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About the Lister-Sink Institute

The Lister-Sink Institute is an educational organization dedicated to promoting a healthful, well-coordinated keyboard technique to maximize musical artistry and help prevent potential injury at any point in the career.

Frequently Asked Questions

With Barbara Lister-Sink

 


 

What are the advantages of the Lister-Sink Method besides preventing injury?

Benefits frequently reported are: suppleness, facility, speed, a freer sound, greater tonal control, a broader range of dynamics and colors, greater concentration, less performance anxiety, an exhilarating sense of freedom, command and control while playing.

 


 

Will the Lister-Sink Method change my sound?

Most likely. The most common change noticed by pianists and listeners alike is a marked improvement in the quality of sound, which they describe as “ free,” “warm,” “resonant,” “rich,” “deep.”

 


 

Can the Lister-Sink Method be useful for organists or other keyboardists?

It is equally helpful to all keyboardists. In the beginning stages, however, all keyboardists are trained at the piano. After that, the principles of good coordination are applied the appropriate instrument and repertory.  The emphasis on the use of the whole body in playing is especially helpful for organists.

 


 

How do you define “technique?”

The word “technique” means the method or means we use for accomplishing a complex task. It is usually applied to complex tasks in the arts (painting, playing a musical instrument), sports (tennis serve, golf swing), and laboratory science (identifying genes, measuring air pollutants). A technique may be easy or difficult to learn, safe for the user or unsafe, efficient or not. An efficient technique results in the task being performed with minimal energy used, that is, only the amount of energy needed for the job.

In piano playing, an efficient technique is a well-coordinated technique. It means that:

  • The player is aware of the state of her/her body and senses when muscles are contracted or released and how the body is aligned.
  • The player knows which muscles are needed to perform a particular task and can control their use.
  • The player knows which muscles are not needed for that task and can inhibit or prevent their contraction.
  • The player understands that efficient performance of the task involves awareness and control of all parts of the musculo-skeletal system, which is to say “whole body” coordination. In both music and sports, the whole body contributes to performance.

A player who has a well-coordinated technique plays with ease, with free, resonant sound, and with reduced risk of future injury. Pianists who have learned the Lister-Sink Method have a well-coordinated technique.

 


 

What is “injury-preventive technique”?

A well-coordinated technique is an injury-preventive technique. In it, the whole body is optimally coordinated with the instrument. Its hallmarks are dynamic skeletal alignment, efficient muscle use, open free joints, and a state of ongoing balance throughout the body. Anecdotal evidence consistently suggests that playing with well-coordinated technique prevents injury. Or, to put it another way, based on the reports of musicians seeking treatment for pain and disability, and the evolving medical understanding of this area, there appears to be a correlation between injury and over-use/misuse of muscles, chronic tension and stress on the joints.

 


 

How do I acquire injury-preventive technique?

That depends on your age and level of playing. In the Lister-Sink Method, adults usually have to return to very basic coordination and lay a new foundation. Children, if they are just beginning, are easier to train. A free, well-coordinated technique can be acquired by incorporating instruction about it into the regular lessons. However, I strongly agree with the Suzuki philosophy, as well as many of the great piano teachers of the past, that good technique should be taught separately, at least until the foundation for good coordination is laid. The brain simply cannot master the new coordination while at the same time having to attend to reading notation and to the complex demands of musical interpretation, articulation, etc. In my experience, once the foundation is laid and is automatic, a student can move easily into the more complex tasks.

 


 

What is “tension-free” playing?  Is it “relaxed” playing?

Playing involves work—you have to contract muscles. You cannot be fully relaxed and play the piano, or any keyboard. However, many keyboardists engage in physical effort that is unrelated to, and often an obstacle to, good playing. Tension is defined here as unnecessary muscle contraction. In tension-free playing, the work is done only by the muscles needed for the task and only to the degree necessary. To play “without tension” does not mean to be “relaxed”, “floppy” or “loose.” or any other state that interferes with energy, mental focus, and coordination required for playing the piano. In fact, the Lister-Sink Method expressly discourages using these terms.

 


 

What is “effortless” playing?

As used here, “effortless” means the subjective sensation of ease in playing, which happens after we eliminate unnecessary work. If we play with just the right muscles at the right time, while being in balance throughout the whole body, we will not perceive physical effort. Even extremely complex or vigorous movements will feel easy. Also, many technical difficulties that might otherwise have to be overcome simply will not occur. As a friend said after hearing one of the great pianists sail through a famously difficult passage, “He doesn’t understand the problem!” Or as one of my teachers, the great Guido Agosti often said, “Virtuosity is ease!”

 


 

How does the Lister-Sink Method compare to the Taubman Technique?

Dorothy Taubman, with the help of Edna Golandsky and her associates, played a key role in raising awareness of the importance of injury-preventive technique. The Taubman Institute and the Golandsky Institute, as well as the many Taubman teaching assistants throughout the US have made a major contribution to defining the causes of playing-related injury and to teaching systematic ways of eliminating or preventing those injuries. The Lister-Sink Method also defines and teaches injury-free playing and has many points in common with the Taubman Technique, but there are also several significant differences. Here is my perspective on how the two approaches compare:

Similarities:

  • They agree that injuries from playing are unnecessary and preventable through understanding anatomy and applying sound biomechanics to playing.
  • Both teach how to use the hands and arms in the most biomechanically advantageous ways.
  • They agree that piano playing requires a coordination of all the parts of the arm, not parts in isolation.
  • Both emphasize tension-free playing, which as noted above, means using only the muscles needed for the task and only to the degree necessary.
  • Both acknowledge the forearm as the primary lever for playing.
  • Both emphasize optimal alignment of the forearm, hand and finger bones at the moment of sound production (which is not at the key bed).
  • Both emphasize a foundational coordination on which more complex coordinations are built—rotation in the Taubman Technique and the “Basic Sroke” in the Lister-Sink Method.
  • They agree that the elements for good use listed above, and especially avoidance of potentially harmful “co-contraction” (the simultaneous contraction of the flexor and extensor muscles of the forearm) while moving, are the essential foundation for the subtle and intricate coordination required to perform more complex tasks at the piano.
  • Both require highly monitored hands-on instruction. Unfortunately, it is possible to copy the visible parts of either approach, and therefore “look good,” while distorting and misapplying the underlying principles. This could actually increase rather than reduce strain. Working closely with a qualified instructor is the only safe and effective way to learn.

Differences:

  • Wrist Use. The Taubman Technique requires, at least in the initial stages of training, that the wrist joint be stable as the forearm is raised or rotated. The reasons are two-fold: First a stabilized wrist joint keeps the arm/hand/finger arch assembled so that it does not have to be reassembled at landing. Second, a stabilized wrist joint prevents the potentially harmful hanging of the hand as a dead weight and overstretching the extensor tendons, which run through the wrist/carpal tunnel.In the Lister-Sink Method, the wrist joint is released rather than stabilized as the forearm is raised or moved side to side. Stabilizing the wrist in a straight alignment with the elbow and knuckle bridge as the forearm is lifted or carried in the air requires a considerable degree of engagement of the extensor muscles. In the Lister-Sink Method, as the forearm is lifted, the wrist joint is not as stabilized, thus allowing the extensor muscles to remain more released. This is Component #1 of the Basic Stroke–the “easy, efficient lift of the forearm.” It is very important, however, to add that during this easy lift of the forearm, the natural hand arch is not allowed to collapse, nor is the hand a hanging, “dead” weight (even though Franz Liszt actually advocated such a handing hand–le main mort, he called it).Allowing the extensors constantly to return to this state of muscular release is a critical means for not accumulating muscle tension in the forearm. It also is essential to maintaining ease and suppleness in the fingers and “intrinsic” muscles of the hand. Perpetual release of the extensors (and flexors, for that matter) is one of the principle elements for achieving ease, freedom and control in playing and is one of the hallmarks of well-coordinated and injury-preventive technique.
  • Repertory During Training. The Lister-Sink Method does not allow the use of repertory in the early stages of training. The emphasis is on pure sound production and gaining awareness and control of the body in the most basic coordination–the Basic Stroke. From there, increasingly complex coordinations are added through simple exercises and studies. Once the foundation is laid, the keyboardist returns gradually to appropriate levels of repertory.The Taubman Technique begins with movement training using C major scales, but then refers the trainee to various categories of movement in specific repertory.
  • Whole Body vs. Playing Apparatus. The Taubman Technique emphasizes good coordination of the “playing apparatus”– the shoulder, arm, hand and fingers primarily. In the Lister-Sink Method, much time also is devoted to achieving good coordination of the playing apparatus through mastery of the Basic Stroke. However, the Basic Stroke is not learned in isolation. It is learned as part of a larger coordination, which begins with the torso/neck/head alignment (based on Alexander Technique principles) and its effect throughout the entire neuromuscular system. The goal is for the whole body, not just the playing apparatus, to become connected and interactive in a new way. In the Lister-Sink Method, the whole body approach is fundamental.

 


 

Why is the whole body emphasized in the Lister-Sink Method?

Through the centuries, most of the great teachers and performers have noted the importance of the whole body in making music. Chopin spoke of suppleness from “tip to toe.”  The renowned early and mid 20th century pedagogues Otto Ortmann and Tobias Matthay wrote of the fundamental importance of recognizing the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) as the origin of technical coordination.

As Abby Whiteside observed, “It is the body as a whole which transfers the idea of music into the actual production of music.” Or as a jazz bass player put it when asked how he produced all that music, “It comes from the floor.” Again, to use Whiteside’s words, “Indeed, all bodily skills, (not only those concerned with music) have this in common: they always involve the whole body if the best results are to be obtained. The body is the center of the skills even though in each case there is a necessary periphery of some kind….The center controls the periphery; it can never be the other way around.” We have to learn to think in a different direction—from the whole to the individual unit.  Parts of the body not directly involved in playing affect playing; the degree to which one feels connected throughout the entire body affects playing; and the body’s equilibrium or disequilibrium affects playing.

In addition to being the key to good playing, the whole body approach also has implications for retraining. It means that a problem in playing is never just in the playing apparatus. It is an inseparable part of a response by the whole body, and therefore, in order to play better and more safely, there has to be a change in the way the whole body is used. This, of course, is a bigger challenge than simply following instructions for a new way of using the arms and hands, but I believe there is no choice. If the Basic Stroke is learned in isolation it may not be fully learned. As a result, the benefits may be limited and the new coordinations may not be assimilated to the point where they are automatic and instinctive. The student may simply learn another way to play with the same risk of injury and the same artistic limitations.

 


 

I see a lot of pianists, some really successful, who seem to be breaking all the rules of good coordination, good posture, etc. Will they become injured?

It is not possible to say who will or will not become injured from mal-coordination and poor body use habits. However, as noted earlier, there appears to be a correlation between injury and chronic tension, over-use or misuse of muscles, and misalignment and the accompanying stress on the joints. Perhaps an appropriate analogy would be to smoking: Many people who smoke never develop lung cancer. But enough do to warrant discouraging smoking. Likewise, some of our most talented and successful keyboardists break many of the rules of good coordination and never become injured. But that is not a reason for teachers not to teach anything but the best, most injury-preventive technique.

 


 

Do some keyboardists just play naturally with good, injury-preventive coordination?

Yes. My father is a wonderful example of a “natural” player. However, most keyboardists who play with a natural-looking ease and outstanding coordination were taught at some point, although they themselves may not even remember that they were taught the principles of good coordination as children.

 


 

How long does it take to acquire well-coordinated, injury-preventive technique in the Lister-Sink Method?

That depends on how entrenched your old neuromuscular program is. Very old habits of piano, organ or keyboard playing take longer to change. Initially, it usually takes several weeks of hands-on instruction from a certified teacher to train the fundamental coordination of sound production—the “Basic Stroke.” The training includes 1) identifying chronic muscle tension and potentially harmful patterns of tension, first throughout the whole body, and then in the arms, hands and fingers; 2) acquiring musculoskeletal awareness and control; and 3) “reprogramming” new coordinations into the body and brain (the new neuromuscular program).

Laying a solid foundation of kinesthetic awareness, muscle control and optimal skeletal alignment is critical. Constant monitoring by a qualified instructor is essential. Ideally, the initial training occurs in an intensive, hands-on workshop or almost daily short sessions so that the student is constantly monitored and only allowed to use the new coordinations.

After the initial work on the Basic Stroke, training can continue in a number of ways until the new neuromuscular program of coordination is “downloaded” into the brain and body and the keyboardist is confident in the new coordinations. Bi- or tri-weekly training periods are most effective at this stage.

Usually, after the initial foundational work is completed, the keyboardist and instructor work out a mutually agreeable schedule of instruction until the keyboardist is able to work more independently. If the keyboardist does not live near the instructor, webcam lessons can be useful despite the limitations.

As noted earlier, the fact that a movement appears right visually does not mean that the underlying coordination is really happening. However, to a trained eye, a video can often reveal misalignment and unnecessary or inappropriate muscle use, both in the arms and hands, as well as in the whole body.

 


 

Would Alexander Technique lessons alone teach me how to play the piano or organ with good coordination?

Probably not. Alexander Technique training teaches general principles of overall body use and balance. It is an intrinsic part of the Lister-Sink Method. Studying with a certified Alexander Technique instructor will certainly bring much greater kinesthetic awareness, ease and freedom to your playing. However, that alone will not suffice because Alexander Technique does not deal with the very specific, subtle and complex coordinations of playing a keyboard instrument.

I should add that I am also a champion of the Feldenkrais Method for body re-education, although I do not have an instructor here in North Carolina where I regularly train. It can have some of the same benefits for overall body use.

 


 

In retraining, how long does it take to return to the old level of repertory?

This can vary considerably. On average, however, it takes about six months if the instruction is regular and each step is mastered. Some players move through each step more quickly, others with more entrenched mal-coordination require longer and more rigorous monitoring.

 


 

Can I continue with my regular teacher after a retraining workshop with Lister-Sink?

Certainly you can. However, it is best if you and your teacher can allow the necessary time to absorb new habits and coordinations (your new neuromuscular program) and to master each level of coordination. Preparing a recital program or audition while retraining is not advised. The new habits take time to become automatic. In the beginning of retraining, you are completely absorbed in developing your kinesthetic awareness to monitor and control what your body is doing each step of the way. You need to give all of your attention to changing your fundamental habits. Focusing on learning lots of notes and musical interpretation will distract you from making those important changes in your body use at the piano.

Once these new patterns of coordination have become more automatic, you can safely return to the multi-tasking activity of making music. Of course, good coordination needs to be applied systematically to learning new pieces. Performance deadlines, prematurely challenging pieces, or pressure to learn quickly in the initial stages of retraining will tend to delay if not halt your progress.

 


 

What if my teacher does not agree with this technical approach or my new way of playing?

Before retraining any keyboardist, I either consult with the teacher or require that the teacher be informed and supportive of the training. Quite often, the teacher will accompany a younger student and observe or go through the Lister-Sink Method herself. Furthermore, the Lister-Sink Method is based on principles of informed pedagogy and sound biomechanics—optimal skeletal alignment, efficient muscle use and the non-accumulation of tension. It would be difficult to disagree with sound biomechanics. The actual steps I use for arriving at well-coordinated, injury-preventive technique—the Lister-Sink Method—are already outlined in detail in the video/DVD Freeing the Caged Bird. Although they are based on principles of neuromuscular programming, some teachers might consider the steps radical or unusually fundamental. Few, however, dislike the resulting freedom and good coordination they observe in their retrained student.

However, a teacher might ultimately advocate using more arm and hand gestures or torso movement than I do. You can adapt your new-found muscle control and principles of sound biomechanics to movement patterns your teacher might want. However, in the rare case where you are actually required to play in a potentially injurious way, or are pushed to progress at a rate more rapid than you can safely accomplish, then you might have to decide on a change. In my experience of retraining hundreds of keyboardists, this happens infrequently.

 


 

If I am injured, is it advisable to attend a retraining workshop?

That depends on the nature and extent of the injury. If it is a playing-related problem such as tendonitis, muscle strain or carpal tunnel syndrome, it is best to speak with your health care professional about the wisdom of any activity involving the injured area. In many cases, retraining in the fundamental stages (reducing stress on the injured area, release of chronic muscle tension, and moving into a more neutral and balanced alignment) will help the healing process. In all cases, I arrive at an appropriate plan for retraining after lengthy discussion with you and your teacher (if you have one) in consultation with your health-care providers.

 


 

Where can I find an instructor qualified to teach the Lister-Sink Method?

Visit the Training section of the website for a list of fully certified instructors, teachers-in-training, and non-certified teachers who are qualified to teach a modified version of the Lister-Sink Method.

 


 

How can I become certified to teach the Lister-Sink Method?

The Lister-Sink Method is a research-validated, scientifically-informed method that was developed by Dr. Lister-Sink over a period of 20 years to teach pianists or organists core principles of good biomechanics at the keyboard, ultimately serving the needs of the music and leading to compelling performance. In order to achieve consistently such a demanding goal and become certified, a Lister-Sink Method instructor must undergo a rigorous academic training process involving graduate-level study in a number of ancillary disciplines (biomechanics, anatomy, neuropedagogy, cognitive embodiment—including the Alexander Technique, transformative learning theory, educational psychology, sports pedagogy), as well as intensive study in the history of keyboard technique, injury-preventive keyboard pedagogy, playing-related neuromusculoskeletal disorders (risk factors and treatments), and, most importantly, performance on the highest levels of musical artistry.

Therefore, certification in the Lister-Sink Method requires successfully completing a series of rigorous training steps as follows:

Step 1: Attend as a student one Intensive Technique Training Workshop.

Step 2: Complete the Certificate Program in Injury-Preventive Keyboard Technique through Salem College, Winston-Salem, NC (on-site or hybrid form – 2-3 semesters, Graduate or Undergraduate level) with distinction

Step 3: As a component of the pedagogy course in the Certificate Program and/or Master’s degree program, function as an assistant student instructor with new students in the Certificate Program

Step 4: Assist as Student Instructor in at least 4 Intensive Technique Training workshops

Step 5: Complete with distinction a specified number of hours of Lister-Sink Method activities including supervised instruction, observation of certified Lister-Sink Method instructors, observation of Dr. Lister-Sink teaching, giving workshops, performing, etc.

(Work in the Salem College Certificate Program, the Master’s degree, and the Intensive Training workshops are counted in these required hours for certification.)

Step 6: Once certified, continue to re-certify by observing or assisting with Intensive Workshops, submitting video recordings of teaching and performing, attending Certified Lister-Sink Method Instructor Updates sessions.