PIANO TECHNIQUE REVIEWS

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Debunking the Myths of the Taubman Approach



Dorothy Taubman is a true pioneer in the development of injury-preventative piano technique. She has analyzed the various activities of piano playing, coming up with a method that has empowered thousands and confused thousands of others. Disciples of the Taubman dogma have a disconcerting tendency to to be so devoted to their guru that they exclude all other approaches. Unfortunately this doesn't work in favour of a wider appreciation of her contribution, but rather arouses suspicion. It is dangerous to say there is a definitive right and wrong way of approaching something as complex as the pianist’s physical relationship to her or his instrument. Taubman's approach is based on profound truths about the human body and how it works at the keyboard - but for every one of these truths there exist so many exceptions that we are reluctant to make the truth a rule. Taubman's contribution is one of the most significant in the 20th century; unfortunately her approach is most often taught mixed with weight technique, which renders it more harmful than useful.


Testimony to the real value of the Taubman approach can be found in the many technically and artistically successful pianists who swear by it – Ilya Itin is one notable example. Then there are the many success stories, some verging on the miraculous, of her students' recovering from performance injury. All these pianists have succeeded in integrating the kinesthetic knowledge gained through their work with the Taubman ideas into a natural, effective keyboard technique. Many of Taubman’s principles hit the mark dead on in terms of the physics of the body at the piano. These include

  1. “coordinate motion,” the idea that all parts of the body must work in synchronous harmony for an effective sound to be produced. What this means in practical terms is that the skeletal frame must be lined up such that there is no energy lost at the joints through ‘shear’ or friction.
  2. Avoidance of “jamming,” especially at the wrist where, if the forearm and hand fail to maintain their more or less horizontal relationship – about 180 degrees – energy is lost as the kinetic forces shear off from their direct line of transmission.

I myself have worked with many students of the Taubman approach, and was especially impressed by one amateur adult who had assiduously practiced the rotations on every note as the Taubman dogma indicates. He had one of the best hands on the keyboard of any adult relative beginner (2 years of lessons) I have ever seen. The rotation practice apparently served to develop his hand's ability to stand well, and his whole hand structure and function was much more secure and much less prone to collapse than virtually any adult amateur I have worked with.

Another moving testimony to the Taubman approach can be seen here:



This review attempts to define the key principles of the Taubman approach and analyze them in the light of recent developments in the field of kinesiology - the study of human motion. We hope to highlight the positive aspects of the system by weeding out certain points that risk being misinterpreted or understood in a confused way.

Rotation

One of the most contentious issues is Taubman’s idea that a rotation of the forearm along its axis occurs on the playing of every single note. Taubman has her students diligently practice a rotation either to the right or the left and back again on every single note of a scale, arpeggio or melody, and sometimes will even introduce a “double right” or “double left.”

This has the doubly positive effect of

  1. consolidating the hand’s structure as it stands on key (in order to rotate, the arm must have something firm and stable to lean into as a fulcrum point, and the hand’s arch tends to consolidate and strengthen itself to provide this fulcrum), and
  2. allowing muscles that might have been holding further up the arm to let go.

However, when Mme Goladnsky demonstrates this technique, she introduces a certain technical anomaly that drastically reduces its effectiveness. She rotates in to each new note with a seemingly 'relaxed' hand which is really a dead, inert hand. There is an insidious, subtle collapse within the hand's arch structure that lends a banged, ugly quality to the sound. The rotation is overdone and awkward. She then plays a normal scale nicely and says that you can barely see the rotations but they are still there.

Subjective vs. Objective Experience

This brings us to an important question concerning any approach to piano technique. When she plays, Edna may feel a certain sensation in her hand that relates to the rotation exercise she just did. In Edna's subjective experience, a trace of the rotation remains. This is even true neurologically and physiologically.

Compare the motion of the hand on the keyboard to human walking. The body torso moves in three cardinal directions in walking: flexion/extension, side bending and rotation. The flexion and extension of the legs is obvious, but the subtle elastic action of the spine along these three planes is not so readily visible. Similarly, a slight amount of rotation must remain in the action of the hand to prevent it binding up. It may or may not be "on every note" of a fast scale - the tolerances are too fine to be distinguishable.

Interestingly enough, when Edna plays the scale, it sounds perfectly musical, and she says the rotation is still there! One point of view thinks that if it was there, the scale could not possibly sound so well! It says that subjective experience and objective reality simply don't match. It thinks that although neurological image of the rotation might indeed remain as a trace on the brain’s motor cortex, reminding the arch to stay viable and the upper arm muscles to let go, an actual rotation on every note can only interfere with the smooth, easy movement of the hand – it works directly against phrase shape. Rotations that flow through several notes of a group can be a beautiful and effective means of achieving an elegant phrase shape, but rotation on every single note is in most cases anti-musical.

It turns out that this point of view, derived from personal experience, is inaccurate. A miniscule amount of rotation on every note keeps things musical. It all depends on how it's done.

Dual Muscular Pull

Taubman is also against “dual muscular pull,” saying that this indicates inefficiency in the work of the muscles. Every muscle has an opposing muscle that pulls in the opposite directions. These pairs of muscles are called agonist and antagonist. When there is too much tension in the system, it is often because the antagonist is working too hard, forcing the agonist to exert much more effort than would normally be needed simply to make a movement. This is the danger of dual muscular pull as understood by Taubman.

However, dual muscular pull always exists in a movement! In even the most highly efficient movements, the anatagonist's role is important: it regulates and controls the agonist’s degree of effort by pulling against it. It's a crucial "movement fine-tuning mechanism." All our movements are guided by this phenomenon, although we are mostly unconscious of it.

I believe Taubman is not against dual muscular pull per se, but rather, and rightly so, against the overwork of agonist and antagonist. But she fails to make this clear, and consequently cultivates a relaxation (the ‘medicine’ for dual muscular pull) so extreme that it disempowers rather than heals, leaving muscles flaccid and inert instead of primed and potent. Observe the previous video closely once again: this phenomenon is clearly perceptible in the musculature of Edna's hand and fingers.

Stretching and Twisting

Taubman also decries stretching and twisting, saying that one should always remain within the limits of comfortable movement. Stretching and twisting can lead to pain and injury. However, her 'cure' is so extreme - the way in which she avoids stretching at any cost - that it robs the pianist of much of her natural ability to get around a keyboard. It leads to a ‘safe’ but emasculated pianism.

his from 1:20-2:10 of the following video:



John Bloomfield says that joining the note C (played with the right hand 5th finger) to the note D a seventh below (played with the right hand thumb) would create too much of a stretch, which could be harmful, potentially leading to injury, and that it must be avoided. He advises joining these two notes on the pedal instead of physically linking them.

I am really scratching my head in disbelief. I mean, this is a big guy! My 9-year old daughter can join the interval of a seventh no problem, and this big, grownup pianist, an obviously capable musician, is worried about hurting himself by "stretching" a seventh??? I simply cannot agree with a pathological need to avoid injury so extreme that it debilitates and disempowers instead of helping the pianist out. A pianist suffering or recovering from injury may well need to treat himself with such care, but to teach a healthy pianist to avoid stretching a 7th simply makes a cripple out of a perfectly healthy person.

The sad thing is, this approach is well-intentioned. Taubman and Golandsky have the right idea - use the body effectively to play beautifully. But this does not justify taking a therapeutic practice, one designed to heal an injured technique, and applying it to completely healthy pianists. This simply ignores the facts concering the actual function of the fingers, hand and arm.

The brain has an amazing capacity to let a muscle simply lengthen, with no strain, instead of stretching. The very concept of stretching implies a lengthening that fights against a muscle’s inherent tonus, which can indeed lead to strain and potential injury. When muscles elegantly let go, the hand can go into even an extreme extension or twist with no strain, expanding one’s limits outward to greater capability instead of limiting one’s options. Taubman and Golandsky even know this, as demonstrated here:

And yet, as we saw in the John Bloomfield example, the Taubmanites fail big time in applying this fantastic exercise to a playing situation.

The Arches of the Hand

At 4:25 in the Princeton video excerpt above, Edna coaches Aya Nagatomi in Liszt's La Campanella. This young pianist's arch is completely collapsed, showing the classic role reversal between wrist and metacarpal-phalangeal joints where the metacarpal ridge abandons its role as keystone thus forcing the wrist to take over, creating a hand incapable of creating a rich, juicy tone. But does Edna pick up on this? No, she simply 'coaches' the young girl, egging her on through the coda (which unfortunately but not surprisingly remains musically inert, slow and banged in its sound) and finally giving her a congratulatory hug amidst applause from the audience. Once again I am mystified: how can she leave such obvious dysfunction untouched? The basic inner health of the hand itself, generated by potent activation and arch generation, simply does not seem to be a part of the Taubman oeuvre.

The Thumb

This excerpt on the thumb provides a wonderful example of just how insidiously misguided and destructive the Taubman approach can be. Edna begins by mentioning several basic movements of the thumb: curling, flexing (moving the thumb in under the hand to rest agains the palm), and abduction (what is elsewhere called 'reverse opposition' and which, as Edna rightly points out, is a movement the thumb often uses to play). She then goes on to say that all of these are either dangerous, leading potentially to pain and injury, or useless because they are too slow (abduction/extension). She then recommends introducing a forearm rotation to bring the thumb into its key.

Thus in one fell swoop Edna has succeeded in completely emasculating the correct, appropriate and potent work of the thumb, leaving it powerless and weak, and robbing it of its crucial role as one of the main animators of the right action of the hand, one of the crucial physical and functional supports of the piano playing mechanism.

I say this is insidious because, yes, there is a grain of truth in what she says. A forearm rotation will indeed often (though certainly not always) support the right work of the thumb. But it should never replace that work. When the forearm subverts thumb activity, ironically though the goal might have been the avoidance of injury, it is more likely to result in injury, because the dead thumb will evoke compensatory tension and rigidity elsewhere in the arm.


Legato

Yet another misconception is found in the idea that by playing with a true physical legato you risk “hanging on” and “tightening,” and that you can achieve a more beautiful legato sound by avoiding joining the keys, connecting the tones on the pedal instead. This latter technique is indeed valid but highly advanced, and must be based on an aural and physical image of legato that is well-imprinted on the motor cortex. When a non-joined legato sound is attempted without this crucial preparation, the result is a slightly bumpy and unbeautiful sound sadly lacking in the melodic control that makes for great pianism.

Arm Weight

Another controversial theme with Taubman is arm weight technique. She advises letting your arm really be a dead weight and having all that weight express itself through the finger into the key, creating a rich, juicy, singing tone. The fingers remain limp, and the kinetic energy to move the key actually comes from the arm’s mass instead of muscular effort. Again, this subjective image may well work wonders in a pianist who is overly tight and needs to let go, and the arm weight teaching, even when this inaccurate, can often be a valuable tool.

The danger lies in taking such an idea as being true across the board. The total relaxation fostered by this technique tends to undermine the hand’s natural structure – an overly relaxed hand does not maintain its natural potency (expressed in its arch structure) but collapses into flaccidity, and the fingers no longer have a basis for movement. Arm weight technique works best with pianists who have already trained their fingers to move vigorously, quickly and accurately: with the reflexes already wired in, the suffusion of relaxation and finer sensation of arm weight technique can be a great boon. But without the ability of the fingers firmly in place, it can lead to disaster.

Octave Technique

The YouTube demonstration of perfect octave technique shows octaves far from perfect: played with a free arm and fingers that appear strong but which are actually dysfunctional - they are held stiffly as is the hand, which remains completely inert. We are is advised to let gravity take our arm/hand/fingers down into the key and then to let the "upward rebound force" of the keys bounce the hand back up into the air. This strategy effective emasculates the hand's natural power which lies in its capacity to move, and the result is predictable: a harsh, slightly aggressive and ugly sound which is reflected in the look of the hand as well. Once again, a subjective experience (the keys 'bouncing' the hand up), which may indeed in many situations be valid and effective, here actually masks an objective dysfunction.


Curling the Fingers

In the YouTube excerpt on curving and curling, one also has to raise an eyebrow at Golandsky's blanket dismissal of finger curling as "negative." How does one reconcile such a judgement with the documentary evidence of pianists such as Horowitz, Argerich or Kissin to name just a few of the many who curl their fingers with robust exuberance thus getting an ebullient, blistering sound out of the piano and, wonder of wonders, not even hurting themselves!!!

The rationale is that the action of the deep flexors (which curl the distal phalange) is more likely to create strain and lead to injury, whereas the superficial flexors which act on the medial phalange are less prone to overuse. Once again she has good intentions: indeed, a crucial part of every pianist's training should be learning and mastering the distinction between the action of the deep flexors, the superficial flexors, and the lumbricals. But the pianist should also be capable of any and all combinations of these three!

By totally eliminating the curling movement, Taubman and Golandsky do away with one elementary and fundamental action of the finger, the most precise and efficient way of getting the key down quickly and accurately, an action that Bach himself said was the primary physical component of his keyboard technique. Once again we need to question eliminating injury as the prime motivator for an approach to piano technique. Should we not rather maximize our movement possibilities¸ of course learning to do these healthily?

The Taubman doctrine again proves insidious here by mixing a large dollop of truth in with the inaccurate and damaging teaching. At 0:45 Edna does a wonderful demonstration of the greater freedom of movement in the hand when the fingers are only curved not curled. This is beautiful and highly educational - we should all strive to learn what she shows here. But next logical step she takes ("thus we must eliminate curling completely") is simply not defensible.

Lifting the Fingers

Taubman also censures a high-finger technique, seeing this as yet another thing leading to tension and injury. However, lifting the fingers is an effective way of activating them, bringing more brilliance and energy to one’s sound and generally giving your playing an injection of vigor. Some schools such as Richard Prokop’s Piano Power emphasize this technique as central to developing finger strength and ability: “Strengthening the extensors is one of the most important parts of building a good piano technique.”

Most importantly, if a high finger technique is done with the intelligent participation of the arm and body, there is no danger of hurting oneself. Again, Taubman’s well-meaning attempt to help pianists avoid injury or recover from it ends up presenting an impediment to pianists who simply want to develop their ability. An approach based mainly on limitation and avoidance of stress cannot encompass all the possibilities of a comprehensive piano technique. Surely the intelligent expansion beyond our limitations will do more to develop a technique that capitalizes on the piano’s wonderful capacity for rich orchestral color and sonority.

In summary, the Taubman-Golandsky materials are rich in nuggets of wisdom, but make the mistake of applying one type of wisdom to all situations. Many of the techniques work beautifully in a therapeutic situation where a pianist is recovering from injury, but given to a healthy pianist may serve only to limit, confuse and disempower.

Taubman’s overall contribution to piano technique is not to be underestimated. Although there are numerous problems with her approach, these are mostly related to the exact use of language, the exact understanding of phenomena, and context. When the Taubman corpus of knowledge is applied non-dogmatically but selectively, according to the needs of a specific pianistic situation, it offers many nuggets of pianistic gold!

 

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Reviewed by Milosh Yankovitch for pianotechnique.net/reviews

Piano Technique Reviews is a division of Piano Technique.net, a site owned and operated by Maple Grove Music Productions, the company devoted to developing the pedagogical materials - books, DVD's, online video lessons and live piano institutes - associated with Canadian pianist Alan Fraser's Craft of Piano Method.