The Story of Effortless Playing Piano Technique
I begged for piano lessons. My father was a wonderful pianist who, as a child, stopped lessons on the day his teacher rapped his knuckles with a ruler. He played jazz standards by ear and I loved hearing him. When I began lessons at the age of 8, they were quite traditional — no playing by ear was allowed.
I loved to play, but didn’t like to practice. But in eleventh grade, my first teacher retired and sent me to the Converse Petrie School of Music. There, while studying with John-Paul Bracey, my whole relationship to the piano changed…I fell in love with the piano, I was going to be a performing pianist, and I had big dreams! Bracey was a brilliant, inspiring teacher and artist. He brought out the best in my playing and took it to a new level. I was fortunate to have a few years of study with him at Converse and Chautauqua before he left to study in Paris.
Undergraduate...my next teacher...a contrast, with a withering glare. I began to lose my pianistic voice and any ability to play expressively. I was tied up in knots. The constant pain had begun. My playing declined and continued to worsen. This teacher, Patricia Benkman, had been a student of Vengerova. And the 2 years I spent with her consisted of endless Hanon exercises, dropping weight into the wrist. And my long painful birthing of Effortless Playing piano technique began–though I didn’t yet realize it.
Next, Philadelphia. Studying with Susan Starr became her teacher Serkin’s regimen of piano technique. 4 hours daily of scales, arpeggios and Pischna. Complete adherence to the ink on the page. You couldn’t reach the unreachable? Too bad, do it anyway. I played through pain day after day after day. First hand surgery.
Graduate school…and a wonderful teacher, Nathaniel Patch. He was so kind and so musical, and he helped revive my love for the piano. My technique was still a mess from undergrad.
After my graduate degree...I had my second hand surgery. And I was told I would not play again with my right hand. 13 years of depression later, I tried going back to the piano. I met a woman who taught the Russian method of arm weight and relaxation. Relaxation certainly sounded like what I would need to play again. But after 6 weeks I had tendonitis in my right arm and my hand would drop anything I tried to hold.
From there I began my 11 year study and teaching of the Taubman Approach for which I am forever grateful...I could play without pain but I was still very unhappy with my sound.
after years of 4 hours daily practice of Pischna, scales and arpeggios plus 5+ more hours on repertoire
after two performance degrees
after two hand surgeries
after the diagnosis that I would not play again with my right hand
after 13 years of not playing, then starting over
after studying Feldenkrais and Alexander Technique
after 11 years of studying and teaching the Taubman approach to playing…
3 Pivotal Things Happened…
I was re-training 4 students who had Focal Dystonia
I met Frank Wilson M.D., Stanford University neurologist, and author of The Hand
I met Valentina Lisitsa
4 Focal Dystonia Students
By this point, having studied and taught the Taubman Technique for 11 years, I was disillusioned with forearm rotation as the “main fix” for pianists.
Why? I was teaching this technique around the US and I was very good at it. I was no longer in pain, but my tone was still harsh and wooden, and my playing was anything but colorful. But I was doing everything “right”. So why couldn’t I produce the sounds that I wanted to hear?
Coaching 4 pianists with focal dystonia and discovering a way for them to play again gave me the solutions to their problems and to my own. Effortless Playing Piano Technique was born. And these discoveries have for 27 years enabled my injured students to play again freely and expressively. As well, Effortless Playing has enabled non-injured pianists to take their playing to new heights of technical ability and musicality.
Dr. Frank Wilson
One summer, Frank Wilson M.D., came to the Taubman summer institute to present his extensive research into Glenn Gould’s Focal Dystonia. I had already read his book The Hand.
And I was riveted.
That evening, I, with two other pianists, took him out for a glass of wine. It was a delightful 3-hour evening which became a mini seminar on the neurology of piano technique.
My simmering disillusion with the focus on forearm rotation had been affirmed. Rotating from the forearm is the tail trying to wag the dog.
Meeting Valentina Lisitsa
Two recitals and a dinner with Lisitsa. Another affirmation. How did she play so effortlessly? And with her limitless technique, why were we Taubman students told that much of “her piano technique was wrong”? That made no sense.
Later on, as Valentina was becoming a worldwide phenomenon, I studied her videos, and a multitude of other pianists’ videos. There were some (but not many) pianists who achieved effortless playing and colorful playing — what were they doing or not doing technically? I had to figure it out - there had to be an answer. I was determined to play effortlessly and colorfully again.
Leaving Taubman and moving to the Tetons in secluded Wyoming, playing/teaching research and experimentation continued on my own. I was my own piano technique guinea pig for many more years.
So many problems afflict pianists - from merely reaching a plateau, across the spectrum to focal dystonia. My work on solving these problems continued for 27 years.
My focal dystonia students have taught me what a powerful, destructive trigger the piano can be for every pianist. Discovering how to enable these pianists to overcome their focal dystonia became the story and origin of Effortless Playing Piano Technique.
Dr. Frank Wilson and Valentina Lisitsa inspired me to continue to question everything about our traditional and current teaching of piano technique.
Effortless Playing breaks the old but still prevalent "rules", dispels the myths that swirl around piano technique, prevents and solves injury including focal dystonia, and removes the triggers that hold us back from playing effortlessly and expressively.
I wouldn't change one thing about this long journey. For the last 27 years, it has been complete joy to help other pianists regain their ability to play, and enable them to find their passion and their musical voice again.