Rotation and the Taubman Approach to Piano Playing

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I’ve recently read alot about Dorothy Taubman and her approach to piano playing. There is one often cited controversy, the topic of rotation. To make matters worse, they come in two flavours: single and double rotations, and there is an extensive debate on whether double rotations do even exist, or if all the approach is even snake oil. I’m convinced it is at the basis of good technique, but As I’ve been confronted with the same principles by one of my former piano teachers, I want to take a different approach at illustrating some things. And use different terms that may be more familiar to somebody who feels uncomfortable with the terms used by the Golandsky Institute.

Concentric and excentric muscles

Lately, in fitness studios, there has been a boom of machines that do so called “negative training”. On a bench press, for example, you can push a bar up and down. Traditionally, people trained with the same weights on the way up and on the way down (i.e. the way of the bar bell). People have then discovered that there is a difference in what the muscles can do “on the way up”, i.e. when you push the weights, also called the concentric phase, and “on the way down”, i.e. when you lower the weight, also called the excentric phase. Therefore, in traditional fitness studios, once muscular fatigue set in, people called somebody to “assist them”. The helper helped lift the weight on the way up, while on the way down he just safeguarded but did not actively help. That’s because our muscles are stronger (and quicker) in the excentric phase. Furthermore, it doesn’t take willpower, but countering the weight that comes down is a reflexive motion. Therefore, modern machines can automatically add some weight in the excentric phase, which makes fitness training much more effective. But what has that to do with piano technique?

The same principle applies to the muscles that move your fingers! If you have to hold yourself from falling down, your fingers can (a bit dependent on your weight), hold your full body weight. Try applying the same force when squeezing something. Impossible. They reflexively have tremendous power, but to activate this power willfully is much more taxing, and the result a lot weaker. Even more so, it’s slower, and nearly impossible to do that for individual fingers, as each individual intentional downward motion needs a counter-reaction, that will throw some fingers up in the air, create tension in the back for your hand, and a downward spiral starts that slows you down and accumulates fatigue. So wouldn’t it be nice if one could make use of this reflexive superpower while playing piano? The answer is: yes, we can. The short picture is, your finger will do exactly that if you get it to prevent your underarm from falling down. It will reflexively grab on to the key with no other counter-reaction (the real opposing force is already the weight of your arm that is pulling your lower arm down to the floor). So your arm and hand can stay all natural, if you let your arm fall down with your fingers over the keyboard, your fingers will reflexively grab onto it. Your first “excentric note” (forgive the pun).

Controlled Gravity

Letting your arm fall down on the keyboard, unfortunately, only works once. To play another note in the same way, you’d have to lift your arm back up again. If that’s down by your shoulder muscles, you can imagine that the result is tiring, and not very fast, hardly anywhere near fast enough to play a melody. Then the question arises how we can trigger this finger reflex in any other way in a way that is quick enough to play the piano. The answer to that lies in your forearm. Your forearm can rotate, and it can change the direction of that rotation very quickly. So once your first finger has grabbed a key by letting your lower arm fall down, you can use the rotation of your lower arm to whip one of your next fingers onto the keys, until they it reflexively starts to grab it. Once it does that, you can shift the weight of your lower arm over to that finger that now prevents our lower arm from falling down. It is pretty easy to do that with opposing fingers like alternating between your pinky and the the thumb or index finger. You just rotate your lower arm from left to right and back, and the fingers will reflexively grab the keys. It’s a bit trickier to do the same if you want to play a consecutive line, e.g., you land on the index finger (2), and want to move towards the pinky (3, 4, 5). If you rotate the lower arm to the left to play the index finger, you can rotate to the right to play the middle finger. But how to continue? If you just keep on rotating you will notice that you don’t create a good impulse to transfer the weight, and your fingers tend to fall over to the right, getting out of balance.

No action comes without a reaction. Although the main weight rests on your finger (preventing the arm from falling down), the rotating motion in your lower arm also has a small reaction, that tends to push it back towards the opposite direction. If you wait for a millisecond for that to happen, you can rotate again. (Taubmann used the term “double rotation” to insert an active phase of rotating in the opposite direction to exaggerate this counter-reaction, which is confusing to many). In the end-product, there is no double rotation. You use the rotational impulse from your lower arm to lash the finger against the key, and once it grabs you wait a split second for the counter-reaction, so the weight transfer is complete, instead of rotating on. It’s really just a small series of impulses from the lower arm. What that does is it completes the weight transfer to each individual finger, instead of rotating your stiff hand over the keys like a gear. The uniformity in this process from finger to finger helps control the sound you make, levels the volume, and times to attack and release the keys. The result is effortless play without strain. So do the “double rotations” still exist when playing fast? No, but the concept of them still guides your experience, i.e. making individual small rotations to flick one finger after another and complete the weight transfer, instead of one big turn for all fingers. You will get to a point where you can activate the motion in the lower arm from the resting position without preceding counter-rotation. And it will also not be a big rotation, but just a tiny rotational impulse that will set the weight transfer to the next finger into action without the finger wanting to get ahead of the game and “grab” the key. The impulse comes from the forearm, the finger just reacts in a controlled way to the weight transfer. But it will take some practice for this process to become smooth and the motions to become minimised.

All other motions that one makes, e.g. to position the hand over the keyboard forward-backward or left-right, are there to support the ease of using this method of sound production. The more your hand stays in its natural position the better. It’s the arms job to see that the fingers are above the right keys in the right distance. As opposed to crawling over the keyboard with your fingers, the body and arm take over the guiding an guarantee that a the same thing is played in (at least closely enough) the same manner even if it’s an octave above or below. Or takes care of bringin the shorter fingers or longer fingers over the keys at the right place (as opposed to curving them or horizontally tilting the wrist).

New approach?

Is that a new approach? Probably not. Many pianists have probably done that all along. What’s new is that somebody has broken this down to individual motions that are teachable and has come up with a terminology to describe it. And it’s physically and physiologically sound. It makes better use of how our muscles work than trying to depress the keys with the concentric action of individual fingers (or even more disturbingly lift the fingers to insane heights above the keyboard as proposed by some classic exercise books such as Hanon or Cortot). You don’t need to lift the fingers to any heigher height than to get the key to release, and as the key comes up on its own that happens automatically when you transfer the weight to a different key. You just have to take care that you don’t keep pressing it. So can you still use books like Hanon or Cortot? Yes, you can. If you use the exercises as a test bed for the above described technique it gives you an ample supply of examples to get from finger to finger with those little rotational impulses from the lower arm, and you can practice evening out the tones and producing a nice legato with beautiful sound. Even when doing the exercises while holding one note, make sure you hold them with a minimum amount weight, and the rotational impulse to create the other notes still applies. Just don’t follow the advice that’s written in them on lifting and pressing individual fingers.

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