Music Gro: Growing Creatives

Healthy Piano Technique and Why it Matters

When my daughter was about 11 1/2 years old her ballet teacher was evaluating her for pointe shoes. She had been taking ballet since the age of 6 and had done extremely well under the guidance of her instructors. We learned the importance of proper evaluation for readiness before going en pointe. We learned about growth plates and the gradual development of strength and technique needed before considering being en pointe. We appreciated her teachers’ knowledge and experience in an area we were completely unfamiliar with, and we knew they had her health and well-being as their primary goal. We also consulted with our pediatrician and after good conversations we all agreed to wait just a bit longer. She continued classes and continued preparing for that all-exciting day of getting one’s first pointe shoes! I will never forget that expression of surprise, joy, and pride when she ‘popped up’ en pointe at the dance store while getting fitted for just the right shoes! We were blessed with incredible instructors and a studio that took the health and well-being of their dancers seriously. Injury prevention was always a priority so technique classes were always part of the mix of classes taken.

Photo Credit: Luke Collins Photography

Ballet not only requires great athleticism, it requires the dancer and the teachers to always look for the smallest of details in movement to make sure each movement is done correctly and in the most healthy ways possible for the dancer’s body. 

I used to marvel at the slightest adjustments made in those technique classes as I watched behind the glass window to the studio. Instructors were always checking for posture, balance, alignment, positions, and so much more. 

It was what inspired me to be even more conscientious about technique in my piano studio. It wasn’t that I had ignored technique in my teaching, but I definitely was not as intentional as I could have been. I started exploring piano technique work beyond just the method books (which were very limited). But the more I explored, the more I found better and better ways for me to teach technique. I also understood how important it was from the very beginning of piano lessons to form good habits. I so enjoyed Piano Safari’s use of animals and imagery to help teach arm weight, non-legato, and legato playing. 

Then, during the pandemic, I was given the opportunity to explore Taubman technique with a Taubman/Alexander trained piano teacher. It was revelatory and I was intrigued to learn more. Fast forward a bit to finding out that I had a rotator cuff injury in my right shoulder. I could hardly play with my right arm at all without pain. After treatment and rest, I knew I wanted to rehab my piano technique and take Taubman lessons from my Taubman/Alexander trained friend. 

Now, after a year of rehabbing my own technical work (with more work still to do), I can say that it has been life-changing. I work hard to correct 45 years of bad habits and replace them with new healthy habits at the piano.

I am more committed than ever to teaching healthy technique in my own studio now. My teacher not only helps me rehab my own technique, but helps me learn how to teach healthy technique to my students. 

Now, I begin with audiation and technique first in beginning piano lessons. We do not use method books and do not focus on reading music right away. Instead, we listen to, sing, and move to music to understand what is happening and how the patterns are working together. We focus on healthy technique first, away from notated music, by learning songs from rote and then improvising and composing. The approach is similar to that of learning a language – sounds and patterns first, improvisation, composition, and then reading and writing.

My main priority is each student’s health. Now, I can see how much healthier the technique is in my studio, and how much more effortlessly students can play. I know I am setting them up for a lifetime of injury-free playing so they can enjoy piano well into their ‘golden years.’ 

It seems odd to me now that as a culture we are so concerned about our sports coaches knowing physiology and how to keep our student athletes injury-free, but we never expect the same from our music teachers. Yet, talk with any full-time musician on any instrument and most will reveal the physical ‘hazards’ or even injuries they have endured through years of playing. Even more shocking is the number of young music students who are experiencing pain and injury from their instrument while in high school or college. 

The latest example of a piano-related injury to shock the piano world is 20-year old pianist and 2022 Cliburn winner Yunchan Lim, who just announced he is suspending his world tour for at least a month due to a hand injury. But many of us who have seen the relentless tour schedules and increasingly demanding repertoire selections for touring pianists are not surprised by this ‘sudden’ injury and need for a break. Hopefully Yunchan Lim will receive enough rest time and rehab that he will be able to play again without causing more injury. 

When Dorothy Taubman was still alive many professional touring pianists sought her out to rehab their technique and learn to play without creating injury. Leon Fleischer, Natan Brand, and many others worked with Taubman to re-learn how to play without creating injury. Later, pianists like Gabriela Montero sought out the work of Taubman through Edna Golandsky who was a student of Taubman’s and now runs the Golandsky Institute. 

While Taubman technique is not considered a ‘method’ there are principles about movement and physiology that adherents aspire to. As more and more teachers become aware of Taubman technique, Alexander technique, Feldenkrais movement, Dalcroze, Laban movement, the Lister-Sink method, and other holistic and healthy ways to move and play an instrument, more students are getting relief from injury and more students are being taught how to play and perform in ways that prevent injury in the first place.

Another reason Taubman is not considered a ‘method’ is because it requires the teacher to constantly observe the student and ask questions about the movements and how they feel. Much like the dance instructors I saw working with individual dancers at the bar, slightly tweaking a torso here or a hip alignment there, great technique teachers pay close attention to each movement their student makes, slightly tweaking and adjusting and asking questions as needed. The problem-solving is very individualized and is more of an exploration process through technique.

Improper positioning and technique
Working toward healthy technique

I do not consider myself an expert in Taubman technique by any means. In fact, I feel very much like a beginner. But I continue to learn and take lessons so that I can offer the best and healthiest instruction for my own students. 

Supporting and Growing Creatives through Encouragement and Healthy Practices is at the heart of everything I do. So healthy technique really does matter. And it matters from the very beginning. 

If you are a parent or caregiver, looking for piano lessons for your child here are a few good questions to ask a potential piano teacher about technique:

  • What is your background and experience with piano technique?
  • What type of technique work do you do with students? (method book, exercises, other?)
  • What do you know about preventing repetitive motion injuries in pianists – even beginners?

If the answers are vague, or that the teacher relies on techniques embedded in method books, or separate technique books, I would not recommend working with that teacher if you want to prevent injury. Essentially any ‘technique book’ will be prescriptive and not allow for physiological differences in students, and will not allow for nuanced observation and problem solving.

If you are a piano teacher or parent/caregiver, there are many technique resources that have been used and promoted for many years. There are no current studies linking any particular technique method books or ‘schools of thought’ to injury. It is also difficult to study because piano technique is not the only contributor to injury – typing on computer keyboards, using game consoles, using a computer mouse or trackpad, chopping vegetables, or doing anything that uses the hands, wrists, arms in repetitive ways can contribute to injuries created at the piano keyboard. However, my personal experience and my personal opinion as a private piano teacher in my own studio for 16 years has given me unique insight into these materials. 

*As a disclaimer, I am not a doctor, physical therapist, or medical provider. I do not diagnose injury or dispense medical advice of any kind. These opinions are simply that – my personal opinions based on my experiences as a pianist and as a teacher.*

Some teachers successfully utilize technique books combined with their training in healthy movement and technique. Many teachers will vehemently argue against my opinions and that is one hundred percent okay. The problem is that repetitive motion injuries can take years to develop without a teacher or student noticing until the damage has already been done. 

So here are some of my LEAST favorite resources for piano technique: (I personally avoid these)

  • Hanon exercises to promote ‘finger strength’ and ‘finger independence’
  • Faber Technique books
  • Thompson, Bastien, Alfred method books or Technique books which incorporate technique ‘exercises’
  • Any set of exercises or books which promote finger strength or finger independence, or any ‘school’ of thought on piano technique which encourages large movements in individual fingers or the wrists

Here are some BETTER resources, in my opinion and experience for piano technique:

  • Piano Safari techniques throughout their method series

Here are the BEST resources, in my opinion and experience for piano technique:

  • Learning from a Taubman/Alexander teacher or any teacher that combines Taubman with body mapping, Feldenkrais, or other healthy whole body movement
  • Lister-Sink method and courses/lessons through the Lister-Sink Foundation
  • Music Moves for Piano, Keyboard Games Books A and B – the teacher guides have a wealth of great movement activities for both away from the piano and at the piano to promote healthy beginning movement and technique

I hope this helps continue to broaden the discussion about healthy technique and I welcome your comments and questions!

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