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  • Writer's picturerhapsodydmb


Updated: Jun 29

Lately I’ve been wondering what it is, exactly, that piano teachers teach? Sometimes they teach about new horizons -- and I have one squarely in my view: the Taubman technique. (This incredible view and horizon is photographed from Dante's Peak on a March trip to camp in Death Valley!

In major part, I have concluded that the answer depends on multiple key factors, including:

1. How they were taught — if they remain in agreement with it;

2. What they have explored on their own as a pianist and as a teacher, and concluded is proper to teach;

3. What problems they or their students have encountered and how have they been solved;

4. Their personality, and what they feel comfortable teaching;

5. If they care about and discover for any new student the way that individual student learns best, taking into serious account and actually honoring the student’s personal or professional goals.

I’ve worked over the past three years with three different piano teachers for a total of 23 months of lessons focused on classical and Romantic era late-beginner to early-intermediate repertoire (if there really is any such thing to be determined since I'm not on a performance or graded-student track but play out of my pure love of music!). I’ve noted that whether or not a piano teacher will be good, bad, or indifferent to my goals as a late-life serious amateur cannot be determined by me, or likely by any student, simply by listening to the teacher (or their students) play on their own website or YouTube videos, by a so-called “trial lesson,“ by their reputation as a performing pianist, or by any other means other than personal experience gleaned and analyzed over a few weeks and months of lessons. “The proof is in the pudding.“

Since I use this blog as my piano student journal, over time I will be sharing my personal experience with my fourth piano teacher. Yesterday I had my first lesson with a specialist in the Dorothy Taubman technique of playing the piano. Taubman taught many years at Temple University and at the Aaron Copland School of Music in Queens College in New York City. Today the technique that Taubman laboriously worked out over many years, one that is focused on helping pianists and other musicians recover from injury, is best represented by the work of a key student of Ms. Taubman's, Edna Golandsky. Teacher-administrator Robert Durso from the Golandsky Institute (who has a number of excellent, detailed, and illustrative videos on YouTube) referred me to only two teachers who are located in the Bay Area and who are certified to teach this gestural technique (I had searched online with no results), and I immediately contacted Amy Brookes, an Instructor at the Institute (located in Berkeley and within easy reach of my home).

What I noted during my initial telephone consultation with Amy, and what I noted early in yesterday’s lesson, was that she asked a number of questions to determine where my real goals and interests lie at this particular time in my piano student adventure. She gave me a choice of two basic approaches to lessons with her. The first was to continue to play some of my memorized repertoire, which I hold near and dear to my heart and fingers, and simultaneously start to learn the new physical gestures and arm-wrist-hand-body movements and feelings on which the Toubman technique focuses.

My second choice was to entirely set aside playing my beloved pieces for at least three months and more likely six or nine months, in order to focus on and learn almost entirely-new gestural techniques, then slowly start employing them in playing simple Bach (or Mozart--but I quickly chose the former) pieces but not return for a long while to my present repertoire. That is because if I did, Amy said it would be too easy to lose ground and revert to ingrained physical playing habits that I am now going to spend a lot of time, effort, and money setting aside to learn the Taubman technique.

When I arrived at Amy's sweet and cozy home yesterday, I already knew my decision and told her that I chose option two. That will entail a significant and costly cost to my heart, because I love pieces kept in my memorized repertoire so much. I also love the bit of progress in my pianism that is evidenced nearly every time I play them now, principally not to "perform" of course, but to entertain my three kitties, my partner, Ron, just for my own pleasure, and occasionally, to ask for feedback and help to identify and correct some aspect needing attention, from a generous former long-time piano teacher/composer friend like Bruce Nalezny or advanced amateur like my friend Joe Torres.

Before commencing lessons with Amy, I was certain to either video or sound record the latest status of my beloved repertoire to remind me exactly of that progress, so that I don’t get discouraged by starting once more from the ground up (actually a third time since I started piano lessons in Jr. High, then restarted lessons just after the Pandemic lockdown began, and just now). However, I am of a lifelong mind that if I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it with vigor, dedication, and fully in order to give it a chance to help me achieve a serious goal. I now have a serious goal to surmount a pesky problem of hand tendonitis that arrived full force in both hands in late April, now X-Rayed, diagnosed, and theraped in various ways by my medical and treatment team at Kaiser. I want to play happily and without problems through my coming 80s, 90s, and hopefully into my 100s, goddess and the fates willing!

It seems not only advisable, but quite clever of piano teachers, and Amy of course!, to present options to a student, and then allow or require them to choose which one they want to pursue or experiment with. Thus, the student must take personal responsibility for their own choices --- and so I have.

This week I sit down in 10 or 15 minutes segments to practice sitting at the right height in relation to the keyboard (slightly above it; see the picture below; I learned I had been sitting too low on my desk chair and my piano bench, which allows and indeed requires my wrist to drop below the keyboard!), slowly dangling my hands so they assume a natural and relaxed position. Then I learned with minimal effort to lift my forearms, wrists, and hands up in one solid unbending unit using the elbow joint, allowing the upper part of my arms, wrists, and hands to remain stable. I learned on the way up to the keyboard how to avoid nicking the edge of it with my fingernails by slightly retracting my elbows then slightly leaning forward to allow the entire forearm-wrist-hand mechanism and fingers all in one unbroken unit to come down naturally to first rest on the keys (not depress them) without any sideways wrist-twisting. The next step was to pursue the same procedure, but allow my hands and one finger to come down on and sound a single note, and do the same with each hand separately.

The goal this week will be to focus solely on identifying how my body feels in the doing of the above gestures, and learn to repeat them ad infinitum, taking care not to allow my wrists to twist from right to left nor sink below or rise above the keyboard, but retain the natural shape from fingertip to elbow. That is harder than you may think, but with Amy's eagle eye while sitting next to me, I started to "get the picture" into my body and conscious perception or feeling. I'm principally a visual and secondarily a kinesthetic learner (my childhood dance training and last four years of Alexander Technique training work very well with me!), so the following things she did were very effective.

She first watched me play part of two pieces, then stopped me. After a verbal discussion she then showed me how to relax and dangle my arms by my sides to identify the proper shape of the hands when they next go on the keys, but maintain the same hand shape. After showing me how to lift my right arm forearm, wrist, hand, and finger to rest on the keyboard, she then put her hands under my wrist to lift it up when I dipped it. I was not even aware of my subtle wrist movement and dipping action!

Then she sat down and with her fingers resting on the keys, allowed me to lift her forearm from the elbow (it was quite a heavy weight at that fulcrum point) and next lift her wrist (there it was quite light), then put my hand on her shoulder and feel almost no motion at all when she reached for the keyboard. At that point I realized the difference between the Taubman technique and how I had just meandered into my own playing technique without much help or feedback during the past two years. I became even more disconsolate that the Pandemic had relegated me to zoom piano lessons, but "it is what it was" -- and now, gratefully, it is different!

I will employ another technique Amy suggested, one that is akin to biofeedback, and that is, to place my left hand lightly across my torso to rest on the top of my right shoulder to ensure that it remains down, relaxed, and in a natural position when and as I lift my forearm, wrist, hand, and fingers as one unit to the keyboard, and vice versa on the left side, ensuring and that all movement emanates from my elbow joint. My Alexander Technique teacher Elyse Shafarman, will surely approve! (Elyse first told me about the Taubman technique a few years ago!)

The Taubman technique is. of course, quite a bit more detailed than just learned in this initial first lesson's gestural practice protocol. However, the above summary represents substantially the focus of how and what I will be practicing this week. I’ll try not to think too much about my beloved pieces, and most likely for the next few weeks not look at one of my memorial videos nor listen to a recording. But I shall video record my new gestures as I practice them, recommended by Amy. I hope that in the coming week I don’t revert to any movement that will work against my new personal learning goals.

I’m sure my physical discomfort and amazingly quick onset of painful tendonitis was triggered by two principal things: (1) my recurring depressed mindset that cummulated stress during my nine-month relationship, both teaching and personal, with my third piano teacher because of a substantial misfit between the two of us, and (2) a personal life-long tendency of excessive enthusiasm leading me over the past six months to spend too many hours at both my computer and the piano without taking a break before onset of pain, with excessive time spent unsupervised and practicing my take on "rhythms" on my first-ever Bach piece.

I now have a teacher who cares specifically about my physical and mental well being and I am clear what she is, and is not, teaching me. She is not teaching me musicality, expression, note-accuracy, phrasing, or any other playing technique, nor is she rushing me (or allowing me to rush off) into learning new musical pieces in the genre I prefer. I feel great comfort that she is a teacher who has squarely focused on and aligned with my personal piano and health goals.

Since I now limit my piano (and computer use) practice in one sitting to10 or 15 minutes max and use my kitchen cooking timer to make sure I don’t exceed that, and since I've improved the ergonomics of my computer/desk use and hardware, I feel encouraged. (check out this vertical mouse, Ergo series Lift, that Julliard professor Noa Kageyama told me about which I immediately ordered; so far after a week's use I love it and note a more relaxed feeling in my hands while and after typing).

Although I could be discouraged about having to go back to Ground Zero, which I should have done 23 months ago, I am not. I have mentally "framed" this as an exciting adventure in learning a new kinesthetic approach to the piano, one that will allow me to play comfortably for many years to come. Because I'm a very curious type when it comes to all things music (and art of any kind), and with Amy’s direct and encouraging, friendly in-person approach (she too, has had her past challenges with tendonitis!), I am certain this will be part of the solution to my current physical challenge.

Of course, I’d love to hear from anyone else who has dealt with and overcome hand/wrist discomfort or pain, especially from tendonitis, and also used the Taubman technique for beneficial purposes. Please let me know about your experiences:

Now to go sit down on Day One and start the first ten minutes of the rest of my pianistic life (as it seems!)

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