the Taubman Approach and Teaching

On Teaching the Taubman Approach

One can encounter a great many conflicting ideas about technique from piano teachers. Some may encourage repetitive, mind-numbing exercises that tire the hands and lead to injury over time. Others may encourage “relaxation” which usually means a dropping of the wrists which also leads to pain and injury. Others, unable to describe the choreography of motions that would allow students to solve passages successfully, shroud the process of playing in mysticism, making the student feel as if their failing is a result of their own lack of “talent”, “musicality” or “dedication”.

The complex of inter-related motions that comprise a coordinate technique are not visible to the eye, and are not always apparent even to those who have coordinate technique themselves. The Taubman work presents the first systematic understanding of these motions and the first systematic approach to teaching these motions. It is a teaching method that has been slowly developed over the past 70+ years by a small group of teachers, producing a growing number of virtuosic, injury-free students. Students, like me, recover from injuries, and make stunning growth in their technical abilities, accuracy and expressivity.

I am enrolled in the Golandsky Institute Professional Training Program which means that I am in the process of training to become a certified Taubman teacher. The Golandsky Institute is the premiere organization working to further the teaching of the Taubman Approach. They hold yearly summer symposiums, regular workshops, and oversee the training of new Taubman teachers. The Taubman work is quite complex and takes time to learn. Learning to be a teacher presents additional challenges as students come to the work with a wide spectrum of injuries and playing problems. Prior to enrolling in the teacher training program I studied privately for 9 years with Robert Durso, a master teacher with the Golandsky Institute (see my Taubman page). (1)

You are probably wondering what this means to you, as a potential student. What would studying with me be like and how would it differ from studying with a different teacher? My teaching approach varies according to the specific backgrounds and needs of my students, but the Taubman Approach informs all that I do. Here I break down a few different types of work I do with different types of students:

Injured Students

I have worked with injured pianists whose injuries led them to seek out a Taubman teacher. These students’ work looks much like the work I did when I first began my work in the field (See my story here). The work begins form the ground up, building all of the principles into the student’s technique, one at a time, slowly putting the whole system of motions together. We begin by establishing some basic principles of bench height and alignment. Students learn to play one note at a time, using the weight of the forearm to put down the key rather than finger strength. They learn to do this without stretching or curling of fingers, or dropping or twisting of wrists. We move from there to the process of learning how to move this weight from one finger to the next with forearm rotation. We add in and out motions, thumb crossings and shaping until students can play a C major scale in both directions.

This process may take a few months but it is important not too rush it. We are building the foundation of a healthy technique and it is crucial that students build a strong foundation from the start. Injured students are usually injured because they have problems with the way they have played the piano in the past. They twist the wrists, curl and stretch the fingers, and/or drop the wrists, etc. These habits are often hard-wired into their system from years of practice. Old-habits take time to let go of and replace with new ones. The sort of analytical attention to detail involved in the Taubman Approach and the totally new way of thinking about body movement takes time to acclimate to. Injured students are often quite experienced players, accustomed to playing advanced repertoire and practicing for many hours a day. While retraining in the Taubman Approach eventually allows injured students to do all of these things again, without injury, and often at a higher level of technical ability, these opening studies in the Taubman Approach deal with the simplest of musical elements: a C scale. It requires an open mind, and patience. It is best not practiced for hours a day.

Once this foundation has been sufficiently absorbed into the student’s motions we begin with a Mozart Sonata, carefully mapping out the forearm rotations and ‘in and out motions’ required for every single note in the piece. This first piece is used as a vehicle for learning how to apply the Taubman work to different types of passages. It is fun to watch students start to make connections between the foundational work they have done and the passages they are now “solving”.

After this our work can proceed in a variety of directions depending on the student’s interest. Jazz players may wish to write out some improvisations for us to analyze technically. We treat these improvisations just like the Mozart passages, learning how to apply our foundational principles to each note, mapping out the choreography in detail.

Young Students

The above course of retraining for injured students is too abstract and slow-going for younger students. Young students need to be playing pieces from the start, they need immediate successes, and they need very concrete instruction. Thus the method of Taubman instruction looks a little different for this population.

Taubman principles are slowly introduced into the private lesson, sometimes occupying no more than a few minutes in a lesson, sometimes longer. It is quite amazing how even a few basic ingredients, like proper bench height and attention to wrist height, can make big differences in studets’ playing immediately. There are so many other important musical skills to focus on at this age, like music literacy, ear-training, improvisation, etc. that the technical work co-exists as one of many activities that comprise a lesson.

Mary Moran, a master teacher at the Golandsky Institute, specializes in teaching the Taubman work to young children. She has an excellent book on the subject which I purchased after one of her workshops. It has been invaluable to me in thinking about the order in which I introduce different principles of technique to students.

Even though a student has not learned all of the foundational concepts of the Taubman Approach they can still make their way through pieces of music and grow as a pianist. I often select pieces that do not contain to much thumb-crossing or scaler work, waiting until students have mastered these skills in the abstract before applying them to pieces. Even without a full repertoire of Taubman concepts students can still learn to think in a “Taubmanesque” way in solving passages. There are a lot of simpler Taubman concepts that can be applied at this stage with great results.

Intermediate Students

It is quite common for me to take on intermediate students who have decided to switch teachers for whatever reason, or adult students who are returning to the piano after not playing for many years. These students come with a lot of good musical skills under their belt but with little or no foundation in a healthy technique. Like the Young students described above, I introduce Taubman concepts into their lessons a little at a time. Students continue to study repertoire but I make sure to select pieces that don’t involve too much scaler motion until these skills have been mastered. There are many Taubman principles that can be of use in solving passages even without a foundation in all of the core principles. Over time these students will learn the basics of forearm rotation, in-and-out motions, and shaping. Eventually they begin working on pieces from this new perspective. The particular course study depends on the student, their interests, abilities and backgrounds.

Footnotes:

1.
I have taught music in many different capacities, from large and small ensembles, to classroom teaching, to private lessons in several instruments (see my teaching page.) My 11 years of Taubman studies have had a profound impact on how I teach, even outside of the private piano lesson. While I obviously can’t bring the specifics of piano technique to bear on my work with, say, a large choir, the Taubman work has instilled in me a careful attention to detail, a methodic and patient drive for perfection, and a keen bag of tools with which to analyze rhythmic expression.