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EPTA Netherlands interview with Penelope

Interview Penelope Roskell

Paul Weeren (PW): It is really a joy for me to have this interview with you about your work, and especially also about the book that you have written and has just had published – The Complete Pianist: from healthy technique to natural artistry. It is a wonderful book, I really enjoyed it and congratulate you on it. It must have been a lot of work writing it.

There are already many books about piano playing, about piano technique, about piano practicing. What made you decide to write your own book? What was so important to you that you felt a need to write yours?

Penelope Roskell (PR): There are several reasons. Firstly, I’ve acquired a lot of knowledge during my forty years as a teacher and I felt it was time to share that with other pianists and with teachers. 

Also when I was a young pianist, I had many questions about technique and about sound. I had a very clear vision of how I wanted to play the pieces, but I couldn’t always realize that vision in exactly the way I wanted, because I didn’t know how to. There are of course many excellent and inspiring books available – written by great pianists – but they don’t give the practical step-by-step guidance that I as a young pianist felt I needed. So I wanted to create a book that had really practical exercises and that answers all the questions that I used to have and that teachers and pianists still struggle with.

Also I wanted to create a book that was focused around videos. Piano playing is about movement which creates sound and unless you can actually see the movements and hear how they affect the sound, it’s difficult to be sure that you’ve understood the wording in a book correctly.  

PW: I can imagine.  Reading books on piano playing you sometimes think: “What does this person really mean? How should I do this?” I have spoken to several people about the books they have written and noticed they meant something completely different from what I though.

PR: Yes, that can happen, and I think video can help enormously.  The final reason is that I’ve been working for many years in injury prevention and in helping pianists recover from injury. I feel that a lot of experience and knowledge that I have acquired is very, very important for pianists, and especially teachers, to understand. So I wanted to put that knowledge out there and hopefully prevent a lot of injuries from happening in the future.

PW: You work with the British Association for Performance Arts Medicine as a piano advisor. You run a pianist clinic there with the hand surgeon Mark Phillips. What did you learn from that experience?

PR: That has been very valuable for me.  When pianists have tension problems or are injured and in pain, it’s very difficult for them to resolve it on their own. Firstly, they need to have a clear diagnosis from a medical professional. They may need some therapy from a hand physiotherapist or from an osteopath, and they may also need some advice on rehabilitation and prevention from an experienced piano teacher.  The great thing about our association here in the UK (we call it BAPAM for short) is that it brings together medical professionals and musicians.  This kind of dialogue and exchange of ideas is very much needed worldwide: the medical profession needs better understanding of the problems that pianists face at the instrument, and as a teacher I have found it really beneficial to have better understanding about anatomy and how the hands and arms function.  In our clinic Mark will clarify the diagnosis, send the pianist for tests if necessary and discuss possible treatment options.  Alongside that, I look at the pianist’s technique and maybe suggest some modifications which will help reduce pain and prevent it coming back.  I think both Mark and I have learnt a lot from working together in this clinic.

PW: So, when you do that kind of work, what are the most common causes for injuries that you have found? 

PR: Some injuries are caused by activities that have nothing to do with piano playing, such as a sport or gardening, or a bad fall. A pianist might have had a physical illness or disability such as arthritis that causes the pain – that all needs to be ascertained first.

But if it is a piano related injury, I find that there are some recurring habits that tend to trigger or exacerbate an existing problem. One of the first things is how we practise. Often pain arises after pianists suddenly increase their practice time to meet a new deadline, or when they start working on a very challenging piece that they are not quite ready for.  They may also rush into practice without any warm-up, and then practise for very long periods. Probably the most important thing is to have frequent breaks. The doctors actually recommend that we should have a 10-minute break every 20 minutes. Whenever I say this to pianists, they gasp, because we all know that it may take us 20 minutes before we’re fully warmed up and immersed in our playing. The way I interpret this advice is that we need to vary our practice. So if we’ve done some difficult technical work in the left hand, we need to give the left hand a bit of a rest while we do something in the right hand. Or we might stop playing for a short time and do some mental work, perhaps studying the score, doing some memorizing or working out some fingering. We may just have a break and a cup of coffee or do some stretches. Or we may go from a faster piece into a slower piece – or a very loud piece into something much more quiet.  In this way we avoid working on very challenging technique for long periods, which can cause the muscles to tense up and eventually lead to fatigue and pain.

PW: And, perhaps even more importantly, how can you prevent those injuries?

There are aspects of technique, which I think are very important to learn, which can help to prevent injury. The first important point to consider is that everybody uses too much effort. For instance, when playing chords, many pianists press into the keys much too heavily and even continue pressing after they have played the notes. One of the main exercises I teach, which I call the Parachute touch, shows how to depress the key using a controlled use of gravity (which is effortless), followed by complete release of any pressure of the keybed. 

Secondly, I think that pianists are not sufficiently aware of the dangers of stretching for long periods, especially if you’ve got smaller hands or only average-sized hands. A lot of big Romantic pieces are written by, and for, pianists with very large hands – and yet most teachers are teaching students with quite small hands.  We have to avoid giving young students pieces that include octaves until they are ready for that. When they do start to work on octaves, we need to teach them to relax the tension and the stretch between octaves, so the hand alternates between opening out and then closing back to its normal position. 

And thirdly, a lot of pianists have been trained in the traditional system where pianists work almost exclusively at developing finger strength.  This can result in a very rigid finger movement, and a tense wrist and elbow.  They may think they are working their fingers independently, but what they are actually doing is dissociating their fingers from the rest of the arm. This in fact restricts the finger movement and makes the fingers less independent. Whereas if we keep the elbow and wrist very soft, then the fingers can move very freely – they feel light and yet strong. The playing feels much more effortless.

An important element of my approach to technique, is to coordinate the movement of the fingers with the movement of the arm.  For example to play forte, we use the stronger muscles of the upper arm and torso to support the fingers. To move laterally along the keyboard, we need to relax the elbow and move the whole arm from the shoulder. 

PW: Yes, that is very important – I encounter it a lot with my students. Too much effort, and a lot of separation between arm and fingers, instead of it all working together in a well-coordinated way.

PR: Yes.  I have done a lot of research in the past years into anatomy, the science of movement and the writings of other piano teachers.  Before including any exercise in the book I checked it very thoroughly to make sure that it was anatomically sound as well as pianistically effective. I tried each exercise out on myself and with hundreds of students – many of them have also used them for their own students. Some of the exercises have been based on other methods, such as yoga, tai-chi, Alexander technique or Feldenkrais. I had to work on some of the exercises over many years to make sure that they were not only effective, but also easy to learn.  I wanted to create exercises that you can learn in one lesson and then quickly put into practice in pieces and many different types of repertoire. 

PW: You also have very suggestive names for all the exercises. Some are The Parachute, we already talked about, but there is also The Cat, there is Pastry dough. Or what I personally liked is ‘Swat that fly’. So how did you come up with those names and why is it important to have names like those?

PR: You know, when you are writing a book, it is very easy to find yourself subconsciously writing it for the critics. You can end up being rather too serious and academic in your language. And then people find it too difficult to read – they read a couple of chapters and then give up. I aim to use everyday language, but with serious research and thought behind it. 

For instance, the Parachute touch started off life being called something like ‘The fundamental hand/wrist basic finger touch’ – I can’t even remember now what it was called!  And I found that the students just didn’t remember it.  But as soon as I gave an exercise a very evocative name, I found that they not only remembered it, but they also grasped the concept of the movement much more easily.  These titles are also very appealing to children. A lot of my students are teachers and they find that the children really respond positively to the more quirky titles.

The Parachute touch involves floating very gradually down onto the keys, just like a parachute. It’s a very simple movement, that can be developed for use in many different aspects of playing.  It helps to coordinate the hand and the whole arm in one movement. It teaches how to start a phrase with a very relaxed hand and wrist, which also gives the fingers much greater independence.

‘Swat that fly’ teaches students how to move sideways around the keyboard using very fast, free  movements. Often, when students need to play a leap, the muscles tense up and the arm resists the movement. Whereas if we use the sort of natural movement that we use in our everyday lives, the arm flows more freely.  You can turn this into a game: I sometimes close the fallboard and put a little marker on the top end, saying: “Right, that’s your fly. And you know how fast a fly moves, so you will have to swat that really quickly”.  And they do! We then take that very simple, normal everyday movement onto the keyboard itself. At first, we don’t worry if they miss the note – we just aim for a really free movement. Then we start to aim for specific notes and the movement becomes much more refined. I find that if you worry too much about accuracy at first, you become mentally more tense and the arm resists the movement and you end up playing more wrong notes. Whereas if you encourage your students to make really fast, free movements, then eventually they play more accurately. It seems like a paradox, but it works. 

PW: I have the same experience myself.

PR: You worked with Peter Feuchtwanger and he used a lot of very fast movements around the keyboard in a very similar way.

PW: Yes, it was very important to him. It really helped me to get rid of the idea that every note first has to be accurate. Because if you aim for accuracy, you tense up and it is all messed up. When I first started to make free movements, I missed a lot of notes and thought it was never going to work. But eventually you don’t miss at all. When I demonstrate some of his exercises, I am always pleasantly surprised I don’t miss a single note. Until I start thinking about it, I tense up and then it immediately goes wrong…

PR:  Yes, many of the exercises I give in the book start from a very broad, free movement. If you start by trying to teach a tiny movement, students tend to tense up from the effort involved in trying to control it.  For instance, the Parachute touch exercise starts from high up (around shoulder height) and sinks down onto the keys. This loosens up the whole arm first, and only after the movement is fully learnt do we make the movement much more refined.  So whenever you use the Parachute touch at the piano, however tiny and imperceptible it might be, it still retains the freely co-ordinated essence of the larger movement.

PW: The book has got a subtitle: From healthy technique to natural artistry. It is about the balance between healthy technique and what you call natural artistry. What does natural artistry mean to you?

PR: I think most human beings have natural musicianship: a feeling for rhythm and a response to sound. However, some pianists have been educated in a way which suppresses some of this love of music and their natural ability to perform it.  Also some very boring, mechanical practice methods can deaden the imagination and the spirit of adventure at the piano. (By the way, I have a whole chapter about virtuosity and playfulness – I think the idea of ‘playing’ the piano is very important) 

A lot of people are inhibited from playing a phrase as beautifully as they hear and feel it, because they lack the required technical skills. I think to free up our natural artistry, we need first to know how to make the movements which will create the sounds we want to produce. In The Complete Pianist, the first two-thirds of the book deals with all the technical problems that pianists face, starting from whole-body issues, such as sitting posture, then moving through all the different techniques such as finger touch, chord playing, rotation, rounded movements etc.  Only then do I move on to show how we can use those movements to express the musical elements of a piece: articulating and shaping a phrase, creating a foot-tapping rhythm, expressing the harmony eloquently, voicing and so on.  

Often pianists find themselves using a technique or a fingering which is inappropriate for a particular phrase – they then have to use willpower to will their fingers to shape the phrase beautifully.  Whereas if you teach a student to use the right movements – the right technique – then suddenly everything becomes simple and the phrase blossoms quite naturally. You become free to express both the composer’s wishes, and your own natural response to the music, very powerfully and eloquently. 

I find that it’s really helpful to teach a student very simple exercises initially so that they think “Ah, this is really easy  –  yes, I understand the movement.” Then they can start to put it into practice in more complex passages and modify it according to the musical context.  If you want a darker, more melancholy sound, for instance, you might use a slower, weightier approach to the key. For a brighter sound, you might approach the note a little more quickly.  You just adapt the fundamental movement to create exactly the sound and feeling that you want. 

PW: And to develop from the beginning the sort of technique that allows expression and musicality at the piano.

PR: Yes, because I think everybody can play musically at the piano, they just have to be taught how to do it. There is a real temptation for some teachers to think: “This pianist is really musical. And this one just isn’t”, but I think that’s a rather negative attitude. Obviously, some pianists do have a very natural talent and they just find their own way to play beautifully – they are the easy students to teach. The big challenge is to teach the students who don’t engage fully with the music –  to stimulate their imagination and give them the skills to play with real expression. I think that is our real challenge as teachers, and it is very rewarding when we do achieve it.

I think the earlier we can teach our students a healthy and expressive technique, then the less likely they are to experience problems, either physical and musical, in the future. I firmly believe that the foundations of a healthy technique can be established in the first year of playing. 

PW: I also believe that everyone is musical and but that it’s perhaps something locked up inside a person.  We have to free that up first or help them to free that up. That is a much more supportive approach to teaching than just saying ‘You are musical and you are not’ I couldn’t work that way. I strongly believe that everyone has the potential to be musical, but it is not easy for everyone to get there.

PR: Yes, and that takes me back to your first question, which is ‘why I wrote this book’. It is because I think we as teachers need to know how to teach technique and musicianship effectively, in order to unlock our students’ potential.  I know that when I was a young teacher, I often struggled to find solutions to pupil’s problems, and that’s partly what set me off on this forty-year journey, which eventually led to me creating this book.  I know many young teachers also feel unsure of how to teach many aspects of piano playing, and I wanted to create this resource for them.  

PW: I found it very helpful that, in the beginning of the book, you start by addressing the teachers and explain how to use the book as a teacher. 

PR: I think teachers can use the book in various ways.  They can read the book right through from cover to cover if they wish, or they can pick and choose sections where they feel there may be gaps in their knowledge.  Alternatively they can use it more as a reference book and dip in and out of it whenever they need help with a particular student’s problem. 

I wanted to make the book accessible to as many pianists as possible.  But obviously it’s not possible to write a book that is suitable for every level.  Teachers and pianists from higher intermediate level upwards will be able to gain most benefit from the book.  For beginners, although a lot of the material is also relevant to them, they will need some guidance and input from their teacher in order not to be overwhelmed by so much information.  I hope that teachers will be able to gain some useful new ideas from the book which they will be able to pass down to their students of all levels. 

I recently started writing a new series of books, which are simplified technical books for beginners and intermediates.  I hope that teachers will find them useful additional material, as they contain appropriate beginners exercises in movement and in sound, using fun language. So the beginners can learn a healthy, expressive technique right from the beginning and avoid lots of problems later on.

PW: So, what is the most important thing for teachers if they want to work with your book?

PR: I think the most important thing is not to try to teach something until you’ve understood it fully yourself. When working from The Complete Pianist, it’s really worth spending time to study each chapter in depth – trying the exercises and watching the videos – until you can do it easily, almost without thinking.  You will then find it very easy to explain and demonstrate it to a student.  

Teachers really benefit from understanding why we do things – the more background understanding we have, the better we become as teachers. At times I sometimes add quite detailed background information, some of which is quite anatomical, in order to explain why we do something in a certain way.  I call these ‘the whys and the hows’. A beginner or intermediate probably won’t want to know this additional information, but I think it deepens a teacher’s understanding considerably.

PW: It makes completely sense to me. I think it is important as a teacher to understand what you call the ‘whys’.  It makes it much easier to observe what might be happening in the student and to teach the exercises more effectively and properly.

PR: I think that word ‘observe’ is really important. I like to move around during lessons, sometimes sitting on one side, then on the other, then perhaps sitting further away. That helps me notice things that I would not notice if I was always sitting in the same place. I also find teaching on the internet  quite interesting. The sound is sometimes appalling and it is difficult to judge the sound the student is actually producing, but you can still see (and to some extent hear) the student’s musical intention by observing the movements they are making. I find that really helpful. 

PW: Also with social distancing. We in the Netherlands can now also teach face-to-face, with social distancing.  When I am sitting further away I see things that I didn’t notice before. I intend to do that more, also when we are back to ‘normal’. 

PR: That is a really interesting point. I think we all have learned a few extra skills from the online teaching, including being more precise in our use of language. Here in the UK we are now allowed to teach face-to-face again, but I am not doing that yet. My students and I have settled quite comfortably into online teaching and most of my students are adults who have reasonably good internet connection, and appreciate not having to travel to my house. But I think it has been very hard for many teachers, especially those who teach very young children, and most of them are pleased to get back to face-to-face.  

PW: As kind of a last question: now you have finished your book, you said you already started on a new series of books. Do you also have other challenges for the future? Some other plans?

PR: After finishing this massive book, I was convinced that I was never, ever going to write a book again!  However, I have already started writing the new technique books which I hope will be useful additional resources for teachers and their students.  I am also creating a course for piano teachers on how to teach piano technique.  There will eventually be a face-to-face course for people who are able to travel to London, but for the time being the courses will be online – you will be able to access them either in real time or pre-recorded so that you can follow at your own pace when you want. I’m going to be very busy this year!

PW: I want to really thank you for this interview, because it was really very interesting. And it can be very interesting for the people watching it on the internet. Also it will be published in Dutch in the Piano Bulletin of EPTA the Netherlands.  I hope people will enjoy it and go for the book, because I think it is very, very useful.