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)

Meet the Artist interview with Penelope Roskell

Guest post by Gil Jetley, pianist, teacher and director of Music Holiday Italy

Whilst putting on his music critic’s hat, George Bernard Shaw once declared with great wisdom that the primary function of a conductor is to beat time.  

Er, yeah – I think we might have guessed that!  

But maybe not in the way he meant. You see, he meant that in beating time the conductor was setting the tempo – his point being that for any given work there is one tempo which is right. And other tempos (or tempi, if you must) which are not.  

With this view I largely agree; but it doesn’t only apply to orchestras. It seems to me these days that many pianists, even those great virtuosos that should know better, often play much too fast (and sometimes too slow).

If it’s too fast the sense of the music becomes unintelligible, a meaningless gabble of sound. No chance for it to breath or convey an expansive thought. And because the professionals do it, so too do too many students. Often for no better reason than because they can. There’s no doubting the phenomenal technical skills of the present generation – if measured in accuracy and speed (and one might add volume!) it’s very probably considerably higher than ever before. But since when did music become an Olympic event?

The same applies at the other extreme – taken too slow all sense of continuity, line, and phrase are lost. I recall a memorable masterclass with Andras Schiff where he parodied a famous colleague by playing ultra slow with hugely ‘expansive’ rests and declaring, “You see, I am so profound because I am so slow. The slower I get, the more profound I become!” (The movement in question, in case you are interested, was the Adagio from Beethoven Sonata

GBS was right – for any given work there is a tempo that is right for the musical sense, and the tolerable range either side of that tempo is not very great. A true musician would be unable to bring himself to step beyond those boundaries. Even with the likes of Argerich and Yuja Wang, one might occasionally ask, ‘Well yes, most impressive, exhilarating, astonishing even, but is that really what the music means to you?’ Or one might put the opposite question to Baremboim. But never either to Wilhlem Kempff.

Related to that, I have two students preparing works at opposite ends of technical demands – one has the gently introspective Schumann ‘Scenes from Childhood’ and the other the mighty Bach/Busoni Chaconne. From the Schumann, a classic example of an excess of “tempo-induced-profundity” destroying the continuity is the genuinely profound final item, The Poet Speaks. But others in the set too (‘Dreaming’, ‘Almost too Serious’, ‘Child falling Asleep’) are equally at risk of being taken too literally!

In fact, if one is to perform the whole set it is rather nice to find an overall idea of tempo that works for all the pieces. That’s not to say they should all be played at one consistent tempo, but that there can be some feeling that the tempo of each individual piece is in harmony with that of the others. Without a shadow of doubt, the whole work is SO much more satisfying to hear in this way. And surely it’s more in keeping with Schumann’s intention, which was not to write instructional pieces for children, but an adult’s reflection of childhood.

Now much more controversially (oh goody!) let’s consider the Bach/Busoni Chaconne. Yes, we all know this is about how Bach, with astounding ingenuity, restated the same basic idea 64 times without ever repeating himself. But the Chaconne is absolutely not simply a set of variations – and that applies even more to Busoni (in this particular case). Busoni’s Chaconne is not a mere piano arrangement of an original violin solo. Even calling it a transcription belittles it. It’s substantially more than that; in fact, it’s a total reconstruction. The initial basic thought of Bach has been dismantled down to its very essence – and then reassembled in multilayered permutations (64 times), but using the entire resources of a new and foreign instrument of very different capabilities.

Yet how often it is played as nothing but a set of variations, complete with preposterous drama-filled fluctuations of tempo ranging from “profoundly” stately to undignified scramble. Such thoughtlessness utterly destroys the integrity of the massive edifice Busoni constructed.

Andante maestoso, as the score is headed, is hardly a license for extreme “profundity”. Nor does Più vivo at the end provide an excuse to suddenly double or even treble the pulse. It doesn’t help that Busoni plastered throughout the score multiple expressive indications which many students (and so-called great pianists) choose to interpret as grandiose tempo variations. They are not. They are clarifications of where the music is going. In most cases the required shift in emphasis Busoni has already provided with a change in register, dynamics, or note values. Subtle inflections of tempo, to ‘go with the flow’, are surely all he meant.

There is only one pianist I have heard who’s managed to find a unified tempo that serves the entire 64 restatements in all their variety. His name is Konstantin Scherbakov, and when the work is played in that way it takes on a dignity, a majesty, an Almighty-inspired truth. It becomes so powerful that pianist and audience together cannot help but bask in sense of fatherly approval from J.S.Bach himself. Not for nothing has it been said of Scherbakov’s playing “As if there were no other interpretation.” (Frankfurter Allgemeine).  

And wouldn’t we all like that to be said of us! 🙂 
Read other insightful posts by Gil Jetley at

Guest post by Javen Ling, founder of Alternate Tone Music School, Singapore


“I do not have the potential to be a great pianist as I don’t have long, slender fingers”

Long, slender fingers do not necessarily make you a better pianist. While longer fingers may be an advantage in playing certain repertoire with large stretches, short, fat fingers are also an advantage when it comes to playing other music

Some of the world’s greatest pianists have small hands and stubby fingers. Instead of worrying about how your genetics have not provided you with your ideal fingers, start to work developing your technique and learn to accept your physical limitations. If a piece of music is not particularly well-suited to your hand, find a way to work around it. Every pianist eventually has to learn to live with their limitations and adapt to them.

Great pianists come in all shapes and sizes. There is no specific type of finger size or length that determines your potential.

“When I start learning a new piece, I should work from the beginning to the end”

Typically, most people will learn the piece from beginning to end and continuously practice until they can play the entire piece well. The problem with this method is having the discipline to push forward when music gets harder to play. As you approach a section that you’re unfamiliar with, you might be tempted to stray away from that and repeat the part in which you are comfortable with, rather than working on the difficult sections.

The most efficient way is to learn the most difficult sections first. This allows you to spend more time on the most difficult sections, rather than avoiding them or leaving them until later in your practicing. Thus when you start learning a new piece, scan through the composition, and determine which section/s appears the most difficult and start working on it first. As you become familiar with the harder section, you will tend to practice it more and under practice the easier sections.

“I don’t see any need to practice hands separately”

Professional pianists continue to practice hands separately even after playing a piece for 25 years or more! Many people are usually taught to practice hand separately first in order to reach their end goal of playing their hands together.

The benefit of practicing your hands separately is that you can focus on note-learning, technical sections and nuances of voicing and phrasing that might be overlooked if you practice hands together. So don’t forget about practicing separately once passed the initial phase of learning a passage. Use it as a tool to polish and improve your playing.

“Never look down at your hands when playing”

Most piano teachers encourage their students not to look at their hands. Firstly, this activity can slow down their learning, especially sight-reading skills as it inhibits them from looking ahead in the score. Secondly, students should not be too reliant on looking at their hands to find the right keys. Thirdly, the action of continually looking up at the sheet music and down at your hands can make you dizzy and might make it difficult to keep track of where you are at in the music.

An occasional glance down at the hands is PERFECTLY FINE. The trick is to not move your head too vigorously, but rather to just glance down at your hands quickly before looking back up at the sheet. By that I mean keeping your head perfectly still and just look down your nose at your hands. Lastly, of course, you should know the sequence of the keys well enough to locate them easily!

“I can easily learn the piano on my own”

With YouTube and Google, it is easy to pick up any skill via the Internet.

You can certainly teach yourself about music theory, history and techniques via the internet; however, a teacher’s experience is invaluable in helping you to improve your playing skills and technique, and advise you on common mistakes. In the long run, this will probably save you time and accelerate your learning.

Many people think that by taking piano lessons you have to go through graded piano exams. That is not the case. It really depends on what you are looking for. If you are interested in becoming a piano teacher or a piano professional, then it is advisable to take exams and diplomas. However, if you just want to learn for leisure, you don’t need to take exams and you can play repertoire which you enjoy, whether classical music, jazz or pop. Alternate Tone music school in Singapore specialises in teaching contemporary music and offers personalised lessons, which means you get to play your favourite music no matter what level you’re at!

If you’re still convinced you can get there without any professional help, that’s absolutely fine! There are many great and talented musicians who did not undergo any formal training. But in my opinion, the piano is definitely harder to learn on your own because of the structure of the instrument and its repertoire. If your goal is to play well, I definitely recommend having a good piano teacher to guide you through your piano studies.

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The world of classical music is riven with conventions from the way we dress to the manner in which music is presented in public and when it is acceptable to applaud. Many of these customs developed in the second half of the nineteenth century when concertising became far more formalised. These conventions can seem restrictive and limiting, to both players and audience, but they exist and therefore we are largely obliged to work within them. The profession has its mavericks and colourful characters who kick against The System, but in general most of us abide by the “rules” to a greater or lesser extent – and there are good reasons for this. Our behaviour, from the way we market ourselves and interact with others in the profession to what we wear at concerts and how we deport ourselves on stage, in addition to how we play, is constantly under scrutiny by peers, audience members, promoters, agents, teachers, mentors and critics.

We are all being judged, whether we like it or not, when we work with others and when we perform. That is not to say that everyone should knuckle down and follow the directives of the conductor, nor engage in discussion with conductor and colleagues – and good colleagues and conductors will be open-minded and keen to discuss points which arise in rehearsal. But an ensemble or orchestra is a “team” and respecting the team dynamic and working with it rather than against it will lead to a happier working environment, good performances, and future work. In reality, while some may want to strike out and do something original and creative, such behaviour does not pay the bills, and freelance musicians have to be pragmatic as well as disciplined.

One may argue that soloists have greater freedom to buck the system and to play with spontaneity and originality, and while this is true up to a point, we are still bound by conventions. There are, for example, established ways of playing Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin et al, conventions which develop and change over time, reflecting historical precedents, new scholarship, differing attitudes to interpretation and teaching, and the influence of recordings. If anything, the way the big warhorses of the solo repertoire are presented in concert today is more standardised than ever as soloists, particularly younger ones, believe that they must play these works in a certain way to satisfy audiences, critics and promoters, not to mention the influence of high-quality recordings. With so much music being performed and so many concerts of largely the same repertoire, it can be hard to find an individual voice, and if you are playing the same programme across three continents for six months, it can begin to feel like a chore rather than a joy.

So how do we bring spontaneity, originality and individuality to our performances? Paradoxically, it is the very discipline of practising which brings freedom in performance. When we perform, we want our performance to be engaging and memorable (ideally, for the right reasons) for our listeners. The work we do in private, in the practise room, is crucial in enabling us to pull off a performance which is accurate, faithful to the score, imaginative, colourful, expressive and personal. No one, not even the greatest pianist in the world, gets by on talent alone. That talent has to be nurtured, honed and finessed, and the only way to do this is through regular and consistent work on one’s craft. Discipline turns ability into achievement.

Knowing we are well-prepared means we can step back from the music in performance, not over-think it, play “in the moment”, and produce a performance which is special, memorable and unique. In effect, one needs two personalities in order to be a convincing  performer: a perfectionist in the practise room and a “bohemian” (Stephen Hough) on stage. This sprezzatura, the result of many hours of careful, deep practising, allows the bohemian in us to be set free on stage. Audiences can sense this confidence too – just as they can tell when the performer is under-prepared, or is trying out something new which has not been road-tested in advance.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I attend many concerts and hear a wide variety of performers and repertoire, from well-established international artists such as Stephen Hough, Murray Perahia and Steven Osborne to lesser-known and young musicians. I can usually tell if a performer is not wholly convinced about his or her approach to particular repertoire, has not spent enough time with it or has been told to play in a certain way by a teacher or promoter. The playing lacks conviction and depth and sounds contrived or artificial. Occasionally someone comes along and does something new or unexpected with a Beethoven Sonata or Chopin’s Etudes, and if it is done with conviction, one has the sense of a performer who is well-prepared and who has spent many hours living with and thinking about the music. Such “wow!” moments are quite rare, but when they happen they are truly magical. Equally, a musician who has spent many years living with and performing the same repertoire can bring new and wonderful things to the music every time he or she performs it. A long association with certain repertoire also enables one to step back from it and set it – and one’s imagination – free.


The title of this post is a quote from Aristotle

Further reading

You Can’t Win a Performance….

Cavaliers and Roundheads





Pianist and teacher Andrew Eales introduces his new blog:


Pianodao is my new blog site launching Saturday 1st August 2015.

Built around the metaphor of piano playing as a lifetime journey, the site will focus on our musical and creative development as well as on our personal well-being: mind, body and spirit.

Pianists usually find that self-evaluation is crucial to their progress and musical development. When I started teaching piano I quickly also realised that one of the best ways I can improve is to continuously reflect on my teaching practice and student response. Pianodao takes this basic principle and places that process of reflection and evaluation within a much broader context – our journey through life.

When teaching I continue to observe that many of the problems and issues that I and my students grapple with have very little to do with our pianism and musical understanding, and far more to do with our physical limitations, tension, mental state and internal beliefs.

We all have a life outside of our piano playing, and it is clearly worthwhile considering the connections between our experience of life and our ongoing musical development. But where do we start? When it comes to considering those connections, I believe that the wisdom teachings of Dao (or “Taoism”) can offer a uniquely powerful and insightful approach.

Pianodao will have five main sections:

The Pianist’s Path focuses on specifics of how we learn, play, teach and help others develop as pianists. I hope to explore what it means to be a pianist in today’s world. There will also be articles about developing our creativity and performing with confidence and enjoyment.

The Pianist’s Well-being takes a broader look at our lives – our inner beliefs, physical health, and general lifestyle. This section will consider powerful quotes from great musicians past and present, as well as the teachings of wise thinkers ancient and modern.

Piano Qigong will offer suggestions for applying qigong practice to the needs of piano players, developing into a free resource offering simple breathing and stretching movements and exercises suitable for people of all ages and fitness levels. This part of the site will go live sometime before Christmas this year.

Interviews with pianists about their journey as players will focus on the obstacles they have faced and overcome in order to move forward on their path.

Music & Reviews complete the site, providing a space to share news and comment about resources that will hopefully be of interest to readers.

Pianodao is ultimately a record of my own journey, but I hope that in sharing I will encourage others. Making connections between my experiences as a pianist and teacher, my practice of qigong and interest in the wisdom of Dao, I hope to offer insights which will bring clarity to your own “Way of Piano”.

Please take a moment to visit and “follow” the blog. Thanks!

Concert grand piano on the stage at London’s Wigmore Hall (picture source The Guardian)

This post was prompted by this question from a friend: “How has reviewing piano concerts influenced your own playing?”.

In the 18 months I’ve been reviewing for Bachtrack, I’ve been to many excellent solo piano and chamber recitals, given by top international artists, and lesser-known, or up-and-coming artists too, at venues large and small. Reviewing has been a way of indulging my passion for piano music, while also being allowed to write about it, and, I hope, share my passion with others. When I select concerts to review, I tend to make choices largely based on repertoire rather than performer, though this year I have made one or two deliberate choices to hear certain performers, out of curiosity, namely Yuja Wang and Benjamin Grosvenor. I also wanted to hear again Marc-André Hamelin and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and for the first time, Noriko Ogawa.

I often urge my students to go to concerts for “inspiration” (sadly, few of them take up my suggestion). There is something very special about live music, and seeing and hearing a professional musician at work can be illuminating and inspiring – and sometimes just jaw-droppingly extraordinary (in the case of Hamelin). You don’t experience that same excitement from hearing music, however expertly played, on disc, as you do in the concert hall. You can listen to a disc any number of times, but in the concert hall, it’s an entirely unique experience – for performer and audience. I’ve heard a couple of pianists in the same repertoire at different concerts, and after a pause of several years, and have been surprised, and excited, at the changes in the music. Not significant changes of interpretation, but small adjustments – a little more rubato here, some subtle shading or tenuto there – which shine a new light on the works or highlight different aspects. As a performer, it is these flashes of illumination and insight that make performing such an interesting and exciting experience, aside from the cultural gift of sharing music with others.

I couldn’t really claim that any particular concert or performer has directly informed my playing, but occasionally I’ve considered some of my repertoire in a new way after hearing it in concert. One is unlikely to pick up any nuggets of technique in the concert hall: you’re often too far away from the stage to see details, but listening attentively is helpful, particularly for pedalling. It’s amazing how many pro pianists don’t seem to know how to pedal properly, or who use the pedal as some kind of on-off switch to hide mistakes or inconsistencies of technique. I’ve been doing a lot of work on refining my pedal technique this year, specifically with regard to Mozart’s Rondo in A minor K511 (which requires very minimal pedal), so I have a heightened sensitivity about sloppy or inconsistent pedalling! Peter Donohoe, in his early spring concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall, gave a fantastic demonstration of how to pedal Debussy effectively in his performance of Estampes (read my review here). It was an enlightening and expert performance.

Similarly, hearing Noriko Ogawa play Toru Takemitsu’s evocative Rain Tree Sketch II, a piece dedicated to Olivier Messiaen, and full of Messiaenic echoes in its colourful tonalities and ‘flashes’, was very illuminating. I had just started looking at the piece when I went to hear Noriko in a lunchtime concert at the Wigmore featuring this piece and Debussy’s Études. To hear the work performed live by one of the composer’s compatriots, who clearly has a profound understanding of his work, was special enough, but the beauty and refinement of Noriko’s playing made this a truly spectacular five minutes of music for me. I went home to practise the piece with an excitement and enthusiasm, which has remained every time I open the score or indeed think about the work.

A really vibrant or emotionally powerful performance of a piece I am working on will often send me home to study the score in detail away from the piano, or may encourage me to try something new or different. I’ve stopped trying to copy what the pros do – the frustrated concert pianist within has long since been put to bed, and I now concentrate on trying to bring my own interpretation to the music – but a well-executed performance of some of my repertoire may force me to raise my game, always a good thing, especially when one has been working on the same repertoire for a long time.

I think the best aspect of reviewing is the exposure to a such great variety of music, and this is probably the most significant influence on my own playing. My reporter’s notebook, and the black Moleskine notebook I keep by the piano for practising notes, are full of lists of repertoire I’ve heard in concert and mean to learn one day. Here’s a small sample, in no particular order, with a note of where I heard the work:

Liszt – Bénediction de Dieu dans la solitude (Proms 2011, Marc-André Hamelin)

Liszt – Legende: St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots (Proms 2011 – Marc-André Hamelin)

Debussy – Les soirs illumine de l’ardeur du charbon (Proms 2012 – Pierre-Laurent Aimard)

Copland – Muted & Sensuous from Four Piano Blues (Peter Jablonski, QEH 2012)

Bach, trans. Liszt – Prelude & Fugue in a minor BWV 543 (Khatia Buniatishvili, Wigmore 2011)

Bartok – Dirges, no. 4 Andante Assai (Aimard, QEH 2011)

Messiaen – any of the Catalogue d’Oiseaux (Aimard, QEH 2011)

At his spring concert at QEH, Leif Ove Andsnes played one of Rachmaninov’s opus 33 Études-Tableaux for an encore (C major) and in an instant I was hooked (those slavic open fifths!). Sadly, I had some difficulties with tension in my left arm when I attempted to play this one, so I switched to the g minor. I am also learning the E flat Etude-Tableau from the same opus. Together, these pieces form the close of my LTCL programme. Thank you, Leif!