The Taubman Approach to Piano Technique

Therese Milanovic

Prelude

I was diagnosed with de Quervain’s tendonitis in my right thumb in my first year studying at the Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University, shortly after my 18th birthday. The prescribed six weeks without practice seemed like an eternity. Little did I suspect there would be another nine years of struggle ahead, and that I would find the solutions to my problems on the other side of the world.

Seeking every treatment possible for my recurring pain, I took anti-inflammatory medication, had a cortisone injection, then surgery, innumerable sessions of physiotherapy, acupuncture, hypnotherapy, Reiki, hypnosis, and massage. Somehow I battled through my undergraduate studies. I was forced to dictate my Honours thesis because typing was painful; preparation for my final recital was largely mental practice. After a further four years of forced rest from the piano upon completing my undergraduate degree, it became clear that I needed to consider an alternative occupation.

Then I heard of the Taubman Approach from a colleague studying in the US. Giving my life as a musician one last chance, in 2003 I attended two intensive Taubman courses in the US and Italy, with borrowed money in my pocket and dreams of playing the piano again. In that month, during approximately seven hours of individual lessons with Taubman teacher Teresa (Terry) Dybvig, the technical issues that had caused my problems were diagnosed and replaced with healthy movements.

In retrospect, I had arrived in 2003 with isolated, curled fingers that gripped and squeezed the keybed. I twisted my hands away from my arms, stretched, and sat low. Subsequently, my upper arms were raised to compensate, and my wrists were lowered. My ‘musicianship’ and ‘expressivity’ were intrinsically connected to shaping with the shoulder, upper arm, and elbow, creating the pain across my shoulders.

Finding freedom at the piano was overwhelming, even if on a few dropped notes. Being balanced into the key with the finger, hand and arm in peaceful alignment brought me to tears. The ‘sensation of no sensation’ was shattering. Alongside my excitement, I felt guilt in ‘betraying’ my former teacher as I adopted a new way of approaching the piano that often contradicted previous instruction. It was also confronting to discover that what I had worked so hard to cultivate in my playing was directly responsible for my injury.

There was understandably much that I didn’t learn in one month of immersive Taubman training. Nevertheless, after feeling between two pianistic worlds for six months, what I had learned in the US settled into my playing. From that time onwards, my playing and teaching has gone from strength to strength. I completed my Masters in performance, started building a strong performance profile, attracting high-level students and later a teaching position at Young Conservatorium Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia.

In July 2007, I returned to the US for another month of concentrated symposia. My lessons with Edna Golandsky transcended my initial understanding of the Taubman Approach and opened my playing and teaching to new levels of security, colour, virtuosity, and inspiration. Following two years of planning, I travelled to New York in April 2009 to undertake a condensed program towards certification as a Taubman teacher, which formed the fieldwork for this research project.

Fast forward to 2014. After many trips to the US and regular Skype lessons, I am now Associate Faculty level with the Golandsky Institute. My dream of being able to train Australian teachers within Australia towards Taubman certification is now a reality. In summarising my Taubman training, I run out of superlatives. My hands have never felt so good. As my understanding of the Taubman Approach deepens, so does my comprehension of the indivisible relationship between artistry and the physical know-how behind compelling music making. The Taubman Approach has completely transformed my teaching and performing.

Brief Introduction to the Taubman Approach

Context

Despite the advances in biomechanical analysis in the last century, technical knowledge of playing one’s instrument has been passed down largely unquestioned over the generations. Pedagogues often teach as they were taught, and as their teachers were taught, developing their own approach through trial and error. These pedagogical attitudes are the result of a tendency to analyse piano technique based primarily on how playing looks, with little understanding of the underlying principles of anatomy and biomechanics. As Taubman stated, ‘Ours is a hearsay tradition … Scientific study in our profession has been minimal, and even that little bit has all too frequently been overlooked’. Taubman’s analytical approach to pianism was thus revolutionary for its time.

Background

The Taubman Approach was developed over five decades by Brooklyn-based pedagogue Dorothy Taubman (1918– 2013). It is not a method, but rather ‘a comprehensive approach to piano technique that allows for an ordered and rational means of solving technical problems. Not only has this approach produced virtuoso pianists, it has also achieved an extraordinary success rate curing injured pianists, most of whom are performing again’.

Apart from developing ‘brilliance and ease’ in playing, the Taubman Approach offers tools to understand and teach ‘full artistic expression’, helping pianists to reach their ‘highest potential as performing artists’.

Initially, Taubman’s motivation was to uncover the secrets of virtuoso technique to assist gifted pianists in realising their potential. She queried the ‘frightening number’ of pianists in pain, including amateurs, who practised relatively little. Taubman questioned how child prodigies can intuitively play virtuoso repertoire with tiny hands, and why these gifts are often lost in the ‘transition from intuitive to conscious playing’ in adulthood. She investigated her own ‘natural’ playing, and examined traditional pedagogical dogmas through studying anatomy, physiology, physics, and the piano’s construction. Taubman also studied Otto Ortmann’s groundbreaking scientific analysis of piano technique.

Increasingly, Taubman ‘began to see a whole coordinate approach emerge’. Taubman initially underestimated the importance of her discovery, believing ‘everybody knew about the technique but me’. As Taubman’s reputation travelled within the US, she became known by the 1960s as the ‘underground’ teacher that pianists secretly sought for help. Accolades included pianists of the calibre of Leon Fleisher, who is quoted as saying, ‘Dorothy is absolutely extraordinary in her intuition of when you have pain, where it is you are doing something wrong, and how you can get rid of it’.

Principles

The principles of the Taubman Approach are not new. Taubman’s innovation was in explicitly codifying the mostly invisible motions underlying a fluent, free technique, which many virtuosi intuitively adopt. However, as the Russian pianist Feinberg stated, ‘sometimes intuition is not sufficient, and we have to resort to conscious analysis in order to discern the simple within the complex’. Thus, Taubman constructed a systematic pedagogical approach to developing coordinate movement through a process of ‘complexity that results in simplicity’.

The fundamental principle of the Taubman Approach maintains that the ‘fingers, hand and arm always operate as a synchronised unit, with each part doing what it does best’. When this tenet is examined in detail, three further guidelines emerge:

  1. Coordinate movement ‘permits the joints involved to act as near to their mid-range of action as possible’. As Ortmann discovered, this produces ‘minimum fatigue’ and ‘maximum accuracy of kinaesthetic judgement’. Increasing tension results as the extreme of motion is approached.
  2. In coordinate movement, each part must act ‘at the best mechanical advantage’. For example, as the larger upper arm is incapable of the forearm’s speed, the forearm initiates motion.
  3. Coordinate movement denotes minimum effort for the maximum result, creating precision and freedom.

Contributions

One of Taubman’s major contributions was drawing attention to the existence of playing-related musculoskeletal disorders and analysing their physical, playingrelated causes in the late 1960s, long before awareness reached the mainstream in the 1980s. Taubman also found that coordinate movement is therapeutic, either minimising or alleviating problems. Through developing more coordinated use, injured pianists not only overcame their problems, but also played at a higher level than prior to injury. Those who were never injured acquired new levels of facility. Further, Taubman discovered that ‘it is correct motion, not muscular development, that produces great technique’. Taubman also stressed the physical pleasure of coordinate playing. She believed that ‘If playing the piano doesn’t feel delicious and euphoric, you’re doing something wrong’.

Another of Taubman’s revelations was that ‘Relaxation is the result, not the cause, of correct playing’. Excessive relaxation is heavy, rendering speed difficult. Relaxation may also cause tension elsewhere, as more energy is required to initiate movement, and other parts have to work harder. Taubman advocated the lively, free midrange of movement between tension and relaxation.

An underlying premise in Taubman pedagogy is all technical problems can be solved through effective diagnosis, rather than more practice. Students’ issues are due to a lack of knowledge, rather than lack of talent. As Taubman said, ‘We’re talking about dedicated, earnest, gifted people. There should be no reason why they can’t do what they want to do’.

(Extract from Learning and Teaching Healthy Piano Technique: Training as an Instructor in the Taubman Approach. Available through www.theresemilanovic.com)

How to find out more The tools and insights of Dorothy Taubman are available to everyone. Videos are available online through www.golandskyinstitute.org and www.ednagolandsky.com. While there is no substitute for hands-on lessons, much can be accomplished on Skype.

Go to www.theresemilanovic.com to read articles on learning and teaching the Taubman Approach, forthcoming performances and Taubman workshops

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