On Barbara Lister-Sink’s recent trip to Lincoln as Guest Clinician for the Nebraska Music Teachers’ Association (NMTA) 2011 Conference, October 13-14, she spoke with this Examiner about her work of teaching injury-preventive keyboard technique. Lister-Sink has given numerous presentations for national and international music organizations, and at the NMTA conference, she gave three sessions on the subject.
At the Conference
Of course, she was speaking about what she loves. As Lister-Sink said about her work, “the driving force is that I want people to be available to make fabulous music. I’m not a doctor or a physical therapist, although I embrace aspects of all those things in order to train teachers and musicians, so that we can unite to make beautiful music.”
In order to be free to make music, Lister-Sink primarily covers “the roots and casues of discomfort, pain, and injury in playing the piano.” She said that she also tries to impart “the urgent need for all of us to work together to find common language and common core principles of good body use.” She defines technique as “the best coordination of the whole body, directed by the brain.”
Lister-Sink draws attention to the fact that the music-making involves a relationship between the body and the instrument, “I’m like a marriage counselor. There’s an ergonomic relationship going on and you have to understand the body, muscles, how they work, and how the piano works.” In the end, you discover the most efficient way to produce sound. “Once you understand these core principles, I teach how to embody them, to use sensory information, and know the various muscle groups, where they are, and what they feel like.”
Another analogy she drew was that of an energy conservationist; “it’s like going into someone’s house to do an energy check.” To help do her energy checks, on Thursday at the conference, Lister-Sink “did something about the medial deltoid because, for whatever reason, we’ve modeled our teachers or nobody’s told us not to, and we hike out the upper arm, demobilizing the shoulder joint.” The goal, she said is to allow the joints “to move easily and subtly at the piano.”
One of Lister-Sink’s goals is “getting a language that is useful and factual.” She is continually fact-checking with physical therapists and biomechanics experts as well as going back to school to combine the study of neuroscience and pedagogy. One way to describe the goal of her methodology of teaching is that there must be an understanding of “what the fundamental sensations are of sound production. Sort of like learning the primary colors, but by the time you get to a Chopin Etude, you’re mixing, and you don’t even see the primary colors anymore, but it’s all in a mix that works.”
By knowing how the body works and using it properly, Lister-Sink says she “can be more fully available to listen, the musician’s primary duty, to see whether my concept is actually being produced acoustically. If I’m all bound up in motion, too much muscle tension, I may distract myself to think I’m being musical, but am I really doing what I think I’m doing?” She encourages pianists to record themselves and listen to whether they are producing the sound they want and creating a musical aural experience.
These aural experiences that music should create can be compared to “listening to a story on the radio” which “puts it deeply inside a part of your brain” versus watching the same story on TV, which “is a different experience because there are other things lighting up your brain, it’s neuroscience, really. I think there’s a profound experience just listening. The great late Rubinstein, and Horowitz, if you look at them on youtube, you see pianists really listening, you can see it in their face, really listening, and then controlling the sound so they can do with it what they want. It’s hard for young people to model after it now because there’s not a lot of it around still. I’m trying to empower people to know what they’re doing ‘freeing the caged bird’ of their artistry.”
When asked what first got her interested in “empowering” people, Lister-Sink replied that the first transformative experience was her own injury at the age of 16, “that was a wake-up call. I didn’t know that was possible, and it continued to be a mystery. Nobody really knew what I had; there was a lot of misdiagnosis. In those decades, there were also injuries of choice, lots of pianists in the 70s were getting a nerve clipped in the thumb!”
In Holland, Lister-Sink had a “Eureka! experience” when she found a great teacher who told her to “be aware of what you’re doing: you have to be aware of what state your muscles are in.” By teaching Lister-Sink virtuosic technique that involved impulse techniques and fragment work, she was able to play the big repertoire without the pain that she used to experience when playing it. But the pain returned a few years later when she was back in America and she went back to Holland to try to find some answers. There she found a physical therapist who did something no one else had ever done: “She made me sit down at a piano and observed as I played. She said, ‘you’re back is bowed, you’re hyper-extended, and you’ve cut of circulation with your alignment of your arm, and you’re lymphatic system’s clogged.’ Suddenly, it was like ‘oh! The rest of the body, not just my arms and fingers!’ Your spine matters, the control center is the brain, and communicates through the spine.”
Lister-Sink, continually fact-checking and learning more, is helping to empower teachers and future musicians through her injury-preventive techniques, and Lincoln teachers learned a lot from her this past week about “freeing the caged bird”—allowing the freedom to create music!
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