A Message from Dr. Barbara Lister-Sink
In 1996, I produced the video Freeing the Caged Bird – Developing Well-Coordinated, Injury-Preventive Piano Technique. I created it in response to my own difficult journey from playing-related injury back to health, to help clear up widespread confusion about technique in the keyboard world, and to give hope to suffering pianists. It has always been my heart’s desire to help put an end to the tragic and unnecessary waste of time, talent and careers worldwide, and to help keyboardists worldwide maximize their own artistry. I also simply love the sound of the piano and wanted to help promote a renewed interest in tone quality and the many colors available to us on the piano.
Playing-Related Disorders – The Challenge
Well-coordinated technique is not a new concept. As Reginald Gerig points out in his magnificent, encyclopedic Famous Pianists & Their Technique, our centuries-old history is replete with pianist/pedagogues who tried to understand and teach principles of good body use. But knowledge of these principles waxed and waned over the centuries. More recently, the field of performing arts medicine and research in injury-preventive technique has blossomed. The music and medical worlds have accelerated their interest in injury-prevention. Our professional organizations and a number of outstanding pedagogues are promoting healthful technique. But, unfortunately, playing-related injury remains persistently high. As of 2017, collective research indicates that approximately 1 in 2 serious pianists will develop a playing-related injury. Discomfort, pain, injury and even the loss of careers continue to plague the keyboard world.
Approximate Injury Rate for Professional Pianists 0
I am convinced that much of this tragic waste of talent, time, effort, and musical joy can be prevented. There is still a great deal of confusion even about the definition of healthful keyboard technique, as well as how to teach it. We are now better able to identity risk factors and the causes of injury. But debilitating injuries such as Tendonitis, Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Hypermobility Syndrome, Focal Dystonia, Tenosynovitis, Dequervain’s Syndrome, and Arthritis continue to plague pianists and organists worldwide.
Just as in the sports world, we now know the principles of good coordination and sound biomechanics in general. But we are not yet adequately applying this to piano technique. We still urgently need to develop a universally acceptable definition of injury-preventive keyboard technique. And we need to develop replicable, effective ways of teaching it.
Accomplishing this requires that we join together to :
1) Define healthful technique as good coordination of the whole body with the piano;
2) Define, educate, and disseminate the principles of good coordination and sound biomechanics;
3) Develop efficient, hands-on methods for teaching these principles to keyboardists of all ages.
Such a task needs to be organized on a global scale. Researchers in the music-medicine field need to partner with teachers who are known to have successfully promoted healthful technique. Professional organizations need to take leadership roles and work indefatigably to educate and disseminate accurate, science-based information about good biomechanics. This is mandated in the sports world. Not to take collective professional responsibility for this challenge is to perpetuate confusion, ignorance and the almost inevitable potential for physical harm and professional discouragement to our young musicians. And misguided fear that collective technical agreement might limit our individuality as artists should be put to rest, once and for all. Technique is the very foundation for our music-making. But our full and unique artistry cannot take flight within the cage of physical impediments.
Put simply, healthful technique is the best coordination of the whole body with the instrument, in service to the requirements of the music. This technique is based on several key principles of good coordination that we can learn from the athletic world:
- Efficient muscle use
- Optimal skeletal alignment
- Non-accumulation of tension, or unnecessary muscle contraction
But piano technique is not just about movement. It is about our overall alignment and the state of our muscles—the relative degree of contraction or release, and the ability both to sense and to control those things continually while playing.
These principles sound pretty simple. But learning them takes some sort of step-by-step, hands-on, systematic approach—from the simplest coordinations and most fundamental levels of sound production, to the most complex kinetic patterns. Also, well-coordinated piano technique is a neuromuscular program that must be layered, one step at a time, to be thoroughly learned.
Teaching Healthful Technique
If you are child, this is not such a challenge. The muscles are still supple, the spine can easily recover its natural alignment, and good habits are easier to build. Healthful piano technique can be learned from the beginning with the very first sound. But for older keyboardists who have played for some time, all sorts of inefficient and even harmful habits may have crept into our playing. Then retraining is necessary, from the simplest to the most complex coordinations and repertory.
Since the video Freeing the Caged Bird was released, I have been fine-tuning my own particular sequenced approach to teaching well-coordinated, injury-preventive keyboard technique. I call it, not surprisingly, the Lister-Sink Method. On this website, you can read about it and also see various updated video examples of the technical and, most importantly, musical results on a variety of levels.
The exciting news is that we have also developed a comprehensive program of study at Salem College—including a Certificate Program and Master’s of Music in Performance and Pedagogy with an Emphasis in Injury-Preventive Technique for pianists and organists here in Winston-Salem. It is for keyboardists from all over the world who want to develop a solid technique and make the most of their musicianship. Some are professional teachers and performers, many have playing-related injuries, and some are students between degrees. They all gather for a week, a month or a year or more to learn together in a joyous, supportive environment in the beautiful foothills of North Carolina.
Compelling Music-Making Our Goal
Finally, as a performing musician, I believe it is essential to add that piano technique, however well-coordinated and injury-free, is not an end in itself. It is, most importantly, the means to greater artistry, allowing us to be fully available to listen, to control what we do at the keyboard, and to develop our full potential as musicians.
After you have explored the Lister-Sink Institute website, please feel free to contact us if you have further questions. I am delighted to say that I have thoroughly enjoyed spending most of my music career helping other pianists and organists experience the joy I do in making music. Thank you for your interest and all best wishes to you for a lifetime of inspired and inspiring—and injury-free–music making.