Was Taubman a Scientist? Some Insights from the History of Science

Introduction (originally published on www.PointofSound.com)

Personally, it has always been hard for me to accept anything purely on face value, and my journey of learning the piano technique of Dorothy Taubman has been dogged, pretty much from the beginning, by this inconvenient predisposition. Learning, from the finest and most accomplished teachers, what I believed I had set out to learn—namely, how to play the piano with greater ease and facility, for my own sake and for those of my students—simply didn’t cut it, although heaven knows I would have been wise to consider this enough of a challenge. I needed to know why the technique worked from a biomechanical standpoint; what similarities it shared with other means of playing and what, if anything, distinguished it; what sorts of people were likely to “get it” and what advantages they may have brought to the endeavor over those who didn’t. I also wanted to know: Was I to consider Taubman’s contribution a method leading toward a particular outcome, or the outcome itself? And, if the latter, could one form a detailed understanding of that outcome as a guidepost to understanding it at the level of bodily reflex? And so on.

On many occasions, I sat at the piano determined to practice my assignments diligently , but ended up spending most of my time scribbling little notes to myself that were later hard to cope with for their disorganization. Early in my own learning process, I read Thomas Mark’s What Every Pianist Needs to Know about the Body and later spent hours staring at anatomical illustrations. I read treatises on piano technique as well as on the biomechanics of various sports. With deepening understanding of the technique came awe of its profound biomechanical economy and expressive logic. I invited the science of neuroplasticity to tickle my sense that there was some wider world of possibility for the piano and pianists—and that Taubman’s work had a role to play in bringing this world into being. Over time my thoughts became more organized and a purpose in sharing them took shape. This website came into being in November, 2013.

PointofSound.com is dedicated to broadening the sphere of persons who find in the piano an abiding source of satisfaction, through the conduit of Dorothy Taubman’s work. As she said at her Amherst seminar, in remarks that would certainly make appealing mottos for any piano teacher, “The piano should become something loving to you” and “the feeling of playing the piano should be euphoric.” I hope to participate in fostering the kind of loving, euphoric association with the piano that Dorothy envisioned, for all kinds of players, in the face of thwarting cultural and physical forces.  In the process I hope to see this sphere of pianism become a more vibrant, expansive place for those who come in contact with it, and a happier one for those who see themselves as its permanent inhabitants.

I believe that scientists should be artists and rebels, obeying their own instincts rather than social demands or philosophical principles.

— Freeman Dyson

One of the benefits of sending anthropologists to explore other cultures is that we can learn so much about ourselves by way of comparison. So, to help me find answers to the questions that were bothering me—and perhaps even to shed some needed light on cultural forces that may have influenced the creation and conveyance of this technique (because culture lurks in the shadow of discoveries and their uses)—it made sense to me to foray beyond the piano world for perspective. It struck me to look to the history of great scientific discoveries and of the people who made them, and this is when I discovered a gem of an essay collection by experimental physicist and science historian Freeman Dyson called The Scientist as Rebel. 1

Dyson’s title itself magnetized me. For one, from a young age I’ve been unusually enthralled by rebellion. It comports with my tendency toward divergent thinking and perhaps speaks to a basic core of mischievousness that I feel ripening benignly as I age. As for the subject upon which I somehow ended up training these qualities, it struck me that Taubman herself did not exactly follow marching orders from “superiors” in the world of pianists; and that her project clearly involved scientific work. As such, her work bears illumination through the prism of science history, with its awareness of human patterns as well as of science’s recurring pitfalls and stuck places.

I found that Dyson’s particular discussions of the processes of scientific discovery, and of the human dramas those discoveries can’t help but involve, are indeed wonderfully germane to understanding the beauty and potential of Taubman’s contribution from fresh and, I would say, necessary angles. I can’t think of a better way to introduce this website than to anchor it in Dyson’s observations. All block quotes reference his book.

Science is a mosaic of partial and conflicting visions. But there is one common element in these visions. The common element is rebellion against the restrictions imposed by the locally prevailing culture.

Dorothy (her students feel free to speak of her by first name, as “Mrs. Taubman,” or by the two interchangeably) claimed to have devised her technical approach by observing physical movements in those children with a prodigious knack for getting around the piano with great musical effect; 2 through study of anatomy, physics, and coordination; 3 and by studying the work of great piano pedagogues, particularly Matthay and Ortmann. 4 Based on her observations and studies she devised, over perhaps two-thirds of her ninety-five-year life, a) a system of movement, as well as b) a particular description of that system, involving both movement “principles” and numerous clarifications of those principles. (As far as I know, this appraisal of her legacy, in terms of these particular categories, is mine: I am not aware of Taubman having spoken of her work this way.) The latter enabled the former to be successfully conveyed to other pianists.Dorothy was dissatisfied with the conventional wisdom that playing well required a modicum of muscle strength (particularly of fingers) and endurance, and that good technical training involved building these. In her attempts to channel this dissatisfaction I see in her that “real scientist”—the rebel kind—that Dyson speaks of. With nary a university or conservatory degree to her name (let alone from Julliard) to back her, she instead followed a rebel’s personal vision that was stimulated by indignation and a desire to help pianists with frustrating and often debilitating coordination problems. This Dorothy braved much criticism to uncover a means of playing, as well as of conveying that means, that fulfilled cherished wishes of pianists in love with the idea of playing. One would have to assume that she did this, in the absence of the kinds of accreditation or pedigree that are forms of currency for pianists, one student, and one victory over limitation, at a time, until her sea of successes grew so large it could no longer be ignored.

To decide whether a mathematical statement is true, it is not sufficient to reduce the statement to marks on paper and to study the behavior of the marks. Except in trivial cases, you can decide the truth of a statement only by studying its meaning and its context in the larger world of mathematical ideas.

Taubman’s scientific laboratory was her piano studio, where she received data, so to speak, from students as they reacted to her attempts to convey insight into movement and its relation to sound.  Worthwhile science, Dyson observes, requires an aesthetic vision and an ethical one. That Taubman did her scientific research in support of her teaching vision is clear enough, and there can be no doubt of the ethical appeal of creating life possibilities for people who had been cut off from ones they most wanted. Taubman has not yet had a biographer, but until she does, perhaps we can glean a bit of insight from her own beautiful artworks into the aesthetic vision she exercised through her science and teaching.

When I had the privilege of meeting Dorothy at her home in December 2012, I was surprised, not only to learn that she had been a serious amateur artist, but by the quality of the paintings and prints of hers that hung on the walls. As an artist, she did not merely document, as you might expect a scientifically inclined amateur to do.  She seemed to feel out a relationship between color and light that not only sat well on the canvas compositionally, but was calculated to evoke sensation and memory. Her artworks seemed to be happy, skilled explorations that honored both Nature and the nature of the media she chose.

The painter interacts with the happenings on the canvas—the surprises, “failures,” along with the anticipated successes. She engages with her outcomes spontaneously. She avoids painting according to formula and doesn’t expect to accurately anticipate every outcome. Somehow, we get a whiff of staleness if she does: the painting inexplicably lacks life. The teacher’s art is similar, but she interacts with personalities instead of a canvas, each one unique and valuable. From a science of understanding, she feels free to choose what will create the desired insight or motivation in the student. She continually works to help these translate into purposeful ability, according to her belief that the student before her will benefit from her energies.

Dorothy’s great innovation is mostly seen as her set of principles of motion leading to very musical piano playing. Her students have frequently mentioned that she was able to clear deeply entrenched problems sometimes within minutes of observing them, and they often loved and revered her for helping them attain a most cherished objective. However, I don’t think her reduction of movements into a system in itself need constitute the sum total of her contribution, and I don’t think it tells us why she was loved and revered. Nor should it be considered the means whereby every person is granted the keys to the piano kingdom. We might look more to her teaching example to expand the scope of her influence, as I hope to convince you in these pages it deserves.

You might call teaching a moment-to-moment performance. From her vast knowledge of the physical conditions necessary for playing ease, Dorothy was able to customize: understanding the complexities of human anatomy as well as of forces acting upon the body at the piano, she solved problems for one pianist at a time. 5 I highly doubt that Dorothy herself ever reached a point where she faced new teaching challenges entirely from a script she wrote prior to some specific date. Her teacher’s soul, aware of science, was no doubt amenable to going in whatever direction necessary for the creation of the insight she desired, moving fluidly from established principle or clarification to fresh intuition.

The progress of science requires the growth of understanding in both directions, downward from the whole to the parts and upward from the parts to the whole. A reductionist philosophy, arbitrarily proclaiming that the growth of understanding must go only in one direction, makes no scientific sense.

Practically any field will face the allure of what you might call the reductionist cage.  At the time Choreography of the Hands 6 —a golden moment of the Taubman era even if quite transparently a promotional film—was made, she did not espouse a reductionist vision: “Whenever I take on new students there are new problems. Their variables are so enormous in the variety of coordinations that no two problems are identical, you see, and yet basic principles are identical, so that we have something, a guidepost, from which to work.” Her science was an applied one, and application was always being tempered by the student’s unique tendencies. She was incensed that people who ought to have been given a physically easy way of playing by the teaching community, and who were willing to work very hard, were struggling because of rampant, basic misunderstandings.

When Dyson calls science a mosaic of partial visions, he implies that it becomes impossible to continue the scientific search for truth when you’ve reified a particular truth, forcing subsequently encountered round pegs into its square holes. By being captivated by the beauty of a momentary scientific outcome so much that you forget to be challenged by applications, you close yourself to further learning and therefore to engaging with future mysteries. New applications of scientific ideas, and new research, are bound to challenge understanding, because Nature will always throw something new and unanticipated at science. As Dyson says, “Nature’s imagination is always richer than ours.”

Did Taubman eventually enter a reductionist cage of the remarkable principles she devised, and shut the door behind both herself and any student who would come along? And lay the groundwork for frequent criticisms that she and her students are intolerable dogmatists? I don’t know. 7 If she did at some point enter that cage, though, I would like to point out the enchanting creatures in the surrounding ones.

Einstein, Dyson points out, did all of the brilliant work with which we most associate him before he was forty, after which he fruitlessly worked to cram the whole world of physics into the field equations he had created. Einstein scorned Oppenheimer’s using these equations to formulate the theory of black holes. Dyson surmised that at the heart of Einstein’s disdain for Oppenheimer’s work was the supposition that Oppenheimer, a first-rate physicist, was doing work appropriate for second-tier physicists or graduate students. Einstein, Dyson believes, had grown to think that the only work worthy of first-rate talents was that of reducing. The older Oppenheimer saw his black hole formulation as aesthetically unappealing and unworthy of him, however it may have served to clarify important hidden angles to Einstein’s work for future science. To quote one more example Dyson provides of an aging scientist succumbing to the allure of reductionism: David Hilbert, after three decades of brilliant and groundbreaking mathematical work, became obsessed with finding what Dyson calls “a decision process that would operate on symbols in a purely mechanical fashion, without requiring any understanding of their meaning.” Though (as Gödel proved when Hilbert was seventy) such a system was in fact theoretically impossible except for trivial applications, Hilbert’s earlier achievements were, Dyson emphasizes, unquestionably monumental.

Perhaps at some point a biographer will have a careful look at how Dorothy’s focus changed over her long lifetime and what forces influenced her. In the meantime, for those interested in solutions to piano playing problems, why waste time barking up the wrong tree if you could be happily barking up the right one? And clearly, that tree exists, although its treasures may be as hidden from people outside of the Taubman community as they are clear to people inside it. Dorothy’s legacy is a miraculous kind of effortless playing, involving a constant transfer of forces, that is supremely consonant with the tendencies of the body and of the physical world. That so many pianists who have achieved her playing gestalt find it miraculous, and are able to successfully demonstrate it, is a testament to its reality and possibility.

Because it tends to be discussed in sound bites, outsiders generally see the technique as a set of complex and counterintuitive muscular coordinations that work in an inscrutable way. Given a pervasive lack of helpful information, many pianists don’t find the wherewithal to study it. Furthermore, for teachers dedicated to teaching all kinds of people and not just aspiring professionals, the value of transmitting an ostensibly counterintuitive means of playing to persons not apparently headed toward being professionals doesn’t especially make sense. This is all unfortunate because, as I hope to convince you, Taubman technique makes beautiful sense. Even its constituent parts are capable of making clear sense, in early stages of learning, because they are based on physical forces that virtually every person understands experientially.In this website, I will entertain the idea that Taubman the “method” and Taubman the gestalt are not inseparable, as I think is generally assumed without question. To give an especially important example of what I mean, the technique’s hallmark terms “single and double rotation” are supposed to define motions that are widely considered its primary workhorses—but we might certainly question whether these specific terms convey the critical sensations as well as could be imagined. I plan to take up this issue and others in future installments to this site.  I will take the position that separating the method from the outcome is precisely what is needed to be able to address whatever human needs may surface—which is to say, what Nature throws at us.

If we try to squeeze science into a single philosophical viewpoint such as reductionism, we are like Procrustes chopping off the feet of his guests when they do not fit onto his bed. Science flourishes best when it uses freely all the tools at hand, unconstrained by preconceived notions of what science ought to be.  

Taubman’s own interest was primarily in helping “prodigies”— people who among other things had already demonstrated a certain ease with all the coordinations of piano playing—to play the most difficult works through her instruction, and to play less difficult works more brilliantly and beautifully. She noticed that a significant number of such pianists were being hampered and even injured by detrimental qualities in their technique, even in the face of many helpful ones. More than a half century after Taubman began her work, it seems time to face new problems, with an eye to contemporary culture, using her insights.

The technologies that raise the fewest ethical problems are those that work on a human scale, brightening the lives of individual people.

We all have themes that motivate us. It is out of an egalitarian streak as wide as the Jersey Turnpike headed for Manhattan that I have chosen three problems to flesh out in these pages. First is a problem to which I’ve already alluded: of making Taubman’s work sensible to a broader range of individuals, with all the differences in how they are motivated–and with a more nuanced view of “talent” and “musicality” than tends to be embraced here in the West. There is an overlay of Darwinism to the world of classical music, and under the influence of that overlay, the chasm separating specialists and non-specialists would appear to flow from common sense. Dorothy’s insights afford the possibility of ameliorating the painful effects of that Darwinism for both sides of this highly maintained chasm.
Second, pianists outside of Dorothy’s own preferred target group, to have a successful experience, need to be able to absorb the core sensations more efficiently. After all, if it takes too long to learn Taubman technique then it will perhaps make little sense to pursue it, particularly for older pianists. Increased access and efficiency would be predicated–for most, I would venture a guess–on insight into the interplay of forces and structure that make the technique work so brilliantly. They would also depend on having available a broader range of approaches to both teaching and learning. Good teaching has everything to do with motivation, and all sorts of people, in my opinion, are unlikely to be motivated without the teaching community cultivating such resources.

Taubman fleshed out both a means and the end for her technique in tandem, probably; but if we know the location of that destination to which she created a particular conceptual roadmap, we can approach it from any locale. She discovered an exhilarating destination and now we can get there in all kinds of ways, and from all kinds of places! To create multiple approaches to this marvelous place, we would need its precise location. This would take the form of a model for the Taubman gestalt–one that includes an explanation of why it works in physical terms. That model should then be dismantled and reconfigured for the purpose of teaching efficiently. One of my objectives is to furnish such a theoretical model, and to present it in a way that even science-phobic people can enjoy and use, both for themselves and for students of all ages.

Piano students learning Taubman technique face a considerable neurological challenge (that is, they must “rewire” themselves for the piano—sometimes profoundly so), and it seems that we might take some hints from the recently burgeoning science of neuroplasticity as to how to best do this. “Should” is a word that can raise hackles and make people sulk, but it strikes me as a no-brainer (no pun intended) that piano teachers should take into account how such reprogramming can take place most efficaciously, no less than a physical therapist would with an injured person or a stroke victim. The teacher could then, from a position of insight, “slice up” this gestalt in whatever way would make the learning process proceed most efficiently from a neurological standpoint.

I hope that many kinds of minds, with their many preoccupations, will see in the piano, via Taubman’s work, a fascinating mental and physical playground worthy of whatever attention they would like to offer, and this brings me to that third concern that I’ve placed on my plate. The piano world in the U.S. faces a crisis of irrelevance with respect to the larger culture, and the resulting environment of shrinking resources can only feed that most unpleasant musico-social Darwinism I mentioned earlier. One has only to compare the attention (not to mention remuneration) top-flight pianists get for their incredible accomplishments to that directed at comparably skilled professional athletes (without going into whether any athlete coordinates everything the pianist does, cognitively, emotionally, and physically)  to understand how small the role of the piano is in this country.

Concert pianism is not seen in the U.S. as a viable means of making a living and, these days, relatively few attend recitals or have more than a passing interest in the piano. Not many see the value of purchasing a real (as opposed to electronic), good-quality piano for young students, and the tonal properties that hold so much magic for pianists are simply being lost on the broader community.

When I was a kid it was frequently emphasized to me, in a ridiculously generalized way, that I wasn’t good at sports, and I don’t think it unrelated that I don’t seek opportunities to follow sports as an adult. Those of us who love the piano and would like to see widespread excitement over its miraculous qualities have a tremendous resource in Taubman’s work: it brings the physical aspects of playing within reach of a broader population.

One recent Wikipedia contributor stated that the primary role of the piano in the U.S. is to foster cognitive development for children of the largely affluent people who can afford lessons for them. This somewhat curmudgeonly remark was duly excised by another contributor. However, in spite of there being many exceptions (for example, many parents in my studio want, among other things, to build for their children a lifelong friendship with a musical instrument), I don’t think the point made by the first contributor is entirely mistaken. Parents understandably see a world of diminishing opportunities for their children and are anxious for them to put their best foot forward. Educators enthusiastically and correctly tout music as a tool for cognitive development, and the idea that music exists to serve brain power has become part of the cultural ether.

At the radical end of the spectrum of contemporary parents interested in music for its ancillary benefits are those who feel that it ought to serve children’s entry into the high-end professions. As far as Taubman instruction might go for children of such parents: what tiger mother of a six-year-old wouldn’t swoon for the technique’s exquisitely sensible calculus of engineered curves? For the potential of this calculus to be connected to the physical world generally? For its tightly conserved G-forces, and for the tactile experience of these forces it affords? For the beautiful sound that her child would be capable of, relatively quickly, as a result of her control of them? On the other end of this spectrum, what parent in favor of raising a whole child wouldn’t want for him a profound physical awareness of the music-making process? Of connections to be made between musical and physical worlds that might help both to be understood better? And for the great potential of creating music unconstrained by the kinds of incoordination that lead all too thoughtlessly to the “not musical” label?  A Taubman approach of some kind for kids is potentially a perfect vehicle, not only for getting students to learn to play better more quickly, but for meeting parents on terms that address concerns they typically have, given where and when we live.

I would like to consider one more insight from Dyson’s book, concerning what he describes as his great early success. Dyson took three independent, outwardly different scientific theories of physicists Richard Feynman, Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, and Julian Shwinger. Feynman had derived his particular theory from diagrams without experimentation, and it was in appearance and by reputation revolutionary. The other two scientists had built their theories upon a foundation of physics conventions. Dyson’s own contribution was to observe that the results of the calculations of all three were the same, though Feynman’s to his mind were more beautiful. Dyson wrote that his constructed bridges among the three were still “reliably carrying traffic forty years later”—traffic that perhaps would not have existed without them. And this is where we might again consider Dyson’s notion of science as a “mosaic of partial and conflicting visions.” What august traveling companions might Taubman’s ingenious contribution possibly inspire toward travel? What beautiful bridges might be constructed for persons with no current interest because of perceived or actual limitations?

I hope that Taubman’s brilliant insights will help transform the piano world into a rich network of interconnected roadways with wonderfully diverse traffic, and that the issue of how to play euphorically will benefit from the insights of many Dysonian rebels. While we’re at it, may the piano also be a more reliable and loving respite for people who, because they are just fine with “face value” in a way I never was, are able to concentrate on any learning project set before them without distraction; or for those who are prone to forming deep relationships of agreement with their teachers; and for the gamut of people excited toward learning in that variety of ways, and by that variety of purposes, that is the hallmark of “Nature’s imagination.”

This essay is dedicated to my teachers at the Taubman Seminar of Temple University: Maria del Pico Taylor, Sondra Tammam, and Maria Hubler. I thank these three extraordinary teachers, not only for their incredible level of skill and dedication, but for their kindness and generosity. Maria, Sondra, and Maria, you have greatly inspired me, and I look forward to continuing to learn from you!

Many thanks to Matthew Greenbaum for his invaluable help and support.

1. New York Review of Books, 2006. Of late, Dyson has gained some notoriety as a climate change denier, and I can’t agree that his position is sound. Ironically for the purposes of this essay, the value of his earlier work is not obviated by later positions.

2. Sondra Tammam’s introductory lecture, Taubman Seminar, May 2009.

3. Andrew Adams, “Dorothy Taubman’s Teacher: The Life and Writings of Jacob Nicolai Helmann” (American Music Teacher, June-July 2013), 30. Available online

4. Tammam, introductory lecture.

5. As pianist Robert Shannon said in Choreography of the Hands (part 1), “She’s so conscious of what every person needs, and very reluctant to confuse them with too much information. If there’s anything that’s working naturally she’s not going to mess with it. And I think it’s Dorothy’s particular genius that she’s able to deal with every person who comes into the studio in a different way. Look, there are God knows how many elements that go into playing in a coordinated fashion, and you have 15 1/2 of them and I’m going to give you number 17, 18, and 19, and, if you don’t understand the first way I tell you to do it, I’ll tell you another way, and you’ll get it.”

6. This video is available on YouTube in four segments.

Taubman did differentiate between students who came to her to learn to play better, and those who wanted to teach the technique. In light of Shannon’s remark, perhaps any inferred dogmatism originated in this differentiation, and in Dorothy’s understandable eagerness that her ideas not be misrepresented, as they frequently were and continue to be.