How the Taubman Approach reimages traditional practicing

guest post by Edna Golandsky


The phrase “Practice makes perfect” is a commonplace in piano pedagogy. But what do we do when practice doesn’t make perfect?

When I was a young student, my teacher would tell me to practice for two hours a day, repeating pieces over and over again, to further develop my technique. Since the pieces were memorized, and all I had to do was let my fingers play on their own, I started putting books on the piano stand and read a book while I practiced, thinking I could accomplish two things at the same time. It was only many years later, after my eight years of study at Juilliard when I began working with Dorothy Taubman, that I began to understand the negative results of this kind of practicing. I began to use my brain in a whole new way and understood that true learning starts with the brain instructing the hands how to move, and then, my hands sending a message back to the brain indicating whether or not those instructions improved the passage.

My own experience during my early years at the piano is not unique. Repetition, either of passages, exercises or pieces is the norm in piano pedagogy. Below are some of the more common, traditional approaches to practicing:

  1. Repeating passages endlessly in the hope of producing fluidity, speed and security.
  2. Using different rhythms and transposing passages into different keys to master passages.
  3. Doing exercises that are supposed to develop finger strength and dexterity. Developed by Hanon, Czerny, Pischna, Phillipe, Dohnanyi and other pedagogues. These exercises include finger isolation exercises, which are often done with curled fingers, stretching exercises, pushing, and pressing hard into the key, and more.
  4. Relaxing, what we call breaking the wrist fulcrum, which is often done on downbeats.

The first two approaches to practicing listed above have not shown themselves to be sufficiently effective in developing or enhancing overall technique. The third and fourth approaches not only fail to advance the technique but actually can lead to fatigue, tension, and pain. Nevertheless, all of these routines, as well as others have been around for at least two centuries and have survived until today as the mainstay for building technique.

Efficient practicing is the cornerstone to advancing at the piano; the more effectively the student can use his or her time at the piano, the greater the progress will be. What all these approaches mentioned above don’t consider is that existing technical problems must be addressed and resolved in order for practicing to be effective.

Technical problems can be caused by any number of reasons. The necessary alignment between fingers, hand, and forearm may be missing. For example, the fingers are often isolated, curled and stretched. The seat height may be too high or too low. The hand may be twisting to the right or the left from the wrist joint. The elbows may be too far out or too far in. The choice of fingering may be faulty. All of these reasons result in fatigue, tension, and pain. Uncorrected, they can lead to serious injury.

Enter the Taubman Approach: a comprehensive approach to piano playing that addresses all aspects of piano technique and, in the process, transforms the way we practice.

Practicing efficiently starts by initially solving the specific technical problems that obstruct learning. The goal of this approach is a technique that is free of symptoms, with freedom, ease and security. Once the issues are resolved and the technique is working well, practice becomes efficient, pieces can be learned faster, and endless repetition becomes unnecessary.

The process I outline below is the way students practice in the Taubman Approach:

  1. Unless the piece feels comfortable from beginning to end, the student comes to the lesson with specific passage problems that he or she has been unable to resolve.
  2. The Taubman teacher diagnoses the root causes of the problem.
  3. The teacher shows the student the solution. The student tries the solution and gives the teacher feedback until the problem is resolved.
  4. The student practices the solutions between lessons. The practicing is done on the material covered at the lesson. Initially, he or she practices the solutions at a reduced tempo, and the movements are somewhat exaggerated. Everything practiced leads to the final result.
  5. The student increases the speed as the solution takes root and playing becomes easier and more comfortable.
  6. The solution is then put into a broader context: first the phrase, then the section, then the entire piece.

There is a high level of precision within these types of solutions, and they are best handled with an experienced Taubman teacher. Practicing has to be result-based, which means that the student has to be involved in the process of learning and practicing. The brain can best absorb a small amount of information at any given time. The student practices for as long as he or she can concentrate and takes a break when necessary. It is best to repeat only until the hoped-for result is obtained, and then move on. Discomfort and pain always indicate a problem and the student should stop, as continued practice will exacerbate the problem.

When students first come to me, I evaluate the overall situation. Often, they come with serious injuries that need in-depth work, which can necessitate fundamental changes. These changes are made gradually, in short intervals of practicing, until the hands begin to function normally. The students start with scales, passages, arpeggios. They then progress into pieces of music and develop additional skills, such as intervals, chords, jumps of every kind and more. As the work continues into musical interpretation, practice includes how to get all the different qualities of sound, how to achieve true legato effects, physical shaping, rhythmic expression and timing.

On some occasions, people come with technique that works well, but with a problem in certain area, such playing octaves quickly or getting big rich sounds that are not harsh without getting tired. I show them how to resolve the specific problem and explain how to practice the solution to get the best results.

The correct technique, learned and practiced correctly, can last a lifetime. Playing becomes as natural as walking and talking; the hands don’t forget.

In the Taubman Approach, we first learn the correct technique, then practice it in the ways described above until it becomes as natural to us as walking and talking. When the playing is correct the hands don’t forget what to do, and the skills can last for a lifetime. In that way,

“Practice can indeed make perfect!”


Edna Golandsky is a world-renowned piano pedagogue, the leading exponent of the Taubman Approach, and the Founder of the Golandsky Institute.

A graduate of the Juilliard School, where she studied under Jane Carlson, Rosina Lhévinne, and Adele Marcus, Ms. Golandsky has earned worldwide acclaim for her pedagogical expertise, extraordinary ability to solve technical problems, and her penetrating musical insight.

www.ednagolandsky.com

 

An Introduction to the Piano – Christopher Northam

Amidst all the recordings of virtuoso repertoire comes this delightful collection aimed at amateurs and piano students from pianist Christopher Northam.

Northam takes us on a chronological journey through some 300 years of keyboard music, from Byrd to Debussy, with plenty of gems of the repertoire, as well as lesser-known works by Pachulski and Alkan.

Although described as music “for beginners”, the selection includes some challenging pieces of cGrade 6 to 8 standard, including Beethoven’s much-loved Für Elise, Field’s Nocturne in B flat and Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk. Admittedly, these are not necessarily “concert pieces”, but they certainly require a fair degree of technical and artistic facility.

We are so used to high-quality recordings of concert repertoire by leading, acclaimed pianists, it is refreshing to have a selection which is clearly aimed at amateur players. The actor and keen amateur pianist Alistair McGowan attempted something similar a few years ago with his Piano Album, though the music selection was almost as unimaginative as his playing, and I am not convinced by McGowan’s assertion that hearing someone like him playing this music will inspire others (I suspect most aspiring pianists find inspiration in high quality performances, whatever the difficulty of the repertoire). By contrast, Northam treats this music with all the authority, care and commitment one would afford virtuoso repertoire, and performs it as if in a concert rather than strictly pedagogical setting.

Remarkably, the recording was made over 20 years ago at St George’s Bristol, which boasts one of the finest acoustics for piano and chamber music in the UK. Northam’s sensitivity and attention to detail in this crystalline acoustic results in a recording which sounds fresh and immediate.

The amateur piano world is huge, and very supportive of professional players, from whom many amateurs not only drawn inspiration but also receive tuition, in private lessons, masterclasses and summer schools. Yet the amateur world is often barely acknowledged; this excellent contribution from Christopher Northam recognises the importance of amateur pianists while offering inspiration in repertoire which is accessible and achievable. If I have one criticism it is that there is not a single piece by a female composer included in this otherwise excellent selection, but I am told by the manager at the recording label that the music selection was based on the then ABRSM syllabus, which, at the time, included no pieces by women composers.

Recommended


 
An introduction to the Piano is available on the HOXA label distributed via Naxos. Catalogue no. HS950701
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The first of a series of short films made in collaboration with Casio UK and Pianist magazine. In this film, Frances Wilson AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist offers suggestions on how to make the most of limited practice time, and making practising productive and most of all enjoyable.

Find out more about the Casio Premium Grand Hybrid


Frances Wilson is a pianist, piano teacher, writer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. She holds Licentiate and Associate Diplomas (both with Distinction) in Piano Performance, and for 12 years ran a successful piano teaching practice in SW London. She is now based in West Dorset where she teaches from her home in Portland. Further information

Tempo rubato (literally “stolen time” in Italian) is perhaps most closely associated with the music of Fryderyk Chopin, his friend and fellow composer Franz Liszt, and other composers of the Romantic period. But it is possible to achieve rubato effectively in Bach and other baroque music: indeed, all music, to a greater or lesser extent, should contain rubato in order for it to sound natural. While we should never lose a sense of pulse, music that is strictly metrical, with no sense of space or contour within phrases or sections, can be dull and monotonous, both to listen to and to play. Playing with rubato gives the music expressive freedom, allowing it space, room to breathe – just as the human voice has shifts in dynamic, tempo and cadence.

The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes – ah, that is where the art resides!

– Artur Schnabel, pianist (1882-1951)

Other instruments are able to achieve greater expressiveness through sound alone, but because the piano is a percussive machine, the pianist must employ different techniques to achieve expressiveness. When listening to music, the listener wants to be surprised or satisfied, and when we are playing, we should be aware of musical “surprises” within the score (unusual harmonies, intervals, suspensions, unexpected cadences etc) as well as instances of “satisfaction” (resolutions, full cadences, returning to the home key etc.). We can highlight these through dynamic shifts, and also by the use of rubato – arriving at a note or end of a phrase sooner or later to achieve either surprise or satisfaction

Rubato is not always written into the score as a specific direction and is often at the discretion of performer or conductor. It is perhaps most obvious when one hears a singer perform, and as a pianist, we can learn much from reimagining – and singing out loud – the melodic line as a sung line.

In Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words in B minor, Opus 67, no. 5, the composer uses directions such as “sf” (sforzando) to highlight points of interest in the music. A less refined pianist might be tempted to simply give extra emphasis or force on these notes, but a more expressive effect can be achieved by simply delaying arrival at the note. It is the “placing” of the note and the fractional silence before it that can achieve the most poetic effects.

In addition, hairpin crescendo markings can be interpreated as an indication to “set the music free” and “let it take flight”. Often, our natural inclination when we see such a marking is to increase the tempo slightly, just as we might slacken the tempo with a diminuendo. We can also highlight other aspects such as dissonance or unusual harmonic shifts by varying the tempo slightly, or allowing a certain spaciousness when playing repeated notes.

Rubato is not easy to teach, and inexperienced students may find it hard to shape phrases or allow “space” between notes convincingly. The key to good rubato is for it to sound natural and uncontrived. It is the very subtlety of rubato that makes it so convincing. This comes from both a detailed study of the score to gain a fuller understanding of the composer’s intentions and a sense of one’s own “personal sound” at the piano. Often rubato within a piece develops over time, as one grows more and more familiar with the contours and shifting moods of the music. The best rubato comes from within, and it should always be intuitive and unforced.

Mendelssohn – Song Without Words in B minor, Opus 67, no. 5

https://open.spotify.com/track/58fBJ0A96evPyloVHWjXJc 

Frank Bridge – In Autumn: II, Through the Eaves

 

Concert pianist Warren Mailley-Smith presents a one-day course for advanced (Diploma-level) pianists. Teaching will be combined with Alexander Technique (given by a qualified Alexander technique teacher ), healthy practise and approaches to memorisation.  For this one-day, action-packed course, Warren Mailley-Smith, as principal coach, draws on 20 years’ performing, teaching and coaching experience to make this a worthwhile and enjoyable experience for all. The course is specifically aimed at diploma-level pianists, of any age, looking to reduce unhelpful tension in their playing and guard against injury, and develop the ability to play from memory.

The course will include:

  • dealing with performance anxiety
  • memorisation
  • healthy practise approaches
  • injury avoidance
  • application of Alexander technique
  • participants concert
  • Tea, coffee, lunch, evening BBQ and drinks

£100

Starts at 9am on Saturday 1st September at Park ViewMusic Rooms, Beckenham, Kent

For further information and booking please visit parkviewmusic.com

 


r8c8duxkThe award-winning concert pianist Warren Mailley-Smith has made his solo debuts to critical acclaim at Wigmore Hall London and Carnegie Hall, New York.  In 2011 he made his much anticipated debut with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto.

Warren is in increasing demand as a solo concert artist, having been described recently by Classic FM as ‘Stunning…’, ‘Fantastic…’  ‘Sensational’, ‘Huge UK talent…’, ‘Gorgeous…!’  and by BBC Music Magazine as ‘Rising Star – Great Artist of Tomorrow”  .  He was recently featured as CD of the Week and Video of the Week on Classic FM and Classic FM TV respectively.

He has received over thirty invitations to perform for the British Royal Family at Buckingham Palace, Highgrove House and Sandringham House.

Warren studied at the Royal College of Music where he won numerous postgraduate prizes including a Countess of Munster Award and the French Piano Music Prize.  He then took further private studies with Peter Feuchtwanger and the late Ronald Smith.

Warren’s solo career now sees him performing in festivals and concert venues across the UK, accepting invitations from further afield to perform in Europe and the US.  His concerto repertoire includes works by Rachmaninov, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Mozart and Tchaikovsky and he works regularly with duo partners Rowena Calvert (cello), Susan Parkes (Soprano) and Matt Jones (violin).

Warren is currently in demand for his teaching expertise both privately and in masterclasses.

The release of a new exam syllabus is usually a much-anticipated event by piano teachers who are keen to explore new music with their students. The new ABRSM piano syllabus (2019-2020) was released on 7 June. For the sake of transparency I should mention that I contributed to the teaching notes for the new syllabus, so my review will be a general overview of the new syllabus.

The format of the piano grade exams remains unchanged, with List A focusing on Baroque and early Classical (or similarly idiomatic) repertoire, List B on Romantic or expressive music, and List C “everything else”, from contemporary pieces to jazz and show tunes or popular songs. The classic “usual suspects” are there – Gurlitt, Swinstead, Carroll (and it does slightly depress me to see a piece by Felix Swinstead which I learnt c1972!), together with pieces by the perennially popular Pam Wedgwood and Christopher Norton. The ABRSM promises a “broader range of styles” in the latest syllabus and it is certainly good to see some contemporary composers represented, including Cheryl Frances-Hoad (Commuterland/Grade 7) and Timothy Salter (Shimmer/Grade 8). Female composers are also somewhat better represented than in previous years. As in previous years, there is a complete refreshment of repertoire and the ABRSM has sought, as always, to balance the familiar with the lesser-known or more unusual, while maintaining standards across the grades. The supporting tests remain unchanged, though there is talk of a revision to the scales and arpeggio requirements at the next syllabus review.

As usual, the very early grades (1-3) tend towards “child-friendly” pieces to appeal to young pianists, but adult learners will enjoy Bartok’s haunting Quasi Adagio (Grade 1) and Gillock’s A Memory of Paris (Grade 2). ‘Close Every Door’ from Joseph and The Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat by Andrew Lloyd Webber is bound to be popular with students of all ages in this attractive and expressive transcription (Grade 1), as is Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ (Grade 3). More unusual pieces include Bernard Desormieres’ Anatolian 08 (Grade 4, List C) and Bloch’s Dream: No 10 from Enfantines (Grade 5). For my money, the more imaginative pieces tend to reside in the alternative lists for each grade. As in previous years, the repertoire list for Grade 8 extends to 32 pieces (instead of 18 for the other grades), offering students and teachers a sufficiently broad range of pieces to create an interesting “mini programme”.

These days the ABRSM is very conscious of its reputation as the leading international exam board with strong competition now coming from both Trinity College London and the London College of Music (for which the current piano grade syllabus is, in my opinion, the most imaginative and varied of all the boards). Thus, it has sought to remain true to its core strength by offering a syllabus which combines rigour with a selection of music to appeal to a wide range of students around the world (I understand that the “core canon” of works by Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven remains very popular with teachers and students in the Far East and SE Asia), and I think this syllabus is the most successful of recent years.

The format of the exam books remains unchanged from previous years with clear, well-edited music engraving and short accompanying notes for each piece. The music extracts on the accompanying CDs are also better quality than in previous years and offer useful reference for teachers and students. The accompanying Teaching Notes offer guidance on context, technical aspects and performance. Meanwhile, the ABRSM’s Piano Practice Partner app, which allows a learner to play along with real musicians’ performances, exactly as recorded or at a reduced tempo, has now been updated with pieces from the new syllabus. Other supporting materials are available via the ABRSM website.  The syllabus overlap period runs to 31 May 2019.

Further information