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The Seven Pillars of Taubman


Imagine a Parthenon-type building with seven pillars at the front façade rather than eight. Each one stands for a crucial aspect of the wisdom underlying Taubman technique.

Seven being the divine number of completion in Jewish mysticism, the number of thought consciousness and spirit in other spiritual traditions, and the number of old-fashioned childhood good luck, I liked it for the number of fundamental ideas to enshrine as pillars in the Taubman system. Or, perhaps that the Taubman system lends itself to being described in terms of seven essential features is an auspicious sign for you.

All thoughts of the magical properties of the number seven aside, I believe the following description will set you on the road of learning Taubman technique most efficaciously and efficiently. Besides--seven is such a great number!

1) Taubman technique maximizes the use of passive energy sources for the production of musical sound. The pianist harnesses gravity and momentum to apply force to the piano keys.

Gravity and momentum are free to us. They take a great deal of cleverness and coordination to use at the piano—but once the pianist has become clever in this fashion, these resources are free for the taking. In Taubman, the pianist learns to divert muscular resources from the project of stabilizing the arm, wrist, hand, and fingers because he understands on a bodily level precisely when (even to the millisecond) this isn’t necessary. In place of stabilizing, the pianist cultivates and harnesses passive forms of energy that are available because of instability he allows. [link to momentum page, forthcoming] He can draw from a bottomless pit of free physical resource for the sake of enormous and tireless speed, exquisite timing, well-selected weight for each individual note, and to play without pain and without any of the hiccups likely to infect the playing of a tired pianist.

Momentum and gravity are indispensable ingredients to this technique at every turn.

2) The forearm and hand for the most part do not work independently, but form a “unit” when the wrist does its proper job. The pianist brings the forces of momentum and gravity to bear upon the heft of this unit for the production of sound.

According to a Google query I made, the adult hand weighs between eight ounces and a pound. I don’t know how accurate this is but you’ll get the idea. The forearm weighs, we might assume, a bit more than this. If I place a stack of a mere eight to ten nickels—which weighs considerably less than even a child’s forearm—on a piano key, the key goes down, even without the benefit of the stack being dropped from above the key. If I refrain from exerting muscles of the upper arm and shoulder to hold my forearm above the keys (Taubman calls that “hovering”) then I have the potential to release my forearm/hand weight into the keys as I play. Momentum and physical exertion can magnify the downward draw of gravity on the heavy arm, and the four (momentum, gravity, muscular exertion, and arm/hand weight)—are capable of being combined to create infinitesimal gradations in sound according to equations the body grasps.

3) In order to wield the forearm, using momentum and gravity, in a way that produces the desired sound, the pianist has to have cultivated optimal body architecture.

If arm weight fails to be transmitted into the piano because the hand will not support that weight, gravity has not served its purpose. So, one has to cultivate the kinds of alignments that optimize this transmission. To use Taubman’s own terminology, one must avoid “broken fulcrums,” or joints where the transmission of weight from the forearm through the bones of the wrist and fingers is lost because of faulty architecture. Optimal architecture entails minimal, split-second muscular exertions (and I mean minimal, in a way that’s hard to wrap your brain around if you’re accustomed to thinking that playing involves strain!) and bones that sit one against the next in a very solid way, transmitting force into the piano key.

4) For the sake of artistry, the pianist builds within herself a sensory continuum in which there is a proportional relationship between the amount of momentum/gravity and amount/quality of sound.

Without the action of gravity on the weighty arm, Taubman technique has quite a bit less to offer than one might find inspiring or compelling. Taking gravity out of the equation for each note played is like constructing a complex mathematical equation and finishing your work by multiplying everything by zero—you are back to the uninteresting prospect of using muscle for every sound.  Aside from the fact that gravity is indispensable to the project of applying force with a bare minimum of muscular exertion, a basis of gravity works best with the machinery of the piano for most beautiful sound creation—sound that has a minimum of noise or concentrations of energy in undesirable enharmonic spectra.

The presence of gravity for the production of every note, and the beauty of sound it makes possible, opens a huge artistic possibility. I would argue that Taubman technique makes possible a comparatively (to other ways of playing) straightforward amplification of the emotional through the physical sensations of gravity acting upon the arm. Like a photographic emulsion responding to nuances of light, this system lends to reproducing in the physical sphere (and down into the piano keys) all the gradations of one’s emotional sense of a piece, absent interferences from unwanted strain. Gravity, integral to the quantity as well as quality of sound of each note, becomes a basis for an intuitive logic that (ideally) forms a dependable backbone of artistic possibility.

5) Rebound effects are all-important, and this accounts for the absolute necessity of good landings, with adequate friction, on the key.

The quantity of force with which one lands at the bottom of a key is returned in kind (depending, of course, on the keybed being sturdy)--otherwise the finger would experience the key as a bottomless pit of goo heading for the center of the earth (talk about thrilling playing!).  The clever pianist does not waste this force returned to him from the bottom of the keybed. If the returned force is greater than that exerted by stabilizing muscle, “the unit” (the hand/wrist/arm continuum) will be sent in some direction, depending on what was destabilized.  The clever pianist directs this rebound—with some combination of upward, sideways, and in-or-out motion--to allow the unit to be sent to the next location. Without "rebound," fresh energy input is necessary for more sound, and tiredness is likely to result.

Taubman’s “walking hand and arm,” “ in and out,” “ forward and backward shift,” “over- and under-shape,” and rotation itself are all indispensable for rebound insofar as they maximize correct kinds of relaxation (something which, of course, is generally beneficial for playing without fatigue) and therefore the ability of the various involved body parts to rebound. Rebound is absolutely dependent on weighted landings into the key.

6) Muscular elasticity and recoil amplifies the effect of work performed using other passive resources.

When one studies this technique, one learns a delicate balance between stabilizing for structure and relaxing for the sake of good rebound. The Taubman pianist takes every opportunity for the equivalent of a free ride back to the top of the slope: that is, for the next playing finger to be lifted through some process the pianist has put into place rather than through muscular exertion. One of the technique’s resources for such passive accomplishment resides in the power of muscular and tendonal elasticity and recoil.

This elasticity, for example, factors into how forearm rotation is to work. That fingers are lifted in Taubman in large part through forearm rotation is clear enough (at least in the small)—but because so little physical effort is needed for this lifting, the technique is so much more generous than this observation might imply.

The big winners here are the fingers and the upper arm. The function of the fingers in Taubman is to be landed upon with a delightful split-second of sturdiness; to provide sensory feedback; to aid rebound through minutest exertions, and to act in tiny ways to effect color and create sparkle. In a muscular sense, their activity should not be much less passive than that of the sole of your shoe, with mere muscular “twitches” for the extent of their involvement. Just as we don’t exert ourselves by straining forward while driving in a car, fingers can relax in the understanding that the arm will deliver them ever so luxuriously to their destination.

The upper arm, on the other hand, agrees not to clench the forearm parallel to the floor: then the forearm can constantly be reseated on the keyboard, the primary source of its support. In fact, when the upper arm doesn't clench, it can swing in desired directions, effortlessly delivering fingers where they next belong.

7. Different aspects of the technique increase the potential of all the others to work, so that you need very little of each and end up with a wickedly efficient technique with an incredible expressive logic.

Taubman pianists have a bit of slang for when the first six pillars are used to the greatest advantage: “It just goes.” All aspects of the technique feed off of the others—to use the language of biomechanics, they “potentiate” each other--until playing feels magically effortless in the physical sense. The pianist orders natural forces by using his body in a coordinated way that Taubman was able to describe, with an embarrassment of riches left for sparkling touches of timing and color.

Pianists who have not studied this technique tend to think of it primarily in terms of the single and double rotations many of you have heard about, involving forearm rotation. If a pianist were to simply add “single and double rotations” to her technical toolbox, the range of muscles engaged in the work of playing would possibly be greater, she would potentially tire less quickly, and her technique would quite probably improve according to the old technique paradigm that calls for distribution of work among muscle classes. But, contrary to what many people think, the movement types associated with the technique are but necessary preconditions for it to work in the magical way a pianist would want. It is the potentiation of the aspects one of the other that makes this a great technique.


Next: A New Piano Technique Paradigm