The Taubman Approach to Piano Technique

Teresa Dybvig

Dorothy Taubman’s approach to piano technique is based on tenets as simple as the basic cooperative movements of the human body and the ergonomic beauty of the piano, yet is so subtle and sophisticated that one could explore it for a lifetime. One exciting aspect of learning this method is that no matter how easy it feels and how good it sounds today, there is nearly always more freedom, greater variety of sound, greater speed, and greater expressive potential available. And it is a healthy technique that allows a pianist to enjoy playing for a lifetime, avoiding the many injuries that afflict an alarming percentage of musicians.

Many pianists with playing-related injuries have used this healthy technique to learn to play in better cooperation with their bodies, get rid of their problems, and return to playing. Many others have elected to study the technique so they could play their best, and skip the injury altogether! Others study the technique so they can teach their students to play in a healthy way. It is a happy coincidence that when pianists play in a healthy way, they play well. Often even formerly injured pianists say that after studying the Taubman Approach, they are better pianists than they ever dreamed possible.

The Taubman Approach is known for helping injured pianists recover and return to performing, but that is not why it came into being. Dorothy Taubman simply wanted to reach her own potential as a pianist, and help her students do the same. She had the fantastic idea that if we used the best and most efficient movements in our bodies, and took advantage of the engineering of the instrument, we would flourish. And it was true. The fact that it results in healthy playing is a logical extension of the premise that the best movements of the body would create the best playing.

Susan Nowicki demonstrating a passage

Dorothy Taubman came to understand certain critical aspects of physically playing the piano so well that her technique seems comprehensive. She had the wisdom and objectivity to avoid the assumption that whatever she did already, or had been taught, was correct. This was fortunate, because it turns out that some commonly accepted concepts are not ideal for playing. Therefore, some principles of the Taubman Approach are groundbreakingly different from other piano pedagogies. This can elicit some resistance, but the logic of the technique has a way of winning people over.

I am sure the Taubman Approach does not have all the answers, if only because that seems unlikely when dealing with such a complex world as human movement on a complicated machine. If I were asked to name one shortcoming, it is that the Taubman Approach does not offer guidance about whole-body movement. But that is not really a flaw in the work — it never pretended to cover that aspect. Fortunately, it can be easily remedied by consulting one of the many skilled bodywork experts working today – which I heartily suggest. And still, after years of searching for answers on countless medical and bodywork fronts, I can say that nothing else comes close. The Taubman Approach, applied well, contains more of the answers than any other approach to playing the piano.

The premise of the Taubman approach is that all technical problems at the piano can be solved. Intelligent, informed practice, rather than repetitious grinding, is the solution. The skills acquired through the Taubman approach are real and enduring, and once achieved they open new and greater interpretive horizons.

A lively technique clinic on playing the thumb!

The best thing you can do for yourself if you want to incorporate the technique into your playing is to get some lessons with a good teacher. There is no substitute. Attending programs like The Well-Balanced Pianist will speed up your learning, because you receive intensive instruction, and understand the big picture faster.

To obtain a comprehensive understanding of the Taubman Approach (which you may not need in order to play well), you need to take years of lessons, attend programs like The Well-Balanced Pianist to get a better understanding of the big picture, and watch The Taubman Techniques lecture videos narrated mostly by Edna Golandsky. These are available in two sets of five, the first five of which are most useful.

But a word about those videos. Sometimes people buy a set of videos thinking they can save money on lessons and just learn from the videos. Please do not fool yourself! The videos show you where we all want to go, but they do not show you how to get from where you are to where you want to go. Most disturbingly (and ironically, and sadly), people who are not taking lessons often build incoordinate movements into their hands and arms while trying to imitate movements they see on the videos. In short, people who try to skip lessons with a teacher by studying the videos inevitably end up taking lessons. So just take the plunge and take some lessons if you want to learn the Taubman Approach.

Below are some of the basic tenets of the Taubman Approach. I would like to say, “Please do not try this at home,” but I know some will not be able to resist, and I do not blame you. So instead I will say please, experiment, but only apply any of this if it makes your hands and arms feel better. If it does not, it is a sign that it is not quite right. If it is not quite right, it will not improve your playing anyway, so abandon it until you can work with an excellent teacher. Even experts in the Taubman Approach have trouble being objective about their own playing. Often when I play for a wonderful Taubman teacher, they point out that I am not completely following through with some element — and coincidentally, it will be something I have talked about with five students that week! It is just difficult to be that aware of our own bodies. So try these things, and if they feel right, great. If they do not, wait until you can work with a wonderful teacher before you pursue them any more.

I find it helpful in practicing and teaching to divide Dorothy Taubman’s discoveries into three arenas: alignment, balance, and movement. In order to attain their fullest potential, pianists need expertise and awareness in all three.

Balance and healthy movement are possible only with good alignment.

You can see this alignment easily by letting your hand fall naturally to the side, and looking at the shape of your forearm from the elbow to the tips of the fingers (do not reach to the floor! do not hold your hand on display or change your alignment at the wrist to look!). All you need in addition is the toned and lively feeling in the hand and forearm that makes movement possible.

Beautifully aligned forearm

Alignment is not glamorous to work on — no notes or music results from working on alignment. But playing in our best natural alignment is the foundation of a functioning technique. Recently a student wrote to me that he had experienced several pianistic breakthroughs in the past week, all having their roots in playing in better alignment. This can happen to you too.

Natural forearm alignment is perfect for playing!

Dorothy Taubman realized that pianists can balance into the piano as simply as one can stand on a floor. This balance is free from pushing or holding up. She invented a word, “contacting,” to describe this simple balance. Contacting is when there is enough friction between the hand and the key that the fingers do not slide, the hand and arm do not need to hold up, and the hand and arm are not so heavy on the key that they go down. You can get this same balance at the bottom of any one key or chord. It is important both to balance forward into the piano (but not to the point of pushing) and balance so that the heel of the hand is facing the floor and the fingers are resting on the middle of their pads. Since there is no tension from holding up or pushing down, the pianist can move in a flash to the next balanced place. The proper bench height is crucial to attaining this lovely and unremarkable balance.

Taubman teachers call this feeling “resting down.” This is meant as a neutral term, but the feeling people have when they get there can be anything but neutral, and anything but down. Their descriptions say a lot about where they came from: “down” (they used to hover), “there” (they used to fidget), un-there (they used to try too hard), and “floating” (they used to sink heavily). For people who tend to sink heavily, the terms “alert resting” and “buoyant resting” can be interesting to work with.

Hand balanced on piano

The short version is that Dorothy Taubman came to understand the movements that would help us move from one balanced place to the next while maintaining our alignment. These are the walking hand and arm, forearm rotation, forearm movements in and out of the black key area, and shaping. In all movements, all parts move in the same direction at the same time (though sometimes not the same amount — when you lift the fingers, the arm also lifts, but not as much as the palm). She also understood two important ways the piano will help us play it, if we honor its engineering:


Since the hammer hits the string when we move through the aftertouch (the bump a little way between the top of the key and the keybed), we need to aim to the aftertouch and follow through to the bottom of the key — not stopping at the aftertouch, and certainly not aiming to the bottom of the key. This will give us that piano’s most beautiful sound, allow us to avoid any feeling of impact, and give us a stable place from which to move. We can also modify the timing of the touch and the amount of the forearm weight to change volume and sound quality.

Repetition Lever

The repetition lever is the part of the key that allows us to repeat notes quickly, and therefore to play a fast staccato. If we touch a key correctly, it will create staccato for us. Here is how: play the key with an exquisite balance. Then release the focus of the weight into the key without losing contact with the key. The key will raise the hand and arm back to the surface. The sound of staccato may be pointed (or not, depending on how short or long a note you choose to play), but the sensation is very gentle.

Mrs. Taubman understood many other aspects of movement too — which hand should move first when both hands have jumps, and how to teach the hands to cue one another, for example. I feel I have not yet come across the pianistic challenge that her work does not address.

My thoughts about retraining have evolved over the years. If you have read this section before, you could probably chart the evolution of my thinking as I modified, changed, and even contradicted myself here. My thoughts seem to have settled, though, and here they are.

I used to define retraining as a course of study of movement separated from repertoire, progressing step by step from learning how to play a single note through learning notes in a row, then thumb crosses, then chords, etc. Taubman teachers used to think that taking a break from all playing obligations and retraining the technique from the simplest elements up was the only way to incorporate healthy habits into playing. Some may still believe that, but I do not. Retraining in this way can remove good habits from people’s playing, as well as ones they want to change, and encourages impractical movements. It also temporarily severs the link between the music and the body. I do not understand why, but I have noticed that if that link is severed for too long, retraining becomes unnecessarily and painfully protracted. In my opinion, one should retrain in this manner only if they are injured and cannot make positive changes in a more integrated manner.

I now define retraining much more broadly. To me, retraining is the act of making changes to the way one plays. Most people can make positive changes right in the repertoire. To do this, they become familiar with a new alignment, balance, or movement at a lesson, and begin to apply it to the music right there. I have had injured students who were able to successfully change their technique and get out of pain while playing repertoire.

I feel we should have names for these two kinds of retraining. I would like to come up with short names, but so far all I  have been able to think of is “retraining out of context” (or “retraining from the beginning”) and “retraining within context” (or maybe “contextual retraining”). Well, these are not sound bytes. If you can think of something better, please let me know.

No matter whether you do it in repertoire or not, retraining involves a detailed examination of your alignment and movement, with the aim of replacing incoordinate and injurious habits with healthy, coordinate ones. Pianists who retrain their techniques build their consciousness while they rebuild their techniques, so eventually, they know consciously how to play each finger in a beautiful toned balance, how to move from note to note, how to play chords — how to handle every musical situation the repertoire requires. If they were injured, they usually regain full facility and comfort. They share the same end result with pianists who were never injured — all become more capable pianists than they imagined they could be.

So. When retraining out of context is necessary, do it with a whole heart. When it is not, enjoy making changes within your repertoire. You will still have plenty to keep you busy, and you will still get where you want to go.

The length of the retraining process varies greatly from person to person, and depends largely on their goals. How easy a person will find retraining, and how soon they will reach their original goal, depends upon their ability to learn to consciously direct the hand and arm to do new and different movements with ease. Sometimes this skill comes quite readily, and sometimes it has to be learned gradually.

People who stop exploring the Taubman Approach as soon as they get out of pain may have a shorter stint than others, but I hope that people will study long enough to experience a stable new place in a variety of repertoire. And goals have a way of shifting. When pianists begin their study, they may think they just want to… fill in the blank!… make a more beautiful sound, feel better, play better octaves, or better scales, play without pain… But many people realize that there is a whole world of knowledge available, and they become greedy. In the best way! Greedy for improvement! Those people often take lessons for longer than they expected when they first started. Many of them become fine teachers.

A note to people who are retraining from injury: the pursuit of this kind of change can seem teeth-grittingly serious. However, as in all other aspects of learning, it goes better if it is approached as a joyful journey of exploration and discovery. This is possible! It is very interesting to get to know yourself and your body, and learn how you can change its habits to better ones.

Students of the Taubman approach find that many aspects of their lives become easier. Since it is based on human physiology and laws of movement, one can use it to solve problems in Chopin, play the violin, or to drive an automobile. People learn about their inner selves too, on the way to becoming their own best pianist. One of my students said to me once, “Before I encountered the Taubman approach, everything was about pushing and ‘efforting.’ Now it’s about letting things flow and getting out of my own way. I’ve learned that I don’t need to create an artifice of myself, that my self will do just fine.” Quite a powerful lesson to get from studying an approach to piano technique.