Physical Aspects of Performing


Investigating Breathing Patterns

Over the last fifty years, researchers have taken an interest in the breathing of different musicians, but little is known about the breathing patterns of pianists. A first study investigated whether a relationship exists between pianists' respiratory cycles and the movements they make when playing. The results showed that breathing rate increased significantly when pianists were performing, compared to breathing rate at rest. Surprisingly, however, results did not confirm a significant increase of breathing rate during the performance of the exercises across different tempi, even though the speeds at which the pianists played were purposely chosen to force extreme performance conditions—from very slow to very fast (Nassrallah, 2010).

A second study explored the coordinative relations of breathing with three different finger-movement markers (pitch, meter, and thumb passage) to study the extent to which different musical elements such as tempo, meter, rhythm, accented notes, melodic complexity and phrasing exert an influence on breathing Analysis showed that the breathing varied between participants, but in most cases no coordination or relation occurred between breathing and finger movement. These studies are contributing to a better understanding of the physiological dimensions of piano performance and are establishing a new methodology to measure the respiration of pianists during a performance (Nassrallah, Comeau, Russell, & Cossette, 2013).

Describing Piano Technique

Despite the many contributions from pedagogues and scholars towards developing a better understanding of piano technique, language issues have often caused more confusion than clarity. This study identified the main sources of semantic confusion in the use of language: inconsistent and inaccurate use of terms; wavering between scientific, common, and invented language; challenges in describing opposing qualities that come from tension and relaxation; and failing to discern between the individual subjective experience and the mechanics of movement. By recognizing where the problems in language are, this study represents an important first step for researchers and pedagogues to reach a common understanding of the language used to describe the physical aspects of piano technique (Wheatley-Brown, 2011).

Following this first study, we looked more closely at the meaning and management of tension in current pedagogical approaches. The language used to define and describe the positive and negative role of tension was collected from five pedagogues who have developed approaches that reflect current trends in piano technique. The data was analyzed by examining both the meaning and management of tension in each approach. This study showed that the authors view tension very differently—either as an impediment to motion, and thus a quality that must be corrected—or as an essential component of control and activity, and thus a quality that must be carefully harnessed and managed. By recognizing where the problems in the varied meanings and management of tension exist, this study brings more clarity to how we teach the role and management of tension in piano technique (Wheatley-Brown, Comeau, & Russell, 2013).

Evaluating Somatic Training

There is a growing popularity among musicians to turn to somatic approaches such as the Alexander technique, Body Mapping and the Feldenkrais method to improve posture and movement at the instrument to avoid injuries and to produce better tone quality. However, there is little scientific and objective data to support the changes that are apparently seen and heard in the performer after engaging in any of these somatic training methods. This study examined if a single somatic session had an immediate, perceivable effect on pianists’ body usage and musical quality. Results indicated that there are perceivable changes in body usage and musical quality although those differences are not as apparent or easily detectable as is often believed. The findings also suggested that it is easier to identify post-somatic performances through body usage than musical quality (Wong, 2015).

Measuring the Impact of Feldenkrais Training

Researchers wishing to assess the extent of somatic therapy face a shortage of reliable measurement tools. This research investigated motion-tracking technologies as a means to objectively assess the impact of Feldenkrais training on pianist posture. Dartfish 2D motion-tracking software was used to track head, shoulder, and spine positions of pianists as they performed at the piano after receiving a Feldenkrais Functional Integration Lesson. Comparisons of pre- and post-test measurements indicate no group trends in posture change. However, intriguing changes to movement quality in the head and torso were observable for two participants (Beacon, 2015).

Future Project: Most of the case studies examining the impact of somatic training tend to contain only subjective impressions from practitioners and students and do not incorporate objectively measured data. As part of a mixed-method research project, we are considering using Dartfish in a series of case studies that would follow individual pianists during long-term participation in somatic training by tracking measurements of body positioning alongside practitioner and participant reports of personal experiences.