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.


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.


An Interview with Stephen Savage

I am delighted to announce that my piano workshop at Jackdaws in November is now full, with a waiting list in case anyone drops out. If you are interested in an intimate weekend piano course in an idyllic setting with cordon bleu home-cooked food, follow the link below for details of what’s on offer. I can do no better than suggest a brand new course running in October – given by my very first professor of piano, Stephen Savage.

For details of this and other piano courses at Jackdaws, follow this link 

I had my first lesson with Stephen Savage when I was about 16 and I still remember it clearly. Before I became his student at the Royal College of Music, I had a few more occasional lessons which were always as inspirational as they were energetic and informative. At the RCM, my lessons took place at 11:00 on a Thursday morning in Room 72 and they were the highlight of my week. Stephen’s approach was very hands-on – he always aimed for sound, character and musical meaning first and then explored the means of achieving it as a logical progression. I learned a tremendous amount from him about how to be a musician as well as a pianist, and came out of each lesson fired up.

Here is Stephen playing Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse:

Stephen Savage’s early studies brought him recognition with a Beethoven 4th Concerto with the National Youth Orchestra and success in the Daily Mirror National Competition. After his time at the RCM he was given the task of acting as Cyril Smith‘s teaching assistant while also appearing in a series of recitals at the Wigmore Hall and broadcasting a wide range of repertoire for Radio 3. This included much new music, as well as the Viennese classical repertoire in particular. He was duly appointed to the RCM staff where he remained until moving to Australia where he appeared with most of the leading orchestras and while Head of Keyboard, built the reputation of the Queensland Conservatorium as the leading piano school in the country at the time. He has made acclaimed recordings of Beethoven, Liszt, Mussorgsky and had close associations with Tippett and Lutoslawski whose Concerto he played with the Sydney SO.  He returned to the UK in 2006 and teaches at the RNCM Manchester. Stephen continues to perform in recital.

Here is Stephen playing Promenade from Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky

And here is the iTunes link to his album, Pictures at an Exhibition

Q: Can you tell us more about the them of your Jackdaws Course, “Finding Your Voice at the Piano”?

A: I am fascinated at the range of factors which contribute to making any of us sound the way we do. Actions at the piano stem from our own physical character. Technique will be affected by one’s own musical taste and focussing on the repertoire we love. The habits we have developed can condition our ideas on how the music should go just as much as our understanding of the pieces we play. As a teacher, I value very much assisting committed performers of all ages and stages to come to an understanding of how they may play with enhanced purpose and to express their unique selves.

Q: I am sure my readers will be interested in your teachers. Can you say a few words about them?

A: My first and most enduring teacher was Dorothy Hesse who taught me everything I knew up to the age of 17.  She was a pupil of Tobias Matthay which meant that her principal aim, following his, was the primacy of the sound itself. All work was done with focus on the maximum meaning of tonal beauty and musical integrity. When I came to study at the RCM with Cyril Smith I was introduced to a new emphasis: learning how to be as professional as possible in the thoroughness of knowledge provided by the complex intermesh of information provided by fingers, ear, brain, memory and precisely targeted keyboard geography. It was a daunting training but highly illuminating and stimulating in it’s demand for precision.

Q: Can you tell us something about the importance of new music in your repertoire?

A: From my student days I was drawn to working with composers because I realised I wanted to know how they functioned. My first experience, playing Tippett’s then quite new 2nd Sonata for the composer was significant. I remember him giving particular attention to the voicing and pacing of the slow section (Tempo 8 bars 240-247) which affected my view of the whole work. Later I came to recognise the point at which I had thoroughly assimilated a piece by this same feeling of being able to see the whole amongst all the detail. So I think my experiences with living composers have hugely assisted in acquiring insights right across the repertoire.

Follow this link to Stephen’s website

His recordings are available from tallpoppies.net and move.com.au.

For details of this and other piano courses at Jackdaws, follow this link


An Interview with Nicola Cantan

A few weeks ago I had a visit from Nicola Cantan of Colourful Keys to record an interview with me for her blog. We spent a very pleasant half hour or so chatting about teaching, practising and performing and I thought I would share the video with you here.

You’ll notice it is audio only for the first few minutes (there was a technological glitch with Nicola’s camera) but the picture does appear after a while – so stick with it!

There are several things Nicola and I discussed that I have written about in my blog, so if you would like to read more about practising then start clicking these links.

Speed of No Mistakes 

Enjoying Ultra-Slow Practice 


Part 1 of my ebook series Practising the Piano is all about practising – exactly what we should be doing in our practice time to get the very best results. If you have not already seen this, then do check out the free preview.

Nicola Cantan is a piano teacher, author, blogger and creator of imaginative and engaging teaching resources. She loves getting piano students learning through laughter, and exploring the diverse world of music making; through improvisation, composition and games. Nicola’s Vibrant Music Teaching Library is helping teachers all over the world to include more games and off-bench activities in their lessons, so that their students giggle their way through music theory and make faster progress. Nicola also runs a popular blog, Colourful Keys, where she shares creative ideas and teaching strategies, and hosts regular training events for piano teachers.