Can a machine help you relax when you play?

Recently I sat down with the delightful Dr. Rob Watson, professor of piano at Cal State Fullerton and director of the CSUF Smart Applied Music Studio. He explained the new machine that Fullerton had just acquired, a sort of combination of a digital grand piano, a PC, a video camera and an electromyograph (which measures muscle tension electronically). I would be hooked up with sensors on my shoulders and my lower arms, and the machine would measure my muscle tension as I played.

The red (upper) lines in the graphs measure the tension in my left and right arms, and the blue (lower) lines measure the tension in my left and right shoulders. You can play back the video, and the audio plays back in sync with the video, so, theoretically, you can find the exact place where tension occurs.

As you can see, my shoulders (represented by the blue lines) are pretty relaxed. Rob noticed, however, that there were a few places where my right shoulder tensed up. He wondered whether that correlated with the video evidence that my head was a bit far forward over my shoulders; this could create tension. I tried to balance my head a bit better, that is, move it over my shoulders rather than slinking as I normally do, and the reading was a little lower.

Next I suggested to Rob that I try to form a sort of “biofeedback loop” and WATCH the graph as I played. The result is below.

Notice here that I have made a real attempt to correct my head position, making sure my ears are over my shoulders. AND I’m watching the graphs as I’m playing. Pretty amazing result. Shoulder tension has been reduced almost to zero, and my arm tension is lessened as well.

I tried to keep a cupped hand whenever possible, letting the hand and arm, instead of the finger, reach for the note. Tried to make it all feel a little floppy. Bingo!

A few minutes a few times a week on this machine, and I think I’d play a lot better.

Kathleen Riley, one of the software developers of this system, hooked up the great pianist Garrick Ohlsson. He got the best relaxation reading of anyone who’s tried this machine.

But why are my shoulders tense as I’m typing? Hmm. Maybe I need to buy one of these things. Anyone got 50 grand lying around? Take credit cards?

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