos). Industry standard piano size is an international movement devoted to introducing a smaller sized keyboard for people with smaller hands by big piano manufacturers like Steinway. Click the image below to check out their website.
Things you can do NOW
Be aware of any lurking tension in your own body while you are practicing. Examine the feeling of tension in your Head, Neck, Shoulders, Arms, Fingers, Torso, Legs, Feet and work on releasing the tension on command. It won’t be an overnight process but an ongoing one.
Find release points in your pieces. Find points with rests or long notes that help you to remind yourself to release the tension in your body. Stabilize joints to play the note. Let's break it down further.
The sound on the piano depreciates and only gets quieter once the note is played right? So once you play the note, your work is done and you can release the joints in your fingers and hands. This gives you a more efficient way of playing. Of course when your playing fast passages there HAS to be tension for you to play them so you find release points before and after the passage.
”True virtuosity is ease” ~Guido Agosti
Dr. Lister-Sink said her teacher Guido Agosti would tell his students “True virtuosity is ease.” Here are some examples of virtuosos that practice ease at the piano.
Valentina Lisista plays difficult fast passages with the Chopin Etude Op 10 No. 8 in F Major but makes it look easy.
Check out Art Tatum and his student Oscar Peterson for examples on how it looks to be a ease at the piano whilst playing virtuosic passages.
What can you do to improve the relationship with your piano by eliminating pain?
Learn more about the Lister-Sink Method and her intensive training workshops at https://www.lister-sinkinstitute.org/.
P.A.S.K. or Pianists for Alternatively Sized Keyboards. P.A.S.K. is an international movement committed to achieving change in relation to piano keyboard size. They are dedicated to bringing alternatively sized keyboards to the market by going straight to the big piano manufacturing companies. They are currently garnering support to show that there is a market for people who want alternatively sized keyboards. I'm interested in having a smaller key size as an option for me and my students so I’ve decided to sign their petition. You can even do it anonymously. For questions you can email firstname.lastname@example.org to send you more info. and you can like their Facebook page.
David Steinbuhler works closely with P.A.S.K. and has developed a product that can replace the action on a standard piano with a smaller action keyboard. I had the pleasure of playing on one of his DS6.0 keyboards at Salem College. His site has a hand size chart where you can measure how large your hand is and how it measures up to the standard keyboard and the keyboards he makes. You can find more info. at Steinbuhler.com.
Me looking at the soundboard of the Steinway & Sons at the concert hall at Salem College
(This is not a Stenbuhler modified piano)
By the end of the week we had all painstakingly (no pun intended) learned the “Basic Stroke” and a few other accompanying techniques that helped us to isolate the small muscle groups in our bodies. “We are all small body athletes” Dr. lister-Sink said as we sat upright and attentive in our ergonomic chairs, hanging on to her every word.
As I sat there listening, I reflected on the week I’d just had. This was the most intensive training I’d ever gone through at the piano but also one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences of my life.
My relationship with the piano has improved tremendously over the years. I have such a reverence and respect for the instrument and I think it views me as it’s friend.
It doesn’t judge, it doesn’t hate. It just is and it allows me to express myself musically through playing on it with ease. It gives me such a profound sense of fulfillment and it enriches my soul.
I’ll end this post with two questions Dr. Lister-Sink had for us during our stay in Winston-Salem.
How do you feel about the piano? What do you think the piano feels about you?
Let me know in the comments below.
Harry L. Rios
Founder of HarryLRios.com
Harry L. Rios.com