Dorothy Taubman (August 16, 1917 – April 3, 2013) was an American music teacher, lecturer and founder of the Taubman Institute of Piano, who developed the "Taubman Approach" to piano playing. Her approach to piano technique was based on an analysis of the motions needed for virtuosity and musical expression, but at first earned a reputation through its high rate of success in curing playing injuries. It provoked controversy by questioning the physiological soundness of some tenets of traditional piano teaching.
Taubman directed the Dorothy Taubman Institute of Piano at Amherst College in Massachusetts from 1976 to 2002. Formerly a professor at the Aaron Copland School of Music of Queens College and a professor at Temple University, she has been featured in numerous articles and interviewed in the Boston Globe, The New York and the Los Angeles Times, Piano Quarterly, Piano and Keyboard, and Clavier magazines. Among others, Taubman has been noted for her work with injured musicians including the celebrated American pianist Leon Fleisher, who was forced to play with only one hand for many years due to injuries he sustained playing at the piano; with the piano teacher Edna Golandsky, who was Taubman's principal teaching assistant and associate director of the Institute; and with Dr. Yoheved Kaplinsky, chair of the Piano Department at the Juilliard School.
Besides offering a rational, diagnostic system aimed at solving the musical and physiological problems of piano interpretation, the techniques Taubman pioneered have been used therapeutically to treat repetitive strain injuries related to piano playing, and generally to rehabilitate injured pianists. Her techniques have been adapted to computer keyboard typing.
Taubman was best known for her development of a new piano technique, which she called coordinate motion. Her teaching method springs from a best-practice theoretical model which defines the biomechanical roles and conditions necessary to move efficiently at a musical instrument. These parameters are:
- 1. Unification. All the body parts performing work will function as a single unit. No single element involved will work independently of the unit.
- 2. Mid-Range of Motion. All body parts will move within the mid-range of motion of the joint articulation from which they depend. Conversely, movements to the extreme range of motion are avoided.
- 3. Awkward Movements. Movement roles are assigned to the body parts best able to perform them, thereby eliminating awkward movements entirely.
- 4. Alignment. Correct alignment of body parts is maintained under all conditions. Not only does this allow body parts to move within their mid-range of motion with greater frequency, it also bring into play skeletal compression and support not available when body parts are misaligned.
- 5. Division of Labor. No single body part will perform all labor. Instead, labor will be divided between all the body parts most able to perform it. Effort is thereby decreased in each muscle group, and this results in an increase of macro-amplitudes overall and a decrease of micro-amplitudes at each joint articulation.
- 6. Efficient Use of Equipment. The mechanism of the tool, in this case the piano action, will be used within its limits of design and to its utmost effect with a minimum of muscular effort.
- 7. Minimal Muscular Effort. Gravity becomes available to perform work under the forgoing conditions, thereby decreasing muscular effort overall to minimal levels.
- 8. Synergistic Action. The action of each coordinated movement is synergistic, magnifying and potentiating all the others. Consequently, the need for each discrete coordinate movement is reduced to minimal levels. When all elements are properly coordinated, the discrete elements become almost invisible to the untrained eye.
In Taubman’s model, control, power and virtuosity are a matter of timing, reflexes and coordination, not strength, independence or brute force. Coordinate motion takes the biomechanical limits of the body parts doing work as the central consideration in all technical problems. These biomechanical parameters translate into a direct and practical application at the keyboard in the following manner.
The alignment of the finger, hand and forearm can best be observed when the arm is resting at the side of the executant. In this pose, the finger, knuckle (MP joint) and wrist joints are all at the mid-range of their total arc of movement available in those joints. Taubman asserts that this is the optimal position for the hand to do work, and should be the basis for a unique hand position at the keyboard for each student.
The correct vertical keystroke results in a passive resting at the bottom of the key, with the resting weight of the finger, hand and forearm free and available to perform the next movement. Support should be minimal, enough to maintain correct alignment of the body parts without assistance, and properly divided among those parts involved. In Taubman’s model, resting down is the essential, primary state from which all other movements are performed. This state allows the performer to use the key bed as a fulcrum from which to accurately leverage and time the next keystroke.
Minimal muscular support becomes an essential ingredient to the forgoing technical elements. Only minimal support is needed at critical junctures to assure proper alignment, balance and the passive state of resting down. When it is divided properly between all the body parts involved, the sense of physical effort diminishes until it becomes imperceptible to the executant. When minimal support is not available in any single element, other body parts further up the causal chain must make greater efforts to achieve balance and stability. If support at the wrist is collapsed, for example, then the bicep, mid-back (rhomboids) and shoulder girdle must take over the support function. In Taubman’s model, these larger body parts are ill-suited to perform these functions if they move past a relatively low speed threshold. Because of the comparatively larger size of their muscle bellies, simultaneous antagonistic co-contractions quickly become isometric in nature in the larger body part, and fixation in the limbs occur. An increased sense of effort, technical dysfunction and fatigue can ensue when large muscle groups are used beyond their physiological limits.
A correctly regulated grand piano action will produce sound at the point at which the repetition jack falls into place, throwing the hammer up towards the string. The action of the repetition jack can be felt as a slight resistance or “bump” if the key is depressed very slowly, most often within the first third of the vertical keystroke.
A properly coordinated technique will aim the keystroke at this point of sound, an element Taubman called keystroke timing. Control of the keystroke timing is responsible for changes in tone color and volume the instrument produces. Changes in dynamic volume are produced by changes in the vertical speed of the keystroke aimed at the point of sound, not brute force expended lower down against the key bed. It is possible to produce all gradations of volume and tone color while aiming at the point of sound, and with minimal force. Much physical effort will be wasted if the keystroke is aimed too high or too low, or excessive physical effort is used to achieve a particular sonic effect.
In a properly coordinated technique, a relationship exists between the lifting/dropping (flexion/extension) of the fingers, and the rotational movement (pronation/supination) of the forearm. The forearm, hand and finger act as a series of fulcrums and levers, resting passively on the key bed. As the finger lifts, the forearm rotates in one direction or the other at the same time to assist it in its lifting. When the finger drops, the forearm rotates in the opposite direction at the same time to assist it in dropping. This coordination of activity accomplishes three central objectives:
- 2- forearm rotation makes the passive, resting weight of the forearm available to fall behind the fingers as they drop into the key, entraining gravity into the action of playing the next key.
- 3- the forearm throws the fingers, hand and forearm laterally across the keyboard, balancing the resting weight of the forearm directly behind the location of the new resting finger.
All these goals are accomplished without using the upper arm or shoulder girdle to effectuate the movement. Thus, reaching with the fingers (adduction/abduction), twisting the wrist (ulnar deviation) and other awkward movements are avoided.
Forearm rotation results in a series of right- and left-swinging movements of the forearm that prepares the lift/drop of the finger with a rotational swing in the opposite direction of the finger movement. For example, the forearm swings right first if the first rotation is to the left, and vice versa. The wrist and resting finger must remain stable as mentioned previously in order to maintain these movements. This rotational pattern results in a continuous action of the forearm preparing the lifting of every finger to be played. Some of the rotations require an additional swing to lift the finger; these are called double rotations. The combined, synchronized actions of forearm rotation and finger lifting/dropping are synergistic. One element augments the other, thereby decreasing the need for each. This allows important changes to occur in both the physiology and biomechanics of movement when forearm rotation assists with finger lifting/dropping. The resting weight of the forearm is free to fall behind the finger as it drops into the key, decreasing the need for the flexor muscles to come into play to pull the finger down as gravity becomes available to perform the action. The size of the movement, or macro-amplitude, increases overall, allowing greater momentum to develop and generate greater levels of force as needed. At the same time, micro-amplitude of the individual finger movements actually decreases, allowing the fingers to stay within their mid-range of motion. For the executant, the net subjective effect is a sense of physical freedom coupled with effortlessness.
In & Out
Covering the terrain of the keyboard poses a great challenge biomechanically. At first glance, the irregular conformation of the hand and finger make it appear ill-suited to maneuver a perfectly straight and linear keyboard without employing awkward movements. Taubman did not see this as a dilemma, however. She proposed that the forearm is the body part ideally suited to overcome these obstacles. The forearm makes small longitudinal movements in or out of the keyboard to carry the fingers to the optimal location to play. This will avoid twisting the wrists out of alignment (ulnar/radial deviation, dorsiflexion) or curling the fingers excessively (antagonistic flexion/extension). In & out movements are employed to bring the fingers within optimal range of the keys to be struck, within the area where leverage against the key hinge is greatest. They are accomplished incrementally and are prepared several notes beforehand, if no other technical issues predominate.
In & out movements accomplish several biomechanical goals at once. They maintain the balance of the resting arm weight, which Taubman asserts should generally be toward the fallboard if stability from skeletal compression is to be maintained. Consequently, in & out occurs on mixed black-and-white key passages, as well as white key-only passages. Synergistically, in & out decreases the need for forearm rotation and finger action, thereby minimizing each.
Taubman asserts that lateral distances larger than a major second require greater involvement of the forearm than can be accomplished by forearm rotation alone. In these situations, the forearm makes an up-across/over-down movement, which she refers to as the “Walking Arm”. The walking arm has many of the same characteristics as scale rotation and has a similar subjective “feel” to the executant, as it uses the same musculature to produce it. However, the larger lateral distances often change the visual character of the movement so much that it no longer appears rotational. The forearm assists the finger in its lifting and also carries it laterally across the entire distance to be spanned, then performs a great part of the vertical drop into the key as the finger drops. Gravity then becomes a more predominant force in the act of playing, reducing muscular effort further
To the untrained observer, the wrist appears to make curvilinear, "u"-shaped and inverted "u"-shaped movements as it traverses the keyboard laterally. Taubman called these movements forearm shaping, with the "u"-shape as under-shaping, and the inverted "u"-shaped as over-shaping. The height of the wrist in a given shape is determined by the terrain being played and the length of the finger playing a given key. Changes in wrist and forearm height from one key to the next make it appear as if only the wrist is making the shape when, in fact, Taubman surmised that the finger, hand and forearm accomplishes the incremental adjustment from the olecranon to the fingertip, not as separate parts, but as a unit.
Shaping is the technical element that ties all the others together. Shaping also has a synergistic effect on the preceding technical elements. It reduces the amount of in & out needed, it can smooth the corners of the walking arm, and it also can reduce the amount of rotation needed. Additionally, shaping produces important artistic effects, such as rhythmic inflection and continuity of the musical line.
Many critics dispute Taubman's notion that forearm rotation is an essential feature of a virtuoso technique, particularly in scale playing. They argue that such a forearm movement would be ungainly, interfere with fast passage work, and make independence of the fingers impossible. Taubman herself was deeply concerned with this question, as she had observed many times in her students that an overlarge rotational movement would interfere with speed and control. Yet she paradoxically observed both forearm rotations and the walking arm in virtuoso pianists capable of easily performing any texture, as did her antecedents.
Taubman adduced that the seemingly discrete technical elements coalesce into a synergistic whole, minimizing the need for each, potentiating their separate, individual effect, yet blending into a seamless unity that only a trained observer can discern separately. Each technical element must be present in the right timing and amount in order for this synergy to occur. For example, in and out reduces the need for rotation. The walking arm reduces it still further, shaping reduces the need for in and out, and for rotation, while at the same time reducing the need for the walking arm. Rotation can reduce the need for shaping in many textures. The use of gravity reduces the subjective sense of physical effort in every action, and the need for each discreet technical element. Proper keystroke timing reduces it further still. Both gravity and proper keystroke timing increase the available physical resources needed to produce a large sound, et cetera.
While certain textures may take on the predominant visual character of a single technical element if the terrain requires it, the others are still present but microscopic. Thus, the true nature of a virtuoso technique becomes invisible to the untrained observer. If just one of the technical elements is not present correctly, however, then dysfunction ensues.
Taubman also addressed other, more advanced aspects of coordinate motion in her model, such as grouping and neurophysical interdependence issues of the hands. She applied the entirety of her approach to the piano literature including specialized textures such as octaves, double notes, chords, and the various art techniques including voicing, tone production, phrasing, rhythmic control, period style, and the like.
Taubman concluded that, taken together, all these aspects constitute a complete description of all the technical problems encountered in the piano literature as well as a solution to them.
Taubman's theory of coordinate motion has become the object of a continuing line of scientific inquiry carried on in professional journals, peer-reviewed literature, and conference papers, influencing the diverse fields of music teaching, medicine, ergonomics, and other related disciplines. This distinction makes Taubman almost unique in music pedagogy. She and William Vennard are the only contemporary music teachers to have their technical approaches withstand the scrutiny of scientific investigation.
The emergence of Music Medicine as a field of clinical practice is a relatively recent event. As this is the case, the specialty has not yet presented many answers about the fundamental nature of musicians' injuries. For example, it has been known for some time that musicians experience injuries related to playing an instrument occupationally at an unusually high rate. Injuries at the piano have been related to specific technical practices. It is clear that both professionals and conservatory students can be affected, and that musicians' injuries are similar in range and severity to other occupationally induced repetitive strain injuries. Yet orthodox medical approaches do not yet provide a clear answer as to a prime cause; even a best-practice model of treatment is still evolving.
Taubman's technical model sheds new light on the subject in the clinic, the laboratory and the field. Micklem began his inquiry into the biomechanical nature of Taubmans' approach in the late 1980s. Pereira collaborated with the Taubman Institute in the mid-1990s, using surface electromyogram studies of Taubman-trained pianists performing various techniques, measuring quantitative changes in muscular activity as techniques changed. During their professional collaboration at the Taubman Institute, both Taubman and Golandsky presented numerous papers and presentations to music medicine conferences covering their theories, methods and outcomes working with injured pianists. Dybvig and Scolnik, both students of Taubman and Golandsky, extended the field of inquiry into Taubman's claims of efficacy using her methods with sufferers of focal dystonia.
The adaptation and extension of Taubman's approach to computer users have proven efficacious, with good to very good clinical outcomes when coupled with a comprehensive, multi-modality case-management approach in an industrial setting. Dempster first outlined a practicable adaptation of Taubman's technical model to the computer keyboard. Dempster's subsequent clinical outcomes suggested that Taubman's approach could in fact be adapted to the computer keyboard successfully, and with similar clinical outcomes. Using expanded research methods, he was able to show quantitative changes in the muscular activity of injured legal typists, correlated with a decrease in reported symptoms, that supported Taubmans' original hypothesis that coordinate motion was indeed therapeutic. The approach was further corroborated by Griffen and her successful clinical outcomes., An independent case review performed by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory using Dempster's training protocol as a study method showed that returns-to-work could be successful over the long-term, which suggests that technique may in fact be causal in repetitive strain injury cases at the computer. Independently, Pascarelli and Kella described a similar taxonomy of technical issues correlated with injuries at the computer keyboard. They concluded, as did Taubman, that incorrect technique may be an essential intrinsic risk factor of injury, and that technique retraining should be included in treatment plans for upper extremity RSI sufferers.
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- This material is digested from: Ernie Urvater, director, "The Taubman Techniques: a series of ten videocassettes presenting the keyboard pedagogy of Dorothy Taubman", VHS video volumes 1 - 10 (JTJ Films Inc., 1994).
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- Dybvig, T., Scolnik, N.,"Assessment of a retraining program in improving pianists' involuntary movements," 12th European Congress on Musician's Medicine/3rd International Congress on Musician's Medicine, Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory of Music in Milan, Italy.
- Dybvig, Scolnik, "Habits Common to Pianists with Dystonia and other Involuntary Movements", National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy, (Oakbrook IL, August 2007).
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- Dempster, G., Hirsch, D., Lindsey, D., Toomim, H., et al, "Surface electromyogram studies of computer users undergoing Movement Retraining and Myofascial Release Therapy", Proc. Silicon Valley Ergonomics Conference, SJSU 1995.
- Griffen, V., "Movement Re-education and the Injuries of Computer users", Proc. Silicon Valley Ergonomics Conference, SJSU 1995.
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- Pascarelli, E., Kella, J., "Soft Tissue Injuries Related to Use of the Computer Keyboard: A Clinical Study of 53 Severely Injured Persons", J Occup Med, #35(5), 1993, 522-532.