Music & Medicine: Unique Collaboration Combines Performing Arts and Science

Tue Jul 14, 2009 8:01am EDT

* Reuters is not responsible for the content in this press release.

FORT WORTH, Texas, July 14 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- When Eri Yoshimura
begins to play, beautiful music fills the air. Her eyes close, and her body
sways in time to the prelude. Her small hands glide over the keyboard
gracefully, fluidly, as if they were tiny ballerinas on a miniature stage.

When she's not performing, though, this University of North Texas (UNT) piano
performance doctoral student is part of a collaborative study between the
Denton campus and the UNT Health Science Center designed to measure the
benefits to a pianist's hands when using a special modified keyboard.  This
information can then be used to educate musicians who teach musicians and help
prevent pianists -- especially those with small hands -- from developing pain
caused by playing keyboards.

"We're looking at hand function in piano players," said Rita Patterson, PhD,
professor and director of the Osteopathic Heritage Foundation Physical
Medicine Core Research Facility (OHFPMCRF). "We've developed hardware and are
collecting data on hand position and function while playing piano."

The study is funded by the Joint Institutional Seed Research Program, an
intramural grant designed to foster collaborative, innovative research
conducted jointly by UNT and the UNT Health Science Center faculty -- in this
case Patterson; Shrawan Kumar, PhD, OHFPMCRF professor; and Kris Chesky, PhD,
director of UNT's Texas Center for Music and Medicine.

Yoshimura has studied piano-related pain among pianists in the past. She and
Chesky published a paper in September 2006 concluding that 86 percent of
college students majoring in piano experienced playing-related pain, with lack
of flexibility and small hand span as contributors. This Joint Institutional
Seed Research grant will allow PMI researchers to quantitatively measure what
happens when a player sits down at a keyboard and begins to play.

One possible answer to alleviating the pain certain players feel while
performing is the ergonomically modified Steinway piano that UNT students use
in an effort to reduce such problems. The keyboard has narrower keys designed
specifically for performers with smaller hands.

"We're measuring hand size, hand position and how hard they're hitting the
keys," Patterson said. "Our technology will give us a thorough motion analysis
as [the student subject] plays. There are 30 students, and we're gathering
enough data to keep me busy for a long time. We can easily have two more
dissertations' worth of material."

Patterson said the researchers are using sensors on the players' hands that
measure how far the hands must move to reach some of the chords common in
piano pieces. Sensors under the piano keys measure how hard the player strikes
the key while playing.

"We're working on synching these systems properly," Patterson said. "This will
make the data easier to analyze."

Yoshimura has played on the modified keyboard in the past -- her first concert
on the new piano, also the first at UNT, was a performance in 2006 of the
complete 24 Preludes by French composer Claude Debussy.

"We are the first school to offer this [modified keyboard] to students,"
Chesky said. "It's a major departure from the norm and hugely significant
because many people pursuing piano at the college level are Asian females. But
this population has smaller hands than the average male, for whom standard
pianos were designed. 

"It's like someone who is used to driving a 1987 Impala suddenly getting into
a Ferrari. They just have much more flexibility and ease of playing. It's
really quite remarkable."

Yoshimura, who came to UNT from Osaka, Japan, 10 years ago to pursue a second
bachelor's degree in music, a master's degree and now a doctoral degree, said
traditionally-sized keyboards do cause her pain.
"I have very small hands. When I span a chord or octave, I have to stretch my
hands a lot, so I feel the tension in my arms," Yoshimura said. "There are
many pieces with big chords, so the repertoire I can play is limited."
"Musicians are like athletes: they're highly motivated, and they won't tell
you when they're in pain," Patterson said. "They just keep playing. Dr. Chesky
has found that the repetitive use of certain muscles, hunching over, playing
24/7, causes musculoskeletal problems. We've partnered to look at this.
Hopefully we'll have a long history together."

This dual-campus project has since grown, though, to include a third. George
Kondraske, PhD, professor of electrical and biomedical engineering at the
University of Texas at Arlington and founding director of UTA's Human
Performance Institute, is joining the investigation.

Patterson said she had heard of Chesky's work with musicians, studies for
which Kondraske had fashioned hardware.  

"Dr. Kondraske modified what Dr. Chesky had to fit our needs," she said.
"Because we both have history with him, we're rolling him into this project,
and he will be included in any proposals for additional funding."

Patterson said despite the distance between the three campuses, the study has
proved to be a productive partnership.

"If you have competent people on each end, it works," she said. "We've been to
the Denton campus a couple of times to see the data collection. And e-mail's

The team hopes to continue this pilot program with more grants.

"We'll probably have enough data with this initial study to publish, but it's
absolutely crucial that we expand this study and apply for federal funding,"
she said.  

University of North Texas Health Science Center
The University of North Texas Health Science Center is composed of the Texas
College of Osteopathic Medicine, the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences,
the School of Public Health, and the School of Health Professions. The
center's Institutes for Discovery conduct leading-edge research on select
health issues, including vision, aging, cancer, heart disease, physical
medicine and public health. This year, the Texas College of Osteopathic
Medicine was named a top 50 medical school in primary care by U.S. News &
World Report for the seventh consecutive year. The institution contributes
almost $400 million to Tarrant County and Texas economies annually.  For more
information, visit

SOURCE  University of North Texas Health Science Center

Lauren LaFleur of University of North Texas Health Science Center,
+1-817-735-5152, cell: +1-817-504-3603,
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