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Explaining the Taubman Approach

Many jazz pianists swear by it—but what is it exactly?

Danilo Pérez

Several years ago, one of Danilo Pérez’s students was suffering from tendinitis. Pianist Pérez was then a professor at the New England Conservatory; his student, also a pianist, experienced muscle fatigue and pain when he played. “I gave him the normal recipe: ‘Stop playing, let it come down, and then start again,’” Pérez recalls. “And I gave him some tips. But nothing worked. I felt committed to helping him, so I started searching around. And that’s how I got to the Taubman piano school.”

Taubman (or the Taubman Approach) is indeed the name for a school of thought, a piano method formulated by music pedagogue Dorothy Taubman. But what Pérez found was a literal school: the Golandsky Institute. Its director, Edna Golandsky, is an Israeli-born concert pianist and educator who is also the foremost authority on the work and ideas of Taubman (who died in 2013). Pérez made an appointment to get more information, and had his world rocked.

“She had me play, she made a video and made notes when I played, and she broke it down,” he says. “She said, ‘You know why you are not playing more octaves? Because you are doing this wrong, and you need to work on it.’ She was talking about physics, movement, and when she was done, I said, ‘I came here for information for my student, but I wanna be your student.’” 

Golandsky says that the kind of profound experience Pérez had is one that she sees a lot when people first encounter the Taubman approach. “If you do it right, it transforms your playing totally,” she says. “And as a result it transforms you, because you become a happier person, no longer frustrated or in pain.”

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If there’s one word to sum up the Taubman approach, the word is “holistic.” It teaches that contrary to much of piano pedagogy, playing the instrument is not about the fingers in and of themselves. 

“Our fingers are an extension of the entire body, but more importantly of the mechanism that puts the fingers on the keys, which means the hand and the wrist,” says pianist Bill Charlap, who like Perez swears by Taubman. “Fingers connected to the meat of the hand, connected to the wrist, connected to the forearm, connected to the upper arm.”

The goal, then, is to retrain the hands and arms so that a pianist’s physical efforts are balanced across that entire mechanism rather than concentrated in the fingers. In particular, the Taubman approach emphasizes the rotation of the wrist and forearm in moving the fingers over the keys. 

Chops
Bill Charlap

“It’s not twisting the wrist,” Charlap cautions, “because it’s about not getting in awkward or uncomfortable or unnatural positions for your wrist, hand, and finger. You’re working with the way that the arm naturally falls onto a surface when you just let gravity do the work, and with the natural reflexive ways that you move your arms in your everyday movements.”

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That sense of natural movement is a key aspect of the Taubman approach. Golandsky often works with onetime child prodigies, people who instinctually learned the instrument. “Then they went to conservatory and the teachers said, ‘You have to move your fingers more, do the exercises,’ and their natural technique completely deteriorated,” she explains. “Then, when I bring them back, they say, ‘This is how it used to feel.’” 

Indeed, one of Taubman’s axioms is that overemphasis on the fingers is not only unnatural but actively harmful. For example, traditional piano pedagogues like Czerny and Hanon stress training the fourth and fifth fingers—which are naturally restrained relative to the other fingers by a tendon in the hand—to use equal force as their counterparts. 

“It’s ridiculous. It’s a mistake,” says pianist Ethan Iverson. Not quite a devotee on the level of Pérez or Charlap, he still endorses the approach after taking some lessons with Golandsky’s colleague John Bloomfield. “It’ll hurt you if you actually try to force your fingers to all strike with the same level of velocity.” The classic example is the 19th-century composer and pianist Robert Schumann, who permanently hobbled his hand by using weights to try and strengthen his fourth finger.

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Golandsky has seen plenty of other examples too. “People come with tension, people come with fatigue, people come with pain,” she says. “They go to doctors, they go to therapists; the tendency is to try and deal with the symptoms, but not with the causes. People don’t think it has much to do with the playing itself.”

Healing is a great part of what the Taubman approach can do for musicians, but it is also applicable before such injuries occur—simply by providing concrete answers to learners’ questions. “When I ran into limitations as a student, there was nothing out there to address it except ‘Go and practice more,’ or doing exercises,” Golandsky says. “When I came to Dorothy and asked questions about problems, about limitations, I heard rational explanations and answers. I never got that anywhere else.”

But what really speaks volumes, they say, are the results. After finding their ways out of old, bad habits, Pérez, Charlap, and Iverson have all found themselves able to do things they simply couldn’t before. Pérez, in fact, says that in addition to solving technical problems and limitations, studying with Golandsky has introduced more singing tone to his playing. He relates it to the flow of energy and movement the technique encourages. “I study tai chi,” he says. “Taubman is very much the same: Learning these basic, fundamental movements that give you the ground to acquire that kind of synchronicity.” Golandsky agrees, also drawing parallels with Pilates and other disciplines that emphasize alignment and holistic uses of the human body.

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She does find, however, that even musicians who struggle with injuries and other physical problems can be intimidated by the promise of sweeping changes to their practice. “They are afraid it will take away the mystery of the creative process, or that it will make everyone sound the same,” she says. “My answer is, when painters learn how to mix colors and brush technique, they don’t end up painting the same picture.

“In other words, you have to have the craft to give you the freedom to actualize who you are. Music, like all art, needs a craft—and the craft frees you to be what you want. That’s what the Taubman approach can do for you.” 

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.