Interview with John Bloomfield July 2019

John, it’s exciting that you’ll be here soon for your fourth visit to Australia, this time as Keynote Speaker for APPC 2019 among a wonderful array of topics and presenters. What do you hope people will take away from your presentations, particularly those who may be coming across the Taubman Approach for the first time? 

When I first met Dorothy Taubman in the 1980s, I had no idea what I was in for. I only knew that she had a reputation for helping pianists overcome difficulties at the keyboard. At my first lesson, I was completely blown away. She said something like, “I don’t want to hear you play well, I want to see where your problems are.” And with that, she proceeded to offer one insight after another about what made certain passages hard to play. It was only later that I understood what an extensive body of knowledge she had developed. While I’m here in Australia I would love to help people understand how logical and practical Taubman’s ideas are and to show people how some of her basic concepts can put to use immediately to make playing easier for pianists at every level.

There’ll be an opportunity for people interested in learning more to also attend the Taubman workshop on Saturday July 13 (see bit.ly/JohnBloomfield2019 for more details). What can people take home from attending an intensive day of learning?

Obviously, in a one-day workshop we’ll only be able to scratch the surface. But, the wonderful thing about the Taubman Approach is that it deals with many principles that are easy to understand and also have practical application. So many playing-related problems are entirely avoidable. But, you have to know what causes problems first in order to be able sidestep them. One of Taubman’s gifts was that she able to help people understand how their bodies work and how they interact with the keyboard to produce friction-free results. That will be our framework for the workshop on Saturday.

Many people still associate the Taubman work with playing-related injuries, and certainly my experience was reaching out in desperation after having been through the usual roundabout of doctors, physiotherapists, masseurs and other alternative disciplines. I found it interesting however that neither you, Robert Durso, nor Mary Moran (co-founders of the Golandsky Institute) were injured in coming to the Taubman work. What attracted you to dedicate your life’s work to learning and teaching this body of knowledge?

I was always interested in playing better. I practiced a lot when I was young, so I knew it wasn’t just a question of working harder. I was curious about why some people seemed to be able to play with such facility when I considered that there were pieces I could manage only with enormous difficulty and tension. So, while I didn’t have an injury that drove me to desperation, I was acutely aware that playing was not nearly as easy as I wanted it to be.

I was also surprised to discover years ago that the best teachers of this work, including yourself, pursue ongoing consultations with Edna Golandsky. What do you enjoy about the process of life-long learning?

Taubman was once asked by an interviewer what made her such a good teacher. Her answer was, “I never stopped being a student myself.” I have always thought that was a profoundly insightful answer. It seemed very natural for me to adopt this attitude myself. Once you begin to learn about the craft of playing the piano and the art of making music, you realize that you are on a wonderful journey of discovery, really one that has no end. As with most such journeys, the most rewarding moments come as you delve more and more deeply into the experience of learning. Having frequent consultation means that you have the luxury of discussing many of the questions that arise during your daily work, not only the big, most pressing issues. Also, as a teacher, I find that it is invaluable to be able to talk about problems that are plaguing students in their playing.

For those of us who don’t live in the USA where the majority of Taubman teachers are based, it has been wonderful to be able to access training via Skype lessons since mid-2009. What have your experiences of teaching online been?  How can this process be maximised for greatest effect?

In-person lessons are always the best option, of course, but when they are impractical, long-distance lessons are the next best alternative. Honestly, Skype lessons have turned out to be a more effective a platform than I had imagined they might be. For optimal results, the student should already have some familiarity with the concepts and language of the Taubman Approach and the teacher should know a bit about the student’s playing first-hand if that is at all possible. The big problem with remote lessons in the early stage of learning is that the teacher can’t physically interact with students to help them feel certain sensations that are essential to healthy playing. Even so, the results are sometimes surprisingly good.

From my perspective teaching this work, research and observing conversations on online forums, it seems that there is still a large number of musicians struggling with discomfort, pain and playing-related injury. What needs to change in the culture of teaching and training of pianists to reduce this needless suffering?

Playing the piano, or any instrument, is a high-level skill. But, this doesn’t mean that the difficulties are insurmountable. I think people largely assume that discomfort and pain are normal parts of learning to play. If we begin to question why we should have to deal with discomfort and pain, that is a good starting point. Why should this be so hard? Why can’t I get consistent results? What could I be doing that would make things easier? If we could understand that there are answers to all these questions, I think the culture of teaching and learning would begin to change.

Finally, those of us who have had our lives transformed by the Taubman Approach wish on some level that we had discovered this invaluable information earlier. What do you wish you could tell your younger self?

I, too, wish that I had discovered Taubman’s work earlier in life. I often wonder what it would have been like to have grown up not knowing any difficulties at the keyboard. Nonetheless, during your journey of discovery, there are many valuable things you learn – not only the skill of playing the piano, but the value of questioning, the role of knowledge, the joy of problem-solving and, as a teacher, the pleasure of sharing with others.

Thank you for your time John.

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