An article on shaping musical expression with effective piano technique, by master pedagogue Edna Golandsky.
Brahms said, “Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind.”
We often think of craftsmanship and musical expression as two separate entities. In fact, they are two parts of one system, where musical expression depends on technical proficiency.
While we can feel music in our hearts and bodies, listen with our ears, and desire certain effects with our mind, those parts of the body don’t play or control the keys going down.
It is the role of the fingers, with the aid of the hand and forearm, to play the keys. The Taubman Approach provides both the knowledge and the practical implementation of all aspects of piano technique so that the pianist can create the full range of musical expression.
I did not begin my piano studies using the Taubman Approach. My own studies began with a wonderfully dedicated teacher hailing from the Moscow Conservatory who instilled a love of music in me. During my time with her, the technical part of my studies consisted primarily of the traditional practising of scales and arpeggios and repeating passages many times, while the rest of my practice time was devoted to expressing the music.
After eight years with her, I spent another eight years of study at The Juilliard School of Music. While preparing for my M.A. degree there, I was introduced to Dorothy Taubman and the Taubman Approach through my roommate, whose playing had become transformed through working with her.
Studying the Taubman Approach opened my eyes to a whole new world of possibilities: rational explanations for passage problems, overcoming technical limitations, and acquiring the tools to express music to its fullest.
For the first time in my life, I didn’t depend on inspiration or on having to “feel” the music in my body. I learned to produce any sound regardless of how I was feeling at the moment, and I began to understand the organic connection between technique and musical results.
We start with tone production: the most fundamental element of musical expression.
A singing rich tone at every volume and colour is the most wished for and challenging part of tone production.
Tone production begins the moment we connect our fingers to the hand and forearm and stop isolating the fingers. Connecting the fingers to the hand and forearm allows them to move freely across the keyboard, and the weight of the forearm is the main factor to not only put the key down with ease but control the sound as well.
When the correct alignment takes place, as we play a key, we notice that there is not only a change in the physical feeling but also in the sound. It has a thicker quality and a ringing tone that was not there before. The thickness of sound comes from including the hand and especially the forearm when playing the key. The added weight from those parts makes all the difference.
Another critical element of tone production is key speed, which gives us the ability to control both the quality and volume of sound. Sound decreases for two reasons: slower key descent and less forearm weight.
It is helpful for the fingers, hands and forearm to start close to the key surface. The pianist can then begin to develop control over the speed of the descent of the key and notice how it affects sound.
On the other hand, when the fingers play faster and faster into the key, the sound grows in volume while becoming harsh and percussive. Also, pushing harder and faster into the keys ends up with tension, pain, and bruised fingertips.
We all hear wonderful pianists who have big, lush sounds. Clearly, they are doing something different, usually intuitively.
Taubman’s thinking was that with some exceptions or abnormalities, we are all built the same, and the piano is basically a machine, so if she could understand the capabilities of the human body and the instrument and marry the two together, she could find the answer to this riddle.
She discovered that to avoid percussiveness, the key has to be put down a little slower, which, as discussed previously, decreases the sound. However, the added weight from the forearm compensates for the loss of key speed.
The correct proportion of weight and speed give us the control to produce any sound, including the big lush sounds and singing tones that we associate with the great pianists.
The above explanation provides an overview of the specific elements needed to produce tone. However, additional factors bear on tone production and have to be taken into consideration as well.
The word “weight” traditionally comes with a lot of baggage. Some pedagogues have realized that fingers alone are not the answer to producing sound and that more weight is needed.
Unfortunately, their solution has been to relax weight from the upper arm as well as relaxing and dropping the wrist, reasoning that relaxing and dropping the wrist will absorb the shock of the fingers striking the keys. However, the heavy weight from the upper arm makes it difficult for the fingers to move and also causes fatigue, tension, and pain.
Furthermore, dropping the wrist breaks the alignment between the hand and forearm and prevents the forearm weight, necessary for tone production, from getting to the fingers and the keys. It is also the reason for carpal tunnel syndrome. Understanding that releasing weight is not relaxation and that any amount of tension is an obstacle are fundamental keys to tone production.
Finger isolation and the exercises that go with it are some of the main causes for fatigue, tension, pain, all of which limit technical facility and tone production.
In the discussion about alignment, I stressed that the playing apparatus had to be aligned in order to produce rich tones. If the fingers become isolated and break the alignment, the sound is thin and often sharp.
Most of the time, in order to play softly, pianists hold their arms and shoulders up, fearing that the sounds will be too loud. This causes fatigue and tension and hampers the ability to control any sound.
Seat height is a fundamental necessity for aligning the finger, hand, and forearm to the piano.
The wrist must be at the proper height to align the hand and forearm.
There is a point of resistance roughly 3/8 of an inch down from the top of the key, at which point the hammer hits the string and falls back. We call this point of resistance the “point of sound.” There is a small follow-through to the key bed, where the finger and forearm rest comfortably and solidly.
Reading about how to produce tone is very different from feeling it, which happens at the lesson.
The release of different amounts of weight is invisible and can seem mysterious until it is felt. The different speeds of key depression are invisible as well, and the two need to happen with the help of gravity. The amount that makes such a difference in sound happens on a micro-level, which is another reason why it has evaded detection.
Slowing down the key and controlling the amount of weight is a new and unfamiliar experience to most pianists. Like all elements of technique, they don’t occur at either extreme of the spectrum but somewhere in the middle. Properly done, slowing down with weight also makes the fingertips feel cushy, thick and wide, even when one’s tips are narrow.
It is the result of slowing down with weight rather than wishful thinking that your fingers need thick pads. Various movements of the hand and arm sideways, forward and back, up and down, and higher and lower, which we call rotation, in and out, walking hand and arm, and shaping, position the hand and forearm in the proper place to play each key during playing. These proper positions and motions allow the weight of the forearm to compensate for the lack of key speed.
While tone production is the foundation, it is one of several other elements that together connect technique to musical expression. My website offers additional information about the technique and instructional materials, and The Golandsky Institute offers even more: instructional materials, virtual and in-person seminars, and referrals for private lessons.