Reframing “How long will it take to retrain?”

A nagging question I hear often as a Taubman teacher is around the length of the retraining process. The usual scenario is that a pianist brings to the process decades of habit, months if not years of pain, a good serving of anxiety and depression, and comes to lessons after a fruitless cycle of trying to address their pain through a merry-go-round of specialist appointments.

I’d like to turn that question around. I would much rather hear from a student, “What can I do to help myself in this process?” Rather than assigning responsibility for one’s health into the teacher’s hands, this attitude of “What can I do?” shifts the engagement of the student with the lessons from a passive to an active role. Taubman lessons need to be an active partnership between the information, the teacher, and the student.

Helping yourself will not only speed up the retraining process, but also make the experience much easier for you, your teacher, and the support people in your life who are there for you during this time.

Here are just some positive steps you can take:

  • Take regular lessons with a qualified Taubman teacher. This means every week, especially at the beginning. If necessary, a shorter lesson every week is much better than a longer lesson every two weeks. When so much is changing, it is easy to go off track: two weeks is too long to wait for the next stage of information, and corrections. I once met a pianist who complained that she was still playing C major scale after two years of lessons – but she only had three lessons a year. You won’t progress at that rate. 
  • Don’t live near a teacher? Most of us don’t, even those living in the US. Skype is a wonderful tool if you can’t be in the same room. You can kickstart the process by arranging for an intensive stay in your teacher’s city at the beginning of the retraining process, before continuing with Skype. If this is impractical, make the most of Skype by ensuring your setup is watertight. Don’t waste time in the Skype lesson by fumbling with the settings, and the piano keyboard showing upside down.  It can be helpful to have someone in the room to help by being an extra set of eyes and “remote hands”.  This person can be someone with some Taubman training, or just someone that the teacher can direct to be “hands on” to help you have the correct physical experience.
  • Record your lesson with your teacher’s permission, review it, and make notes. This is for your own study, not for YouTube. It’s very difficult to remember all of the details from a lesson. It can also be revealing to compare your hands to your teacher’s hands, or to realise that what you thought you were doing was not actually happening. 
  • Take a break from studying with your regular teacher. It’s confusing to have two lots of conflicting input. If they are interested, invite them to attend your lessons so they can follow the process and learn as well.
  • Only practice what is taught in the lesson in small segments throughout the day, so you can maintain highest concentration. Do not “experiment” or “add on”. The closer to perfect your practice is, the faster you will improve.  If you mix learning the fundamentals with playing through other repertoire, you will have mixed results and the process will inevitably take longer. You may not have all of the tools to deal with all of the technical elements in your piece yet, and the risk of either re-injuring yourself or falling back into old technical habits is high. It’s your choice. Is it really worth it?
  • Develop an awareness of how you are moving, and how things are feeling in your body. Observe how you move throughout the entire day. If you are curling your thumbs and stretching at the piano, you are probably doing that away from the piano as well. Remember, the more perfect your practice is (away from the piano counts too!) the faster your progress. 
  • Saturate yourself with images of hands moving really well. Review your lesson video and study your teacher’s hands, sign up to the Golandsky Institute video streaming, and observe how the most experienced Taubman teachers navigate different issues in the repertoire.
  • Do not play old pieces. Further into the process, it is possible to rework old repertoire and for it to feel great. This is not recommended at the start of retraining, as you will have entrenched physical memories with old repertoire, which are hard to overcome.
  • Take a break from your performance commitments. I know this is not always possible. If you need to keep performing, then both you and your teacher need to be patient in accepting that the process will take longer.
  • Understand the need to follow a process. If one is injured,  retraining often follows a structure of working from the fundamentals, then incorporating these new principles into a piece at a lower level, then carefully working out the choreography into a piece at your level. There are clear steps to bridge the slow, careful movements of early retraining to the end result of building a high level, free technique. 
  • Be patient with yourself. Some injuries are more complex than others. While it can be frustrating to have layered issues to peel away, on a positive note, you will learn so much along the way which you can use later to help others. Remember to contextualise how long you have been playing piano, how long you have been experiencing troubles, compared to the length of retraining.
  • Be curious and open-minded. A common response is that most people feel they are learning slower than everyone else. Rather than chastising yourself, be fascinated by the learning process, with the increased understanding of physical cause and effect, and the gradual assembling of the giant jigsaw puzzle which is the Taubman work.
  • Leave your troubles outside the practice room, and teaching studio. Taubman believed that we learned best when we are relaxed and happy, yet many musicians dealing with injury suffer from anxiety about an uncertain future, and depression that they cannot play the instrument and repertoire they love. The best way to overcome these difficult emotions is to bring yourself to a state whereby you are calm and able to take on information in the lesson, making regular, positive steps forward with your Taubman learning. If your anxiety or depression is hindering your learning, consider seeking professional support. Your piano teacher is a trained Taubman specialist, not psychologist. 

Some aspects are outside one’s immediate influence, such as the complexity, duration, and severity of the injury. But there is much that you can bring to the process, which will make all the difference.

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