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The Taubman method and controversial wrist break

On my way home from the Bay area on Amtrak 712, I grabbed a few extra table napkins from the dining car, and let my imagination run wild as I scribbled some notes to myself. “Wild” should be emphasized since I had some pent up frustration related to the Taubman-Golandsky’s ban on the “wrist break.”

Dorothy Taubman was a Juilliard faculty piano teacher who embraced a certain approach to piano playing which has components of relaxation as well as forearm rotation. However, for some reason with all the nit picking that’s done about how this or that finger has to be aligned or rotated, the wrist is not supposed to move below the key surface or much above it. (That would be considered a “break.”) Correct me if I’m wrong.

An article excerpt by Renee Jackson about the Taubman and Alexander Technique is informative.

“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.

Now I don’t mind the meticulousness of the Taubman method that’s championed by Edna Golandsky, BUT, from all my ingestion of ABRIDGED Taubman tapes on You Tube since I have to pay to be sent the whole kit and kaboodle on DVD, I cannot agree with this slant (pun intended) concerning the wrist.

Now here’s a pic straight from Irina Gorin’s teaching materials, which shows her “broken” wrist in living color!

Irena Orlov, a Master piano instructor at the Levine School of Music in Washington DC demonstrates how elastic the wrist should be, dipping down below the key bed and rising all the way above it, with quite a latitude of motion. (film, Reaching Beyond)

Like many fine pianists including Irina Morozova and other Russian schooled pianists, their wrists make the “break” up and down, as they produce a gorgeous singing tone with immaculate phrasing. (No casts or splints please!)

Add:
Livia Rev
Czerny Studies–Note no. 2

16 thoughts on “The Taubman method and controversial wrist break”

  1. Hi, Shirley,
    Thank you for sharing.
    I can see that you perceive the wrist movement as necessary for good playing, and how that perspective makes you assess all other, existing approaches through its eyes. However, the approaches exist which do not see it that way.
    Taubman’s Approach absolutely needs the wrist to remain “unbroken” (calm/even/strainght) as a condition for its passing the pressure from the shoulder/upper arm to the fingers. In this arrangement, if the wrist ‘breaks’, the whole conveyer belt of pressure transmission collapses.
    Irina Orlov does NOT represent the Taubman Approach.
    By the way, as far as I know, this approach was actually created by Abby Whiteside, and its features have been cultivated today also by Seymour Fink and Alan Fraser.

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    1. Thanks for your comments. I did not in any way say or suggest that Irena Orlov represents the Taubman approach. Here is the quote from my blog that says the opposite:

      “Irena Orlov, a Master piano instructor at the Levine School of Music in Washington DC demonstrates how elastic the wrist should be, dipping down below the key bed and rising all the way above it, with quite a latitude of motion. (film, Reaching Beyond)”

      The film segment reveals Orlov exemplifying this motion, the antithesis of Taubman.

      I certainly agree with Orlov, Gorin and others that the wrist should “break” and not be static. A gorgeous singing tone is aided by wrist flexibility.

      I wrote to Edna Golandsky about this matter, and never received a reply. More discussion and open forums are needed. From my having watched reams of Taubman snippets over You Tube, I still cannot understand the rigid viewpoint about the wrist. I am sure there are well respected advocates of Taubman as well as those who disagree. So let the dialog begin!

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      1. Hi, Shirley, thank you for replying.
        I am with you on the need – a must, actually – to let the wrist “break”, all the time. Ms. Golandsky produced a video (it’s there on YouTube) which suggests not letting the wrist bend in any way, even in everyday use.
        (Evidently, the nature must have gotten that wrong. And, perhaps even more intriguingly, she found teachers who want to spread this idea to learning to play a violin…)
        However, I strongly suspect that this idea started as a reaction to certain, already historic, inability to teach playing with flexible, yet soft, wrist. Decisive majority of piano hopefuls have learned to play with straightened- and stiffened-up wrist (definitely ‘calcified’ in the widespread idea of maintaining certain “hand posture”). Someone must have read that info as “it’s impossible to do otherwise”, and many others accepted that perspective: many piano teachers still react to the ‘soft wrist’ idea with “What? Having the wrist flap on every note? What sort of
        control would doing that nonsense generate?” and that’s the only way they are able to see it, and they refuse to consider another possibility. And since that’s, basically, their only reaction, there’s no room for debate. That’s one of the reasons for why the interest in Abby Whiteside’s idea keeps growing. And, I’d add, many people got so used to the sound generated by maintaining the straightened- and stiffened-up wrist that they would see no reason to seek an alternative.
        So, how does your belief in a dialog stand up now?

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  2. Thanks for your comments. I am frankly shocked at Golandsky’s admonitions about the wrist, and as myself, also a violinist, I cannot fathom what on earth is happening with a transfer of this so called gospel to a string instrument. Irina Gorin’s students in Carmel, Indiana are a testament to teaching the flexible wrist. Check out Irina Gorin’s teaching channel on You Tube to see extraordinary results. I can’t imagine phrasing beautifully without the supple wrist.. I can barely say more at this point without sounding distraught…

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  3. Now that my distress is diffused, I can’t imagine why it’s so difficult to teach piano students how to phrase with a supple wrist. I am teaching a 4-year old who already has a hand on it.. pun intended. My own students are slowly but surely learning what it’s about, and how much more fluidity they are capable of when they relax their wrist and let it have a full range of motion.
    In my next blog I am going to spotlight a Hungarian pianist who has to be in her 80’s who shows a student how her wrist should move up and down. This a very old, sagacious pianist and teacher being so wise and practical. Need I say more?

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  4. Shirley,
    I find your ideas on Taubman very interesting, so maybe it’s possible to use a bit of both Taubman and Russian principles. My main concern regarding a wrist break down below the level of the keyboard is it changes the form of it. The most relaxed position is at it’s balance point, when you rest the hand on a soft cushion or a sofa, that’s where I think it’s most relaxed point is. Going below that is a danger and leads to injury over a period of time.

    Rachel S

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    1. Very old blog. I embrace flexibility and elasticity.. I sometimes come “under” notes to delay entry and to create nice tapered, melted cases. I am not a rigid teacher. Again this is an older blog from way back. If I wrote it today, I would emphasize flexibility of motion.. NO FIXED hand position or method.

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      1. Hi, Shirley,
        Old blog – yes, but you got an acutely live topic.
        Pianism has always enjoyed diversity, but I believe that real diversity would lead to really different outcomes whereas pianism’s been troubled by a quite uniform (un-diversified) issue: 93% of piano hopefuls have experienced playing-related pain in their arms in the first years of learning (Brandfonbrener, History of playing-related pain in 330 university Freshman music students. Med Probl Perform Art. 2009).
        To me, that number says that our diversity is not as big as we would like it to be, that, actually, we have been quite unified in the physical approach to piano-playing.
        Hence this never-dying topic.

        Perhaps what we need is the first-ever NO FIXED hand position method…?
        Cheers
        Paola

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      2. Frankly to be honest, there’s too much politics cloaking the subject. I say those who can find the right teacher with a relaxed arms and wrists approach as a starter..not becoming too rigid in thinking, or married to a fixed method, will likely bode a good outcome for that pupil. Sadly, some methodologies, even with good intention become monolithic, and are wrapped in profit-making enterprises. I recall being on the outs with our local Taubman group for no real reason other than the religious fervor was alive and well. You had to be part of the cult.

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    2. Hi, Rachel,
      You wrote “The most relaxed position is at it’s balance point, when you rest the hand on a soft cushion…” That made me think: When you ‘rest’ your hand the way you described, do you really keep your wrist even/straight/aligned – and, if you do, would you still call it ‘resting’?

      Then, you said ” Going below that is a danger and leads to injury over a period of time.” It would be so only if the wrist were held in dorsiflection for prolonged time, but I believe that Shirley meant it to drop only intermittently in playing.

      Cheers
      Paola

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  5. I agree to an extent about moving slightly the wrist in certain cases but moving it down after the note is played is an absolute waste of energy. How can it possible help to produce a beautiful sound if the note is already played? It also put a strain on the wrist for nothing.
    I believe the Taubman approach is about playing with easiness and most of the movements are invisible when assimilated. See Matthay, who had a very similar approach.
    I think Livia Rev and Irina Orlov play beautifully ‘despite’ bending the wrist…

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    1. Hello, John,
      You wrote: “…moving it [the wrist] down after the note is played is an absolute waste of energy.”
      Well, one of the most-often heard teachers’ instructions has been “Keep the wrist up!” which tells me that “letting the wrist fall” temporarily is a totally natural thing.
      And, do you believe that maintaining the wrist in even/level/straight/aligned shape does not need any energy/muscular tensing?
      Cheers
      Paola

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  6. I know this is an old post – but I think a lot of what people are saying with regards to Taubman’s teaching on the wrist is wrong and seemingly misinformed.

    Having watched the tapes multiple times, it is quite clear that Edna at no point is advocating fir rigidity or in-flexibility. In fact, there is a whole masterclass segment with Taubman wherein she pinpoints overly rigid arms as being a a flaw in a child’s technique.

    What Edna says is that, having seen virtuoso pianists playing seamlessly with these curvilinear movements, it has been interpreted that this motion is initiated from the wrist. As a result, people tend to exaggerate these motions which can reduce speed, power, and lead to fatigue and injury. Edna recognises that movement of the wrist is natural and obviously essential for a healthy and musical technique. In her lecture on what she calls shaping – she states that though the wrist moves up and down over the course of a phrase – you do not move FROM the wrist, but from the forearm. As the forearm initiates the motion, the wrist follows in subtle increments – allowing it to flow up and down within a more limited range of motion.

    The wrist is not necessarily kept ‘up’ – it is in its neutral position – the position that it is in when you let your arms hang free by your side. References to keeping the wrist up are probably being made to students who play with a low/dropped wrist. The whole ethos of the philosophy is exerting the minimum amount of effort at the piano – so every muscle moves within its ‘mid’range’ of motion – nothing reaches the extreme ranges of its motion as this is when fatigue and injury come in.

    People often think Taubman advocates a forearm only technique with no fingers, but again, she herself says the technique cannot work without using fingers – you just do not use fingers in an isolated way – you do not use fingers to move you from key to key or to leap – the fingers just do the job to which they are best suited, which is pressing the key they are on down. It is the same for the wrist – it exerts no more motion than needed.

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    1. Thanks for sharing. After all these years, I have learned to applaud a diversity of approaches to piano learning… meaning
      for me choregraphy springs from the phrase… I use the vocal as well to imbue and integrate. No fixed this or that–which becomes stultified and methodical.. Can’t endorse any so-called full proof piano method and one that becomes an advertising springboard–selling this and that far and wide.

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    2. Hi, James,
      I think that, when trying to rectify Taubman’s intention, one needs to remember that:
      (i) Taubman’s basic technique is rotation, and its proponents have been instructing their students to “forget they had a wrist” per se, i.e. to use the forearm+wrist+hand as just one unit, as if without the wrist joint, as if the bones of the forearm actually ended in the metacarpal joints (knuckles)!
      (ii) In one of her books, A. Whiteside called the result of this arm’s alignment/coordination “turning the arm into a rake” – and she got the bull’s eye, I believe.
      For me, no wordplay on the wrist as supposedly “moving” is going to erase the images created by the above words.
      And, actually, the clarification you posted concerns wrist motions not *while* playing, but at the end of the phrase/between phrases. And that, to me, changes nothing in the content of the above two points: while playing, the wrist is to be held stiff (sorry: aligned).
      (And yes, it’s the hand, or the forearm, that moves that wrist joint; but we all talk of “wrist’s moving” as it’s the easiest part to observe.)
      Also, one cannot convey to fingers the pressure generated in the shoulder without tensing up the joints in the arm, most notably the wrist, and that tensing is what all Taubman’s proponents have been trying to hide.
      They’ve been doing that, firstly, by rigorously avoid using the term “tension” in describing the state of players’ arms in playing piano that way. (One reason for that could be that Taubman herself had a very confusing comprehension of that term, as Michèle Wheatley-Brown bluntly displayed in her M.A. dissertation of 2011.)
      Second way is inventing various stratagems for tensing, like alignment, coordination, etc.
      Unfortunately, all the clever words the proponents use are enough for many to believe there’s no tensing/stiffening involved in playing by Taubman’s approach, and so, some call it ‘healthy’. To that, let me say this: to this day, doctors and researchers in the Performing Arts Medicine had not identified Taubman’s approach as un-injurious.
      So let’s advocate gently…

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