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 musically as they do technically.

Some years later I met Carola Grindea, who at that time was the guru of healthy piano playing, and we taught regular classes and courses together. I later got involved with the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine – a wonderful organization comprising doctors, physical therapists, psychologists and teachers, all of whom are passionate about helping musicians. I now act as their piano ‘trainer’ giving practical workshops and have written a fact sheet for pianists (available at www.bapam.org.uk).

Penny Solo_small_square

Do you have any general suggestions for pianists as they practise, with injury prevention and healthy playing in mind?

Firstly, always do some warm-up exercises before starting to practise. By this, I mean warming-up the whole body, minimising tension and bringing more blood to the arms and hands, rather than just practising scales. Then aim to start with a good, well-balanced sitting posture (my warm-up sequence and exercises for sitting posture will be included in the Online Academy).

Try to maintain a regular practice schedule – avoid sudden bursts just before a performance – and have frequent physical breaks in your practice. You can do a lot of useful work away from the piano during those breaks –  studying the score, memorising etc. Also vary your practice, so that you alternate technically difficult pieces with less challenging ones, and left hand practice with right.

Avoid mindless repetition – always have a clear aim of what you want to achieve. Especially avoid repetition with the hand at full stretch (particularly with a tight wrist) for more than a few minutes at a time.

And do not always practise forte! We can learn all the key elements of a piece – note learning, rhythm, fingering, technical preparation – whilst playing piano initially.

If a piece is proving too difficult, or causing fatigue, put it aside for a time while you work on improving the relevant aspects of technique. If in pain, stop!

I am sure our readers would be most interested in specifics here. Could you speak a little about warming up, posture or anything else that you feel is relevant and important?

I think the key technical issues we need to address are:

  • Good general posture with relaxed shoulders, and a loosely hanging arm.
  • Good muscle tone: well balanced muscles that tense and release
  • Avoid pressing into the keys: using arm weight and releasing all pressure after the note has sounded.
  • Working around the natural mid-point of motion – avoid a consistently high or low wrist, jutting out elbows, high shoulders.
  • Avoid excessive lifting of the fingers before playing the note and learning to release tension after each finger has played.
  • Keep the joints supple to allow fluid arm movement around the keyboard.
  • Use correct alignment so that the arm can fully support the action of the finger.

This may all seem a bit daunting, but all these aspects of technique can be learnt.

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In Part 2 of this interview, Penelope will tell us more about some of her previous and future projects in addition to providing some advice for teachers working with injured students. Further information on Penelope’s upcoming events, articles and publications is available on her website and her fact sheet for pianists is available at the BAPAM website here.

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