A retraining journey in progress: an inspiring and honest account

I’m excited to share this account of a retraining journey. Like many students, A (she has asked to withhold her name) had experienced pain for some years. She came for occasional lessons, had problems solved, but took time before committing to the process of retraining. Having done so, the results have been impressive and fast. Not only has A completely overcome her pain, she is now playing difficult repertoire on her wish list without discomfort, and her hands look and feel great. What has been particularly successful to A’s process has been her absolutely methodical approach, positive attitude, desire to perfect the smallest of movements and concepts, and her desire to actively overcome any technical remaining deficiencies through choosing repertoire which others would rather avoid. This is her story to date, and a great model of how to achieve great results through problem solving. 

A few years after getting my LMusA (performance diploma) I started experiencing pain in my right arm and hand. As well as practicing 3-4 hours per day and undergoing further study, I was also teaching about 50 students a week. I was finding that the more I played, the worse the pain was becoming. It changed from being a nagging ache in my forearm, to be a constant burning pain that expanded down my arm and into my hand. I consulted numerous physiotherapists and hand specialists and was told that I would only heal if I stopped playing. They also advised me to stop writing with my right hand and start with my left. I did do this, but I continued playing through the pain for a long time. Eventually I reached an acceptance that they were right. I felt that I had peaked in the piano and that this had come to an end. I drastically reduced my number of students and stopped playing piano.

My piano tuner told me a number of times about the Taubman method, and that I should look into it. I dismissed it at first but one day I decided to get in touch with Therese and see what happened. I must say that to start with I thought that this would be like my physio visits. I’d explain the issue, get a bunch of exercises, and then there’d be no improvement. My expectations were low.  

I sent Therese an email and I started off with some ad hoc lessons. At first, I took in a bunch of pieces that I was keen to learn, such as Grainger’s ‘Molly on the Shore’ and a Mozart Sonata. I tried to apply what Therese advised but when I got home I played them at speed. I thought I was applying the Taubman technique, but in hindsight I was playing in the same way as I had when I was injured. The pain persisted. Therese advised weekly lessons and this is when I started to see an improvement.

For me, there have been 3 distinct stages of my Taubman training. There was:

  • Taubman 101- ‘Pre-playing’/ Bach and B major
  • Problem Solving
  • Playing Again!

During the first two stages, I wasn’t yet convinced that Taubman could work. Now I am convinced that it will!

Pre-Playing/ Bach and B major

I found the first few months of retraining to be difficult and frustrating. The retraining is taken right back to basics, which means that the work on the piano is completely separate from musicality. Because of this, I wondered how the changes in technique would fit back into the bigger picture and also had a sense that I was doing such basic movements (and struggling!) that it would take me an eternity to get back to my level.

This was definitely the hardest time of all. I found it difficult to override years of training and change tiny movements, all the time not knowing if I would be someone that would benefit for all this work in the end or not.

I did my practice in short bursts, and I found it difficult to concentrate for long periods of time on such specific movements. Because everything is so new, sometimes I had no idea whether I was practicing the right movement or not.

Any time I perceived that I had made the smallest amount of progress I would feel inspired to play a piece for fun, and the injury would flair up again. I feel like I was in this stage the longest, but I might have just perceived it that way.

Problem Solving

Finally, I reminded myself that nothing else had worked for my hand. This was really the last chance I might get to play pain-free again. I decided that I would whole-heartedly work at the Taubman retraining and be disciplined at trying my best.

I stopped playing everything except practice related to re-training. I applied Taubman whenever I could. I realised I could sneak my Taubman practice into my lessons when teaching- This was really easy to do when demonstrating beginner pieces or playing for aural skill training with students.

I practiced the new rotation movements within some easier pieces and played them at a snail’s pace. The metronome became my best friend to prevent me from becoming too comfortable and automatically playing well-known pieces faster. I made lists, questions, and notes and took them to my lessons. I made an effort to play every single note using the technique and took questions when I encountered new patterns. I made practice lists with reminders so I could repeat passages where I needed to reinforce new motor movements.

I questioned anything that felt uncomfortable, abrupt or ‘not right’, and amazingly there was always a reason behind this vague feeling I had. Therese was able to pin-point the movement that was causing that feeling and work out a strategy to overcome it using a rotation, shaping, or some other specific movement.

Around this time, I was able to play pain-free on the pieces that I had practiced in this way. I still wouldn’t describe my playing as musical at this stage. The movements were still very big and I felt as if I still had years of retraining ahead of me.

At this point I started to realise that this could really work. So I started a new list, of all the things that triggered pain in my playing. Things like octaves, broken octaves, playing fast, repeated notes, abrupt motions. I then searched for these in pieces and brought them in for Therese to work with me on. I always chose repertoire that I found interesting, but not too challenging. Anything harder I threw on a ‘to-do’ list for a later date. I got rid of the Bach and the tech work.

Playing Again!

Somewhere around this point, things seem to progress quickly. I’m not even sure what changed.

I would choose a piece with one of my ‘triggers’ in it, and I would start to practice it slowly. At first these pieces would always cause my arm to ache. After practicing a piece slowly and applying the technique, one day it just seemed to click and I would suddenly realise I was playing it properly without any issues. The ‘trouble area’ that I had chosen the piece for, didn’t seem to cause any issues anymore. I don’t know how it works, but this has been my experience for all the repertoire I’ve chosen.

This happened with the Mendelssohn’s Scherzo in e minor, which was a piece I’d put on the ‘To-Do’ list. When I started it, I took it in to Therese and told her that I had no idea how to play any aspect of this piece using the Taubman technique. It had aspects in it that always triggered pain such as fast octaves, repeated notes, moving double thirds, and fast passagework. We went through all of these and discussed the motor movements in detail. It did seem difficult and frustrating at first to make sure each aspect was played using the exact coordinate movement. However, I learned the piece quite quickly in the end and can play it now at tempo without any discomfort whatsoever.

This is where I am up to at the moment in the retraining, and this is not the final stage.  I’ve just started to be able to play pain free again. I’m also able to play long hours at the piano without issue.

I’ve also discovered other things that contributed to the pain – things like using the trackpad on my laptop and texting on my phone using two thumbs. Therese was also able to identify these and steer me to healthier technology habits!

At this stage, Therese is always reminding me to make the rotations/ shaping smaller. This is a challenge because having come so far, it seems so reassuring to feel the big rotations and getting the visual feedback that I’m actually doing it correctly. It’s the safe zone where I know my hand won’t hurt.

After working through repertoire with my ‘triggers’ in it, my next goal will be to develop some kind of intuition for applying the technique and learn to problem solve for myself where things aren’t feeling right.

What I like is that the Taubman technique retrains a piano player in a way that teaches them to use the body in a way that is ergonomic and functional. It is logical and teaches us to question absolutely everything that doesn’t feel easy and natural. It analyses and provides coordinate solutions. 

In my case, and it seems to be the case for many others, this leads to alleviation of the pain. Although I’m only part-way through the retraining, for the first time I’ve realised that this injury isn’t forever and that I’ll be able to play again. J

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