Take It from Doctors: the Upper Body Matters with Piano

In his magisterial book The Hand Frank R. Wilson wrote, “From the perspective of biomechanical anatomy, the hand is an integral part of the entire arm, in effect a specialized termination of a cranelike structure suspended from the neck and the upper chest.” A prominent hand doctor and professor of medicine, Wilson was a ranking authority on the subject of how we get our hands to do the things they do in a muscular sense. That includes all of their activities, including playing the piano.

This is to say, Wilson’s expertise is applicable to playing the piano even if he is not a piano expert.

To help pianists start to wrap their brains around Wilson’s statement, my book Pianist’s Guide to the Upper Body offers this chart (p. 20):

It can be argued that all these muscles (twenty one in all according to boundaries established by anatomists) evolved as they did, along with our upright posture, so as to position the hands. (For the sake of argument I leave out the muscles that move the trunk, which also helps position the hands.) Through acts of teamwork they help create all the subtle changes of location in the wrist. They are also on the ready to play roles of various kinds when you rotate your forearms. They get your fingers to the extreme ends of the keyboard and everywhere in between. When you need your fingers to play the notes of chords together with razor sharp precision, they officiate. The problem is not whether they do these things but how, and how efficiently.

Pianists tend to receive some pushback from the shoulder area in the form of tightness and pain when some combination of those muscles is overused. Tight muscles of the upper body also act as brakes, making it hard for the fingers to get to their destinations on time. Carping about fingers is unlikely to change the muscular habits that create this trouble in the back and shoulders. Ditto with forearm rotation.

Unfortunately, no amount of intellectual knowledge of these muscles is going to change unhelpful habits. How do you create the changes that filter down so that your fingers do what you want? That involves a reflective, meditative process of monitoring the upper body, coaxing it into a new and vital role. But understanding that this part of your body invariably does something when you play can help you get the ball rolling.

Sometimes in order to undertake a difficult task we have to be convinced that there is no way around it. The good news, where training the upper body is concerned, is that the potential payoff is huge.

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.

The Perfect Scaffold for your Piano Technique

Imagine that you could find a perfect way for your arm to feel, for every key on the piano. You are so comfortable balancing that arm on the playing finger that you could be there all day. Your arm feels ethereally light and rested at the shoulder. It doesn’t matter which digit is playing, because you have understood the unique qualities of each well enough to make all necessary adjustments.

You also know exactly where to hold your wrist so that your arm can completely lean into whatever finger is playing, anywhere on the piano.  If a friendly prankster were to sneak up from behind and deftly lift your forearm, your hand would flop. That’s how loose your wrist would be—In spite of the beautiful structure you’ve achieved.  On the other hand, in this act of resting your bones would snuggle one against the other: your ulna and radius against the wrist bones, right on down to the tips of the fingers. You have an “exactly right” feeling, like the feeling of a key fitting into its lock.

(This is not a pipe dream and you can definitely learn to do this.)

Understanding these sensations very well, you learn to drop your arm into each of the keys of the piano using gravity. You listen to every sound and learn to predict exactly how loud a tone will be, given the force you’ve used. Anywhere on the piano, it doesn’t matter. You begin to be able to use exactly the amount of force that produces the sound you have in mind, using gravity alone.

Let’s say I’ve just described a scaffold for your technique. Good technique is about distribution and continuity of forces for musical purposes. Excellent technique will feel effortless. If it doesn’t feel effortless, the strain gets in the way of the musical expression you have in mind. Strain disallows you from instantaneously connecting a heartfelt sound impression with a way you’ve learned of creating that sound, on the fly.

Let’s say that the sound you get using gravity alone, and the feeling of your arm in that beautiful place, is a frame of reference for you. Against that frame of reference, you build an internal system of all kinds of combinations of gravity and force. Tones created purely with gravity (assuming a theoretical possibility) sound wonderful (assuming that you are dropping from near the key) and of course take the least effort, but ultimately you’re going to add soupcons of effort to what you accomplish with gravity. You can choose to subtract from the gravity with a little restraining force, and you can choose to add whatever punches of force you want. The sky is the limit. Understanding gravity sound and how to get it anywhere on the piano is a great place to start building your personal, rich expressive continuum.

All the technical skills you learn as a pianist need some kind of frame of reference. The one I just described would help you learn to translate patterns of force into patterns of sound extremely well.  On the other hand, if you don’t understand where your arm belongs, note after note after note, it will fight you.  Your arm is like a thousandths column when you might be trying to concern yourself with decimals. Or, if you prefer, think of it as a runaway train. It has a great potential to tug you toward some place you don’t want to be, sabotaging your efforts much more than you might think. It is hugely worth the effort to consciously assign an ideal role to this “thousandths column,“ quite possibly different from the one your body already subconsciously holds.

Let’s say all those perfect places for your arms and how they feel are dots for you to connect. Everything else you do  connects these “dots.” Curvilinear shapes of all kinds, guided by musical artistry, can then become available for you to connect these dots for effortless and magical playing.  The shapes will have to be curvilinear because that’s simply how your body likes to work: The end of any of your body segments moves in an arc. None of them will move in a straight line unless you force them to. Good technique is going to coordinate arcs for a musical result.

If your arms don’t know their jobs, the rest of technical training is unlikely to help you create the musical result you desire.

Pianists and Puppet Masters

At the Northwestern University Department of Neuroscience, the Robotic Marionette Project has been in the works for some ten years. I believe pianists can gain some insight from it. Here’s how the cross-disciplinary assortment of involved scientists summarize their chosen problem:

The control of classic, stringed marionettes is an extremely difficult control problem. . . . When a human puppeteer controls a marionette they inherently comprehend this complexity, and they compensate for it in real-time. The language of choreography only coarsely describes the play, and it is up to the puppeteer to figure out what mechanical inputs will produce the realistic puppet trajectories.

I know, I verge on making an insulting and naive comparison!–but please  bear with me.  Realistic movement in a marionette involves a lot more than how many joints it has, or how many strings have been appointed to control them. Sometimes puppeteers choose to play with fewer strings than there are joints, spontaneously making use of the “play” that results from gravity and momentum among other sources. Called “underactuation,” this often creates more realistic movement. To give you an idea of underactuation translating into artistry, have a look at this “career montage” for the brilliant puppet artist Phillip Huber, creator of the marionette scene in Being John Malkovich. (Some of this shows his puppetry and some doesn’t. Be sure to note the brief first clip featuring a keyboardist marionette!)


Let me give you an idea of some of the other less-understood movement parameters that the most well-practiced puppet artists know to take in stride–but that pose major headaches for AI scientists wishing to create logical movement instructions. (A few of them may recall for you something about your own art.) Puppeteers must deal with surprising outcomes that result from changes to string tension. They must be on the lookout for random movement oscillations and other kinds of errors to desired movements, and create adjustments on the fly. They must be prepared for strings getting tangled and create a workaround without skipping a beat. All the while, they must create flawless continuity among various movement types to create the illusion that a wooden toy has been brought to life.

It would appear to be precisely such movements generated from outside the robotic control system that most challenge the RMP.  (You can have a look at the project’s Vimeo page for a sense of how painstaking this research is if you would like.) Some of those movements, furthermore, would quite possibly be the very ones harnessed by the artful puppeteer for a lifelike effect. The very intangibles that a puppet master knows how to use to create the sense that the puppets are living beings, most stymie the logic-minded.

It is truly daunting to remove the human energy that animates a wooden marionette, and replace it with a logic, even if that logic receives and reacts to feedback from the thing being controlled.

Though I am happy to confirm that artists still have a formidable edge on robots in terms of creating beautiful movement using stringed puppets, that would make for a really boring post.  Perhaps you’ll thank me, also, that the  metaphor to be examined here is not precisely one of marionettes for people playing the piano. (Phew!) Indeed, when scientists try to create a set of instructions to render marionettes lifelike using robots, we get a sense of exactly how lame that particular metaphor might be. No–the metaphor really worth pursuing in all of this revolves around that “extremely difficult control problem” that we pianists share with the scientists:

  • How does the pianist get a stored logic of movement  to flirt with the random and accidental for a poignant musical communication?
  • How can a pianist rally her internal resources to that end? Both during the learning process, and during performance?
  • Does the “instructor” have a role to play on this slippery side of skill?
  • How does  instruction change if you assume a goal of having these internal resources factored in, even if the pianist seems “wooden?”
  • What might the parameters be for forming the human energy for a successful musical experience?

Though as pianists we work with “realistic” (what we tend to call “musical”) and lively organized sound rather than realistic movement, I think these questions suggested by the RMP are of utmost importance for us, too.  But the scientists have probably done a better job of formulating a problem for themselves than most of us have. If we don’t have a clear understanding of what problem we are solving, we might not even know to pursue a solution.

I sometimes think that “talent” is our response to “we don’t understand the problem, let alone the solution.” This blog is very interested in exploring the various facets of that murky term because we believe it is part of the feedback that gums up the machinery, and a part of why we aren’t that joyful a musical people.  (For me, that’s a problem!) In the meantime, we could take a cue from these scientists who, if they don’t exactly understand how to solve their problem, have a pretty good idea of what it is.   We could take a cue from them and work toward better formulating the piano problems we are trying to solve.  This applies to teachers and it applies to students.