Crafting the Well-Tempered-Pianist part I 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.
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?