From healthy technique to natural artistry


Not so long ago a book as comprehensive and user-friendly as this would not be possible. It would require essential supplementary materials – DVDs and CDs – to cover all the ground. But with ease of access to the internet and smart phone technology at one’s fingertips, The Complete Pianist is exactly what it says it is: a comprehensive, generous guide to playing and teaching the piano, and one of the most significant volumes on piano technique to appear in recent decades. The benefit of technology means that pianists, whether professional or amateur, teachers and students can access some 300 video demonstrations via QR codes within the text, all of which have been recorded by Penelope Roskell herself to demonstrate a specific exercise, aspect of technique or musical point described in the pages of the book.

The Complete Pianist is the result of a lifetime of piano playing, teaching and research, and in it Penelope Roskell, renowned pedagogue and concert pianist, aims to help pianists of all levels improve their playing from the very earliest stages of learning a piece, through all the technical challenges and interpretative decisions to finding inspiration in the act of performance itself. Throughout, there is a strong emphasis on healthy technique and playing without tension, and Penelope continually reiterates that technique should serve the music, that it is a means to enable the player, whatever their level of expertise, to play with expression, vibrant colour and confidence.

Penelope Roskell’s approach to technique grew out of personal experience. As young pianist she experienced unpleasant physical symptoms while practising Liszt’s second piano concerto, and found that physical tension adversely affected her sound. She set out on a lifelong mission to develop a healthier approach to piano playing, drawing on yoga, Alexander Technique, Tai Chi and Feldenkrais, an understanding of anatomy, and her own research, often trying out exercises and techniques with her students to establish what worked or was most beneficial, both to the physical body of the pianist and the production of expressive sound.

Anyone who has studied with Penelope Roskell will be familiar with her technical and musical exercises, such as Empty Sleeves or The Hot Air Balloon and Parachute Touch, which aim to balance and relax the body or simplify and explain the physical movements required to create a particular sound or effect on the piano. Such descriptive, easily understood exercises can be particularly appealing to young people or early students who may find visual cues more helpful than verbal explanations. In addition, many of the exercises which Penelope advocates are based on the naturally flowing bodily movements we use in everyday life, thus making them relevant and more easily put into practice at the piano. The Complete Pianist contains 250 exercises, newly-devised by the author.

This comprehensive book covers all aspects of piano technique including posture, finger touch and tone production, chords, octaves, rotation, and lateral movements. There are also sections on mental preparation, effective practice, sight reading, memorisation, phrasing, rhythm, articulation, sound production, pedalling, injury prevention and understanding and managing performance anxiety.

The emphasis on preventing and managing injury is particularly important: until fairly recently, musicians’ health and wellbeing were rarely discussed and hardly touched upon in their teaching and training. Injury was regarded as a taboo subject, not to be mentioned for fear of revealing a weakness that may lead to loss of work, and musicians tended not to seek specialist help for health issues such as RSI or tendonitis. As the UK’s foremost piano teacher specialising in pianists’ injuries, and Piano Advisor for the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine ((BAPAM), Penelope Roskell offers highly informed, but straightforward and pragmatic advice for pianists of all ages and levels to encourage healthy technique. The Complete Pianist includes sections on injury recovery, rehabilitation and prevention, developing hand and finger strength, and hypermobility (double-jointedness) and specific issues relating to this for the pianist. In addition, section 22 (The Inspired Pianist) debunks many of the myths and obstacles of piano playing and performance, and offers intelligent suggestions to encourage motivation, set realistic goals and build confidence to maintain one’s interest in and enthusiasm for the piano. There is also a lengthy section on understanding anxiety, a significant issue for many pianists, professional and amateur. Once again, Penelope offers sensible, sympathetic advice – from understanding the physiology of anxiety and the effects of the release of adrenaline to dealing with perfectionism and negative thinking.

In addition to the many videos throughout the book, which range from simple piano pieces to concert repertoire, there are detailed appendices on anatomy and a glossary of terms which occur in the text.

In sum, The Complete Pianist is a remarkable achievement, a comprehensive manual for pianists and teachers, packed with invaluable accumulated wisdom and intelligent advice, and excellent supporting materials. Penelope Roskell simplifies the craft and art of piano playing, without ever devaluing musical ability, talent and artistry, and provides pianists with the tools to practice and work independently, yet with the sense of a supportive, sympathetic teacher always at one’s side, encouraging one to continually develop one’s artistic skill.

Highly recommended

The Complete Pianist is published by Edition Peters UK and retails at £44.95


A postscript….

I took private lessons with Penelope Roskell for six years from 2008, a few years after I had returned to playing the piano seriously after an absence of some 20 years. I went to her initially with a hand injury – tenosynovitis which had developed as a result of attempting to play the octave passages in Schubert’s first Klavierstück, D946, too quickly, too loudly and with poor technique. In the space of 6 months, she had transformed my technique, filling in the gaps which were missing from my piano studies as a teenager, and built my confidence to such an extent that I felt able to attempt a professional performance diploma, which I passed with distinction in 2011 (I subsequently took my licentiate diploma just 14 months later, with Penelope’s encouragement, also achieving a pass with Distinction).

Returning to the piano as an adult was not easy, but Penelope’s intelligent, sympathetic and respectful approach made a huge difference, not only to my own playing but also to my fledgling teaching career. She was always generous with her advice and suggestions, urging me to try her exercises with my own students and report back to her. Her weekend piano courses were stimulating events and through them I discovered new repertoire and met other pianists, a number of whom have become close friends.

Her new book is a comprehensive and inspiring distillation of her experience and wisdom.

(Frances Wilson, The Cross-Eyed Pianist)

peneloperoskell.co.uk

Meet the Artist interview with Penelope Roskell

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.

peneloperoskell.co.uk

I’ve just attended another of my piano teacher’s excellent 3-day courses for advanced pianists. As regular readers of this blog will know, I am a great fan of my teacher’s courses, which provide a supportive, friendly and inspiring setting for study.

The course is run as a series of masterclasses, offering plenty of input from other participants and important one-to-one tuition with Penelope Roskell, who is a highly-skilled and experienced teacher. There are regular breaks which give everyone the opportunity for “piano chat” and on the last day, we have an informal concert followed by a drinks party.

One of the things I love most of all about these courses is the transforming effect they can have on people who may arrive on the first day anxious and uncertain what to expect. Penelope is a very patient and sympathetic teacher, who is able to draw out the very best in people. One of this year’s participants was on the Autumn 2012 course, an anxious player who gradually unwound as the weekend progressed. It was wonderful to see how far she has come, following private lessons with Penelope in the intervening months, and to hear her playing with greater confidence and poise.

Some people come on the course simply to run repertoire by a friendly audience ahead of a concert. Others are preparing for diplomas, competitions or auditions. For me, this course was to encourage me to pick up some new repertoire following my Diploma. I felt very flat in the days immediately after the exam, and the need to prepare some music for the course was just what I needed to get me playing again. I wanted to run some pieces by my teacher to make sure I was heading in the right direction with them. A number of my pianist friends were attending the course this time as well, so in many ways it was a social event for me and the chance to catch up with friends and colleagues. And make new friends too.

As always, the range of repertoire was very wide, from Bach to Satoh (a contemporary Japanese composer), and the standard very high. But there was never a feeling we were in competition with each other. We were there to share repertoire, offer positive feedback on one another’s playing, and learn. I have compiled a playlist on Spotify of all the pieces we played (except for Fazil Say’s transcription of Mozart’s ‘Rondo Alla Turca’, which should be available on YouTube).

by Penelope Roskell, pianist and Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance

If we reflect on the language that we use in our teaching, we will probably notice that many of the words we use imply a rather serious, one might even say tedious view of life: practise hard, exercises, repetition, accuracy, evenness, examinations – no wonder so many students find piano playing boring compared to the fun of playing with friends or computer games!

I think we all need to remind ourselves frequently of the possible alternative words: ease, beauty, flow, flourish, caress, communication, fun, delight, and, most importantly perhaps, playfulness. I personally don’t remember ever having heard that word in any piano lesson when I was a student!

If we see and hear a true virtuoso play, we are not aware of fear or wrong notes, or stiffness in the joints, or awkward, ungainly movements. We are taken up in the joy and delight of sheer playfulness of physicality on the piano. Now, of course some people tend to look down their noses on “mere virtuosos” as somehow lacking in seriousness, and it is true that in some cases their playfulness may also equate with a certain superficiality of character. But when that delightful virtuosity is combined with depth of feeling, a rigorous intellect and real artistry, then we witness the pinnacle of piano playing in all its fullness.

It is a recognised fact that children learn more quickly and enthusiastically through play, and I believe this also applies to teaching piano technique, both for children and for adults. If we watch a child spending time alone at the piano, they delight primarily in any activities that involve movement around the piano. This might be big jumps, glissandi, staccato, big banging chords – they don’t generally relish playing the sort of two note legato “tunes” we find in many beginners’ tutor books.

Imagine how it must feel for a very active six year old to be asked not only to sit still for half an hour, but also not to move his arms beyond the middle C five-finger position (thumbs on middle C, elbows in, wrists swivelled inwards, shoulders up)! This straight-jacketed feeling can be absorbed into their experience of piano playing from the earliest stages, and can become a very entrenched habit.

Kurtag in ‘Jatekok’ (which means “Games”) attempts to address this problem in a fascinating way – approaching each aspect of piano playing with a very broad gesture (such as clusters around the piano) which then becomes more refined into a piece with notes which need to be played accurately. Various other tutor books recognise the advantage of embracing the whole of the keyboard. The Little Keyboard Monster series, for example, contains some delightfully imaginative pieces using glissandi, leaps etc. from an early level.

The fear of playing wrong notes is very powerful, and can lead to tension throughout the muscular structure. At all levels, I think it is important to balance the need for accuracy with freedom of movement, sometimes to exhort the student: “don’t worry about wrong notes at the moment – feel the technique freely first, then refine it!” Paradoxically, if we aim first for beauty of sound, muscular freedom and emotional expression, almost invariably we play more right notes in the long run.

Although I do frequently teach my students Etudes (particularly, at advanced level, the Chopin and Debussy Etudes from which so much can be learnt), I often find that much valuable time can be wasted learning several pages of somewhat indifferent music for just one aspect of technique – time which could have been much better spent learning some great repertoire. I feel there is much benefit to be gained for each teacher to develop his own notebook of very short exercises which cover all the necessary movements require for specific techniques. These should be simple and short enough to be taught by imitation, rather than by note-learning. The resulting enjoyment is liberating.

I was recently teaching an adult pupil the ‘Prelude’ from Pour le Piano (Debussy). She had worked at it very thoroughly, but the result was somewhat heavy and wooden. So, we started to make up some exercises together (perhaps I can now call these “games”) which were partly based on passages in this piece.

These exercises are very difficult to describe, because the main feature of them is of fluid, swirling hand and arm movements which flow, interact and overlap each other (if you have ever seen a chef tossing pizza dough between his hand you will know the sort of movements I mean). The arm, wrist and hand are extremely soft and fluid and the fingers just “play” very lightly on the keys. Each exercise should be played as fast as possible – caution is not recommended. There is no credit to be gained from playing correct notes, but the beauty of sound is encouraged. In fact, all the exercises are played by imitation (not reading the notes) so that the tension of note-reading and the fear of playing wrong notes are eliminated.

Each piece can be the starting point for similar “games”, and game can be simplified or made more complex, depending on the level of the student. The pupils themselves can start to make up their own. One new technique can be introduced in each lesson in this very amiable way. The possibilities are endless – and fun!

© Penelope Roskell

(This article first appeared in the summer 2012 issue of ‘Piano Professional’, the journal of the European Piano Teachers’ Association.)

Penelope Roskell is equally renowned as a performer of international calibre and as an inspirational teacher and professor of piano at Trinity College of Music. Full biography here.

For information about courses, private tuition, books and DVDs please visit:

www.peneloperoskell.co.uk

My piano teacher, Penelope Roskell, performed at Sutton House, in Hackney on Sunday evening, in a fascinating programme in which she juxtaposed the reason of Bach with the mercurial romance of Schumann. Read my review for Bachtrack.com here.

Penelope Roskell is an acclaimed concert pianist and Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London, and is Artistic Director of Sutton House Music Society.

Sutton House Music Society

Sutton House

My piano teacher, Penelope Roskell, is peforming in two concerts at the delightful and intimate small venue Sutton House this month and next.

Sunday 15th May, 7pm

‘An English Summer Evening’ – Fitzwilliam String Quartet with Penelope Roskell

Artists in residence, the Fitzwilliam String Quartet, and Artistic Director of SHMS, Penelope Roskell, present a programme celebrating the work of those two quintessentially English composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Edward Elgar. Both the works being performed were written during war-time and are profound and intense music.

Ralph Vaughan Williams – String Quartet No. 2 (‘for Jean on her birthday’)

Sir Edward Elgar – Piano Quintet in A minor Op. 84

To reflect the English nature of the concert, there will be Pimms and Punch on sale from 6.30pm and during the interval. The bar will also be open after the concert to allow audience members to enjoy a drink with the performers.

Sunday 19th June, 7pm

‘Reason and Romance’

A solo concert by Penelope Roskell, juxtaposing the reason and intellect of J S Bach with the mercurial romance of Robert Schumann.

J S Bach – Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue

Robert Schumann – ‘Papillons’

J S Bach – French Suite No. 2 in C minor

J S Bach – Partita No. 5 in G

Robert Schumann – Piano Sonata No. 2 in G minor

Sparkling wine will be on sale with complimentary strawberries and cream in the courtyard during the interval.

Sutton House, a National Trust House in Hackney, is a really lovely venue. I was very impressed the first time I visited, two year’s ago, both by the quality of the performances, and the commitment and support of the audience.

For more information and online booking go to www.shms.org.uk