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technique
Asila Fomalhaut, with a plastic skeleton bone on her arm, demonstrates a healthy curve, in the Taubman Festival 2016. COURTESY DAVID WITTEN

Taubman Piano Festival
Friday, June 28-Sunday, June 30

Lectures, workshops, master classes and recitals

Mika Sasaki will perform on Saturday, June 29, 8 p.m.

Tiffany Poon will perform on Sunday, June 30, 5 p.m.

The Cali School of Music
Montclair State University
1 Normal Drive

For details, registration and schedules, visit tinyurl.com/y3oav2q9.

By GWEN OREL
orel@montclairlocal.news

Everyone knows it’s easier to learn something than to unlearn it. That’s especially true for anything that uses muscle memory.

It may seem most obviously true for athletes, but it’s important for musicians, too.

Composer Robert Schumann ruined his hands and his career when he used a finger-strengthening device that bent back one finger while he used the others. He ended up partially paralyzing two fingers instead.

Poor Schumann. But it wasn’t only in the 1830s that pianists believed in equal finger strength.

David Witten, professor of music and keyboard studies coordinator at Montclair State University, said that the technique of equalizing fingers was taught for many decades.

The technique caused a lot of injuries, he said.

But Dorothy Taubman (1917-2013) discovered a different method of playing while she was still a teenager, and her approach is widely used today.

This weekend, from June 28 to June 30, is the eighth annual festival in Taubman’s honor at Montclair State University. This year’s Taubman Piano Festival will include a large number of young players in the master classes and demonstrations: 27 students are participating; 22 of them are under 14 years old.

“If we can catch them early, we can influence their piano approach and technique, and

DAVID WITTEN

shape them early,” said Witten. “[Taubman] was against unnaturally curling fingers. She was against a rigid sitting position,” he said.

 So forget that “curling your hand around an orange” thing — fingers curl around an orange to keep it from dropping, Witten explained. Instead, fingers should gently curve. “Lots of students keep their fingers out of the black key area when told that fingers should curve. You should allow the long fingers to touch the black keys and be in there. That’s how Chopin taught. Black keys are your friends. Chopin would teach the B major scale first.”

In fact, Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) actually wrote that each finger has its own charm, but he never published it, Witten said. 

“For too many years, people were told to keep their arms and hands stiff. People used to balance coins on the back of their hands, and make sure it doesn’t fall off,” Witten said. “That will ruin your arm and technique.”

Instead, the forearm should rotate, as if checking a wristwatch.

Sondra Tammam at the piano, in the Taubman Festival 2016. COURTESY DAVID WITTEN

Instead of tucking the thumb under at all times, the player walks the hand inwards to reach the keys, without twisting. In a way it’s not very different from the way touch typists use a keyboard.

“Her overriding concern was that playing piano should feel delicious, easy, and euphoric, no matter how difficult the music is,” he said.

Around the time Witten moved to Montclair, in 1997, a friend encouraged him to meet Taubman, who was a teacher in Brooklyn.

“I was already in my 40s, and felt I’d studied enough. I went and played for her.

“The next thing I knew, I was having lessons twice a month for two years,” he said.

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Witten himself did not have injuries he had to recover from, but knew that the technique, the mechanics and principles, would be helpful in teaching future students.

“I was able to play with more ease,” he said.

He explained that the old technique that stresses finger equality was developed for the harpsichord, where the keys pluck strings inside the instrument, and so the touch required is light and shallow.

Pianos, in contrast, are percussive instruments, requiring heavier action. “You couldn’t play well just touching the fingers only, you needed the help of the arms and hands,” he said.

Taubman was famous for helping injured people who lifted their hands up and down “like pistons. She would guide them with rotation.

“The most celebrated case is Robert Shannon, now the head of piano at Oberlin College, in Ohio. He had a budding career, and began developing intense pain. He had to start canceling concerts. He tried doctors and remedies. Finally someone said to go to Mrs. Taubman in Brooklyn. In 10 minutes she adjusted one thing and he could play.

“He worked with her for seven years.”

technique
Dragica Curcic, with student Clara Kim, demonstrates the arm position in the Taubman technique. COURTESY DAVID WITTEN

BUILDING A HOUSE WITH TECHNIQUE

But better than undoing injuries is preventing them in the first place.

Piano teacher Dragica Banic Curcic (DRAG’-it-za Banick Kursick), originally from Croatia, now of Iselin, met teacher Sondra Tammam, who runs the Taubman festival with Witten, 19 years ago, when Tammam was teaching her young son piano using the Taubman method.

“I liked the technique,” said Curcic, who had learned a completely different way of playing. “Students are using their hands, their bodies, an all natural way, not just with fingers. It is completely natural, like eating or writing. They don’t feel that stiffness,” Curcic said. “It is easier for them to play with speed. It is easier for them to produce the music.”

She was trained the way everyone was trained, to use only the fingers. When she saw what Tommam was teaching, she knew she would have to completely retrain her muscles. It was not easy, but she succeeded.

Now she knows she can solve any technical problem in music.

“Before, when I had a problem as a student, my teacher would say, ‘Go home and practice more.’ Now, they don’t have to practice a lot, they just have to solve the problem,” she said.

Five of her students will be in the piano festival, performing in the master class with Witten and Tammam. The youngest is 7.

“It’s like building a house,” Curcic explained. The foundation has to be strong. “From a young age, [my students] are training their muscles the right way.”
She has also taught students who’ve come from other teachers. “I don’t blame anybody. Everybody was teaching this way. They were taught by other professors. I need at least one year to retrain them, so they are doing everything the natural way, and don’t have pain.” Most of the students have issues with stiffness in their palms, holding their shoulders up.

“It starts with the smallest phrasing, about two notes,” she said. Before, with a downbeat and an upbeat, she had to prepare her fingers. “Now, I just put the wrist a little bit down with the downbeat and a little bit up with the upbeat, and I have the sound I wish to have.”

The Taubman technique is the only way Curcic teaches now. 

While Curcic did not have injuries, she had issues with stiffness in her hands and shoulders. Now she does not. She said she feels lucky to have met Tammam, or she would be teaching a terrible technique. 

Even universally taught and generally loathed-by-students exercises such as those by Hanon are enjoyable with the Taubman technique, she said. Students can “play endlessly.

“It is amazing. Taubman was a genius.”

technique
The late Dorothy Taubman, with Rose Cali in background.
COURTESY DAVID WITTEN