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Crafting the Well-Tempered Pianist: Teaching the Taubman Approach

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The second article in this series about the Taubman Approach familiarized the reader with some of the many testimonials regarding the validity of Taubman's work, its significant impact on pianists of all levels, and its ramifications for injured instrumentalists. We have heard from musicians who had questions answered they did not even know they had — yet were essential to their well-being at the instrument.

I really appreciate the opportunity to reach out to a large number of readers through Blogcritics, introducing Taubman’s work to many for the very first time and opening up a forum for an exchange of experiences and opinions. I truly value readers’ contributions, which give real meaning to the fascinating and engaging interaction the blogosphere has to offer.

When I met Dorothy Taubman in the summer of 2009, she talked about her motivation for starting to investigate the secrets of what was happening at the piano. According to her, she just had to find a solution for her students who, for the most part, were very talented, yet had issues that kept them from being the pianists they might have been otherwise.

And she did. Over 50 years of research have resulted in a groundbreaking analysis of what underlies virtuoso piano playing, and produced an impressive body of knowledge on the elements that make for an effortless and brilliant technique.

Some of Dorothy Taubman’s students have incorporated her work into their own piano teaching, adhering to her principles to varying degrees and – depending on the duration and intensity of their studies with her – at different levels of expertise.

Operating under the Taubman label, the “Dorothy Taubman Seminar” was founded in 2003 by Maria del Pico Taylor, Sondra Tammam, Father Paul Maillet, and the late Eleanor Hancock. Their goal was to offer hands-on training as well as master classes with Dorothy Taubman at Temple University in Philadelphia. Many others have incorporated elements of Taubman’s work without drawing special attention to it.

The general interest in body awareness practices, like the Alexander Technique or the Feldenkrais Method, led to different initiatives to directly connect Taubman’s findings to other disciplines, thus creating innovative symbioses. In terms of the Alexander Technique, in which I am personally engaged in and which I find most fascinating, I would agree with my Alexander teacher, Monika Gross, who sees the technique as supportive to the Taubman Approach.

"The Alexander Technique teaches about developing a conscious awareness of a basic, general physiological principal of coordination. This understanding will then create good conditions and therefore the ideal fundamentals for the well-coordinated activity at the piano, as suggested by the Taubman Approach," she says.

Rene Jackson, an Alexander Technique practitioner and piano teacher, who has studied with Mary Moran and Edna Golandsky for the past 18 years, states: "Alexander’s discoveries can have a huge effect on changing any habits… Combining the small specific movements found in the Taubman Approach can often be done more readily with Alexander’s ‘concept of inhibition’ of the old movements."

Eli Wader, an expert Feldenkrais teacher who for 12 years has studied with Moshe Feldenkrais and who has lectured and taught in Israel and Switzerland for many years, is also experienced in working with professional musicians. According to him, the beauty and expressivity of a musician’s output improves dramatically after a Feldenkrais session.

The last few years saw multiple attempts for the exchange of ideas between those inherently unique yet akin disciplines. A website started by Dr.Theresa Dybvig, a former student of Dorothy Taubman and teacher at the former Taubman Institute, particularly stands out in informing about different directions within this interdisciplinary work.

Edna Golandsky is the person with whom Dorothy Taubman worked most closely. Considered the leading exponent of the Taubman Approach, she was with Dorothy Taubman for over 25 years – first as her student, then as assistant and co-founder of the Taubman Institute. In 2003 they parted ways, and Edna Golandsky established the Golandsky Institute with former Taubman Institute faculty John Bloomfield, Robert Durso, and Mary Moran.

Faculty chair and senior director John Bloomfield explains the process that led to today’s institute:
"The Golandsky Institute grew out of the original Taubman Institute. Central was the acknowledgment that the Taubman Approach was to survive and flourish only if there were qualified teachers who could pass it on. After long hours of discussion between the founders, a multi-pronged program was implemented to include extensive requirements in theoretical knowledge, supervised teaching and performance."

Edna Golandsky stresses that what remains at the heart of the process is a clear understanding of how to diagnose problems and implement solutions, and that teachers need to know how to integrate the many various components of a technique into a purposeful structure. "For that reason we have a system where each teacher can be mentored by taking his/her students to one of the teachers who has produced consistently good results."

"The application of the technique is highly individual," explains John Bloomfield. "The success of the mentoring system has been dramatic. We see over and over that with the right input by an experienced teacher, most teachers can develop their own pedagogical skills to a much higher level. Students are learning faster and more thoroughly than ever before."

The teacher training workshops that take place several times a year in New York City and Philadelphia are one of the mainstays of the mentoring system. "Taubman teachers never stop refining their skills," concludes John Bloomfield.

There are also yearly summer symposiums, which are held at Princeton University. During a program-packed week, the institute offers explorations of the Taubman Approach on many levels. Currently the Institute employs 13 faculty members during their Princeton symposiums: 11 certified associates and instructors and 10 additional participants from its professional training program.

I remember the first time I attended a Golandsky Institute Summer Symposium at Princeton. Gene Hollinger, an elderly gentleman, whose subtle tone at the piano I had noticed in my amateur piano group, invited me to see for myself what had changed his life at the piano forever.
The week spent at the beautiful campus was an experience in itself. Long days filled with fascinating seminars, lectures and demonstrations at the piano created the ideal learning environment. Lecturers became artists at nightly concerts, and amateurs found new levels of accomplishment. Strangers connected with each other over incredible stories that injured pianists, who got their careers back, shared, and teachers who never thought they had it in them to teach found their life’s purpose. Striving for excellence and social interaction and exchange went hand in hand, adding up to a very personal, unforgettable experience.

Being able to immerse myself completely in piano playing for an entire week was a dream come true in itself. But the most amazing aspect of that summer for me was the intensity with which the Taubman Approach was being demonstrated.

In the seminars, the basic elements of the Taubman Approach were explained on different levels, for beginners as well as for returning students. Lectures focused on specific details that were further explored in groups put together according to level of expertise. Senior director Robert Durso led one of the most vivid group sessions I recall. Captivating group members with a remarkably precise investigation into the needs of each student, he delivered his wisdom with a great sense of humor and insight into human nature. The institute’s assistants who – according to specific instructions by the teacher – continued to coach students in their practice time clarified further questions during private lessons.

But it was the master classes that provided what everybody was craving: inspiring demonstrations on how the technical elements finally connect within the musical context.

There was something very special about a learning experience shared with students from all over the United States, Canada, and Europe, as well as from Asia and the Pacific Region. Among the participants was Australian Theresa Milanovic, who this year was certified as a Taubman Instructor and is in the process of writing her doctoral thesis about the Taubman Approach to piano technique for the Queensland Conservatorium at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia.

One could truly sense everybody’s enthusiasm, particularly that of the veterans which made newcomers welcome. It was as if they were saying, "Good for you that you finally came here to explore the benefits of that work. Once you get it, you will see in which great way it will impact you."

"Getting it" did not happen overnight for me, by the way. In fact, I remember being in tears at my first lesson with the wonderful concert pianist Ilya Itin, also a faculty member of the Golandsky Institute. I am not sure what exactly I had expected from my lesson with the fabulously talented ‘Russian school’ pianist. I was totally new to the method, but had somehow hoped for some magical pianistic artistry bestowed unto me, when all we could work on was how to let the hand fall freely, as to eliminate any tension.

But then nothing of substance can ever be expected to come along as a quick fix. I decidedly wiped off my tears and – thanks to Itin’s assurance that the process would not only take its very own time (which is not always the same for every student), but also a lot of commitment – I decided to continue my exploration. Thanks to Mary Moran’s publication on the elements of the Taubman Approach for beginners, future generations will have a head start.

The seminars have offered me a unique opportunity to meet and work with different teachers and coaches over the years – John Bloomfield, Robert Durso, Father Sean Duggan, Ilya Itin, Kendall Feeney, Deborah Cleaver, Audrey Schneider, Marc Steiner, Justin Jacobs, and Theresa Milanovic. There are many others I am looking forward to work with.

While each teacher has his or her specific and personal approach, all have been informative and passionate about their work. Coming from a variety of backgrounds, they are highly regarded in their own right, and have been rigorously trained in the Taubman Approach. Besides their teaching careers at the Institute, many also teach at other institutions, as well as privately, and maintain active careers as performers.

I am very thankful for having made essential progress since my first encounter with the Taubman Approach, and I appreciate being able to study with Edna Golandsky on a year-around basis, staying the course with this intriguing process and the truly extraordinary potential it offers.

It speaks to the well-rounded approach and ceaseless development of the Golandsky Institute’s work that it is now understood there are virtually no limits to the ever-evolving potential and relevance of the Taubman Approach. This year, for example, saw the Taubman Approach applied to a variety of instruments, including the violin, the viola, and the cello, under British violinist Sophie Till, head of the String Department at the Marywood University in Pennsylvania and director of the Maywood String Project. She is currently a participant in the institute’s teacher certification program, where, under Edna Golandsky‘s guidance, she has been developing the Taubman Approach for string players of all levels, demonstrating that the benefits of the Taubman Approach are applicable to all musicians and instruments.

Another example is The Art of Rhythmic Expression, a three-disc DVD-ROM set, and the first issue of the Golandsky Institute's Discovery Series, released by the Golandsky Institute in 2005. The set grew out of lectures at the Princeton Summer Symposium in 2004, and focuses on the Taubman Approach as applied to the essentials of rhythm in music. In his 2006 review of the DVDs, which feature lively demonstrations of popular piano repertoire, University of the Arts in Philadelphia faculty member Don Glandon highly recommends The Art of Rhythmic Expression to jazz pianists and educators:

Edna Golandsky addresses the issue of how to most efficiently translate the rhythmic ‘feel’, the rhythmic complexity that is so prevailing in the art of jazz and its intent, into a musical result at the keyboard. Indeed the great accomplishment of the Taubman Approach in general is the realization of musical intent through the most efficient physical motions.

Using pieces from the classical repertoire, Golandsky demonstrates how rhythmic vitality, flow and swing can be achieved through shaping, tone production and the emphasis of the beats, revealing how physical movements relate to the rhythmic construction of each phrase. The application of this information for jazz pianists seems evident.

He concludes: "She gives a fresh perspective on the development of rhythmic piano performance and continues to explore a new paradigm in piano pedagogy…"

Bill Charlap, one of the finest pianists interpreting jazz standards, who has also appeared as a guest artist at the Golandsky Institute, is also full of praise: "This is a method of tuning into the body’s natural sense of alignment, a technique that helps musicians add strength as well as agility to their playing."

And he continues: "More importantly, it allows pianists to play pain-free … It’s a way of using the entire mechanism of the piano, not just isolation of the fingers. That opens the door for technical freedom, and that leads to musical freedom – you can’t have one without the other. The even tone that results when the forearm, hand and fingers are connected allows for accents and idiomatic jazz articulations but frees me from ‘strong finger’ versus ‘weak finger’ problems. The physical freedom offered by the Taubman Approach is the perfect companion to the creative freedom pursued by improvising jazz pianists."

Edna Golandsky continues to broaden the reach and influence of the Taubman Approach, which is increasingly being embraced by the greats of jazz. Jazz pianist Danilo Perez, who just hosted his 7th Annual Panama Jazz Festival, says about the Taubman Approach and Edna Golandsky’s work:

The Taubman Approach should be taught worldwide. It should be a part of every educational system from early on, so pianists can develop their utmost potential. It makes playing the piano so easy. Before I met Edna I always had to warm up. Now I can sit at the piano and just go; I never get uncomfortable or tired. Even when I am away from the piano, when I come back I can play right away. I understand how to get every color – be it singing, percussive or anything in between. It has also made me a much better listener to the degree that I can help the tuner do a better job with the different pianos that I perform on. I am so aware now of the evenness of the keys and of the sound.

Edna Golandsky’s work with the Taubman method allowed me to reflect and learn as a musician – she woke up my awareness of the subtleties and beauties of tone-production.

Perez will attend the Taubman Workshop at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia on February 6, 2010. For schedule and events visit the Golandsky Institute web site

Publications by the Golandsky Institute:

  • The Art of Rhythmic Expression: Lectures and Master Classes presented by Edna Golandsky. The Golandsky Institute 2004 Summer Symposium at Princeton University. DVD Set
  • The Art of Concert Preparation: Lecture and Master Classes Conducted by Edna Golandsky, with Ilya Itin and Danilo Perez. From the 2005 Golandsky Institute Summer Symposium at Princeton University. DVD Set
  • The Forgotten Lines: Lectures Presented by Edna Golandsky. The Golandsky Institute 2006 Summer Symposium at Princeton University. DVD Set
  • Beginning Piano Lessons in the Taubman Approach: Book I – Basic Alignment and Rotation. Written by Mary Moran, edited by Edna Golandsky.

 

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About Ilona Oltuski

  • Sue

    I studied the Taubman method for a few months and it definitely helped my playing. But a couple of years later, I started taking Alexander Technique lessons and I have to say I wish I had discovered that approach earlier and it totally turned things around for me – more precisely, it allowed ME to totally turn things around for myself! Their website at http://alexandertechnique.com is very helpful in learning more about it