Promoting Self-Awareness to Reduce the Risk of Injury

Paola Savvidou
Jordan Yount
News Source: 
College of Arts & Science

There are a lot of occupations that are inherently at risk for injuries, such as farming or firefighting or construction. But unless you are a musician, you probably don’t consider being a pianist a profession that entails much risk of injury. Paola Savvidou, an assistant professor of piano pedagogy at MU, says there is actually a very high risk of physical injury to pianists. Savvidou’s e-Journal article, “Assessing Injury Risk in Pianists: Using Objective Measures to Promote Self-awareness,” has been named the 2016 Article of the Year by the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA).

 Savvidou says the field of performing arts medicine has its roots in the 1980s, when researchers started studying musicians who played for hours every day. She says researchers initially focused on orchestral musicians, exploring how many had been injured or had experienced injuries in the past. Additional studies looked at the most-common injuries sustained by pianists and found the vast majority of pianists experience injuries related to practicing and performing.

“The most-common injury is a musculoskeletal injury—like tendinitis, tennis elbow, or pain in the forearm,” Savvidou says. “Nerve entrapments are the second most-common injury—like carpal tunnel. The third is focal dystonia, which means abnormal muscle tone in a certain muscle group. In our case it’s the fourth and fifth fingers, which get stuck in a curled position.”

She says researchers know what causes most of the injuries—misuse, overuse, and abuse of the body, and therefore can do something to prevent these injuries, which is the focus of her recent research and the topic of her award-winning article. Savvidou teamed up with Lapierre Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Marjorie Skubic, Brad Willis, a professor of physical therapy, and Mengyuan Li, recent graduate of the Engineering program, to study the posture and hand positions of 15 participants in their study. The team secured a Mizzou Advantage grant to fund their research, which involved placing cameras that recorded piano players from above and from the side. Each participant played the same piece, and then Savvidou went through the recordings frame-by-frame to determine whether or not they were using proper form—rounded hand position, fingertips in contact with the keys, and a neutral (neither flexed nor extended) wrist position.

Savvidou says her dream would be to develop an application for smartphones that could record the hand positions of a pianist and then use algorithms to analyze those positions to determine whether proper form was being used.

“Right now there is nothing on the market like that, but what we can do as piano teachers is to use the information we found in our study—students who had the least amount of injury were those who spent the most time in the neutral position,” Savvidou says. “So that’s information we can use to promote self-awareness, which means helping the students understand what they are doing at the keyboard that could potentially be harmful.”

Savvidou says she would like to create a screening tool for incoming freshmen to help them assess their potential risk of injury. She says she has had several freshmen who came to MU with poor habits and began to experience pain. “If we have an objective system that says ‘You are at 30% risk for injury,’ I think that would save them a lot of time and potential pain,” she says.

This marks the second year in a row Savvidou’s work has been named “article of the year” by the MTNA. Her article, “In Search of the ‘Perfect’ Musical Performance,” was named the 2015 article of the year by the organization’s The American Music Teacher magazine. 

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