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Retraining in the Taubman Approach

I was injured during the first semester of my graduate studies at Kent State University in Ohio. I had had mild pain in the past, along with an overall sense of technical limitation that I attributed to a lack of practicing, but this was different. Suddenly, almost overnight, I lost the ability to play even simple scales without pain. When other methods of pain relief proved ineffective (I tried massage, acupuncture, Tiger Balm, IcyHot, Epsom salt soaks, ice, ibuprofen, wrist braces, physical therapy, and examination by other piano technique experts), my professor suggested I attend the Golandsky Institute's Summer Symposium in Princeton. After learning about the Taubman approach, I decided that the only way I would ever be able to pursue life as a musician would be to retrain. It really was a choice between retraining and giving up piano altogether. I chose to study with Yoriko Fieleke. She is based in Boston, and I had connections there who would give me a place to stay when I came for lessons.

I began flying to Boston every three weeks or so to have lessons with Yoriko. At the same time, I continued my studies at Kent State, choosing the option to write a thesis instead of performing a recital to fulfill my degree requirements so I could focus solely on my retraining.

When I started retraining, I went back to the very basics of playing piano. My first lessons were all about setting up my bench at the right height, approaching the keyboard with a unified hand and arm, and resting lightly on the keys without collapsing or breaking that alignment. I probably only played a handful of notes, practicing balancing on one finger at a time. We worked alternately on the keys and on the closed keyboard lid. It was difficult learning to approach the piano without my hand automatically snapping into its “piano shape,” with artificially curled fingers stretched to cover one note per finger. In order to trick my hand into doing the right thing, Yoriko coached me to tell myself things like, “This is a table. I'm just going to touch my fingertips to this table.” I found I had the best luck when looking out the window, removing the piano's visual stimulus entirely. I was amazed at how much concentration it took to do such a simple movement, because I was working against many years of ingrained physical habit.

One of the wonderful things about the Taubman approach is that it works with the body's fundamentally natural movements. Even though it initially took so much concentration to learn the unified movements, my body readily accepted them because they took the physical path of least resistance. Therefore, re-learning to play with the Taubman approach was a much shorter process than learning to play in the first place.

By the time I was able to see Yoriko again, we were ready to work on using rotation to connect the notes, instead of landing on each one with a vertical drop. Over the next several months, we used the rotational technique to do 5-finger patterns, one- and two-octave scales, and arpeggios, incorporating in-and-out and walking hand and arm along the way. During this time, I was still struggling with my injury. I had to be very conscientious of what I did not only at the piano, but in my everyday life. Any small deviation from the unified movements I was learning could cause the pain to return. In a way, this was a blessing, because it meant I could instantly tell if what I was doing at the piano was right or wrong. Whenever I played using the Taubman approach, the pain would not come.

Finally, it was time to start applying all the basic skills I'd been developing to an actual piece of music. Everyone who goes through Taubman retraining has a “retraining piece,” usually a Mozart sonata or something similar, that he or she gets to pick apart and learn from the inside out, working very specifically to learn each element of movement necessary to play the piece successfully. My retraining piece was Mozart's Sonata in C Major, K. 545. Yoriko had me start with the scale and arpeggio passages in each hand separately. Only when those were comfortable and fluent did we work on the slower themes and incorporate concepts like leaps, hand interdependence, and tone production.

It was working on the Mozart when I finally learned how to use the shaping movements to tie all the other movements together. Suddenly, my playing felt more fluent and even than it ever had even before I was injured. My hands felt equally strong, and I didn't have the sense anymore that there would always be things I could never really do. Though I had (and still have) much more to learn about the Taubman approach, I was beginning to get a real sense of how learning it could completely break down any physical limitations at the instrument.

Learning the Taubman approach has fundamentally transformed the way I play, teach, and think about the piano. Though my injury felt like an extreme setback, I am so glad that I have had this opportunity for growth and change. I'm extremely excited to have been accepted into the Golandsky Institute's Teacher Certification program, because it means I am learning how to effectively teach others to go beyond their perceived limitations in the same way that retraining helped me.

This post was originally published on the Golandsky Institute blog

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