Jeffrey Sabo

I began taking piano lessons at a very young age, but after losing interest during my middle school years, I stopped them for a while and focus on the viola. In high school, I decided to start playing piano seriously again, and I applied to colleges to study composition. I went to Ithaca College as a composition major, and shortly after starting there, I successfully auditioned to add a piano concentration. About halfway through my degree, I realized that I enjoyed playing piano so much that I quickly added a theory major, which would allow me to continue taking lessons for the rest of my time there. 

During my time at Ithaca, I began practicing more and playing more repertoire. I was good at playing scale passagework, and my favorite music was Classical and Early Romantic pieces. However, I always felt that I could never tackle the major virtuoso repertoire. I knew I had some bad habits, and I occasionally had some pain, but it was never too serious. I used to tell people that these limitations were because I don't have very large hands, and so I stayed away from repertoire that was beyond my reach. I felt I could play my choice repertoire fairly well, but I always dreaded jury season. Many students were excited about getting to play on the concert grand, but I hated it. I always fought the bigger instrument to make a good sound without immense physical effort, and I always had a sense that it was playing me, rather than the other way around.

As time went on, I fell in love with the world of period instruments, and I decided that I wanted to pursue that field for my next degree. Period instruments have much lighter actions and smaller keys than their modern counterparts, and given my difficulties with concert grands, I typically felt very comfortable playing them. However, their dimensions make it much easier to play wrong notes, and this was something that I was desperately trying to avoid in my auditions. I tried to gain more control by tightly grasping my hands, and after many hours of trying to accurately play many continuous leaps, I started to feel a pain in my right wrist. I knew this wasn't good, but auditions were right around the corner, so I kept told myself to push through the pain and deal with it after everything was done. 

After four auditions and a lot of Advil, I told my teacher that I needed a break for a little while. I went to the health center at school, where I was given a diagnosis of tendinitis and a hefty brace to keep my arm immobilized. The doctor said I should stop playing to let the injury heal faster. However, after several weeks of waiting, nothing had changed. I was sent to a physical therapist, and after several weeks of stretching, pulling, and no piano playing, I still had no improvement. I was told to stretch as much as possible in both arms to build flexibility. At every free moment, I stretched and stretched and stretched. Until one day I reached down to tie my shoes, when I felt a shooting pain in both of my thumbs, followed by a rush of burning and swelling. 

By this point I realized I was in trouble. I had managed to get into a Master’s program at Oberlin, but I hadn’t actually played the piano in about 3 months. Out of fear and embarrassment, I had very carefully hidden this fact from the Oberlin teachers, and I wanted to make the injuries go away before I arrived there in the Summer. I went to yet another therapist, who gave me an exercise plan that was to be done three times a day. Once again a diligent patient, I did my stretches, played with my putty, flexed my rubber bands, and curled my weights, but I still hadn't played the piano in a very long while. My move to Oberlin was approaching fast, so I was desperate to move the process along. One day while stretching, I felt something pull in my elbow, followed by more swelling and pain in my forearms. Now I was really in trouble, but a few days later it was time to leave.

I arrived in Oberlin with immense pain in my hands, wrists, forearms, and even into my upper arms. Unable to hide my situation anymore, I had to confess to my teachers that I couldn’t play. They were far more understanding than I had thought they would be, but I still had no answers. Over the Summer, I saw three more doctors and got three more responses. One told me I had a nerve issue, one a tendon issue, and the third confessed he had no idea what was going on. I went to another physical therapist, and in addition to the usual stretches/exercises, I was given various combinations of the following: ultra sound, electrotherapy, massage, various creams (one of which gave me an allergic reaction that got infected), an EMG, and I was even twisted into an MRI machine that revealed I had no tears in the tissue, but further irritated my injuries. Combine this all with the fear, anger, and sadness about my situation, and it was starting to take a toll on my personal life. And to top it all off, I could barely move or hold anything in my upper body without experiencing pain. By this point I had become so afraid of pain and further injury that I stopped moving as much as I possibly could. The tissue in my arms became frozen in place, and my range of motion became severely limited. I felt like I was now worse off than when I started, and I had no potential solutions to give me any hope of recovering soon. 

Luckily, my teachers continued to be very accommodating. They allowed me to do as little playing as possible, and I mostly took academic classes. I didn't know what else to do, so I tried some more medical options: another doctor, another therapist, and regular massages that felt nice on my back, but never really impacted my arms in any dramatic way. So I still had no idea what had happened, much less how to fix it. In fact, it seemed like every time I tried something, it would either do nothing, or it would create another problem. Beyond that, I was never thrilled to let other people in on my condition, so I spent most of my energy trying to avoid physical pain in my daily life, and then trying to prevent other people from finding out about my limitations.

I had first seen some of Edna Golandsky’s videos during my time at Ithaca, before I was injured. I was intrigued, but after consulting with my piano teacher and parents, I decided not to pursue it. After all, I thought I was a pretty good player, and it didn't seem necessary to spend extra money on lessons while I was already paying to take lessons at school. And so throughout all of my struggles with injuries I was aware of the Taubman Approach, but I always found reasons not to try it, most of which I now understand to be based on misunderstandings of what it really is. Until one day, when I really had no more medical options to consider, I met with a professor at Oberlin who once studied with Dorothy Taubman. He explained to me that the best course for someone in my situation would be to take some time off and completely retrain. I thought about it for a little while, but then realized I didn't have much of a choice. It was either this or never play again, and so that is what I did.

I started taking lessons with Edna in New York, but I have to admit I didn't have very high hopes. I had tried and failed with dozens of other potential solutions, so it was hard for me to be very optimistic. However, slowly but surely, my locked arms began to open up, and my pain began to dissipate. I learned how to move in a coordinated way, and I learned how to make a full sound on the modern piano. I learned that trying to control my movements by tensing was actually counterproductive, and I learned that moving freely actually allows for greater accuracy and speed. Lessons became about problem solving, rather than performing, and now playing the piano has become fun again. I still have a lot to learn, but I feel like those big pieces that I could never play will be achievable in the near future. I have started teaching again, and I feel for the first time in my life that I can actually teach technique, rather than just tell my students to go home and practice more. A long time ago, I had decided not to pursue retraining because I didn't want to spend extra time and money, but I ended up spending far more on failed medical treatments than I ever would have on lessons. When I finally decided to try it, I not only got my playing back, but it also got my life back, and that is something for which I can never be grateful enough.