Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Taubman workshop

Last month, when I started thinking more about tone production on the piano and how to go about improving it, I posted to Piano World with my questions and received some mixed responses. Several people recommended that I look into Taubman technique. I even got a private message from a very enthusiastic Taubman student ("It's truly absolutely amazing," this person said).

In a nutshell, this is an approach developed by Dorothy Taubman (who is now in her 90s) that is based on observed natural movements that best serve the techniques involved in playing the piano. It eschews a lot of the old standbys like very curved fingers, lifting fingers independently, sitting rigidly at the piano, and so on (all of which were part of how I was trained, btw).

So I did a web search, found the site for the Golandsky Institute, and noticed they were having a workshop on March 5 in Philadelphia at University of the Arts.

I quickly calculated: Philadelphia, only a few hours away; event on a Saturday when I had nothing else scheduled; cost, minimal. So I signed up.

When I was filling out the form online, there was a part asking if I'd be willing to play in a master class, so impulsively I checked "yes" and put down the Beethoven Op. 2 No. 3 as my piece. I received a quick reply noting that I had been scheduled to play on the afternoon master class. This was before my teacher gave up on teaching me this piece. After that lesson, I had a panic attack over it, so I e-mailed Robert Durso, the faculty member in charge of the workshop, and explained my situation (i.e., level of playing, experience, etc.), suggesting that if it didn't sound like it was going to be useful (for the listeners!) for me to play I would be happy just to observe. A few days later, he responded and said he had consulted with Edna Golandsky (the master teacher of this technique, who worked closely with Taubman and founded the current institute), and they had decided to move me to the morning session. He asked for some specific spots in the piece I would like help with, which I duly sent, and I was on.

The first session at 10:00 a.m. was a lecture by Durso ostensibly on octaves and chords, but it really was an outline of the entire history and philosophy behind Taubman technique and an explanation of how it is applied, so it was a great way to learn about it. Right after this was the seminar led by Golandsky. Five of us were scheduled in 15-minute blocks; I hesitate to say we "played," because the longest anyone actually played anything was maybe eight measures. Each person had chosen a small point that he or she was having difficulty with, and Golandsky demonstrated how one would go about solving the problem. So there was a snippet of a Schubert impromptu, a bit of a Chopin mazurka, and so on.

I of course started with those first four awful measures in the Beethoven. I think I was the only person playing who had no experience with Taubman, so she gave me some general pointers. She said many people play those double thirds with two hands, but if one did play them with one hand, she recommended another fingering  in addition to using a combination of motions: hard to describe in words, but basically a sideways rotation of the wrist combined with a sort of in-and-out movement of the hand. We also covered a couple of other passages: the really difficult beginning of the development (which she recommended breaking between the hands -- and yes, I can see it will be much better doing it that way); the unison trills (which would be approached in the same way as the double thirds); and the broken octaves at the end of the development and the coda.

I had lunch with four other people from the workshop. Two were in their 20s, both studying with Durso in Philadelphia, and the other two were more in my age group and were piano teachers (and students! as one woman pointed out to me when I asked). One of the younger people was a jazz pianist. In the course of the conversation, I asked how long it takes for this technical approach to become ingrained. They all agreed that it starts very slowly, and there's a lot of playing one note at a time, with you thinking this can't possibly be working, but that one day it starts to click. It was actually very enlightening to hear this from this small sample of people, showing once again that there's more to learning something than sitting at the feet of a master.

The afternoon featured a master class by Danilo Perez, a jazz pianist. There seems to be a real effort to incorporate jazz into this approach -- or vice versa, perhaps. The University of the Arts has made jazz a big part of the music curriculum, which I think is great. The music schools I attended had a sharp divide between classical and jazz, with the latter being at best a poor stepchild, so it was nice to see the genres mixed up a bit. As for the last class with Golandsky, I am SO glad I followed up and did not play on it because it would have been awful. The two young women who performed were very good -- one played Chopin's Scherzo No. 1, and the other played a Ballade, and both were almost flawless. So me and my messed-up little bit of Beethoven would have been quite out of place.

So what was my take-away from all this?

There is a certain almost cultlike belief in this system among some, similar to what I have seen among Suzuki teachers and students. Like what is called "the Suzuki method," what is called "Taubman technique" is at heart simply a collection of useful ideas and approaches to learning music that good teachers and players have always used -- the one an overall method for learning, the other an approach to technique. (I noticed there was a session for string players at this workshop, which would have been interesting, but it was scheduled at the same time as our morning session so I couldn't check it out.)

What I liked about Suzuki, when I was involved with that, is that it provides a systematic way to break learning down into small, achievable bites. Students master one small part of technique or note reading or musicality at a time, but it's not boring because (1) they are playing real music; (2) there is always a goal (e.g., recital); and (3) there is the social element of playing with other students and, for children, of the parents being closely involved with lessons and practicing.

This brief exposure to Taubman technique gives me the impression that in the same way, there are points of piano technique that can be broken down into small elements. It is interesting that what my teacher has been saying is generally along the same lines as Taubman (particularly with respect to tone being related to the speed with which the key is depressed), which is why I had decided to continue with her despite the problems with her teaching method being so unsystematic. It's not that I am longing for some kind of militaristic regimen but rather for something in between that and randomness.

Anyway, at the least it was fun going back to school for a day.

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