Richard Beauchamp reviews Penelope Roskell‘s new resource for pianists and piano teachers.
What it is
This is a large single volume, single author work designed to cover everything you need to know about how to play the piano, from beginner to concert standard. It will be a useful resource for teachers, students and professional pianists.
- The approach is holistic with a strong emphasis on healthy practice, the fostering of a reliable technique with good coordination and lack of tension, and the development of a musical and artistic vision.
- The book is the result of 15 years of preparation and, clearly, many more of teaching and performance experience.
- It comes with a large resource of online explanatory videos.
- Peters Edition and music retailers
- Excellent advice on posture, healthy practice and avoiding tension, influenced by Ms Roskell’s knowledge of Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais and, possibly, Laban Dance. This is the book to help set pupils up safely from the beginning and to repair faulty technique and tension/posture related problems in older and experienced pianists. It is a book I wish I had read 60 years ago!
- Key strengths are the bringing together of some of the best ideas about piano playing and teaching from the past and present, together with the author’s remarkable gift for explaining concepts clearly and vividly, many well designed exercises, and a rich collection of musical examples.
- There is an excellent programme of warm-ups and suggestions for a practice diary.
- The very clear description of the use of the arm to support the fingers, which the author describes as ‘Parachute touch’, is an important addition. This is beautifully described and will encourage a warm and confident sound from the beginning as well as a sound basis for many more advanced techniques.
- The description of intrinsic muscle control of the fingers, in which the fingers lengthen into the key, is a clear account of this essential and often misunderstood touch, which combines independence, speed and fine control of sound. Anatomists describe this coordination, when combined with the opposing thumb, as ‘precision grip’ as opposed to the ‘power grip’ and ‘hook grip’ which use the less sensitive and more unified muscles in the forearm. Ms Roskell’s description is easy to understand and demonstrates her long experience as a teacher. I feel though that her name for this, ‘singing touch’, could perhaps mislead some into thinking that the technique is primarily for melodic playing when, although helpful in producing a more singing sound, it is also of primary importance for speed and independence.
- The sections on Natural Artistry and Healthy and Inspired Performance are excellent and a joy to read. The subsections on Tone and Texture, Rhythm and Pulse, and Pedalling are recommended.
- The online videos are extensive and support her text clearly. These in themselves are a valuable resource.
A video example: The Parachute Touch
Basic exercise: The Parachute
Sitting away from the piano, rest one of your hands passively on your knee. Imagine your hand as a hot air balloon which is lifted in front of you by the hot air. Then let your hand descend back down to your knee, imagining that it is a parachute that is supported by the cool air in the palm of your hand as it floats gently down. Repeat this movement several times, breathing in as your hand rises, and out as it descends. Do each hand separately, then together. Imagine that your breath is lifting the hands, so the movement becomes light and effortless. Start with a large movement, feeling the whole arm lifting, and space being created in your armpits. Then gradually minimise it until your hand just feels as though it is floating up and down on a wave at about keyboard height in front of you.
As the ‘balloon’ rises, keep your hand soft, so that it hangs passively from the wrist. It will appear as though the wrist is quite high, although no effort is being made to hold it high – it is just the hand which is hanging down from the wrist.
As the hand descends, the wrist will drop a little, until the hand gradually comes to rest on your knee or on your imaginary ‘wave’ or keyboard. Observe the wrist undulating subtly up and down as the hand rises and falls.
The Parachute touch at the piano
Next, repeat the exercise at the piano with the fallboard closed. To ensure really good hand-arm alignment, incorporate the idea of the ‘puppet on a string’ – the hand being lifted and lowered by a string attached to the knuckle of the fifth finger. Come to rest at the end of each movement with all five fingers resting lightly on the closed fallboard in normal hand position. Do not let the wrist dip too far as you sink onto the lid: it gives, but does not collapse. It can help to think of a cat being parachuted down very gently and landing on all four paws. If you aim to ‘keep the long wrist long’ and evenly balanced, that will also avoid the tendency to dip the wrist too far (if the wrist dips too far, the tendons passing through the top of the wrist (extensors) will become shortened, and the flexors will be stretched). Avoid ‘landing on the cat’s tail’.
Start with a broad up-down gesture of the whole arm, then gradually minimize it until all that is visible is the soft undulating motion of the wrist and forearm.
Now repeat the Parachute on the piano keyboard, letting your right hand come to rest on the third finger playing C above middle C. Repeat the action several times. Then repeat onto the fifth finger, thinking of the ‘puppet on a string’.
Sink very gently into the key: after the wrist dips down, take time to let it float back up again to neutral position before repeating the action. Eventually you will learn to minimize the movement until it becomes just an almost imperceptible ‘give’ in the wrist and elbow. Remember that the wrist needs to stay soft but long, so that you retain the integrity of the hand-forearm relationship. In this touch, the finger is acting as an extension of the forearm.
- There is no bibliography. Although there are source credits as footnotes from time to time, I feel these do not adequately reflect the work that has come before. It is always interesting – and comforting – to know upon whose shoulders an author is standing. A bibliography is also likely to inspire the reader to go on to further research. While Ms Roskell describes her book as ‘this new approach to playing’ (p7) and says ‘Much of my research and the material in this book is, however, completely new and, I hope, ground-breaking’ (p8), in my view the book does not live up to these claims. Its great strength is that it draws together much of the best pedagogical thinking from past and present – and often explains it more clearly than many of the original authors. However, much of this research has already been done by Abbey Whiteside (b. 1881), Thomas Fielden (1927), Otto Ortmann (1929), Arnold Schultz (1936), József Gát (1965) and Raymond Thiberge (1967) along with some recent work by modern pedagogues such as Stefan Ydefeldt (2013) and Miguel Henriques (2014). Quotes from grandmasters Tobias Matthay, Artur Schnabel and Heinrich Neuhaus are rightly included and referenced. Interestingly, Abbey Whiteside was one of the first to advocate a holistic approach to piano playing.
- Although the list of Contents is well set out and broadly allows one to navigate through the book, an index, surprisingly, is lacking and would have been helpful in such a large volume. There are many music examples, quotes from distinguished musicians and isolated technical observations peppered throughout the text, which will be difficult to locate without some sort of map.
- There is a substantial section on rotation but this is disappointingly limited on its variety and uses. The differences between upper arm and forearm rotation and combinations of the two are not adequately explored. There is no discussion about eg Brahms-style arpeggios where one side of the hand is substituted for the other quickly without having to change hand position or having to abduct and adduct the thumb. The illustration of broken octaves in Chopin’s Ballade No 3 on (p182) is oddly not included in the section on rotation at all but appears under ‘Changing fingers’. In Ms Roskell’s video (6.10) illustrating this piece, she is seen to be using a rotary exchange – although her legato finger changing technique is also a component. Direction and angle of the fingers in rotation are not discussed. Considering the volume of work done by Dorothy Taubman (who admittedly did seem to regard rotation as the solution to nearly all problems), there is surely much more to be discussed here.
- Surprising also is the omission of a full description of how the opposing thumb – our main difference from the other apes – relates to the keyboard. The fact that it rotates so that the fleshy part faces upwards when under the hand has a huge effect on technique and especially on how far the thumb will reach under the hand. Much faulty playing results from pianists trying to play always with the side of the thumb whether it is under the hand or alongside.
- The section on alignment deals thoroughly with how to align the fingers with the arm – a very important point – but does not address the problem of vertical alignment to the keys. Our hands are formed by arches, transverse and lateral – which is why there is a hollow in our palms; so, when the index finger is vertical to the key, the little finger plays slightly on its side – and vice versa. The fact that this requires constant adjustment and the implications of this to the rotation of the forearm deserves mention.
- I would have liked to have seen a discussion of the way technique changes with speed – which could be likened to the difference between walking and running (ie one cannot learn to run by just walking faster).
- Hybrid techniques deserve more comment. Technical solutions are frequently a mixture of different approaches and the player has often to change the balance of these to find the most useful combination for each passage.
- The videos are excellent, as already mentioned, but it would have been enlightening to have more examples of the techniques demonstrated at faster tempi. Slowed-down videos of fast playing could also be very helpful – especially as they would show how technique changes with speed. József Gát’s book, The Technique of Piano Playing (1965), shows this, with his frame-by-frame printouts of the hands of Richter, for example. Otto Ortmann, in his seminal work from 1929, The Physiological Mechanics of Piano Technique also demonstrates this with his light-capture photos, where he warns teachers not to listen with their eyes!
To sum up, this is a valuable addition to pedagogical literature, full of excellent and thought-provoking advice and much wisdom. The author’s references to Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais are a major plus.
However, there are omissions which, for me, go against the ‘complete’ of the title, and the book’s lack of an index or bibliography seems rather an oversight in what is otherwise a well produced work.
If you are a teacher and wish to set pupils up with a good technique that will not cause them injury – or if you are a performer and would like to improve your playing or find that your way of playing gives you discomfort, this book will be a worthwhile investment.
About the reviewer
Richard Beauchamp studied in New Zealand with Godowsky pupil Ernest Empson and, prior to continuing his studies with Kendall Taylor and Peter Wallfisch at the Royal College of Music in London, was a soloist with New Zealand’s major orchestras as well as an established recitalist. He joined the staff of St Mary’s Music School in 1977 where, until his semi retirement in 2014, he was Head of the Keyboard Department and, for many years, Director of Chamber Music. He continues to teach music there.
His performing schedule includes chamber music, solo recitals and concertos both here and abroad.
He is a visiting examiner and adjudicator and his lifelong interest in anatomy, biomechanics and ergonomics in relation to piano playing and musicians’ health, has led to lectures for the British Association of Performing Arts Medicine, the RNCM and EPTA.
His website, www.musicandhealth.co.uk, features articles and links relating to musicians’ health, piano teaching and anatomy/biomechanics. His pedagogical work has been published in magazines and quoted in several papers and books.