What I Learned About Life While Sitting at the Piano

Update on May 10, 2017: This post focuses on my experience learning Taubman Technique which has done wonders for my piano playing. I talk a lot about active relaxation in the post and, while I feel this is an important skill, it is not a tenant of Taubman. Instead, Taubman aims to take away the antagonistic alignments and movements that produce tension. Relaxation is an important benefit of this work.
Thanks to Lisa (yea, I know it was you) who put a “Butts!” card in the Josh Box at Blues Yourself in Boston. My reflection on how to connect this to music led me to some interesting and unexpected places in my first blog post. I guess that’s the way of butts. Fair warning: I don’t actually talk about butts that much, but I do use the word “but” pretty often. Does that count?

Piano was the first instrument I ever played, but it wasn’t the first instrument I was serious about. When I was in high school, I started playing percussion, then tuba, then upright bass (yes, I was attracted to the big instruments, jokes welcome but only if you’re creative about it). Later, I went to college for jazz bass, left dissatisfied after a year, and pretty much gave up on music. About ten years later (I’m always terrible at remembering when things happened), I revisited the piano and fell in love with music all over again.

It was a completely new experience for me to feel excited about practicing. I broke out the Hanon book and my old jazz books. I was practicing every day for a couple hours and making considerable progress. Years later though, I felt that I had hit a plateau. I just couldn’t execute things on the piano the way I wanted. I might get it once but, the next time, it’d fall apart. I asked around a little, and a number of friends recommended I talk to a fella named Bob Durso who lives in Philly and teaches an approach called Taubman Technique.

I started lessons with Bob and felt like I was the protagonist in Karate Kid 5 (confession: I don’t know how many Karate Kids there are, and I’m not looking it up) where I have to defeat the bad guy with the Chopin Etude in C# minor. Our first lesson was about how to sit on the piano bench, and I left with an exercise that had me slowly playing five-note scales while exaggerating the rotational movement before hitting each key (wax on, wax off). Eventually, the knowledge that Bob was working so hard to impart to me took root and blossomed into this epiphany: Playing a single key on the piano takes more than the work of a single finger; it takes a coordinated effort from the entire body. Energy travels from the floor to your feet, from the bench to your butt, up through your torso, through your shoulders, down your arm, and into your little finger that is coupled to a key that, when pressed, causes a hammer to strike a string: this is what it means to play the piano.

Before Taubman, my approach to piano technique and life’s quandaries were roughly the same: keep doing the thing until I get it mostly right. My lessons with Bob taught me about reflection and intention. Now, when I’m perfecting a piece of music, I step back and reflect on the state of my body (where I am relaxed, where I am tense), how connected I am with the piano, the bench, and the ground, how my hand and wrist move as I play through the piece, my mental state, etc. All of these details must be in order to execute something perfectly. In general, my approach consists of stepping back, taking stock of the variables that I have control over, and experimenting with those variables until I find a choreography that makes the activity feel easy. And isn’t “easy” the way we want everything to feel? The irony, of course, is how hard we have to work to make things feel that way.

I’m often surprised at how concrete experiences, once settled and aged, crack open to reveal enlightening metaphor. I never did think to ask Bob if he considered himself a piano teacher or something more holistic. Perhaps you can’t be one and not the other. Regardless, I’m elated at the great strides I’ve made as a pianist and as a human since Bob and I first worked together, and I continue to look forward to the mysterious and windy path ahead.

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