Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
I was brought up in a small seaside town, and was extremely lucky to find there an excellent teacher, who had studied with Tobias Matthay at the Royal College of Music. I loved piano playing from day one. Later, I joined the junior college at the Royal Northern College of Music, and it was then that I decided to pursue a playing career.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Each of my teachers has influenced me in their own way. Sir William Glock (a Schnabel student) worked a lot on phrasing. George Hadjinikos was a very philosophical musician and Guido Agosti was the pinnacle of refinement. Perlemuter gave me a direct line to Ravel (he studied all Ravel’s works with the composer himself). I have also learnt a great deal from working with other instrumentalists and singers.
I am also very grateful to some key musicians who have helped shape my career, for instance Carola Grindea who encouraged me to become involved with EPTA (the European Piano Teachers Association), and BAPAM (British Association for Performing Arts Medicine) where I now advise injured musicians.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
There were two main turning points in my career. As a young pianist, I thought I was invincible. I was working with a teacher who pushed me very hard technically, and in my third year at music college, I developed tenosynovitis (severe pain in my right thumb). This forced me to reconsider my whole approach to technique, and led to my life-long research into healthy piano playing.
I continued focussing primarily on performance for many years, until I had several years of bad health, followed by the birth of my children. This resulted in a second change of direction, in which I reduced my touring and focused more on teaching, which I have found very fulfilling.
I keep having to remind students who have major challenges or setbacks of one kind or another, that if one door closes, we can look for a different door.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Impossible to say! I love performing and have been fortunate to play in both major concert venues and very intimate settings – I enjoy both. Sometimes one plays one’s best in the least expected places. When I was in my twenties, I played a lot of concerts abroad for the British Council, sometimes playing to audiences who had rarely heard classical music played live before. In those circumstances, I felt a huge responsibility to bring across the music’s message very strongly, over and above any technical concerns. This proved very liberating and I think that it is very valuable training for any young pianist to gain experience of a wide range of audiences and venues – it also helps you develop resilience and adaptability.
In addition to performing, you have a distinguished career as a teacher. Who or what inspired to you start teaching?
I started teaching while still at school, teaching some of my fellow students and helping them prepare for their piano exams. I partly funded myself through college by teaching, and then was lucky to be offered a teaching post at Keele University in my postgraduate year. I am eternally grateful to Sir William Glock for recommending me to the post at Keele which later led to conservatoire teaching posts. I have been teaching at Trinity Laban (formerly Trinity College of Music) for twenty years now, alongside work at other colleges and a private practice.
Who/what have been the most significant influences on your teaching?
I was fortunate to experience a range of dedicated and inspiring teachers from an early age. Each had a very different approach, (and at times I even worked with two very contradictory teachers simultaneously). This worked well for me as the contradictions stimulated me to question everything and to try to work out the best solutions for myself. However, I do not recommend this for everyone – I think every pianist needs a regular, committed teacher who can oversee their longer-term development.
My experience of other movement techniques including yoga, Tai Chi and Alexander technique, my collaboration with an osteopath, and my research into anatomy have also been invaluable. However, it took many years of research and experimentation before I could work out how to apply all this knowledge directly to piano playing.
Having come across many pianists who missed out on a thorough grounding in their early years, I feel passionate about the need to train a new generation of enthusiastic, committed and knowledgeable teachers. Music colleges still tend to focus predominantly on performance, yet so many pianists would enjoy teaching more if they knew how to do it really well. Confident and knowledgeable teachers nurture enthusiastic students, who in turn inspire the teacher’s work further. There are some good piano teaching courses available, but in order to fill a perceived gap in the understanding of teaching technique, I am starting up a teacher training course next winter, in which teachers can explore new methods of teaching technique, based on the exercises in The Complete Pianist.
What are your views on music exams, festivals and competitions?
I think this depends very much on the individual. Some thrive and feel motivated by exams and competitions, others prefer to play concerts, or just to play piano for their own pleasure. I think there is a role for everyone in music. As a young pianist, I much preferred playing concerts to competitions, as I played better in front of a real audience. Having said which, I now very much enjoy being a member of competition juries, especially those that support and nurture young musicians. It’s a major challenge and a huge responsibility to have to judge one talented student against another.
Your new book ‘The Complete Pianist’ is published on 20 February. Tell us more about the motivation for producing this and what you hope pianists will gain from it.
Over my lifetime, I have acquired an enormous amount of experience and understanding on all aspects of playing and teaching, and about fifteen years ago, I finally decided that I was ready to share this for the benefit of future generations. I started by writing magazine articles, mainly in Piano Professional magazine, which I always intended to build into a book eventually. A friend introduced me to Peters Edition, who said they ‘had been looking for this book for ten years’ so it was an ideal match! They encouraged me to be more and more ambitious, and once we had settled on the title of ‘The Complete Pianist’, it became clear that the book had to be as comprehensive as possible. (It now includes more than 500 pages of text, 250 exercises of my own devising and access to 300 videos in which I demonstrate all the main points myself). This posed an interesting challenge: it forced me to think in depth about some aspects of playing that I had not yet fully clarified in my own mind (a process which has, incidentally, also greatly enhanced my own teaching.) Several years on, the book is finally finished.
I think The Complete Pianist has much to offer every pianist, whether professional or amateur, teacher or student, and I have included musical examples which range from elementary to concert repertoire. I have also tried to recognise and address the differing needs of a wide range of pianists (for instance, I may recommend different exercises for pianists with weak hands to those with strong but rather inflexible hands). I think it is true to say that it’s one of the few major books on piano playing which has seriously addressed the additional challenges that pianists with smaller-than-average hands face.
For me, it is never enough just to tell a student what to do – I feel that it is incumbent on me as a teacher to explain very precisely and simply how to achieve that pianistically. In the book, therefore, each new aspect of playing is addressed through a series of practical exercises which guide the readers step-by-step towards healthy, inspired playing. The book covers all aspects of playing, from a whole-body approach, through every aspect of piano technique to informed interpretation. I also delve into the way we think about music: from mental preparation, effective practising and motivation to developing confidence for inspired performance.
I have tested all the exercises repeatedly on my own students. Many of my students are teachers themselves who have also used the exercises for their own students at different levels and given very valuable feedback.
I hope that the book will help many pianists overcome obstacles and realise their full potential at the piano.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Good question – what is success? I think success is doing whatever you do with absolute commitment and to the best of your abilities. There is still a tendency amongst musicians to relate success to prestigious venues, fame and money. It is quite natural for young pianists to aspire to that, but that kind of celebrity status only comes to a small number of pianists per generation. I think that success, and achieving a real sense of job satisfaction, is much more complex than that. Although external appreciation is encouraging, it can be fickle, and it is unwise to build our self-esteem mainly on the recognition of other people. Ultimately it is the knowledge that you are doing good work that is the most important thing. Musicians should take pride in their own and their students’ successes, whether that be playing a major concerto or just encouraging a new student to play a simple piece beautifully. Success is about genuine sharing of music making in a way that touches others, through playing or through teaching.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
That the music comes first! Still I hear of many pianists who have been taught to focus on technical ability above all else. This suppresses natural artistry and is more, not less, likely to lead to injury and disillusion. Cultivate your imagination and your humanity and it will shine through in your music and sustain you through a lifetime of playing.
The Complete Pianist: from healthy technique to natural artistry by Penelope Roskell is published on 20 February by Edition Peters and is available from shops and online: www.editionpeters/roskell
Penelope Roskell is Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. As a soloist she has played in major concert halls in more than thirty countries. She is the leading UK specialist in healthy piano playing, and Piano Advisor to the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine, where she holds a clinic for pianists with tension or injuries.