"The body is capable of fulfilling all pianistic demands without a violation of its nature if the most efficient ways are used; pain, insecurity, and lack of technical control are symptoms of incoordination rather than a lack of practice, intelligence, or talent." -- Dorothy Taubman
"The playing apparatus is governed by very definite laws of motion. When one begins to understand how the body works, how the instrument works and how they interact, a whole new world opens up." --Edna Golandsky
"Like most things in life, playing the piano well can't be forced. The fingers, hand and arm function together as a unit. On the keyboard they should look approximately as they do when they're hanging by your side." --John Bloomfield
"When the finger, hand and arm are balanced together there is no sense of having to press at the bottom of the key in order to stay on the keyboard, nor is there a sense of holding in the shoulders, arms, or wrists. There is no need to relax after playing a note because no tension is required to play a note." --Mary Moran
"You cannot overpractice, only practice wrong". --Dorothy Taubman
To discover your natural hand position, try this experiment --- Stand up and drop your arms down to your side. Let them hang freely and examine how they feel. Notice that you have an arm, a hand, and fingers that fall out of the hand. It should feel very free and easy. Observe the unity of your hand and forearm. "The hand lines up straight with the arm, neither collapsing at the wrist joint nor twisting off at an extreme angle." The fingers are not curled tightly, nor are they stretched apart from each other.
Musicians should always strive to maintain their natural hand position where "the hand is neither tense nor too relaxed." (Mary Moran). "If the technique is healthy, the minimum effort is used for the maximum result. Thus, a technique should look easy and effortless, not exhibiting signs of stress and strain." (John Bloomfield).
Correct alignment of hand in front of forearm:
Incorrect alignment of hand in front of forearm. Hand is "twisting" to the right, away from the direction of the forearm.
The physiologically best movement is one permitting motion in the mid-range. Whether you are a pianist, flutist, guitarist, computer typist, or Nintendo player , you should avoid 'ulnar/radial deviation' (twisting at the wrist). So, be careful to avoid moving a part of your body to its extreme range, (like in the photo, below right).
A healthy hand maintains the natural position -- the fingers do not curl nor stretch apart from each other. The knuckles maintain their natural alignment.
In the photos below, the fingers in the hand on the left are curled. Sometimes pianists are told to "curl their fingers to try to make them all the same length." However, when you "curl your fingers" beyond their natural curve, this activates the long flexors causing tremendous tension and limitation in motion. Instead, the pianist should maintain the natural curve, allowing the longer fingers (2-3-4) to rest near or over the black keys when the short fingers are on the keys.
These students are demonstrating the correct seat height, where the bottom of the elbow is about level with the tops of the white keys. Sometimes pianists do not use the parts of their body to the best mechanical advantage. For example, if the wrist or torso collapses, or if the seat is too low, then the weight of the arm and hand falls backward toward the body and away from the piano. If the pianist doesn't balance their forearm and hand weight directly over the finger tip, then some other part will have to take over that wasn't meant to do that job, (for example the back muscles). Then, piano playing will take too much effort and we'll get tired.
Our bodies are essentially machines, and in order for a machine to work well, all the parts have to be lined-up correctly and move in the easiest way possible.
Have you ever seen a see-saw or drawbridge? These types of simple machines are called levers and they consist of a plank or a bar which is supported at some fixed point ("fulcrum") which allows the other parts to move well. For example, when the draw bridge moves up and down, there's a fixed point (or "fulcrum") from which the bridge is moving, up and down. The stable point of a see-saw is in the middle, right? But what would happen if this was off-center? Or removed altogether? We wouldn't have much fun sitting on a see saw plank/board resting on the ground!
In our bodies, these "fulcrums" translate into joints. Each joint acts as a fulcrum (or stable point) for the limb in front of it. For example:
-We have the main knuckle of the hand (metacarpophalangeal joint) from which the fingers drop and lift together.
-We have the wrist for the hand/finger actions.
-We have the elbow for the hand/forearm motions.
-We have the shoulder for the entire arm motions.
This student knows the importance of being able to balance the feet flat on floor (or foot stool if the feet do not easily reach the floor). The feet should not dangle, nor should the legs be crossed or tucked under the bench or extended out in front of the body. This student also knows to sit on the front part of the bench, allowing her to balance forward toward the instrument. To TEST if you have the correct balance, try to lift your feet. If you have to fight not to tip forward, then you're balanced correctly.
It's very important where we place these "fulcrums" so that our different limb parts can move comfortably and in speed. Misalignment of the parts of our "body machine" will cause us to use our muscles in ways we don't want to, or to use the wrong muscles. Then we'll become tense and tired.
Gravity --- it's not just a good idea, it's the law!Sometimes pianists think that there are as many different approaches to piano technic as there are pianists. However, even though we may look very different from each other on the outside and have unique spirits and personalities, when it comes to movement in general our bodies are all governed by very definite laws of motion.
These laws are universal. They're based on the way the human body is built and moves, the way the piano functions, and laws of motion involving things like gravity, inertia, equilibrium, mass, momentum, and other cool things you learned in science class.
Whether we are male or female, from Egypt or China, we are all built the same. Assuming there are no physical handicaps, we all have the same bone structure, muscles, ligaments, and nervous system, and when we play in awkward positions, or when we use the wrong muscles, or isolate the hand or fingers, or move our limb parts beyond the mid-range of motion, then we'll experience tension, which causes fatigue, which causes pain and possible injury.
Did you know that there are 39 muscles located JUST in the forearm and hand? And when you play a really hard piano piece, you're using all these muscles many times each second! So musicians simply don't have time to mess around using the wrong muscles, the wrong way, at the wrong time. Pianists don't have time for tension. Pianists don't have time for relaxation, either. A healthy, coordinate piano technic is neither about tension nor relaxation. It is neither extreme. John Bloomfield explains it this way: "If you're playing a passage of 16th notes at Quarter = 120, then you're articulating 8 notes per second! And, at this speed, relaxation is simply not an option -- there's no time to relax."
So, instead of always trying to find ways to "relax" and "release the tension," musicians should learn to move in such a way that there IS no tension FROM WHICH they need to relax in the first place. It's possible!
In the photos to the left, we see different examples of incoordinate motion. And remember this chain of events: Incoordinate motion .... tension .... fatigue .... pain .... possible injury.
In this photo above, the student is sitting too low. The elbow falls below the level of the keyboard, and the weight and support of the forearm/hand will never get to the fingers. So, the fingers will have to grip or grab just to stay on the keyboard. These tense fingers make it really difficult to move! In an effort to try to overcome this and give the fingers some support, the wrist is often held very high and sometimes the shoulder may raise as well. (Talk about being uncomfortable before even playing the 1st note!) In the photo below, the student is sitting correctly: on the front part of the bench, with feet flat on a foot stool, at a height that allows the hand and forearm to be in one piece with the elbow level with the tops of the white keys, sitting tall and allowing the upper arms to hang freely from the shoulder.
Incorrect (fingers are curled). Correct (fingers maintain natural curve)
In the photos below, we see a side shot of the above hand. Here, you can see the distortion of the natural hand position much more clearly.
Incorrect (fingers are curled). Correct (fingers maintain natural curve)
In the left photo above you can see the distortion of the natural hand position much more clearly. While it might look O.K.(or even "great") to some, there is actually a tremendous amount of tension in the hands in the left photos due to the curling, low wrist, and high knuckle ridge. This scenario is what you get when a pianist is asked to "pretend to hold a ball or bubble." It is very unfortunate that this is a common approach to teaching beginning piano students. The poor student has tense fingers/hands/arm, and TONS of limitation in motion before he even has a chance to play his first note on the piano!
Let's examine the "natural hand position" once again. When the hand hangs freely at the side, the fingers are not 'stretched apart" from each other, nor are they "crowded closely together". The fingers maintain a "natural distance" - one to another.
Stretching the fingers apart from each other causes tremendous tension and limitation in motion. (Don't take my word for it, though, try it yourself! Stretch your fingers apart from each other, then try to move the fingers quickly. It's much easier to move the fingers when they are not stretched.)
Sometimes, though, pianists are tempted to 'stretch' their fingers before they even play their first piece! In this photo below, the pianist's hand is not in a comfortable position. This pianist is "lining up" his fingers -- one finger per key.
When pianists "pre-set" their fingers into a fixed hand position (e.g. a "5-finger pattern") this causes tremendous tension. They're using extensors, abductors, and flexors all at the same time -- and activating these opposing muscle groups all at once makes our fingers/hand/forearm tight. (Doctors call this "co-contraction"). So, we want to avoid "stretching" or "crowding" the fingers.
The fingers have 3 knuckles each and move together from the main knuckle (closest to the palm -- the metacarpophalangeal joint). The main knuckle needs to be in the place that allows the fingers to move up and down easily.
Correct alignment of finger knuckles.
Incorrect -- collapsed (too soggy).
Incorrect -- held up too tall (like a 'tent').
Correct thumb knuckle position.
Incorrect thumb knuckle position. (Collapsed).
Incorrect end knuckles -- curling. A note about curling fingers beyond their natural curve ... DON'T.
Incorrect end knuckles -- collapsing..
Correct. There is a bend in the middle knuckle. The end knuckle closest to the finger nail is pretty straight. (The 2 end parts of the finger are "in one piece").
The correct wrist position allows the hand and forearm to feel as if they are in
one piece. The correct height is about level with the main knuckle and forearm.
In photos A and B, (at left), the hand can move freely up and down without going to its extreme range of motion. However, in photos C and D, we see a hand doing a very dangerous, (but unfortunately quite common) "2-note slur technique" where the wrist collapses down on the 1st note of the slur, then raises too high up on the 2nd note. This brings the hand to the extreme ranges of motion and makes it much more difficult to move AND control the sound. Misalignment of the body will not help produce a louder or softer sound, in fact it will make it much more difficult to control the sound you want. All the parts of our body move best in the mid-range of motion. Photos C and D are not examples of the hand's mid-range.
Wrist too high (upward collapse).
A low wrist collapses the wrist fulcrum and makes it difficult to move. The forearm and upper arm are pulled downward, and the entire arm weight falls into the wrist. This can cause pain in the wrist itself and/or in the back and neck, because the back muscles will often get into the act to try to keep the hand and arm on the piano in order to make playing possible. The back muscles are not meant to do this job and will eventually spasm. Also, when the wrist collapses, the fingers will grip to keep from falling off the keys which will create tension due to the activation of the long flexors that pull tightly across the wrist. Then, (it's not over!), high knuckles are often combined with the low wrist, bringing the fingers to their extreme range. A high/low wrist puts stress on the tendons as they pass through the carpal tunnel. When pianists forcefully flex their wrist, (like in 2-note slurs and phrase-shaping, or in "wrist octave technic" where the hand isolates from the forearm), they are setting themselves up for the pain and frustrations of the more and more common carpal tunnel syndrome..
In octaves and large chords, the basic wrist position is somewhat higher.
Knuckle height when playing single Knuckle height when playing
note thumb. octave. Notice it is much flatter.
When you play an octave, an outside agent (the keys) keeps the hand open for you so that you don't get the tension from activating the abductors.
When the fingers spread out for the octave or large chord, the knuckle fulcrum is lowered and weakened, making it necessary for the wrist to become the main fulcrum.
There are 2 main principles of coordinate motion:
1) That all the parts of the body are being used at their best mechanical advantage.
2) That we always use the minimum effort for the maximum result.
If you ever saw a really great concert pianist perform in a recital, you probably heard people in the audience say things like, "Wow, how did they move their fingers so fast?" You may think that playing like that is just for the few talented "Mozarts of the world" but actually, assuming there is no handicap, playing like that is possible for all of us as long as we observe the basic principles of coordinate motion.
Piano technic is the study of motion -- of trying to find the best movements at the piano that will allow us to move freely and easily across the keyboard. Piano technic is NOT the study of how to build muscles, strength and endurance. If you learn the proper way of playing, then you’re always ready .... you don’t have to warm-up. You can go right to the piano and play, even if you haven’t been at the instrument for days or weeks or months.
Think about it. Talented, young children can play enormous literature --- Chopin and Rachmaninoff --- without an adult’s strength. As Mrs. Taubman explains, “Unfortunately, the idea that developing a strong technic requires long, hard, athletic training is held in spite of the fact that child prodigies emerge with stunning techniques without those many years of practice, while most of us usually do not develop that kind of virtuosity even after years of practice.” “Training for endurance also implies that fatigue is the inevitable price of a virtuoso technique, and one must therefore be trained to endure the fatigue.”
So, instead, master coordinate motion at the keyboard so that you’ll have a piano technic that involves no tension or fatigue – a technic that is as natural as talking and walking.
In order to achieve this, all the parts of the playing apparatus (fingers/hands/forearms) must move together:
-in the same direction
-at the same time
-in the same speed
-and with the same freedom
These 3 parts -- the fingers, hand, and forearm --- must be aligned and synchronized in order to make coordinate motion possible.
Great pianists know the importance of unifying the fingers, hand, and forearm. Playing the piano involves coordination of several activities. We touch the piano with our fingertips, and the fingers are the most active part of the mechanism. But, if the fingers alone play, you get the feeling of weakness and lack of control because some fingers naturally have more strength than others. Being aware that the fingers have different capacities, pianists often try to 'develop finger strength'.
However, if it's the "fingers alone" -- trying to put and keep down the key, trying to stretch across distances, trying to do the entire job alone -- then the pianist will feel tension and limitations.
In the photos below, you see an example of an incoordinate, "isolated finger technic", where you have the weight of the arm resting down on the fingers that are not being used, and then finger #2 is pulling up against this force that is pulling you down, causing all sorts of antagonistic pulls.
Incorrect: Finger l#2 lifts in an Incorrect: Finger lifting in an isolatedIncorrect: Finger plays isolates
isolated manner. manner. from hand/forearm motions and
stretches apart from other fingers.
Correct: Unified finger, hand and forearm. Finger #2 lifts and plays, along with entire playing apparatus -- ALL the fingers lift together, along with the hand and forearm. This way, the fingers will feel equally strong. It's the same hand/forearm behind each finger, so each finger feels equal.
Dorothy Taubman explains, "if the arm is free and unrestrained, it naturally reacts with corresponding motions to the direction of the motion of the fingers. In order to have 'active fingers and a quiet arm,' ala Czerny, there would have to be a restriction on the arm's motion. Can you imagine the effect of the fingers' freedom of action with a rigid arm dragging behind it? In fixating the arm while trying to move the fingers quickly, it could be compared to 5 racing horses pulling along a train without an engine."
It is understandable why some people have mistakenly thought that it was just about the fingers alone because that's what you mostly see. These people didn't realize that "the high visibility of the finger activity was but the tip of the iceberg and that what they were seeing was the result of complex combinations of almost entirely invisible arm and hand actions." (Dorothy Taubman).
People have always analyzed what they saw, not realizing
what was underneath. "In other words, what we see mostly are the fingers moving up and down and sideways across the keyboard. Rarely are we aware of the forearm's major role in facilitating the finger work and movement across the keyboard. Most of the traditional training has focused on trying to strengthen the finger muscles to do the entire job .. for power, for speed, for stretching across distances."
But musicians should not try to "be strong." It's not a question of building or
developing strength. The thing is, you have the requisite strength already.
What equalizes all the fingers, (and makes them feel equally strong) is the
fact that the arm participates with each finger equally. You have the weight of
the hand and forearm to help each finger overcome the resistance of the keys.
Since it's the same forearm/hand behind each finger, each finger feels equally
strong. With a coordinate technic, the 4th finger will feel just as strong as the
2nd or 3rd finger.
By allowing the hand and forearm "unit" to assist the finger in the key descent,
(and to help keep the key down), this erases the need to develop finger strength.
All you need to do is coordinate this whole system of fingers/hand/forearm so that
there's only 1 line from the tip of the finger to the elbow. Whether it's the piano, the
organ, or any other instrument, there's a feeling that the weight of the arm is greater
than that of the hand and fingers -- overcoming the heaviness of the keys.
The fingers are never isolated as they play the keys. There is always the
experience of the hand and forearm supporting the finger movement. When a finger
is played -- no matter where on the keyboard, no matter how far from the finger that
just played, no matter what finger combination is used -- there is always an arm
that supports the playing finger." (John Bloomfield)
"In the course of history, many things in the world have been deemed inexplicable. Yet, through analysis and discovery some of these things can now be explained. Such is the case here. The playing apparatus is governed by very definite laws of motion. When one begins to understand how the body works, how the instrument works and how they interact, a whole new world opens up." -- Edna Golandsky, "They Took Pains", page 72 of Nov/Dec issue of Piano and Keyboard magazine.
The information on this page is based upon lectures, lessons and workshops at The Taubman international Summer Symposiums at Amherst College and Williams College, The Golandsky Institute's Summer Symposiums at Princeton University, private instruction with Edna Golandsky, John Bloomfield and other expert Taubman teachers, Taubman/Golandsky Institutes' Teacher Training Workshops in New York City, the Taubman Videos on Technique, Edna Golandsky's DVD's, and Mary Moran's book, Alignment, Freedom and Balance - Preparing Your Students to Play. The pedagogy of the Taubman approach is highly specialized and successful Taubman teachers have extensive, ongoing training. It is important that the information found on this webpage be applied under the guidance of an experienced, qualified teacher of the Taubman Approach. Please visit www.GolandskyInstitute.org for more information. --- Amy McLelland, NCTM
Photo: Example of stretching fingers apart from each other. This causes tension in hand and forearm, and subsequent
Wrist too low (collapsed down). The weight of the forearm will not be able to assist the finger because it is falling into the heel of the hand.
In this video at right we find an elementary student at McLelland Piano Studio receiving an introductory lesson on rotation for thumb. It is important to note that the rotation will gradually be minimized and integrated with other components of a coordinate piano technic. For pedagogical reasons it is sometimes necessary to exaggerate certain motions in the beginning stages of learning.