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).

Penny Solo_small_square

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 – the hand does not sit well on the keyboard and it is difficult to play fluently and evenly.  I then spent many months revising all the fingerings for scales and arpeggios according to ergonomic principles.  It wasn’t until much later on that I realized that there was a common thread between my fingering book and the DVD – they both aim to use the body in the most natural way at the keyboard.  Some of the principles in my fingering book will also be included in a set of articles and videos I’m creating for the Online Academy.

What advice would you give teachers who might be faced with a student with an injury?

The first thing to do is to rest the affected area until the pain has subsided and to try to ascertain whether there were any contributing factors during this time e.g. a sudden increase in practice, stress or a difficult passage.  Pinpointing the possible triggers makes it easier to avoid the problem recurring in the future.

I strongly believe in a three-pronged therapeutic approach.  Firstly, it is important to get a diagnosis and advice from a medical professional (ideally a hand/arm specialist if at all possible).

Secondly, a physical therapist such as an osteopath, physiotherapist or cranio-sacral therapist will be able to work gently on the injured area and suggest exercises to address any muscular imbalance once the pain has subsided.

Then, most importantly for a pianist, the teacher needs to reassess the student’s playing technique to ensure that the pain doesn’t return as soon as playing is resumed. If this is not your field of expertise, then do refer the student to a teacher who has experience with injuries. Some are able to offer advice over skype. You could even be involved in the conversation – the more you as the teacher understand the problem, the more you will be able to support the student through their recovery and beyond.

It can be very disheartening for a pianist to have to stop playing: so much of our self-belief is bound up in our music-making. Above all, encourage the student to believe that they can recover. I would suggest continuing lessons, but perhaps for a shorter length of time, so that they feel they are still advancing. Give plenty of interesting activities to do during recovery, such as listening to recordings and reading books or online material, choosing new repertoire, working on low-impact aspects of technique (e.g. playing cantabile melodies) and skills such as memorising away from the keyboard. Bach and Mozart teaching pieces are very useful as they rarely involve big stretches but have many musical challenges.

Since my blog is focused on practising, any thoughts and ideas on piano practice in general would be very welcome!

I think the most important thing is to think carefully about what we mean by technique and practice.  There is no point in repeating the same mistakes with the same technique over and over again. Practising is about making change. Think: how can I make this passage easier? And easier still? Would a change of fingering make this feel better under the hand? Can I improve the fingering? Can I play with less pressure on the keys? Can I find some resting places in this passage? Do I really need to have my hand at full stretch here? Can my arm support my fingers more?

Technique is only a means to an end.  Each movement that we make needs to serve a musical purpose – if we have a strong inner image of the piece before we even start practising, often the technique resolves itself!

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Penelope will be contributing a number of articles and resources to the Online Academy featuring topics such as warming up, yoga, posture, fingering, healthy playing and injury prevention. 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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