If Your Piano Technique had a “Walking Gait”

Pianists often find that forearm rotation as explained by Taubman Technique is counterintuitive. As much as I value the approach to piano embedded in the Taubman explanation, I share this complaint. The single and double terminology is inherently awkward to say the least, and also doesn’t steer the pianist toward a correlation between her body’s movement and looser musical patterning, as the example suggests:

Chopin G Minor Ballade, mm. 32-34, with fingerings purely for the sake of argument.  S/D: single versus double. Notes connected in a “single” rotary motion are circled. Placement of singles and doubles do not appreciably coincide with musical shape.

A while back I published a series of posts boiling single and double rotation down to a simple logic involving finger numbers. The “Six S P Rules,” as I call them, are utterly consistent with everything I was able to learn about rotation practices from four different Taubman teachers over quite a long period of time. (This included a period of quitting, after numerous lessons with one highly regarded teacher, out of complete frustration.) By releasing me from the dead weight of the single/double dichotomy, these rules freed me to integrate brain and spirit, to systematically combine rotation with other equally critical aspects of healthy technique, and to integrate instruction about rotation fluidly into my teaching.

A second post in that series, Why S P?, expounds upon the S P rules, pointing out the big advantages they present over the cumbersome single and double instructions. (You might find it useful to look at the entire series for context.) But, if I may say so myself, there is further beauty behind the S P rules beyond what I wrote several years ago.

First, other body parts can learn to unify behind their simple numeric logic to create cycles of movement. What you end up with is something like a walking gait, with each body part playing its brief and minimal part within a cycle. This will feel like relaxation but it is actually skilled coordination involving minimal exertion. With some determination and perseverance, you can arrive at a meaningful musical use for the upper body in this “gait,” and for each of the body segments on down to the fingers.

Second–and to drive all of this toward a highly desirable conclusion–when you understand the patterns of coordination to be transferring patterns of force into the piano, you can link the logic of movement with heartfelt expectations of sound, to create musical flow.  Musical patterning involves rise and fall, high and low points in the small and large, as do numbers. If you can create gradations of force from each of the levers, changing their values over time, you create musical dimensionality.

By suggesting that there are mechanisms, technologies, whereby the body creates music, am I suggesting mechanical music making? Absolutely not. You can only play from the heart if you can predict exactly what sound will come out of the piano with your movements. Good technique, after all, is not merely about getting around the piano with ease, but about a musical result. I, along with Abby Whiteside, am convinced that all technical education should point in this direction. This is the thrust of Taubman Technique Demystified.

Piano in the Age of Climate Change

Fifteen-year-old Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg seated next to UN secretary general António Guterres at last week’s COP24

Last week in Poland, fifteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg addressed the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24). Out of the mouth of babes, a realistic and searing assessment of where we are headed, whether we like it or not. 

We have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future. They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again. We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not.

This girl has two things dead right: that climate change is much more dire a problem than our leaders are squarely facing, and that there is no point in trusting them to do anything about it.

We can no longer save the world by playing by the rules, because the rules have to be changed.

Indeed. Thunberg’s speech to power is an inspiration, so I am going to fan its flame. Scientists are saying that we have a mere decade or so to change our behaviors sufficiently to avert a permanent state of climate catastrophe. It is time to anticipate this catastrophe should we fail to change the rules independently of the leading class. For the various remaining species of the earth (including us) to survive, we will have to choose change in spite of what world leaders are or aren’t doing. 

Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.

It seems that Ms. Thunberg is calling upon each of us to play by sane rules of our individual creation. Of course, it is easy to feel cynical about this prospect because most of us will do anything to resist change. Change feels inherently dangerous and even repulsive to our body-mind ecosystems. Still, if we can acknowledge and address toxic thought patterns where we live (so to speak), we open the horizon to positive motivators of love, delight, beauty, healthy community, and all the other things that seem to distinguish us as a higher life form.

On the other hand, if we remain the species of permanent war and knee-jerk survival behaviors, then our extinction will be truly ironic. I don’t think any other species has ever gone extinct by ignoring 95% of the range of its capability. I choose that number because scientists tell us that is the percentage of our time that most of us spend with our brains on autopilot, doing automatic things and thinking automatic thoughts.  And now, each of us is presented with the choice to either step up to the remaining 95% of who we truly are, in all our richness, or?….

As the Taubman Technique Demystified blog is about everything relevant to playing the piano whether it seems that way or not, we now get to our main point. Most of us, from within our individual subcultures, support existing frameworks for driving this planet into oblivion much more than we think. I am not just talking about behaviors that directly impact global warming like excessively consuming animal products, buying irresponsibly created goods, jetsetting, etc., as important as those are to mind.  I am talking about the way subcultures tend to be holographic replicas, in their power dynamics, of larger entities, the ones we associate with competitiveness and wanton gorging on everything emblematic of power.

Subcultures serve the hologram until someone makes a conscious and tenacious decision to create a shift. Absent that decision we keep the current of legitimacy running. But with each dissenting decision the entire hologram shifts because the whole reflects the parts. Behaviors within our individual subcultures do matter and it’s time to start acting like it.

When people act to harm, they do so out of injury to their human selves. They don’t feel whole and don’t feel at choice to change what keeps them feeling that way. For those of us who are pianists, we either substantiate agreements about what musical acts have value, or we don’t. We follow rules that pull us away from our own hearts, or we resist to make heart-centered choices. We corroborate with forces that undermine the innate musicality in others, or we consciously reverse the incessant and ill-considered competitiveness of our culture.

Music (even classical music) is not just a pretty thing, it is something we use. Anthropologists tell us that some human cultures have used music very differently than we do. Notably, certain “participatory” cultures have not recognized the concept of talent. These cultures acknowledged differences in skill level, and their members had musical preferences just as we do. Having trained all their children to be musical they then didn’t make a big priority of sorting people into categories of musical worthiness.  Could it be that, by investing so much in the construct of talent and worthiness, we play into fundamental paradigms of survival that are dehumanizing and that might quite literally help destroy us physically as well?

Those participatory cultures did not appear to demonstrate our level of rapacity. We Western capitalists, on the other hand, arguably have an unsatisfactory and dissatisfying relationship with music because our musical mores are primarily those of power and survival fitness. We are a musical culture of insiders and outsiders, of the unworthy as well as worthy, and we reinforce our categories with behaviors of a political nature. But what if music making is actually a huge and under-reported part of the human sanity equation?

People who are out of balance can lack the courage and will to change. Even rules intended to ensure survival, such as the kinds of rules behind the recent wave of violent protests in Paris, will be too great to countenance.  Those rules, unfortunately, ignored too much of the human psyche to be viable. I would propose, with Ms. Thunberg, that our contributions to a healthy future will be much more a matter of individual consciousness, from the grassroots.

It’s not useful to think survival first and the “frill” of a passionate pursuit (like piano) second, because human beings are by nature wired for thousands of times better than mere survival. How strange and beautiful that we can only survive by become fully and completely ourselves. But we can’t continue to do our art with sharp elbows, which is what we do in holographic survival mode. No matter our place in the economic or intellectual spectrum, that mode is our least sustainable given the specter of global warming.

This is why it is important for you to do your individual part to change the rules of piano culture. This is your time to change the hologram. 

I would like to dedicate this post to Matthew Greenbaum, my teacher, mentor, and friend. Matthew, you were the first to help me appreciate that music always serves a purpose, and I am very grateful for that.

Abby Whiteside, Dorothy Taubman

Some of you have written to ask what I think of Abby Whiteside. It had been rather a while since I last read Whiteside’s Indispensables of Piano Playing, but recently I wiped the dust off my copy for a fresh look.  I wanted to share with you some thoughts from this latest reading vis a vis Taubman Technique.

As you may have noticed, I have a very high opinion of TT in terms of pure mechanics. I have also felt that TT misses something critically important in spite of its many brilliant insights. In short, TT is fantastic if you possess the keys for unlocking it, except that you very well may not. In that case you may find yourself banging your head against a wall.

Abby Whiteside

In terms of the mechanics of playing, Whiteside thought quite similarly to Taubman. She also, in my opinion, has some unique,  “indispensable” contributions to make toward the Taubman system of technical thinking. (Taubman’s mechanical ideas are perhaps more systematically fleshed out, and also seem to have gained more traction in the world of piano playing, making them the more useful armature.)

The backbone of Whiteside’s thinking about teaching piano involves her unique concept of “rhythm.” As she uses the term, rhythm refers first to heartfelt concepts of overall phrasing that are hierarchically organized (I paraphrase here) and, second, to rhythms among multiple levers of the body that parallel those musical ideas in the physical realm.  The entire point of technical education from her perspective is to make it possible for the student to transduce the former into the latter.

In short, Whiteside believed that deeply satisfying music making is simply not possible without this transduction of “rhythm.”  Absent that translation, technical education has failed.

The question begged here is this. Are there people who are so “unmusical” that, if they were to reach within themselves for a wondrous musical idea to work out through the body and into the piano, they wouldn’t find anything? (Why someone would even want to play the piano if that were true is in itself a question worth considering….) Whiteside’s answer is no!—but, some people simply come into the world with better skills of coordination for translating the deeply felt “rhythm” into the mechanical. She was able to find ways to create in her students corrections that made the translation possible, but saw little point in drilling mechanics.

I most heartily agree that it is important to keep ultimate objectives in sight at all times and I think Whiteside’s is the right objective. I agree with equal enthusiasm with her idea that a physical inability to communicate musical ideas is very different from not being “musical.” With these insights Whiteside fingers a hole in TT–perhaps the same kind of  hole you get whenever you strictly separate the spiritual/intuitive from the mechanical/logical.

Could it be that TT, as brilliant as it is, is yet another representation of a deeply entrenched cultural concept originating from the time of Descartes: that it is useful and necessary to separate those two ways of experiencing the world? Though many of us would agree that in Cartesian times separating the realms of science and church created a giant leap for mankind, the much-enforced boundary between the material and the spiritual is now being found to be quite problematical by various disciplines (physics, biology, chemistry, psychology, etc.). Perhaps it is time to break that boundary down in the discipline of piano playing as well.

Enter Whiteside.  Music must emanate from the core (where, I might add, the heart resides) and through the upper body, through the arms and finally into the periphery of the fingers. If her basically metaphysical portrayal is indeed on the side of the angels, then it is truly pointless to focus relentlessly on the poor fingers. In this same respect, I don’t think it’s helpful to delve into the mechanics of forearm rotation when a person doesn’t have a semblance of a place for the upper body in their technical conception. The focus is not helpful if the ultimate objective is to foster the translation of “rhythms” in the Whiteside sense, which I believe it is.

My experience tells me that the Whiteside portrayal is a good and reliable one, and that Taubman has a fantastic bag of tricks for teaching toward a Whiteside objective. Whiteside herself  believed in the absolute necessity of what Taubman called walking hand and arm, in and out, shaping, and forearm rotation.  But Whiteside felt that those should be learned as a byproduct of feeling the musical phrasing from the core. She even thought that pianists  so automatically rotate their forearms, under the right teaching circumstances, that training of that ability isn’t even necessary.

Undoubtedly these beliefs reflected her own experience as a teacher, given the entire range of choices she was inspired to make as well as the students she tended to attract. However, I am also guessing that Whiteside as a teacher didn’t hew to the polemic of her own writings. I have to believe that, like any great teacher, she had a huge bag of tricks and was always on her toes with a student, ready to pull out the very resource that person needed to become a better “translator.”

Because of the relative prevalence of Taubman’s ideas, it is easier to access the Taubman bag of tricks. But the way a teacher chooses to convey information is going to be hugely different depending on what she believes the learning objective to be. Whiteside had a lot of great ideas and this won’t be the last post in which I write about them.