More Than the Sound of Music

When Gabriela Montero, the bronze medalist at the 1995 Chopin International Piano Competition, feels the need for a piano lesson, she flies from her home in Miami to New York for a coaching session with Edna Golandsky.

“I first came to Edna four years ago when I was already on a concert level,” the 27-year-old Montero said. “It changed my playing. It’s funny how sometimes you believe you have reached a peak, but then you discover another level. That is what happened.”

Golandsky, who will give a lecture and master class today at UC Irvine’s Concert Hall, offered an approach to music, as well as to piano-playing, based on a systematic study of body mechanics developed by Dorothy Taubman, a Brooklyn piano instructor now in her late 70s who has spent most of her life teaching children.

“In the beginning, I was not a believer,” Montero said. “I, frankly, was not interested. I thought the Taubman Institute was some cult, like a hippie club or something. In the end, I was completely won over, not only by the intelligence but by the results.”


Testimonials to great pedagogues are not uncommon in music, where mentors and mentoring can count as much as talent in carving out careers. But praise for obscure teachers without a pedigree traceable to one of the greats--to Anton Rubinstein or to Czerny or even to Beethoven--is rare.

“They have done fantastic work--really tremendous,” Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Shulamit Ran said, referring to Taubman and Golandsky.

“I know the method,” added Ran, also a music professor at the University of Chicago and a former pianist. “Actually, the word ‘method’ is inadequate because it sounds like somebody’s invention. Basically, what Taubman has done is decipher a natural phenomenon.”



For her part, Golandsky discourages talk that proselytizes. She prefers to speak of “profoundly simple” principles. “It’s all about the art of motion--how we move,” said the associate director of the Taubman Institute, which holds annual summer music festivals at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

“A big part of my lecture will be about technique with artistic results. How do we move to accomplish musical results? It will be the how-to of interpretation. People think of technique and music as two separate things. But the two are one. There is no separation.”

Golandsky, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano performance from the Juilliard School, is also loath to describe the technique as “a therapy” for injured players, despite its reputation as a diagnostic tool for performance injuries.

“Yes, we are known for treating injuries,” she acknowledged. “We’re usually the last stop, when nothing else works. But the point that is being missed is that if you know how to move properly, you won’t be injured in the first place.”


Leon Fleisher, perhaps the most eminent pianist with a performance injury, has said of Taubman, “Dorothy is absolutely extraordinary in her intuition of when you have pain, where it is you’re doing something wrong and how she can get rid of it. That’s very special. She’s almost a healer in that sense.”

Taubman declines to discuss her work with Fleisher, who from 1982 until recently had been restricted to playing works for the left hand. All she will say is, “I put him on the right track.”

But she will discuss her work in general. “The important thing,” Taubman said recently from Brooklyn, “is that I discovered how the hand has to move and what the movements are that make for efficiency in any particular [musical] passage.

“Most of the fingerings in the piano editions are dreadful. The people who did the editing didn’t know anything about the natural dynamics of how the hand moves with the body, arms and fingers in relation to the mechanics of the instrument.”


The Taubman technique, Golandsky added, “demystifies mistaken ideas of how to play the piano” that have been handed down for generations--chiefly that muscle strength and constant repetition are the key to success. In fact, they may be not only counterproductive but far less important than coordination and rotational motion.

Composer-pianist Yehudi Wyner sought out Golandsky as a piano coach 10 years ago because he hated having “to pump ivory” to get in shape to perform his own music.

“I thought there has to be a better way than having to do scales and arpeggios and all the rest,” said Wyner, a visiting professor at Harvard University. “Her approach did not depend on mindless repetition and physical bludgeoning.”



What surprised him, though, was that Golandsky dispensed completely with the language of metaphors and similes so often used to convey the meaning of particular passages--"Think of a meadow” or “Imagine a storm"--that merely scratch the surface of the technique.

“It is a comprehensive system of totally organized, economical motion that is relaxed and effortless,” Wyner emphasized.

Color, tone production, pulse, rhythmic phrasing, intonation--"all are produced by the body,” Golandsky explains. “If the body doesn’t do it, all the thinking and feeling in the world won’t help.”

Taubman’s detractors contend that pianists trained in her technique sound willowy, even flaccid. “Various people told me she was an absolute fake,” said Boston Globe music critic Richard Dyer, who has reported extensively on the Taubman Institute’s summer programs.


“They point to the fact that she has not turned out a standard fire-breathing virtuoso. There is no shame in that, however, because there are only five or six in the world at any one time. But she certainly has turned out a lot of fine pianists.”

Moreover, while the technique has focused primarily on piano playing, it may be applied to other instruments, Taubman says.

“Look,” she declared in her typically brass-tacks manner, “there is only one purpose to my technique. That is to have a magnificent interpretation, no matter what instrument you are playing. You cannot have magnificent playing without magnificent technique.”

That settled, she concluded, “The study of piano technique goes back 300 years, and little has changed. It has always been a hearsay tradition, with every teacher adding little touches, rather than a body of knowledge--until I came along. The important thing is that I discovered how the hand has to move. That’s all it is.”


* Edna Golandsky, associate director of the Taubman Institute, will give a piano master class and lecture, 1 to 4 p.m., today at the UC Irvine Concert Hall, West Peltason Drive (formerly Bridge Road) and Mesa Road, UC Irvine. Admission is free. (714) 824-2787.