Penelope Roskell is Professor of Piano and Pedagogy at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London and the UK specialist in pianists’ injuries. She is the author of the award-winning book The Complete Pianist: from healthy technique to natural artistry. She has recently been focussing on producing further resources for teachers, including an online course ‘Teaching healthy, expressive technique’ and a series of books on technique for young pianists (publ. Peters Edition, spring 2023). See www.peneloperoskell.co.uk for more details.
Penelope it’s wonderful to have you here with us at The Piano Teacher today. Can you share with us how you came to teaching as a profession?
Well, I’ve always combined playing and teaching. I started teaching when I was at school, helping my classmates get through their exams. I also taught while I was going through music college. It’s always been an important part of my life. I’ve always liked to teach a wide range of students; different ages, different levels and, in more recent years, I’ve been helping a lot of musicians who’ve suffered from injuries.
Your book “The Complete Pianist” is a magnificent resource for pianists and teachers. It is so thorough, covering healthy technique, natural artistry, and healthy and inspired performance in its 558 pages! How long did it take to write?
It took me ten years to prepare, and five years to write. So,15 years altogether.
That’s a long-term project! What was your intention when you wrote it?
I was very aware that I had, over my lifetime of playing and teaching, developed a huge amount of knowledge and experience that many students and teachers didn’t have. I really wanted to pass that on to the next generations. I especially wanted to share my knowledge of holistic playing. If you’re playing in a well-coordinated way, it will keep your hands healthy, but it will also make your playing much better. The sound is better, you feel freer emotionally as well as technically.
Many excellent teachers and pianists before me have written wonderful books, but the problem with older books is that, without video, some of the technical detail can be hard for the reader to understand. Piano playing is about movement and sound, which is difficult to convey with just words. I decided right from the start that I wanted my book to contain videos which would show the movement and how it affects the sound in a very clear way. That was a very important element of the book. By scanning a QR code, the reader gets taken straight to the video demonstration. There are 300 little videos demonstrating the various elements in the book.
There are many schools of thought around technique. In the development of this book, what has informed your research to come to such a holistic perspective?
I had some excellent teachers who came from a great lineage. They taught me a huge amount about musicianship but none of them really went into a great deal of depth about how to create the sound. Like many other students at that time, I felt I was left rather on my own to work out my own technique.
I set off on my ‘holistic’ journey as a student when I was practising Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto. I practised and practised the octaves in a very ill-advised way, with poor technique, and I hurt my right thumb. It was a significant injury – I had to take some months off from my studies and I needed to continue to avoid challenging octave passages for several years after that. At that time no piano teacher seemed to be able to help me. I realised that the only way I was going to get through this was by working it out for myself. I started to study some holistic methods, particularly yoga and Alexander technique at that stage, then later also Tai Chi, the Feldenkrais method and Pilates. I found these helped me understand how to use my body more naturally and more effectively. The next task was to work out how to translate this knowledge into how we use our body at the piano. For many years I just experimented on my own, with the help of a yoga teacher and an osteopath. Then I started trying things out with students. If something worked well with lots of students, I would write an article about it. This started to build up a body of useful resources that other pianists could access.
It wasn’t until much later that I started to compare the research I was doing with other schools of thought (such as the Taubman approach). I found that there were many similarities but also that some aspects of our approach were very different. We each come to it from a different angle with our own personal interpretation, which has developed over many many years of playing and teaching. I think it’s important to have a variety of different approaches – together they all help to build greater understanding of piano playing.
We’re very lucky to be able to learn from your experience as well! Who did you write this book for?
I originally thought it was aimed at pianists from late intermediate up to professional level, and for teachers of pianists of all levels. However, I’ve heard from a lot of beginners that they have found it very useful. They may not be reading it all from cover to cover but rather dipping in to the chapters that they find most interesting. Even a seven-year-old student of mine has been reading some sections with her mother! So the book seems to be of interest to all pianists and I know a number of harpsichordists and organists have also found it helpful.
How would you suggest teachers use the book?
I think it’s entirely up to you. Many pianists start at page one and work their way through, but if you prefer you could use it as a reference book that you dip in and out of. If you have a problem in your own playing, say playing octaves, you could go straight to that chapter. You can watch the videos, try the exercises and then start to put the technique into practice in the particular passage that you were having difficulty with. If you’re a teacher and one of your students has a problem, you could go to that section in the book to help you find effective solutions.
I have found that some people feel a little bit overwhelmed at the size of the book at first as they don’t know where to start. So in that case, just think about what you need at the moment, or what your student needs most and start with those sections.
How is the book structured?
It’s structured slightly differently from traditional books which mostly start from finger touch.
I feel if we start by teaching pure finger touch, especially if it’s mainly around the middle C area, students can start to feel very tense and constricted, which can lead to tension and possibly more serious problems later on. In my approach to teaching, we develop freedom of movement by making broad movements first. So in the book I discussed the bigger picture first – aspects or playing such as sitting posture, warming up, whole arm gestures – before coming to the details of finger touch.
Each section starts with a warm-up which often involves a big movement away from the piano initially. I then put that into practice in some very simple exercises at the piano, which lead on to some musical examples of different levels of difficulty.
In the musicianship section, I talk about many different aspects such as phrasing, quality of sound, texture, rhythm, performance, anxiety, and practising. I wanted those concepts to come after the technique section so that pianists already had the technical wherewithal to realise these musical concepts with greater ease, better sound quality and greater physical freedom.
I didn’t want it to be a book that has hundreds of footnotes. I wanted to use language that would be easily understandable so the book would be accessible and straightforward for all pianists. I wanted to create the resource that I wish I’d had 40 years ago.
It’s a real gift to teachers and pianists to have access to your 40 years of experience, knowledge and research! Are there other resources you’ve created?
I’ve created the Roskell Academy which is an umbrella organisation for anybody who wants to explore this approach in more detail. One of the resources that we created last year was a video course called Teaching Healthy Expressive Piano Technique. It’s a series of nine hours of videos, focusing on how we teach all of the techniques put forth in the book. It covers teaching technique to beginner, intermediate and advanced pianists.
Another resource that I’m in the process of creating for Peters Edition is a new series of books for young beginners and intermediates. Teachers can use this series to introduce a healthy approach to technique right from the beginning stages. There are a lot of fun things in the books – warm-ups away from the piano, simple little exercises that they do at the piano and really great pieces that have been commissioned especially for the books. And again we’ve got videos to accompany them. I am trying to keep the language and design very child-friendly.
We also have a Facebook group where people can share ideas and teachers can study further to become accredited in this approach. It is still early days but very exciting for the Roskell Academy.