Harold Taylor on Talent and Coordination

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taylorcoverI recently re-read Harold Taylor’s short but classic book called The Pianist’s Talent. I last read it in back 1999, before I had either studied Alexander Technique or learned about Taylor from people who know him. (I’ve never actually met him or heard him play, but I have heard his daughter, Marie-Louise, perform and would recommend the experience to anyone who gets the chance.) So it was interesting to re-visit it with all kinds of new perspectives.

The basic premise of the book is to draw on a combination of Alexander Technique and the teaching of pianist Raymond Thiberge to propound a piano method that is all about overall mental and physical coordination rather than analysing different elements of technique. Playing the piano, in this world, is not about the fingers, but about the whole body; it’s not about conquering the external obstacle of the piano, but about removing the internal obstacles with which we habitually distort or get in the way of ourselves.

The first thing that leapt out at me is the book’s funny – and ultimately contradictory - combination of a progressive and developmental pedagogy with a very old-fashioned concept of talent. Taylor states in the preface that most writers ‘tend to ignore it [talent], because it appears to be beyond discussion, like the colour of one’s hair or the shape of one’s nose – and even less capable of modification’ (p. 10). So it looks at first as if he is going to challenge this notion of talent as mysteriously inborn and unalterable. Yet in the following chapter, he defines talent as ‘the ability to perform without training, the amount of talent being in inverse proportion to the amount of training required’ (p. 14).

He derives this notion of talent from considering child prodigies. And there is indeed something apparently magical when some people do with apparent ease that which others sweat and struggle over. But the central premise of the book is that the sweat and struggle arise from approaching the task in an uncoordinated way, pulling yourself out of shape and thus endlessly hampering one’s own efforts. Taylor’s argument rather seems to point to a definition of talent as an absence of internal obstacles – and indeed he points to the optimal head-neck position in the pictures of child prodigies reproduced throughout the book, suggesting that their specialness lay in being extraordinarily well-aligned so as to achieve much in a short time rather than in any genetically endowed essence.

Moreover, Taylor’s account of lessons with Thiberge resonates strongly with the descriptions of expertise-fostering learning as recounted by critiques of the ‘inborn’ theory of talent such as Daniel Coyle. ‘My first six lessons with him,’ says Taylor, ‘were devoted to playing no more than a C major scale in double octaves. In the first lesson, I never got beyond the first note’ (p.64). Such slow, focused, in-depth actions are characteristic of the teaching methods Coyle describes in his stories of hot-house academies in a variety of musical and sporting disciplines. It is by taking the time to get the learning of an action absolutely right and completely understood that the foundations for later virtuosity are laid.

Such a carefully painstaking approach to lessons seems basically incompatible with the notion that talent is the capacity to do without training. More apropos I think is Taylor’s comment that, ‘There is no substitute for work, but in the long run, only the quality of the work matters, not the quantity’ (p. 64). Though most recent studies on talent seem to suggest that you still need a lot of high-quality work to gain expertise; the point isn’t that you don’t need to put the hours in, rather that those hours will only produce the goods if the practice they contain is done attentively.

In his synthesis of Thiberge and Alexander, Taylor comes up with a formulation that I find most useful: that of expanding versus contracting postures. Expansion is encapsulated in such quintessentially Alexander phrases as ‘head forward and up’ and ‘back to lengthen and widen’. Contraction by contrast is identified in terms of the head pulling back and down, shoulder-blades being drawn together and a pronounced hollow in the small of the back.

Expanding is the condition of coordination, when the only muscles that shortened are those required to do the task in hand. Contracting occurs when we habitually also shorten the opposing muscles, thereby making the ones that should be working work harder to counteract this internal obstacle. Taylor uses the present participle on purpose, to remind us that posture is an active rather than static state, and gives certain exercises to demonstrate how we literally diminish in reach when using a contracting posture.

Like Alexander, he regards physical and mental states to be inherently interrelated, and so he paints the expanding posture as the state of awareness, the state in which you can hear more and have a clearer idea of what you are doing. And having spent a while wondering how to synthesise his various comments on this, I think I will simply finish with his own words, which present many useful things to ponder:

It cannot be too strongly emphasised that success in the field of co-ordination is greatly dependent on the mental attitude adopted. We are dealing with experiences so subtle that only the exercise of the utmost awareness will suffices to obtain knowledge of them. The cultivation of awareness demands an attitude of mental detachment so complete that one even ceases to care whether one’s goal is achieved or not. The old school-room maxims: “Concentrate!” and “Try hard!” must be banished from our vocabulary, as they have no relevance to the growth of co-ordination, and in fact represent an impedimentary ‘end-gaining’ attitude of mind which encourages contracting tendencies.... Misapplied concentration actually diminishes awareness, as in the common case of the student who becomes so intent on his operations at the keyboard that he fails to hear the sound that he is making (pp. 83-4).

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