Crafting the Well-Tempered-Pianist :Introducing the Taubman Approach

Crafting The Well-Tempered Pianist: Introducing the Taubman Approach

While conducting research into my continuous passion — piano playing in general and how to improve my technique in particular — I was surprised to find a recently published book that claims to address piano pedagogy, yet fails to acknowledge some of the most widely discussed developments this field has to offer.

Internet and library searches on the subject have resulted in lots of different leads, often offering random discussions, very personal and vague observations, and a multitude of contradicting and confusing information. There doesn’t even seem to be a clear definition of what piano technique is, let alone what it should accomplish, and why it has divided the world of pianists and teachers into warring factions. It appears that in this minefield of theories no two approaches are the same, and wide discrepancies are almost impossible to overcome.

A lot of what is coined ‘general knowledge’ consists of old and mostly unexamined material that has found its way from one generation and teacher to the next generation of easily impressed students. As children, most pianists have had some of those bigger than life figures guiding our naïve curiosity and innocent love for the piano, and we carry the experiences of that relationship — good and bad — with us for the rest of our lives.

Without a doubt, the role of the piano teacher is a special one, and with it comes an endless array of opportunities that a good or not-so-good pedagogue can use to either empower or damage a student. Sure, many teachers who allow their students to explore their inner voice in following the great masters, and in so doing really teach them what music is all about, exist.

But who has not heard about a teacher who has been too strict, taking all the fun out of the equation, making the student want to quit? And what about those almost angelic teachers, always patient and (literally) holding their students’ hands?

Then there are teachers who take pride in an historic link between a young aspiring performer and the great traditions of the piano masters. How many times have we heard something like: “She was a pupil of that distinguished teacher, who goes back to Liszt himself.” But does this really help the piano student in acquiring better tools for his or her own playing, or does it just inflate a student’s self-confidence? How useful is it to legitimize one’s own talent through that of one’s teacher’s teachers?

The truth is that unless their teaching methods are rock solid, big name teachers do not automatically create great students; nor does the fact that they themselves play or perform well automatically make them interested in and knowledgeable about the difficulties and very specific needs of a student. One might argue that a pedagogue with less name recognition but more insight might prove to be the better choice for a piano student.

Golandsky would keep working with Taubman for the next 25 years, during which time the two women founded the Taubman Institute. Deciding to make Taubman’s approach to the piano her life’s work, Golandsky later started her own organization, the Golandsky Institute, with co-founders John Bloomfield, Robert Durso, and Mary Moran.


The Challenge: Finding the Boundaries of What Works and What Doesn’t

The genius of Dorothy Taubman is that she not only understood the source of pianists’ problems but also developed a pedagogically sound approach to systematically retrain movements for an efficient technique. It is about complexity that results in simplicity. — Edna Golandsky

Dorothy Taubman, Edna Golandsky

According to Golandsky, the bottom line of Taubman’s approach is getting the pianist out of pain and removing limitations. “Since certain physiological principles pertaining to motion are rational and known to work, anything we do at the piano has to be in accordance with that,” Golandsky says, opening the treasure chest of her wisdom and expertise as she lays out the ground rules of the method she has been using successfully for many years.

Rule #1: Isolating limb parts from each other, such as the fingers, hands, etc., is one of the main reasons for pain. It is something that should be avoided. The opposite of isolation in this case would be alignment. Skeletal body alignment is essential for our health — a fact that has been emphasized by many other disciplines, such as Feldenkrais, the Alexander Technique, etc. But these disciplines do not go far enough when it comes to playing an instrument.

Our investigation should start with the parts of the body directly involved with playing the piano — let’s call it “the playing apparatus.” First there are the fingers, which are the only limb parts actually touching and playing the keys. Then there is the hand, which is directly connected to the fingers, and the forearm, which connects to the arm.

We can define coordination as “bringing parts of a whole into order.” The fingers, hand, and arm must always be connected to each other in their natural alignment to achieve unified movement.

To maintain natural alignment, we have to determine the position of the knuckles. High knuckles make it difficult for the fingers to move fast. This position brings the fingers to an extreme range of motion. By pulling the knuckles up, the fingers are limited in their ability to open. The result is a break in alignment.

Bench height is also determined by the need of the playing apparatus to be unified. Sitting too high or too low will adversely affect coordination. The length of the upper arm should determine where we sit. In order to achieve proper balance on the keyboard, the elbow needs to be more or less level with the top surface of the white keys. So, if the upper arm is long, we have to sit a bit higher; if the upper arm is short, we would sit a bit lower.

The Pianist and the Law of Motion

Correct motion is essential in keeping us aligned, and it allows us to move with the greatest ease and speed possible. Our joints are the stable points from which limb parts move; they function as fulcrums. When the knuckles are too low or collapsed, it is difficult for the fingers to move. The wrong muscles are activated to make up for faulty positions, e.g. the muscles in the back might become involved when there is a collapse in the knuckles. The same goes for the wrist. Yet when these fulcrums (joints) are in the right place, it is possible for the entire apparatus to move freely, quickly, and in an uninhibited manner.

If proper alignment of the playing apparatus is to be kept throughout the playing, the fingers, hand, and forearm must move together in the same direction, with the same speed, and at the same time.

One might argue that a child prodigy follows all these principles quite naturally, and conclude that this ‘natural’ use, which neither requires conscious thought nor analysis, proves that an efficient technique cannot be a question of muscle training as such.

The good news is that people who don’t grow up as prodigies can be trained to have a technique that is just as free and effortless. It is a question of training with the right motions, under the supervision of an expert teacher. While the Darwinians among us might argue that all talent is God-given and therefore unchangeable, most others would claim that artistic competence and humility is what makes a truly great artist.

There is no reason why a pianist, once he or she has completed their course of study, should not engage in further learning. In no discipline is an artist considered accomplished in a static, ‘once and for all’ way, but his or her ongoing growth, as a human and an artist, is what engages us and makes us respect the artist.

Says Edna Golandsky: “In the last decades, a few prominent pianists, like Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman, have been open about the injuries they have suffered. Such admissions did not just surface recently.” And the pianist Paderewski writes: “I had become used to the constant and terrifying pain in my arm, and I had also learned to play with four fingers of my right hand only, and to adjust my will and nerves to the ordeal … I felt, as did my physicians, that I might never play again.”

Several of Rachmaninoff’s letters are also revealing: “I am very tired and my hands hurt. Every extra hand movement tires me.” And: “My concert season has ended, and it is as if my hands have lost feeling. … The more I get tired, the more pain I have.”

Golandsky follows:

Clearly, our field has faced a problem of epidemic proportions for more than a century. We should, once and for all, realize that when we don’t adhere to certain physiological laws, obey certain laws of motion, and have an awareness of how the piano works, there is a tremendous cost to the body. These laws are universal: they are based on the way the human body is built and moves, and the way the piano functions. If we don’t learn what it means to move in a healthy, coordinate way, it will be impossible to avoid the physically disabling and psychological devastating results that afflicted so many of our pianistic forebears, and that continue to afflict many pianists and other instrumentalists currently. And we do have the tools, the technique and the knowledge available.

In short, piano playing shouldn’t be, and doesn’t have to be painful, but a real pleasure. Is this a vision of something too good to be true? Or is it a reality that can be created with the right tools and knowledge?In future articles in this series pianists of all levels speak about their experiences with the Taubman approach and its continuous impact, and we will look at some success stories from the Golandsky Institute.

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17 thoughts on “Crafting the Well-Tempered-Pianist :Introducing the Taubman Approach”

  1. 1 – Ravel22
    Dec 19, 2009 at 7:36 pm
    fascinating, valid, well-written. however, I always feel that there isn’t just “one” technique, but techniques plural, as varied as the number of individual pianists in the world PLUS the staggering variety of music styles and pieces. injury-free playing is of obvious importance, but so is a deep inner understanding not “only” of the playing apparatus, but the music itself.
    2 – howardws
    Dec 19, 2009 at 8:04 pm
    Thanks for a great article Ilona!
    3 – deldell
    Dec 19, 2009 at 11:49 pm
    Very well written and convincing article. It is definitely time for those who study musical performance to benefit from research which will determine how the body functions best in relation to a musical instrument.

    4 – SueP
    Dec 20, 2009 at 6:50 pm
    Really liked the article Ilona. Clearly written and very interesting! Very informative for someone with no background in this – just a love of music.
    5 – MickeyB
    Dec 21, 2009 at 4:15 am
    Excellent article. By the way, it’s not just the pianist that needs to avoid injury. Those of us who sit at a computer keyboard all day can benefit from this method as well.
    6 – Kathy
    Dec 21, 2009 at 3:03 pm
    Interesting and good information.
    7 – Paúl R.
    Dec 22, 2009 at 11:37 am
    Hello, Ilona,
    You have put forth several very astute remarks. But I find it quite unfortunate that you chose Taubman’s approach as the object of your admiration. As much as its proponents talk of freedom from tension and knowledge of physiology (since A. Whiteside), their thinking remains within the paradigm that, historically, has been based on presence of excess tension. Specifically, this approach needs tension to be maintained in the stiffened-up elbow-wrist-palm unit. Resorting to this way of playing seems to help those already hurt – by it’s done just by re-locating their problems and re-arranging their causes – but not addressing them (and creating new ones, meanwhile). The popularity of this approach shows that those affected are tragically desperate.
    8 – Mike B
    Dec 23, 2009 at 5:42 pm
    I would have to disagree strongly with Paul R. I’m my experience of studying the Taubman approach I have never been told anything that could even be interpreted as ‘stiff-wrist.’ The only idea that comes even close is the idea that any motion in the wrist requires coresponding motions in the forearm and finger. Taubman differs from other approaches in its application of the scientific method (not just ideas from science) to make discoveries about piano playing. It is fundamentally incapable of accepting problems in the name of dogma or preconcieved notions of how things ‘should be.’ Perhaps preponents of the work have overzealously tried to persuade others without full mastery of the concepts, but this is a problem with the messanger and not the message.
    9 – Nicole
    Dec 24, 2009 at 6:06 pm
    Very interesting. Thanks for the great read, Ilona. I’m looking forward to your next post.
    10 – Patrick C.
    Dec 25, 2009 at 3:27 pm
    Ilona: wonderful article, and I look forward to reading more.

    In response to Paul R’s, comment, I disagree wholeheartedly and feel that his comments reflect a *profound* lack of knowledge about the Taubman Approach. As someone who has had his career saved by the Taubman Approach and is dedicated to the integrity of the work and its dissemination, I would like to clarify a few points:

    1) The Taubman work, in a nutshell, is based on the idea that there are movements that make playing the piano physically effortless and enable musicians to realize their full potential unencumbered by physical limitation. Conversely, there are movements that make life at the piano difficult and can lead to injury. We obviously opt for the movements that make life easy.

    2) The Taubman work has absolutely nothing to do with a “stiffened-up elbow-wrist-palm unit.” This is a gross and ill-informed misrepresentation.

    3) In working with injured musicians, injuries/problems/limitations are *not* simply “relocated.” Again, it’s quite the opposite of Paul’s statement. The Taubman work identifies the injurious physical habits and *replaces* them with ones that both heal injuries and serve as the foundation of a virtuoso technique.

    4) Equating the work’s popularity with tragic desperation on the part of its enthusiasts is an untenable assertion at best, and logically incoherent at worst. Rather, the vast number of artists that have been helped by the work seems to attest to the work’s efficacy.

    Critical discussion and dissenting opinions should always be encouraged, but only when based on a thorough understanding of the topic at hand backed-up by solid logic and rhetoric.

    As in every discipline, being unaware of what one *doesn’t* know is pure hubris and can never lead to a fruitful discussion.

    11 – Tony Cimino, DMA
    Dec 26, 2009 at 7:22 am

    What a wonderful article. Thank you.

    My love for the piano began before I could walk and although I have a doctorate in Flute Performance, the piano is my first passion. The reasons surrounding this statement would be too lengthy to enter into here.
    My earliest memories are of playing Verdi melodies by ear. It was like magic – put finger to key and sound was created. By the time I was 5 I began in earnest to teach myself to play. We had an extensive record collection and I discovered Glenn Gould, Rubenstein, Horowitz and many others. My parents took me to hear classical performances on a regular basis and I knew this was to be my life’s ambition, to be a musician and performer.
    A great deal of the music I learned was from recordings. Listen. Run to the piano and play.
    Then finally play along with the recording.
    What I was able to teach myself was sufficient to secure a position on the flute/piano faculty of the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music where I have been teaching for the past 17 years.
    Nonetheless, I had hit a wall in what I was able to play and this was so distressful I became despondent. I bought every book I could find on “Piano Technique” and read them all. None made any sense and they all disagreed as to what “piano technique” actually was. Was this such a great mystery?
    Did I desire something that would never be mine?
    And then it happened!
    A colleague at the conservatory mentioned the Taubman Technique; Dorothy Taubman had been her teacher and suggested I attend a seminar.
    I took her advice.
    Best decision I ever made.

    The study of this work has changed my life and my relationship with the piano.
    If you want the piano, this technique will give you the piano.

    Thank God for the genius of Dorothy Taubman and God bless Edna Golandsky for continuing and further developing this invaluable work.
    12 – louise
    Dec 27, 2009 at 11:27 am
    Ilona’s article has sparked a very interesting discussion of the Taubman approach to piano technique. As a certified Taubman teacher I can say that it seems natural that such misunderstandings as those voiced by Paul R could only occur when a pianist has not had the opportunity to experience the myriad of tiny physical motions that are present within the Taubman approach to technique. In many cases this can only be achieved in person, with the careful guidance of an experienced teacher . It is a supremely kinesthetic act to play the piano with the control of minute motions that a unified technique requires. Discussion in words is extremely valuable, but limited in its application to practical expression at the piano. I hope that such an inquiring mind as Paul R. will have the great good fortune of exploring what this Taubman approach is all about with a trained teacher. I would welcome his comments again after such an experience.
    13 – Deborah
    Dec 27, 2009 at 2:33 pm
    Thank you Ilona for such a well written article. Although it is difficult to add much to previous commenters’ remarks, especially those of Mike, Patrick, Tony, and Louise, I would like to join them in answering, most respectfully, the remarks of Paul.

    First of all I’d like to say that the number one rule of the Taubman approach is that there can be no tension whatsoever. Many detractors of the approach don’t actually understand how the unification of the playing apparatus prevents the onset and build up of tension, and as Louise said, the only way to experience it is first hand. Throughout my Taubman studies (I have been studying the approach since 1997, am a certified associate and associate faculty member of the Golandsky Institute), I have never been told to maintain, or experienced the “stiffened-up elbow-wrist-palm unit” that Paul describes. Quite to the contrary, I’ve learned to play with an aligned and unified arm, hand, finger unit that moves in a coordinated way. I have never been told that there is no movement in the wrist as some uninformed, untrained people report. All too often, teachers who are only superficially exposed to the technique claim to teach it, so I am wondering who his teacher is. I would invite Paul to elaborate on the source of his opinion that this is what the Taubman approach promotes.

    Perhaps one area of misunderstanding is around the concept of alignment vs. relaxation. When properly trained, the muscles hold the bones in alignment, and don’t allow the playing mechanism to collapse, but instead to feel balanced on the keys. The keys are actually holding you up, not your muscles. To understand the Taubman approach, it is absolutely necessary to experience the difference between tension and alignment. Once I learned to feel that distinction, there was no turning back.

    The Golandsky Institute has made enormous strides in improving the pedagogy of the approach, and continues to question and develop every conceivable aspect of playing the piano. Since its inception, it has focused intensely on teacher training, and to that end has put in place a Professional Training Program. Those who are certified instructors of the approach undergo strenuous training, including having their students supervised for many years by senior members of the organization.

    As a performer and teacher I can say without qualification that, had I had this training earlier in my life, my entire career would have been different. I was never injured, but felt the limitations of small hands. It is truly still a miracle to me to see how my speed and control have increased, my tone production and palette of colors have developed, and my ability to both learn quickly and to memorize have improved. And all with no fatigue, tension or pain! I also find that my students develop much faster with this knowledge.

    Developing a facile and healthy technique takes time, no doubt. But there are solutions to physical problems. I could never thank my teachers enough for what they have given me, and for the way they have changed my life.
    14 – Paúl R.
    Jan 04, 2010 at 2:09 pm
    With all due respect,
    I appreciate every effort to help the affected piano-players; but I question the essence of this one.
    The basis of this approach is rotation, and it demands that the wrist be *locked,* ie inflexible.
    I am sorry, but your telling me “…an aligned and unified arm, hand, finger unit that moves in a coordinated way”, “… the muscles hold the bones in alignment, and don’t allow the playing mechanism to collapse…”, etc. – while denying presence of tension – sounds like Orwellian “new-speech”.
    I understand that none of you wants to be seen using the term “tension” as part of your playing and teaching, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a considerable amount of tension that holds “arm, hand, finger unit” aligned and prevents if from collapsing, otherwise this whole idea just wouldn’t work. Please, listen to what you’re yourselves saying!
    And still, it would be somewhat different story if you couldn’t see all that.
    15 – Mike B
    Jan 05, 2010 at 7:25 am
    I don’t think Paul R really has defined tension properly. Tension is two muscles working in the oppisite way at the same time. As a good example- the muscles in ones wrists coming up to show how unlocked and ‘free’ it is while the arm goes down to produce tone. There is complete 100% agreement in every other field of physical activity (sports, excercise) that to avoid injury bodyparts must movie in a unified way. We’re not debating an actual issue- this argument is the world is round vs. ‘well it seems flat to me as far as I look.’ One is based on scientific inquiry and analysis and one is based on ‘well, it seems this way when I look at it.” It goes beyond Piano playing and comes to a more fundamental question: how do we understand our world- either through science or arbitrary whims. I prefer the former.
    16 – Deborah
    Jan 05, 2010 at 9:35 am
    I would like to invite Paul to come to the Golandsky Insitute or have some lessons with a well trained expert, and then come to his conclusions. Paul, you obviously think a lot about these things, and I can understand that something might seem tense to you when we feel totally free and able to move comfortably, quickly and safely. There’s actually no way to convince someone in words… you have to experience it for yourself. I cringe when I hear you use words like “locked up”because nothing could be further from the way we play and teach. More to the point, the forearm must be absolutely free from the elbow in order to rotate, and it couldn’t move properly if it were locked up. One other point I’d like to make is that there are many concepts of rotation, some of which have nothing to do with the forearm rotation taught through the Taubman approach. I also had doubts and didn’t understand until I investigated the technique through lessons, so I do understand your skepticism. I just wish you wouldn’t form such “locked up” opinions until you acquire a thorough understanding of the approach. I can assure you that I came from being very tense, and that is no longer the case. Why don’t you give it a try? All those thousands of people who are now able to practice many hours a day with no tension or fatigue or pain might just be doing something right that you simply don’t yet understand.
    17 – Mike B
    Jan 05, 2010 at 3:20 pm
    Upon reflection, I remember being as sceptical as Paul R about the Taubman technique. There is a natural (and probably healthy) doubt that comes with anything promising incredible results. It is important for the sake of the technique to be smart in the way we try to compell others to see our viewpoint. A small group of true believers is not effective in the long run.
    18 – Charlotte Williams – no degree
    Jan 06, 2010 at 12:03 pm
    Thank you for the details you offer on the technique that literally saved my playing career and ended more than 20 years of constant pain and interrupted sleep, and the introduction to the amazing person who taught me the approach, Edna Golandsky.

    Ms. Golandsky’s teaching allowed me to pick up where I left off as a jazz and classical player at age 20, and in doing so, gave me my “dream back,” as she has done for so many others. Now, if I could only receive a complete refund of the money spent on piano lessons and college tuition so that I could apply it towards further study. Oh yeah; there was no money back guarantee on my piano lessons. But, shouldn’t there have been? I did the work my teachers told me to do, exactly as instructed!

    It is hard to imagine that a rationally thinking person would reject the facts you have presented so clearly; yet, I fear you will still only reach a relatively small percentage of your readers.

    The official organizations of music teachers (I will not name one specifically) are constantly publishing articles on injury prevention and “wellness,” using a few teachers as experts on the subject. Dorothy Taubman is never credited in these publications for bringing the subject of injury and technical limitations to the forefront, and her approach, if mentioned at all, is never given its due.

    Unfortunately, the experts the music organizations are citing, thereby promoting over others, do not offer a complete system that provides answers supported by the science of movement and the study of physiology and anatomy. As a matter of fact, most of these “experts” offer suggestions that have been proven to cause injury, as I know firsthand; yet these teachers continue to be presented as proponents of and experts on healthy technique.

    These organizations and the teachers they promote have the ear of the majority of pianists and teachers out there, and until these “experts” reverse their position on how to play the instrument, any change that occurs will continue to happen very slowly, as one by one, people hear that there IS a way to approach instrumental study that will allow everyone to achieve a level of proficiency and artistry.

    In other words, in my opinion, which is obviously not so careful or smart, the “powers that be” in music pedagogy influence the thinking of all teachers to the point that these organizations are dictating how students learn from the first lesson, which is where the problem begins. And once a person buys into a philosophy at a young age, it is very hard, if not impossible, to change their minds as they grow older.

    This is why Coke, Pepsi, McDonalds, and other corporations develop ad campaigns for the young; they know they are getting customers for life.

    As for the idea of “many piano techniques,” piano is the only study I know of that entertains exorbitantly priced nonsensical concepts labeled as serious study. Again, I don’t want to name names, but last summer, I could have paid a couple of hundred dollars to listen to a presentation by an expert promoted by a national teaching organization who would show me how to mash my hand down flat, then remold it.

    My favorite example of nonsense labeled as serious piano study is from the Golandsky Institute’s YouTube channel: the young lady who is bruised from her piano teacher’s instructions to throw herself against the wall! I am laughing as I write this. Boy, is that tuition well spent, or what?

    I was taught to move my wrist up and down to achieve expressive playing, of course, all that did for me was rob me of sound and cause me unspeakable pain. Now I know that the wrist should be aligned in order to allow the arm and hand to be unified, but not locked, so as to allow for tiny, tiny movements that will not injure me again.

    But, the relaxation technique that promotes wrist movement is one of the “techniques” we are supposed to respectfully listen to lectures on, buy DVDs about, and follow in lockstep as we apply it our own playing and force our students to do the same.

    The Emperor is buck nekkid and flashing us from his Ivory Tower, ya’ll. (as we say down south.)

    According to what I have learned, the parts of the arm used to play the piano (and other instruments) can each only move in a couple of ways without causing injury. Therefore, simple math tells a rational person that there can’t be a myriad of techniques.

    Other movement-based disciplines that are not considered fine arts or intellectual pursuits actually offer more effective training. Golf is the first that comes to mind. People spend millions, if not billions, on this sport, and instructors know that students will not pay for anything that doesn’t help them in their goal to consistently reproduce movement that gives them the results they seek.

    Don’t pianists deserve training that’s at least as good as that given golf enthusiasts? We need to be able to consistently reproduce movements, too, but for much longer periods of time, and with finer coordination. When I found the Taubman Approach as taught by Edna Golandsky and her faculty and practiced it according to their instructions and not some fanciful idea of my own, I gained more predictable results. I gained a bigger sound. I played faster, and smoother. And after about 6 months, I never, ever hurt again.

    Today, I live in fear of what 20 years of daily anti-inflammatory and pain medications have done to my body, and I have my piano teachers to thank for that fear. Shouldn’t piano teachers at least adopt the code of medical doctors, that being “First, do no harm?”
    19 – Patrick C.
    Feb 19, 2010 at 1:50 pm
    In response to Paul R’s further misrepresentation of the Taubman work, I simply point out the following:

    There is a fundamental difference between objective physical reality and the subjective physical experience a performer has at the instrument.

    To draw an analogy, when we stand on our feet, there are muscles acting to keep us from falling on the ground. However, we do not actively experience this muscular activity, and I don’t think anyone would characterize said activity as “tension.”

    The same principle holds (forgive the unfortunate word choice) at the instrument. This is far from Orwellian.

    And while I can easily see how these concepts could be confused, I do take exception to someone with little to no exposure to a specialized field of study offering criticisms thereof. To wit, I echo Deborah’s comment and invite Paul to learn what the Taubman work is really about before opining further.

    Add your comment, speak your mind

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