Amy L. Aberg McLelland, BM, MM, NCTM

My Personal Experience with the Taubman Approach

The doctor, in his starched white coat, intoned without empathy, “Why do you have to play music anyway? There are plenty of other jobs out there.”

I am a pianist for whom music is the only choice, and that was the lowest point in my pilgrimage from injury back to health. Truthfully, I was never aware how important music was to me until I could no longer play. I had always played — and thought I always would. Even before my parents enrolled me in formal lessons, I would play my older sisters’ pieces by ear and bang wild improvisations at the piano for hours. Having always been a regular winner in piano competitions, I took music for granted. It was the one thing in my life that was easy and not a burden.

Therefore, I was horrified to awaken one Sunday morning in October 1994 with numb hands and arms. I couldn’t feel my fingers. I couldn’t hold my coffee mug or spoon — with either hand. Disregarding my problems, I played for Sunday church choir rehearsal and continued to try and teach throughout the following week. By mid-week, the pain was tremendous and I was forced to cancel 35 recitals.

My injury involved pain on the inside of both elbows. This pain would travel up and down my arm into my hands, shoulders, neck, and back. Symptoms included aching, tenderness, tingling, soreness — in short, constant pain. The acute tendinitis was causing an ulnar neuropathy and there was a constant nerve aggravation in my elbows which, at its worst, felt as if someone were taking a razor and sliding it along the nerve — a horrible, raw feeling. I couldn’t sleep well at night. It was difficult to dress myself, write, type, dial a phone, open a door or cook. It was nearly impossible to do things like lift clothes out of the washing machine, wash my hair, hold a gallon of milk, or even hold my eyeshadow brush or a piece of paper. Forget about trying to play the piano. Simply putting down one key was virtually impossible.

I had experienced short-term periods of pain in previous years, but never to this degree. For example, after graduating from college, I traveled through Europe for two months. Not having been able to play the piano during this time, I immediately jumped into the literature from my bachelor’s recital upon my arrival home and soon experienced pain in my forearm. However, after a few doses of anti-inflammatory medication the pain was relieved. In my mind, this pain was the result of having not practiced for two months. In retrospect, I realize that my body was simply not capable of handling the unhealthy, incoordinate motions that were part of my technique at that time.

Later, in graduate school, I often experienced shoulder and neck pain, which I attributed to the long hours of studying, hunched over books in the library. I would practice with heating pads on my neck to help alleviate the pain. I never associated this pain with my piano playing. Additionally, I experienced forearm pain once again after pounding out Prokofiev on an upright practice room piano while preparing for my final master’s recital and the MTNA Collegiate Artist competition. Again, in my mind, it was not my playing that caused this pain, but the fact that I practiced on an upright rather than a grand piano.

In each of these cases, however, the pain had subsided within a few days or weeks. October 1994 was a different situation, and I knew it as soon as I opened my eyes. The next day I struggled to hold my fork during the President’s Banquet at the college where my husband and I taught. As soon as the banquet ended, I rushed to the overnight clinic, and thus began my long stint of visits with many doctors and specialists. Over the course of two years, I consulted seven doctors, ranging from orthopedic surgeons and internists, to rheumatologists, neurologists and numerous physical and occupational therapists.

The first orthopedic surgeon was highly recommended by another pianist who had suffered from injuries for years. Without hearing a word he told me I needed to see a neurologist. I traveled to another state to consult with a neurologist who administered a nerve conduction test. He then referred me to a rheumatologist who said, “It’s bound to happen to every musician eventually. Not much you can do — you also look like you’ll probably get arthritis in the future.”

I received cortisone shots in the elbow, other types of tests, and x-rays, paraffin baths, magnet therapy and other alternative treatments. Special splints were made for both wrists, and the therapists taught me many extreme range-of-motion stretches. They showed me how to tie towels around my arms to prevent my elbows from bending while I slept, and they taught me a host of “strengthening” exercises such as squeezing wet towels, stretching large rubber bands and pressing my fingers individually into a soft ball of putty. They gave me pads to wear on my elbows to prevent the constant nerve aggravation that would result from my elbows touching anything.

Unfortunately, none of these treatments was helping, and, in fact, some were hurting. Since the doctors didn’t know how to help me, or even give me a concrete diagnosis, I tried to keep playing. Most simply told me to try to play, and stop if it hurt. The problem was that I didn’t always get pain while I was practicing — there would sometimes be a delayed reaction.

Finally, after two years, the last orthopedic surgeon I consulted diagnosed my injury as “the worst case of golfer’s elbow (medial epicondylitis) that [he] had ever witnessed.” Fortunately, and to his credit, this surgeon did not immediately recommend surgery. He told me that, in theory, the injury should heal itself. Therefore, if I had not received any relief after several months, he would recommend an “ulnar nerve transplant” where he would cut open the arm, clean out the scar tissue and debris that had lodged in the elbow and relocate the ulnar nerve to a place that (theoretically) would provide greater protection.

I was seriously considering this surgery when I attended a workshop presented in Mississippi by a Taubman teacher, Terry Dybvig. Her presentation distilled for me the validity of the Taubman approach with great clarity. At that point, I knew this was the way I could stay in music.

The following summer, I attended the two-week Taubman workshop at Amherst, where I received further confirmation through my daily piano lessons with Nina Scolnik, my encounters with numerous musicians who had recovered from severe injuries and my discussion with Dr. Frank Wilson, a neurologist who works with injured musicians. Dr. Wilson was an important influence in my opting not to have the radical surgery on my elbow that was being recommended. He thought that I should do everything Mrs. Taubman suggested before even considering the surgery, and I’m very thankful I followed his advice. Why? Because I would still be back in the same boat, even after the surgery, had I returned to all the unhealthy motions that led to my injury in the first place.

The following fall, Edna Golandsky took me as a student, and I began a new chapter in my life that would include regular travel from Mississippi to NYC. The bi-monthly lessons and daily practice sessions provided the first relief from the pain of more than two years. When I first started my lessons with Edna, I would wake up in severe pain and numbness, yet feel FINE after my lessons and morning practice sessions at the piano. The healthy movements were a sort of a physical therapy — AT the instrument. I would actually feel better AFTER practicing.

Gradually, I began to apply these healthy motions to activities of everyday life. I became conscious of every movement and sensation. I had to relearn how to sleep, how to hold things, how to write, how to open a door, and even how to brush my teeth. Most importantly, however, Edna showed me the healthiest way to play the piano, and I will be eternally grateful to her for putting music back into my life.

These healthy movements transformed me from a near cripple to a pianist with a facility and freedom I had never thought possible. The healthy movements actually created healing and, in turn, allowed for greater speed, fuller fortes, faster octaves, greater tonal control — the list goes on and on. In short, all the tools you need to play the instrument.

While I never again want to go through a similar experience, I will say that I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to learn a technique so free and natural that I don’t even have to warm up before playing. I can now jump straight into the literature — fast or slow — even if I haven’t been able to practice for several days or weeks. Hanon and other warm-up exercises are a thing of the past, and yet my passage work is more even, with greater tonal control and speed than ever before. With my own performing and teaching, technical problems in the music are now solved quickly by applying clear principles of healthy movement, rather than through hours of mindless drilling.

After recently accompanying a young high-school student at a MTNA Convention, a colleague who has heard me perform at these conventions since I was a young child told me that my tone was fuller and richer than she had ever heard. Other colleagues remarked on the freedom and effortlessness in my playing. My response? Anyone can play this way — this is something available to everyone who understands principles of coordinate motion. Our bodies are made to move. Our creative spirits long to express. It is only a lack of knowledge that prevents us from reaching our full potential.

Amy L. Aberg McLelland, BM, MM, NCTM