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Duet for Piano and PC : In a Controversial Technique, O.C. Musicians Teach How to Move in Harmony for Health


LAGUNA NIGUEL — Nina Scolnik's hands move with grace and precision across the grand piano keyboard in her living room. Then she abandons Chopin and slides off the piano bench to settle onto a chair at her dining table, where a computer keyboard awaits.

There she types as if she were playing an etude, then stops to explain the connection she sees:

Whether you're a butcher, court stenographer, landscaper, concert pianist or computer operator, if you want to cure aching fingers, hands, arms and back, you needn't resort to splints, wrist rests, stretching exercises or surgery.

Just learn the basic, natural movements that successful pianists have relied on for centuries, she says.

The problem is not with the piano, the computer, the cash register or the meat cleaver, says Scolnik, 41, a piano faculty member at UC Irvine. "The problem is with the way people move. The finger, the hand, the arm must move as a unit."

And that's the basic idea of a controversial message emanating from a Brooklyn woman who has taught piano for 50 years. During that time, Dorothy Taubman has spawned thousands of disciples of the Taubman method, known largely within the U.S. piano community. "Blaming the instrument," says Taubman, 76, "is like saying that writer's cramp is caused by the pencil." Or the computer.

Now, Taubman and her colleagues, including Scolnik, are launching a nationwide business to transfer what they know to a realm broader than pianists, flutists or violinists who suffer from what's called repetitive stress injury or RSI.

Aimed at teaching people how to use computers with techniques previously reserved for musical instruments, the company offers workshops to retrain injured workers and to train those who want to prevent injuries.

As the RSI problem has mushroomed to afflict everyone from secretaries to executives with hurting muscles, tendons and nerves, Taubman and her associates have been approached on occasion by businesses wanting to see if the technique could help. But only recently has Taubman's institute decided to focus on it.

"There are so many people out there in trouble (who) can't get help, and this little lady has figured it all out--what the medical profession has not figured out," says Taubman Institute Executive Director Enid Stettner, who lives in Upstate New York.

To initially spread the word, Taubman is relying on two-dozen faculty members who teach at her institute, held each summer at Amherst College in Massachusetts. During the past three decades, thousands have studied there and gone on to teach thousands more.

Key among them is Scolnik, the principal West Coast advocate of Taubman's methods. Since the late 1970s, she has been associated with Taubman and has introduced many of her own students to the technique.

As the Taubman consulting firm starts up, to their dismay, one of Scolnik's former UC Irvine piano students, Greg Dempster of Laguna Beach, has also begun what he bills as the first company "in the country to adapt this approach to the business community."

From 1983 to early this year, Dempster studied with Scolnik, who introduced him to Taubman's ideas. "At first I thought this was really snake oil, that this was from Mars," says Dempster, 34, who completed his undergraduate and master's work with Scolnik.

But soon Dempster, who had been injured from his earlier technique, became a believer. For a half-dozen summers, he studied with Taubman at Amherst and was a teaching assistant at the institute. He says, "My playing has grown by leaps and bounds."

As he was teaching one of his own students who worked as a computer operator, Dempster says, "it became obvious that this applied quite directly to computer people."

Within the past few months, Dempster put together a staff including other Taubman devotees and has already been offering seminars and making a pitch to intrigued representatives of Southern California companies.

Although Dempster knows that the Taubman Institute is miffed with him, he praises Taubman's genius. "The relationships she was able to figure out and observe in pianists are unparalleled."


For her part, Stettner says that it is not that difficult for someone fully trained in the technique to teach it as a preventive approach. But she says "to cure somebody who is injured, you need great knowledge, and we have that knowledge."

Stettner and Dempster do agree, however, on Taubman's tenet that moving correctly is therapeutic and pain-relieving.

Dempster makes this exact point at a seminar in a salon at the Irvine Hyatt Regency. He is speaking to a small gathering, including representatives from Orange County businesses interested in this new tactic to combat RSI.

"Correct movement minimizes effort, fatigue," he says. "If you are not moving correctly, there is a level of fatigue you are operating under."

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