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

 

From healthy technique to natural artistry


Not so long ago a book as comprehensive and user-friendly as this would not be possible. It would require essential supplementary materials – DVDs and CDs – to cover all the ground. But with ease of access to the internet and smart phone technology at one’s fingertips, The Complete Pianist is exactly what it says it is: a comprehensive, generous guide to playing and teaching the piano, and one of the most significant volumes on piano technique to appear in recent decades. The benefit of technology means that pianists, whether professional or amateur, teachers and students can access some 300 video demonstrations via QR codes within the text, all of which have been recorded by Penelope Roskell herself to demonstrate a specific exercise, aspect of technique or musical point described in the pages of the book.

The Complete Pianist is the result of a lifetime of piano playing, teaching and research, and in it Penelope Roskell, renowned pedagogue and concert pianist, aims to help pianists of all levels improve their playing from the very earliest stages of learning a piece, through all the technical challenges and interpretative decisions to finding inspiration in the act of performance itself. Throughout, there is a strong emphasis on healthy technique and playing without tension, and Penelope continually reiterates that technique should serve the music, that it is a means to enable the player, whatever their level of expertise, to play with expression, vibrant colour and confidence.

Penelope Roskell’s approach to technique grew out of personal experience. As young pianist she experienced unpleasant physical symptoms while practising Liszt’s second piano concerto, and found that physical tension adversely affected her sound. She set out on a lifelong mission to develop a healthier approach to piano playing, drawing on yoga, Alexander Technique, Tai Chi and Feldenkrais, an understanding of anatomy, and her own research, often trying out exercises and techniques with her students to establish what worked or was most beneficial, both to the physical body of the pianist and the production of expressive sound.

Anyone who has studied with Penelope Roskell will be familiar with her technical and musical exercises, such as Empty Sleeves or The Hot Air Balloon and Parachute Touch, which aim to balance and relax the body or simplify and explain the physical movements required to create a particular sound or effect on the piano. Such descriptive, easily understood exercises can be particularly appealing to young people or early students who may find visual cues more helpful than verbal explanations. In addition, many of the exercises which Penelope advocates are based on the naturally flowing bodily movements we use in everyday life, thus making them relevant and more easily put into practice at the piano. The Complete Pianist contains 250 exercises, newly-devised by the author.

This comprehensive book covers all aspects of piano technique including posture, finger touch and tone production, chords, octaves, rotation, and lateral movements. There are also sections on mental preparation, effective practice, sight reading, memorisation, phrasing, rhythm, articulation, sound production, pedalling, injury prevention and understanding and managing performance anxiety.

The emphasis on preventing and managing injury is particularly important: until fairly recently, musicians’ health and wellbeing were rarely discussed and hardly touched upon in their teaching and training. Injury was regarded as a taboo subject, not to be mentioned for fear of revealing a weakness that may lead to loss of work, and musicians tended not to seek specialist help for health issues such as RSI or tendonitis. As the UK’s foremost piano teacher specialising in pianists’ injuries, and Piano Advisor for the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine ((BAPAM), Penelope Roskell offers highly informed, but straightforward and pragmatic advice for pianists of all ages and levels to encourage healthy technique. The Complete Pianist includes sections on injury recovery, rehabilitation and prevention, developing hand and finger strength, and hypermobility (double-jointedness) and specific issues relating to this for the pianist. In addition, section 22 (The Inspired Pianist) debunks many of the myths and obstacles of piano playing and performance, and offers intelligent suggestions to encourage motivation, set realistic goals and build confidence to maintain one’s interest in and enthusiasm for the piano. There is also a lengthy section on understanding anxiety, a significant issue for many pianists, professional and amateur. Once again, Penelope offers sensible, sympathetic advice – from understanding the physiology of anxiety and the effects of the release of adrenaline to dealing with perfectionism and negative thinking.

In addition to the many videos throughout the book, which range from simple piano pieces to concert repertoire, there are detailed appendices on anatomy and a glossary of terms which occur in the text.

In sum, The Complete Pianist is a remarkable achievement, a comprehensive manual for pianists and teachers, packed with invaluable accumulated wisdom and intelligent advice, and excellent supporting materials. Penelope Roskell simplifies the craft and art of piano playing, without ever devaluing musical ability, talent and artistry, and provides pianists with the tools to practice and work independently, yet with the sense of a supportive, sympathetic teacher always at one’s side, encouraging one to continually develop one’s artistic skill.

Highly recommended

The Complete Pianist is published by Edition Peters UK and retails at £44.95


A postscript….

I took private lessons with Penelope Roskell for six years from 2008, a few years after I had returned to playing the piano seriously after an absence of some 20 years. I went to her initially with a hand injury – tenosynovitis which had developed as a result of attempting to play the octave passages in Schubert’s first Klavierstück, D946, too quickly, too loudly and with poor technique. In the space of 6 months, she had transformed my technique, filling in the gaps which were missing from my piano studies as a teenager, and built my confidence to such an extent that I felt able to attempt a professional performance diploma, which I passed with distinction in 2011 (I subsequently took my licentiate diploma just 14 months later, with Penelope’s encouragement, also achieving a pass with Distinction).

Returning to the piano as an adult was not easy, but Penelope’s intelligent, sympathetic and respectful approach made a huge difference, not only to my own playing but also to my fledgling teaching career. She was always generous with her advice and suggestions, urging me to try her exercises with my own students and report back to her. Her weekend piano courses were stimulating events and through them I discovered new repertoire and met other pianists, a number of whom have become close friends.

Her new book is a comprehensive and inspiring distillation of her experience and wisdom.

(Frances Wilson, The Cross-Eyed Pianist)

peneloperoskell.co.uk

Meet the Artist interview with Penelope Roskell

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

I was brought up in a small seaside town, and was extremely lucky to find there an excellent teacher, who had studied with Tobias Matthay at the Royal College of Music. I loved piano playing from day one. Later, I joined the junior college at the Royal Northern College of Music, and it was then that I decided to pursue a playing career.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Each of my teachers has influenced me in their own way. Sir William Glock (a Schnabel student) worked a lot on phrasing. George Hadjinikos was a very philosophical musician and Guido Agosti was the pinnacle of refinement. Perlemuter gave me a direct line to Ravel (he studied all Ravel’s works with the composer himself). I have also learnt a great deal from working with other instrumentalists and singers.

I am also very grateful to some key musicians who have helped shape my career, for instance Carola Grindea who encouraged me to become involved with EPTA (the European Piano Teachers Association), and BAPAM (British Association for Performing Arts Medicine) where I now advise injured musicians.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

There were two main turning points in my career. As a young pianist, I thought I was invincible. I was working with a teacher who pushed me very hard technically, and in my third year at music college, I developed tenosynovitis (severe pain in my right thumb). This forced me to reconsider my whole approach to technique, and led to my life-long research into healthy piano playing.

I continued focussing primarily on performance for many years, until I had several years of bad health, followed by the birth of my children. This resulted in a second change of direction, in which I reduced my touring and focused more on teaching, which I have found very fulfilling.

I keep having to remind students who have major challenges or setbacks of one kind or another, that if one door closes, we can look for a different door.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Impossible to say! I love performing and have been fortunate to play in both major concert venues and very intimate settings – I enjoy both. Sometimes one plays one’s best in the least expected places. When I was in my twenties, I played a lot of concerts abroad for the British Council, sometimes playing to audiences who had rarely heard classical music played live before. In those circumstances, I felt a huge responsibility to bring across the music’s message very strongly, over and above any technical concerns. This proved very liberating and I think that it is very valuable training for any young pianist to gain experience of a wide range of audiences and venues – it also helps you develop resilience and adaptability.

In addition to performing, you have a distinguished career as a teacher. Who or what inspired to you start teaching?

I started teaching while still at school, teaching some of my fellow students and helping them prepare for their piano exams. I partly funded myself through college by teaching, and then was lucky to be offered a teaching post at Keele University in my postgraduate year. I am eternally grateful to Sir William Glock for recommending me to the post at Keele which later led to conservatoire teaching posts. I have been teaching at Trinity Laban (formerly Trinity College of Music) for twenty years now, alongside work at other colleges and a private practice.

Who/what have been the most significant influences on your teaching?

I was fortunate to experience a range of dedicated and inspiring teachers from an early age. Each had a very different approach, (and at times I even worked with two very contradictory teachers simultaneously). This worked well for me as the contradictions stimulated me to question everything and to try to work out the best solutions for myself. However, I do not recommend this for everyone – I think every pianist needs a regular, committed teacher who can oversee their longer-term development.

My experience of other movement techniques including yoga, Tai Chi and Alexander technique, my collaboration with an osteopath, and my research into anatomy have also been invaluable. However, it took many years of research and experimentation before I could work out how to apply all this knowledge directly to piano playing.

Having come across many pianists who missed out on a thorough grounding in their early years, I feel passionate about the need to train a new generation of enthusiastic, committed and knowledgeable teachers. Music colleges still tend to focus predominantly on performance, yet so many pianists would enjoy teaching more if they knew how to do it really well. Confident and knowledgeable teachers nurture enthusiastic students, who in turn inspire the teacher’s work further. There are some good piano teaching courses available, but in order to fill a perceived gap in the understanding of teaching technique, I am starting up a teacher training course next winter, in which teachers can explore new methods of teaching technique, based on the exercises in The Complete Pianist.

What are your views on music exams, festivals and competitions?

I think this depends very much on the individual. Some thrive and feel motivated by exams and competitions, others prefer to play concerts, or just to play piano for their own pleasure. I think there is a role for everyone in music. As a young pianist, I much preferred playing concerts to competitions, as I played better in front of a real audience. Having said which, I now very much enjoy being a member of competition juries, especially those that support and nurture young musicians. It’s a major challenge and a huge responsibility to have to judge one talented student against another.

Your new book ‘The Complete Pianist’ is published on 20 February. Tell us more about the motivation for producing this and what you hope pianists will gain from it.

Over my lifetime, I have acquired an enormous amount of experience and understanding on all aspects of playing and teaching, and about fifteen years ago, I finally decided that I was ready to share this for the benefit of future generations. I started by writing magazine articles, mainly in Piano Professional magazine, which I always intended to build into a book eventually. A friend introduced me to Peters Edition, who said they ‘had been looking for this book for ten years’ so it was an ideal match! They encouraged me to be more and more ambitious, and once we had settled on the title of ‘The Complete Pianist’, it became clear that the book had to be as comprehensive as possible. (It now includes more than 500 pages of text, 250 exercises of my own devising and access to 300 videos in which I demonstrate all the main points myself). This posed an interesting challenge: it forced me to think in depth about some aspects of playing that I had not yet fully clarified in my own mind (a process which has, incidentally, also greatly enhanced my own teaching.) Several years on, the book is finally finished.

I think The Complete Pianist has much to offer every pianist, whether professional or amateur, teacher or student, and I have included musical examples which range from elementary to concert repertoire. I have also tried to recognise and address the differing needs of a wide range of pianists (for instance, I may recommend different exercises for pianists with weak hands to those with strong but rather inflexible hands). I think it is true to say that it’s one of the few major books on piano playing which has seriously addressed the additional challenges that pianists with smaller-than-average hands face.

For me, it is never enough just to tell a student what to do – I feel that it is incumbent on me as a teacher to explain very precisely and simply how to achieve that pianistically. In the book, therefore, each new aspect of playing is addressed through a series of practical exercises which guide the readers step-by-step towards healthy, inspired playing. The book covers all aspects of playing, from a whole-body approach, through every aspect of piano technique to informed interpretation. I also delve into the way we think about music: from mental preparation, effective practising and motivation to developing confidence for inspired performance.

I have tested all the exercises repeatedly on my own students. Many of my students are teachers themselves who have also used the exercises for their own students at different levels and given very valuable feedback.

I hope that the book will help many pianists overcome obstacles and realise their full potential at the piano.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Good question – what is success? I think success is doing whatever you do with absolute commitment and to the best of your abilities. There is still a tendency amongst musicians to relate success to prestigious venues, fame and money. It is quite natural for young pianists to aspire to that, but that kind of celebrity status only comes to a small number of pianists per generation. I think that success, and achieving a real sense of job satisfaction, is much more complex than that. Although external appreciation is encouraging, it can be fickle, and it is unwise to build our self-esteem mainly on the recognition of other people. Ultimately it is the knowledge that you are doing good work that is the most important thing. Musicians should take pride in their own and their students’ successes, whether that be playing a major concerto or just encouraging a new student to play a simple piece beautifully. Success is about genuine sharing of music making in a way that touches others, through playing or through teaching.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

That the music comes first! Still I hear of many pianists who have been taught to focus on technical ability above all else. This suppresses natural artistry and is more, not less, likely to lead to injury and disillusion. Cultivate your imagination and your humanity and it will shine through in your music and sustain you through a lifetime of playing.

The Complete Pianist: from healthy technique to natural artistry by Penelope Roskell is published on 20 February by Edition Peters and is available from shops and online: www.editionpeters/roskell


Penelope Roskell is Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. As a soloist she has played in major concert halls in more than thirty countries. She is the leading UK specialist in healthy piano playing, and Piano Advisor to the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine, where she holds a clinic for pianists with tension or injuries.

peneloperoskell.co.uk