Dorothy Taubman, Thomas Mark and practising without injury

For anyone who still believes in a high finger technique and isn’t familiar with the Taubman approach to technique: watch the following video (and the next three in the sequence). This will be the best 50 mins of YouTubing you’ll do this year!

For more information, check out the Taubman Institute and Golandsky Institute websites. In addition, if you are in Australia, Therese Milanovic in Brisbane, who presented at the APPA conference in 2011, is a certified Taubman teacher.

In regard to preventing injury while playing piano, I also found an interesting book by Thomas Mark which gives a detailed analysis of the skeletal and muscular structures of the body and how these relates to piano playing. It covers everything from the basic physics and principles of sitting correctly to playing the most complex pieces without strain.

In regard to injuries, Mark (who is not a physician but has clearly done his research) narrows his study on anatomy down to one thing: injury comes from playing with tension and tense movement, not by failure to warm up or take breaks.

In this way, he is completely in agreement with Taubman who emphasises a natural hand, arm and body alignment with no tension and maximum fluidity of movement. It’s not about developing strength and endurance like athletes playing a sport; rather, pianists need flexibility and a sense of integration in everything they do.

I have a lot of trouble with teenage slouchers in my studio (you know the kids who sit so badly they end up resting their elbows on their legs?!) and have found that you must demonstrate how they can support themselves with just a little strength in their core.

Mark explains that, when seated, if the centre of gravity is in equilibrium, nothing else should be required to keep the body upright and the skeleton should be self-supporting.

The bones and connective tissue should support our weight and conduct it to the piano bench with little need for muscular effort. This allows the body to be free to move effortlessly. The head sits balanced directly above the structures that support it and take it’s weight. The head is heavy and must not be allowed to collapse forward and hence be held by neck muscles.

Makes sense to me, but unfortunately, the more time kids spend slouching in front of computers and TVs (see my post on Hamlet’s Blackberry) the harder this habit is to correct – let me know if you’ve got any suggestions!

Mark also suggests that teachers should ask students, “how much of your body were you aware of as you played that passage”. It’s easy to think that we play piano with our fingers because that’s what everyone sees and is amazed by, but we don’t play only with our fingers. Watch the pros – they move their arms, torso, legs. Hence, finger training exercises aren’t as important as people think.

Saying that we play piano with our fingers is like saying that we run with our feet! We play piano just as we run: by complex coordinated movement of our whole bodies. A runner that tries to improve his running by keeping his legs motionless and doing foot exercises would be ridiculous!

Here are a few other techniques that Mark discourages:

  • Coin on back of hand
  • Wrist octaves
  • Finger independence/isolation exercises
  • “keep your arm still and only move the finger” practice

A teaching method based on finger movements isolated from supporting movements in the rest of the body is not [just] harmless. It is dangerous.

Interesting reading and, I dare say, perhaps controversial for some teachers. I find exploring the different ways of teaching piano technique, and knowing how it has changed over the centuries, fascinating. I hope that this knowledge deepens my understanding of the profession and broadens my palette of teaching skills. I do, however, always keep one thing in mind: every student is different! The technique for achieving a particular pianistic or musical goal must suit the student’s hand, body and mind.