Exclusive Interview with Erwin Schoonderwaldt (Part 1)



An Interview with Dr. Erwin Schoonderwaldt

In September 2011, I had the opportunity to visit the University of Music and Drama, Institute of Music Physiology and Musicians’ Medicine in Hanover, Germany. I went there to meet with Dr. Erwin Schonderwaldt, who I had read a lot about and had personally corresponded with regarding the cutting edge string research he was conducting.

The Institute of Music Physiology and Musicians’ Medicine is a unique institution whose scope includes, as its name suggests, teaching the basics of music physiology and musicians’ medicine. The Institute also investigates the physiological and neurobiological aspects of professional music performance and music perception. Furthermore, it explores the causes of occupational injuries common for musicians and provides resources for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of such injuries.

All first-year students at the music school are required to take a course in physiology and biomechanics taught by professors or researchers at the Institute. The courses help the students understand fundamental principles of movement and how to use the body, arms, hands and fingers in the most natural way. Additionally, all music students at the University have free access to Institute doctors whenever they develop problems or pain associated with playing their instruments. This aspect of music education is vital, and I sincerely hope that this model will be recreated both here in the United States and in other schools around the world.

Hans Jørgen Jensen

Schoon 1

STRING VISIONS

How did you become interested in the kinesiology of violin playing?

ERWIN SCHOONDERWALDT

Well, I have been playing the violin since I was eight years old, and it has always been a very important part of my life. I started playing in a youth orchestra when I was eleven and studied in the preparatory school at the conservatory in Alkmaar, Holland. The idea of studying music always interested me, but it never really worked out. Instead, I chose to study physics, which I both enjoyed and excelled at in school.

STRING VISIONS

Where did you study?

ERWIN SCHOONDERWALDT

At the University of Amsterdam. I liked my time as a student. In the meanwhile, I kept my interest for music and violin playing alive and participated actively in several student orchestras.

STRING VISIONS

Why did you ultimately choose to become a researcher?

ERWIN SCHOONDERWALDT

After I finished my undergrad, a good friend of mine in one of the orchestras I played in who worked in the field of music psychology told me about a one-year research position where I could do music-related research. The job was a collaboration between this Music, Mind and Machine Group, who specialized in rhythm perception and other elements of music cognition and ran a research group in Human Movement Sciences, or kinesiology if you like. My job was to analyze the vibrato of cellists. Researchers usually study vibrato technique by analyzing the sounds produced, but I was looking at the physical movements themselves. This was my first exposure to motion capture applied to music.

STRING VISIONS

So how did you end up in Stockholm?

ERWIN SCHOONDERWALDT

At the end of that year I was not sure if I wanted to continue with music research, but then I met some people from Stockholm at a conference who invited me to visit their music acoustics group as part of a European exchange program. I accepted the invitation and eventually undertook my PhD there

STRING VISIONS

But you said you were about to quit music?

ERWIN SCHOONDERWALDT

The thing is, I was very interested in the stuff I was doing in that first job I had. During that year, I became fascinated by motion capture. I saw that there was a huge potential in the technology that could help us understand musicianship in a very different way. You can reveal a lot of amazing details using these techniques that the human eye or ear could simply never catch. I began to imagine myself having my own lab, a motion capture lab dedicated to studying the human movement science of musicians.

STRING VISIONS

And now you have it and you’re proud of it. How did you end up here in Hanover?

ERWIN SCHOONDERWALDT

When I had finished my PhD, I found myself at another crossing point. I wanted to continue my PhD research, to bring it at a higher level. I realized there was so much potential in motion capture technology, for example for music pedagogical applications. The problem was that finding funding is very difficult, especially for this type of interdisciplinary research. Fortunately though, I was rewarded an Alexander von Humboldt scholarship, which allowed me to do research here in Hanover at the Institute of Music Physiology and Musicians’ Medicine. This is an excellent, well-known research institute, and it benefits me even more so since it is part of the music conservatory of Hanover.

IMMM Hannover

IMMM Hannover

STRING VISIONS

What happens at the institute on a daily basis, and how does it benefit the conservatory?

ERWIN SCHOONDERWALDT

Well, the institute is a very interesting place, because it is both a medical institute and a research institute. We have a very clear medical orientation, with patients coming from all over the world looking for treatment of various movement disorders. The Institute is particularly well known for its work with focal dystonia, on which Professor Altenmüller is one of the world’s leading experts. There are three main pillars in the institute: one is the medical clinic, which treats students, faculty and other musicians for physical injuries and psychological issues such as stage fright; another is research, which covers learning about medical afflictions that commonly affect musicians, what causes them and how they can be cured; and finally there is teaching, which includes mandatory courses in which students learn about music physiology and psychology. The teaching aspect really benefits the conservatory, because the students gain not only a working knowledge of how the body and brain work while playing an instrument, but also practical insights such as information about practicing. Using research, we can teach the students things like when to take breaks to maximize retention, or how much they can repeat a certain passage before hitting a point of diminishing returns.

STRING VISIONS

That’s really a fantastic collaboration. Do you think this helps students, especially the younger ones, with injury prevention?

ERWIN SCHOONDERWALDT

Definitely. There are two really important benefits to this approach. The first is that they are getting all of the information on what causes injuries and how they can prevent it. The second is that they learn that these kinds of problems are common for many musicians, and that there is no shame in seeking help. These classes can help students learn to identify the warning signs of injuries and teach them where they can go to seek help.

STRING VISIONS

Dr. Altenmüller has said that he hopes he will have less and less patients in  the future as injury prevention science improves. Like dentists of the past, when they put fluoride in the water, then fewer and fewer younger people had dental problems.

ERWIN SCHOONDERWALDT

Our mission statement is to make ourselves unnecessary.

STRING VISIONS

Today in your lab you showed me a seven-camera motion capture system that you are currently installing. What are you planning to study with this setup?

ERWIN SCHOONDERWALDT

One of the main goals of the programs associated with the fellowship I have—a two-year fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation—is to look into how complex movements are learned. I want to look into the process of motor learning, to gain a deeper understanding of how players develop complex skills. Most of this kind of research with motion capture in music, however, has concentrated on only expert performers. We do this because we want to learn to emulate the best, most efficient playing, but now I want to measure and look at what these kinds of movements are more broadly.

STRING VISIONS

So you will use a wide spectrum of musicians, both students and professionals, to understand how players develop from imperfect movement to the polished technique of an expert?

ERWIN SCHOONDERWALDT

Yes, exactly. I want to do an experiment with three groups, which might also be subdivided in subgroups. One would be a pre-conservatory group with mostly young people who have the potential to later pursue a conservatory education. Then, I would have a group of music students, probably a very heterogeneous group. And then I would have a group of very advanced, expert players. The research will focus on finding the differences between these three groups and examine how the less proficient groups acquire more advanced skills.

STRING VISIONS

That sounds absolutely fascinating, and I can’t wait to see some of the results that you will come up with. This kind of technology can only enhance our understanding of all of these issues, and hopefully will help us learn how to play in a more efficient and correct way—although, as both you and I have said, there is a lot of personal variance in all of this. 




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  1. Classical MoCap Part 1: Intro to Motion Capture - September 29, 2014

    […] Physiology and Musicians’ Medicine in Hanover, Germany. If you missed it be sure to check out part 1 and part […]

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