Two Means to Freedom and Ease: The Taubman Approach and the Alexander Technique
by Renee Jackson
Pianists want to be able to play as they wish without pain, injury or limitations. Many methods currently exist for developing speed, agility and tone at the piano, though not all emphasize ease and as well. If free and efficient movements are primary ingredients in a virtuoso piano technique, the question becomes: what is the best way to achieve that goal? Two techniques that have explored movement in great detail are the Taubman Approach and the Alexander technique. While Dorothy Taubman began from the point of view of a pianist and teacher, F.M. Alexander developed his approach from working with his voice to find greater ease.
Dorothy Taubmans method for playing the piano and F. M. Alexanders discoveries about freedom and ease of movement in the body are complimentary techniques that can work extremely well together. Both teachers spent years trying to find the least stressful and most efficient ways of moving to complete any given task, be it playing a Schubert sonata or getting out of a chair. The greatest difference between the two is that the Taubman method is more specific to the small forearm movements needed to play the piano (or other instruments), while the Alexander technique begins with freedom in the neck and how that impacts the rest of the body in movements of all sorts.
After years of playing. teaching. and studying movement at the piano, Taubman identified the various movements that create a facile and yet powerful piano technique. The most important of these movements is forearm rotation. Rotation of the forearm is the fastest movement available in the forearm, and one you can easily observe. Try playing a tremolo in mid-air, and allow the forearm to turn from the thumb side to the fifth finger side. In an actual tremolo at the keyboard, there will be some movements at the fingers as well, but the finger movement should always be in conjunction with the arm rotation. At the level of a fast trill, the rotational movement is usually invisible, but can be felt if you rest your hand on the upper part of the forearm.
Dorothy Taubman discovered other movements necessary to make playing easy and efficient when used in conjunction with forearm rotation. In and out motions (motion from the outside to the inside of the black keys and the fallboard) originate at the elbow and may be sensed from fingertip to shoulder. They make adjustments for the different finger lengths in human hands. These in and out adjustments prevent the hand from twisting away from its alignment with the arm. Slight lateral movements (known to students of the Taubman approach as walking arm and hand), and shaping (which is a function of the varying height of the forearm, and not just motion from the wrist) are also integral to the Taubman approach. Care must be taken that these movements do not replace the underlying forearm rotation. It should be pointed out that the wrist functions as a fulcrum, meaning that in order for these movements to arrive at the finger on the key, the wrist must be at a level which is sufficient to have the weight of the arm resting behind the finger, and not collapsed back towards the elbow or forearm.
F.M. Alexanders observed that, if you pull your head back and down, many muscles shorten and do not function as well in this contracted state. While solving his own problem of losing his voice during recitations (a possibly career-ending problem for an actor), he eventually discovered that freeing the neck and allowing it to attain its full length had wonderful results for the movement of the body as a whole. Specifically, if the neck is free, there is greater length, width and depth in the back and torso, allowing for easier breathing and other movements. This freedom in the neck and back also permits greater ease in the appendages, resulting in easier walking for the legs and easier motions in the arms (including piano playing!).
Another wonderful discovery described by Alexander in his writings is the awareness of what he terms inhibition. In solving his own vocal problems, Alexander discovered that even if he consciously freed his neck and lengthened and widened, he would return immediately to his old habit of pulling back and down if he decided to recite. To solve this difficult problem of overcoming his old habit, he explored what happened at the moment before he decided to recite. Alexander found that if he gave himself a choice at this moment (to recite, or not to recite, or go for a walk, or something completely different), he could inhibit the old habits and free his neck as he wished.
Alexanders discoveries can have a huge effect on changing any habits, and I find both the added ease gained from Alexander technique as well as the concept of inhibition have profound effects on re-training a piano technique. Pianists have spent many hours at the piano to master both technique and repertoire, and it is a powerful stimulus for former playing habits. The student needs to take the moment to examine this stimulus, and decide to play with greater freedom, or at least to experiment with the idea. Thus, combining the small specific movements found in the Taubman approach can often be done more readily with Alexanders concept of inhibition of the old movements. Speaking from my own experiences in piano technique, the greater ease found in the neck, back, legs, and arms allows me to more fully realize the potential for tone and phrasing at the piano I have learned studying the Taubman approach.
Is there one specific formula that works for every pianist? Of course there is not. We are all individuals with our own unique voices and habits. Investing in a private tutor from an institution like TakeLessons is a good way to develop individuality on the piano. Should the Taubman technique be studied before, after, or in conjunction with the Alexander technique? Again, it depends on the student. An Alexander teacher should not necessarily be expected to know the mechanical means by which a piano produces sound, any more than a Taubman teacher should be expected to know the importance of width in the back and how to encourage that width kinesthetically in a student. I have found in my playing and teaching, however, that the two techniques co-exist extremely well together, and would not hesitate to recommend studying either technique with qualified teachers. While there is no one best way to attain freedom and ease at the piano (or in life in general), I would simply conclude that these two techniques have given me more together than either one could have accomplished alone.
Renee Jackson has studied the Taubman approach to piano technique for the past eighteen years with Mary Moran and Edna Golandsky, and has played in master classes with Dorothy Taubman. She began serious study of the Alexander technique following a car accident in 1995, and was certified as an Alexander teacher by Alexander Technique International in 2001. She continues to study Alexander technique with Dale Beaver, the Taubman approach with Edna Golandsky, and to learn what works best from her individual students. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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