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.