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Without question, Penelope Roskell’s The Complete Pianist is the most monumental publication yet to arrive for review, and with 560 large format pages, 250 newly-devised exercises and more than 300 supporting online videos, I can well believe that it’s the most comprehensive book ever written on piano playing, as well as the most superbly presented.
Striking among the claims made for the book, we are told that Roskell’s approach is based not only on a lifetime’s experience of teaching and performing, but also on “ground-breaking research into healthy piano playing” …
The Complete Pianist thus offers the reader an…
“… innovative approach to piano technique based on the use of natural, ergonomic movement which achieves a rich range of sounds, allows greater artistic freedom, and helps to prevent injury.”
Intrigued? I bet! So let’s take a closer look…
Roskell’s Background and Aims
Penelope Roskell is Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. As a soloist she has played in major concert halls in more than thirty countries.
Roskell is the leading UK specialist in healthy piano playing and is Piano Advisor to the British Association of Performing Arts Medicine, where she holds a clinic for pianists with tension or injuries.
As she recalls in the introduction to The Complete Pianist, however, her pathway to success was not always a comfortable one. Her first piano teacher was a student of the great Tobias Matthay, whose influence on British piano teaching was incalculable; Roskell suggests that she received a strong foundation in healthy playing.
However, once she became a full-time piano student she developed De Quervain’s tenosynovitis after practising Liszt’s Second Concerto with a faulty octave technique. As a result of this, she had to stop playing completely for several months, and for some years afterwards she had to choose repertoire carefully.
Taking up the story, Roskell tells us,
“I studied with some great piano teachers from diverse schools of teaching – pupils of Schnabel, Neuhaus, Cortot, Arrau, Busoni and Edwin Fischer. Their advice was musically inspiring, but often technically contradictory, so I decided to return to first principles in order to develop my own approach. I worked closely with a cranial osteopath and a yoga teacher, as well as attending classes in Alexander Technique, Tai Chi and the Feldenkrais Method. Most importantly, however, I observed, analysed and experimented with every aspect of my own playing, searching for the basic principles which underlie a sound, healthy, expressive technique.”
Inevitably, this somatic learning fed into her own teaching, her students becoming test subjects for each fresh discovery.
Roskell went on to study anatomy, and to compare her own research with the great pedagogues of the past.
Having taught for more than 40 years, and in recent years become the leading expert working with BAPAM to help injured pianists, Roskell’s reputation now precedes her. That she has at last chosen to publish her research and discoveries in this landmark resource, 15 years in development, is hugely exciting news for pianists everywhere.
Roskell tells us,
“In The Complete Pianist, I aim to help pianists of all levels improve every aspect of their piano playing, from the early stages of learning a piece, through all the technical challenges and interpretative choices, to finding inspiration in the performance itself.
The book brings together my lifetime’s experience of playing, teaching and research. I hope that you will enjoy this new approach to playing, that it will open up new horizons for you and give you a strong basis for years of healthy, inspired playing.”
An Overview of The Complete Pianist
It is immediately clear from the sheer proportions of the book that working through The Complete Pianist represents a long-term project. The book is quite literally a “weighty tome”, certainly not one that I would read in bed or take to the beach! Rather, this is a book to open flat on a desk, library style, with a piano in close proximity, as well as computer or tablet to hand for the video content.
With that in mind, it is helpful that the book begins with a detailed Introduction that not only outlines Why I wrote this book, but then includes advice on How to use this book, followed by a longer section covering The complete teacher, explaining how the lessons of the book can be applied with students.
The core material is then served up in 22 Sections, many of which could make complete study courses in and of themselves. These in turn constitute three larger chunks within the book:
- Fundamentals of piano playing
- A whole-body approach
- Finger, touch and tone production
- Scales and arpeggios
- Playing cantabile
- Detached playing
- Playing at speed
- Fundamentals of chord playing
- Cantabile chords
- Detached chords
- Advanced chords
- Lateral movements
- The all-round pianist
- Melody, harmony and structure
- Tone and texture
- Playing with other musicians
- Learning, memorising and sight-reading
HEALTHY AND INSPIRED PERFORMANCE
- The healthy pianist
- The inspired pianist
The book concludes with a six-page section of anatomical diagrams, and a useful glossary.
I am particularly pleased to see that in addition to her profoundly analytical and innovative take on the minutiae of physical technique, Roskell addresses the mental challenges of piano playing, and in the later sections tackles such issues as performance anxiety, listening, breathing and collaboration with others.
As the subtitle of the books says, it covers everything ‘from healthy technique to natural artistry’.
To get a sense of how monumental the content, let’s take a closer look at one of the shortest sections. Section 8, Fundamentals of chord playing takes up just 12 pages.
Here’s the details of the three sub-sections within Section 8, as well as the sub-headings within those sub-sections:
Preparing and practising chords
- Reading chords and understanding the harmony
- Practising chordal passages
- Chord fingerings
- Mentally preparing chords
Playing well co-ordinated chords
- Hand position for chords
- Firm hand and fingers; supple wrist
- Opening the hand for wider stretches
- Playing forte chords
- Synchronising chords
- Speed and weight
- Chords in context
- Flowing chord progressions
- Hand size and chords
- Stretches without strain
- Playing at full span with ease
- Soft wrist and hand
- Closing the hand
- Opening and releasing the hand
- To cheat or not to cheat
- Piano reductions
The material includes multiple repertoire illustrations, clearly and cleanly notated, as well as several physical exercises that the pianist can practise.
And this Section includes seven online videos. These can easily be accessed either by navigating to the web page on the Peters Edition site, or by scanning the QR codes printed in the book for direct access.
The videos in this case are all under a minute, but are beautifully filmed, and concisely illustrate the points that Roskell includes in the main text.
Section 8 includes material that, if considered in depth and with appropriate application to the exercises, could keep a keen pianist occupied for some time.
And remember, this is just the introduction to the following three sections, which cover Cantabile Chords (Section 9), Detached Chords (10), and Advanced Chords (11). Those sections take up the next 62 pages, again with many musical examples, physical exercises, and illustrative videos to work through.
Lastly, consider again that at just 12 pages, Section 8 Fundamentals of chord playing is the briefest section of the 22. By contrast, the longest, Section 2, A Whole body approach, takes up 50 pages.
You will probably now have a good idea of just how forensic and exhaustive the content of The Complete Pianist really is! And this brings us to an important question…
Who is The Complete Pianist for?
Given the encyclopaedic nature of The Complete Pianist, I must begin my answer to that question by again stressing that working through the material as thoroughly as it deserves would surely take any pianist several months, even years of study.
Unpacking that a little, a number of members of the Pianodao Tea Room community have been discussing setting up a Study Group, looking through the material over the next several months.
Certainly it seems to me that The Complete Pianist could provide a serious course that would be of obvious interest to the following parties:
- Adult Amateur pianists looking to refresh or rebuild their piano technique
- Teachers wishing to improve their own technical ability, while also improving their understanding and teaching of technique
- Conservatoire students using the material as a set text with their tutor or as part of their course
- Pedagogy students preparing for a career in teaching
Ultimately I would highly recommend The Complete Pianist to any pianist who has experienced discomfort or limitations when playing, provided they are willing to commit to the work involved in following the course reflectively, and with self-discipline.
The Complete Pianist is without question an outstanding new landmark in the piano literature, and one which has the potential to transform the playing of pianists everywhere.
In terms of its quantity and quality, its detail and depth, I know of no comparable resource.
The word “Complete” has perhaps never been more true; as stunning in its execution as it is staggering in its ambition, The Complete Pianist May well now be the only book you will ever need about piano playing.
Roskell is not the first to take a fresh look at technique in the light of our growing anatomical knowledge and understanding of performing arts medicine, but she has surely taken this work to a new level, significantly raising the bar for those who follow her. Nor is there any doubting that her instinctive drive is always practical, realistic, and ultimately designed to serve not only the performer but the music itself.
There are of course many full-time courses for those who wish to play or teach professionally. The Complete Pianist might not offer the direct personal input of a face-to-face conservatoire or pedagogy training, but it certainly covers an extraordinary amount of ground, and offers the highest quality piano education more universally to all.
As such, and with a published price of just £44,95, The Complete Pianist represents an astonishing bargain. Anyone who wants to invest in their piano playing would do well to start by investing in this book, right now.
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