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An Interview with Penelope Roskell: Part 2

I am very happy to be working with a number of guest experts who will be contributing to the Online Academy when it launches in September. I now continue my conversation with Penelope Roskell, acclaimed pianist and teacher, professor of piano at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, London and expert on healthy piano playing and injury prevention and cure. Penelope will be contributing a number of resources to the Online Academy – covering topics such as warming up, yoga, posture, fingering, healthy playing and injury prevention. Here is the second part of our interview (part 1 is available here). You have created a DVD on Yoga for Musicians – could you say a bit about this and why you consider yoga is important? When I first started studying yoga in a class, the general health benefits were obvious, but I struggled to see how it could be related to piano playing.  I also struggled with many of the more extreme postures as they often required more flexibility than I as a Westerner had. I later spent some time with an excellent private teacher exploring how the principles of yoga could be applied to piano playing and then distilled some of these thoughts into my DVD. I have now nearly finished writing a book more specifically about all aspects of piano playing, based on holistic principles. You have also written a book on piano fingering: how does that relate to your interest in holistic playing? I have always been fascinated by fingering, and the positive effect that good fingerings can have on our interpretation of a piece. Many years ago, I realised that a lot of the fingerings that we have all been traditionally taught are not ergonomic […]

By |July 21st, 2016|Uncategorized|1 Comment

An Interview with Penelope Roskell: Part 1

I am working with a number of guest experts who will be contributing to the Online Academy. This is the first in a series of interviews in which I’ll be giving guest experts an opportunity to introduce themselves and their work to our readers.  I’m delighted to be speaking with Penelope Roskell, acclaimed pianist and teacher, professor of piano at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, London and expert on healthy piano playing and injury prevention and cure. Because Penelope has so much interesting and useful information to give, the interview will be in two parts (with the second part coming next week). Penelope will be contributing a number of resources to the Online Academy – covering topics such as warming up, yoga, posture, fingering, healthy playing and injury prevention. Healthy playing and injury prevention are specific areas of focus for you in your career both as a teacher and performer. Can you tell us how this came about? When I was about twenty, I suffered from tenosynovitis (painful inflammation of the thumb tendon sheath) after practising Liszt’s second piano concerto with a faulty octave technique. I learnt the hard way that there was a limit to how much pressure my hands could take. At that time I couldn’t find anyone who could help me, so I started on a long journey of exploration, searching for a technique that didn’t cause further pain. I discovered to my delight that each time I adapted my technique it not only benefitted my thumb, it also improved my sound, general dexterity and expressiveness. I still continue to experiment, both with my own playing and with students, and find that the exercises I have devised help students as much […]

Arpeggiation in Piano Playing

I once attended a piano recital where the pianist continually broke the hands, so that the right hand sounded slightly after the left. He did this consistently with all the repertoire on his programme regardless of its period, and after a very short time indeed this had become a major distraction to me. I found I was unable to enjoy the music or appreciate the playing, it was irritating in the extreme. However, there was a time in the history of piano playing where this sort of desynchronisation of the hands was actually part of style. If you were trained in Leipzig in the nineteenth century you would certainly have done this without giving it a second thought, as well as arpeggiating chords at the drop of a hat. Here is Carl Reinecke in a piano roll recorded in 1905 of the Larghetto from Mozart’s K537. How times change – this style of playing, while prevalent at the time, would simply not be acceptable nowadays. If this style were based on performance traditions from Mozart’s day, you might expect modern fortepianists to have picked up on it. This cleanly articulated performance by Malcolm Bilson shows otherwise; it is (mercifully) free of such excesses (listen from 13:47). Last week I wrote about how Beethoven himself spread the opening chord in his Fourth Piano Concerto. In the Baroque period, keyboard players routinely rolled chords for expressive purposes –  either slow or fast, downwards as well as upwards. There were signs to indicate this (the wavy lines we are accustomed to today or slashes through note stems), but in music from this period you can spread chords even in the absence of such indications. On the harpsichord, a chord played dead together gives a […]

Czerny Says You Can!

Have you ever pondered how many teaching hours in the course of piano teaching history have been devoted to certain famous passages from the repertoire? How much time, how much blood, sweat and tears have gone into the short introduction to Chopin’s G minor Ballade, for example? I am usually unimpressed when I hear an awe-struck student recount how their teacher spent a whole lesson on just the first phrase, sometimes even on one bar – or one chord! Is this something to be respected and admired, or is it an ego trip on the part of the teacher and actually a colossal waste of lesson time? Some places in the piano repertoire are so loaded with historic angst and baggage that the teacher feels the weight of tradition and, instead of just giving some suggestions or a few specific directions based on what the student might want to do with the passage, spouts forth from on high. No matter how well the student plays, the teacher has his or her prescription and is darned well going to pass it on. Chances are an hour spent thus on a bar of music will forever burden the student, making them feel they are never going to be able to reproduce what the teacher wanted. They will always feel unworthy – jinxed, even. Don’t get me wrong – there is no substitute for incredibly detailed and painstaking work at the piano, sitting hour upon hour day after day in our practice striving to get something just right. However, we all know that there is no such thing as the one perfect interpretation of any piece, and that great art allows a multitude of possibilities. You only have to listen to a number of different recordings […]

No Stopping!

I recently gave a consultation lesson to a diploma candidate, who told me at the end it was the most illuminating lesson he had ever had. I couldn’t think why, so I asked him. He said he had never played his pieces through from beginning to end without stopping. Apparently, his teacher stopped him every time there was a mistake, or something that needed to be corrected, improved or tweaked. It used to take ages to get through a piece this way, and what made matters worse was he took this approach home into his practice. Every time something didn’t go according to plan (real or imagined) there was this Pavlovian response to take his hands off the keyboard. All I did was to allow him to replicate the conditions of his diploma (or indeed any performance) by committing to a start-to-finish, come-what-may, warts-and-all performance. Hardly rocket science. I explained that if he doesn’t practise performing for himself and then in front of others he will never know what it feels like. Effectively, he won’t ever have practised his exam. Practising is a complex and often indefinable art. On the one hand if we don’t stop to attend to repeated uncontrolled or inexpressive playing, won’t we be ingraining it all? On the other hand stopping, especially in the same old places we’re not happy with, sets up unhelpful reflexes that can be hard to eliminate later. The Solution With new pieces in Stage 1 of the learning process, I advocate controlled stops (this is a subject for another post). With pieces that are ready to play through, we make a decision before we start practising whether we are going to stop. If we decide we will stop, […]

Improve Your Thumb Technique

Wouldn’t it be great if Nature had designed our hands with the fingers in reverse order? If the “strong” thumb were on the outside of the hand and the “weak” pinky on the inside, we would easily be able to project melody lines –  supporting them with effortless basses and a suitably light harmonic filling in the middle. But it is actually possible to make the pinky strong and the thumb light and flexible. I would like to share a few ideas on this subject today. I have included the video demonstration I made for Pianist Magazine at the end of the this post, so please don’t worry if the verbiage that follows is a little difficult to follow – all is revealed in the video! The thumb can be a great ally or an enemy – depending on how we use it. In brief, the thumb has two phalanges (proximal and distal) and eight muscles, acting in groups. It can move in several different ways – straight up and down, stretching out laterally (abduction), moving in towards the hand (adduction), as well as moving under the palm to the tips of the fingers (opposition). It can also make grasping and circular movements. When I move my thumb freely, I feel the movement at the base of the thumb, at the wrist. The thumb connects to the keyboard on the tip by the nail (rather than on its flat side), forming an arch with the 5th finger in chords and octaves. If you want to investigate the anatomy of the hand applied to piano playing, I can highly recommend Thomas Mark’s excellent book, What Every Pianist Needs to Know about the Body. If you’ve heard of the book and have been debating whether to get it, click on the link and go ahead and order (and no, […]

On Pedalling, Slow Practice and Practical Theory

I’ve recently run a survey to find out what repertoire you would like to see me feature in blog articles, annotated study editions and in the Online Academy which I’m currently working on. This survey was a follow-on from an open-ended survey I ran in January which covered both repertoire and topics. My team has analysed the responses and we would like to take the opportunity now to let you know what the most popular topics were. The first question asked what specific areas of technique you would like me to address, and the most popular requests were: Pedalling Ornaments Learning complex, irregular rhythms The next question asked which specific areas of practising you would like to see covered in more detail, and the most popular responses were: Slow practice Quarantining Memorisation I also asked about other topics not currently covered on our blog or within our eBook series, and the following have come up: Practical theory and harmony Injury prevention and healthy playing Improvisation and playing by ear Many thanks to everyone who responded, your feedback is very much appreciated and I will be incorporating it into the content for the Online Academy. I have already taken a number of your suggestions on board, and I am busy working on materials that feature them. Here are some of things I am working on right now: Various articles on The Practice Tools, with video demonstrations and cross references to the repertoire you have chosen. Have you ever wondered how you are going to fill in the gaps in your understanding of theory and harmony? You know you need to know more, and you would be willing to take a course but you just can’t seem to find the right one. I am addressing this […]

Securing a Fast Passage

The other day I was practising Chopin’s 3rd Scherzo, a piece I have played regularly over the years. Because I haven’t touched it in a while, I found it needed a bit of dusting off and some cobwebs removing before I could get it back into shape and find the sparkle and security it needs for performance. The obvious thing was to go back to some slow practice, and this is great of course. But because slow practice is only part of the story, I decided to work on the coda (from Tempo 1 below) by mixing up slow practice with up-to-speed playing. I’ll explain in a moment how this works. With extended fast passages such as this coda, it’s not just finger control we need but of also control of rhythm. It’s so important to know, and to feel, where the first beats of each bar come – even if we don’t want to end up emphasising or accenting them as such. In music in fast triple time, we often feel each bar as one beat of a larger 4-bar unit. We can of course count it “123, 123, 123, 123″, etc. (fine at slower tempos) but at speed it is more natural to feel “1 (23), 2 (23), 3 (23), 4 (23)” or (more simply) “1 2 3 4“. Here are the stages I recommend: At a slow speed, count aloud each crotchet (quarter note) beat, emphasising the first beats. At a medium speed, count aloud the first beats of each bar according to the longer phrase structure (“1 2 3 4“), emphasising the 1s. When this is easy, begin alternating two tempos – fast and half speed – in a controlled and methodical way. Be […]

Rediscovering Bach’s Prelude in C

The C major Prelude from Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C (Book 1 of the WTC) is very familiar to us all. This beautiful progression of harmony in broken chord texture continues to inspire generations of keyboard players. Here it is as a chorale. Play it first as solid chords – faster than Bach’s broken patterns allow – to get a stronger sense of the progression in this pure form. If you’re uncertain how to play this Prelude expressively, all you have to do is feel the rising and falling levels of intensity implied by the harmonic progression. This map from Siglind Bruhn’s analysis of the work is a useful guide. For those who have a knack for improvisation, see what you can make from these harmonies. French Romantic composer Charles Gounod’s Ave Maria consists of a melody especially designed to be superimposed over the Prelude – and very beautiful it is too! Perhaps you can come up with something of your own? Here is Rami Bar-Niv’s inventive and amusing Etude-Vocalise on the C major Prelude Transpose I am working with an especially talented and ambitious young student who, if he is going to readily assimilate the mainstream repertoire he is destined to play, needs to develop his harmonic awareness as well as general musicianly skills at this stage of his development. Part of the work we are doing is transposition – a skill I wish my own teachers had stressed more, and one that I feel is indispensable to aural training, general musicianship and as a specific pianistic tool for memory work and solving technical problems. I tend to push this with those who are capable of, and willing to embrace it. Not everyone is, but this particular student […]

Study Edition Survey – The Results Are In!

Many thanks to everyone who completed our recent study edition survey, your input is very much appreciated and provides invaluable input as we plan the content for the Practising the Piano Online Academy. We’ve run through all your responses, and here is some feedback on the results of the survey. The top five list doesn’t hold too many surprises – with Beethoven having two entries: Beethoven Pathétique Sonata Debussy Clair de lune Chopin Ballade No. 1 Rachmaninoff Prelude in C-sharp Minor Beethoven Moonlight Sonata Just behind the Moonlight Sonata was Grieg’s Nocturne and Schubert’s Impromptu in G-flat Major. Chopin was one of the most popular composers although a large number of his works were featured in the original list to begin with. In addition to the Ballade, the Fantasie Impromptu, Etude Op. 10 No. 1, Nocturne in C-sharp Minor Op. Post. and Raindrop Prelude were among the most popular works overall. There were also a few surprises in that there was less support for Brahms, Scarlatti and Mozart than expected (his most popular works were the Fantasie in D minor and Sonata in B-flat). In addition to the format questions in the survey, we’ve also received a number of suggestions that we will definitely take into consideration in our content planning.  These include featuring more works by Brahms and Liszt, more of the Chopin Etudes, works from lower grades and Etudes by Scriabin which we have not included to date. While we won’t be featuring all of the works in the list as complete annotated study editions, we will be using many of them as examples for illustrating various topics in the Online Academy.  We may also feature specific aspects of a work in Online Academy lessons (e.g. […]

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