Penelope Roskell • Essential Piano Technique

Products featured here are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

Few aspects of piano playing seem to divide opinion on forums as much as healthy technique: what it is, how, and when to teach it. Happily, anyone who is looking for clear, authoritative answers to these questions can find them aplenty in the milestone (and mammoth) book The Complete Pianist, which I reviewed here when it appeared in 2020.

The author of that definitive and award-winning book is the concert pianist and expert teacher Penelope Roskell, a world-leader in the field of injury-free piano playing, and Piano Adviser to the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine.

Having so plainly and comprehensively shown us what an essential, healthy piano technique looks like in her previous book, Roskell is now back with an attractively presented series of three books aimed at younger beginners and their teachers. Her new Essential Piano Technique books are certainly unlike any previous children’s piano series I have encountered…

Essential Piano Technique

Introducing these books, Edition Peters tell us,

“Penelope Roskell is recognised as one of the world’s leading exponents of a natural and healthy piano technique. Her series Essential Piano Technique draws on the principles of The Complete Pianist to develop a strong foundation of healthy technique, helping young pianists to progress rapidly and confidently through the early stages of piano playing.”

They go on to list the following selling points, telling us that the books:

  • Can be used by beginner pianists alongside existing tutor books to enhance the teaching of good technique
  • Include detailed notes for teachers, giving learning objectives and teaching tips
  • Links to free videos show technique in practice
  • Fun activities, illustrations and imaginative original music
  • Teacher accompaniment duets provide a rich musical experience

Writing in her Introduction: to the teacher, Roskell expands,

“The first three books will support a student’s development during the first two or three years of playing. They are technique books rather than method books, and are designed to be used sequentially alongside most method, repertoire or theory books. Individual exercises can also provide valuable revision material for students transferring from other teachers…

The books reflect current research into best pedagogical practice, using imagery and gesture to develop ‘technique’ in the broadest sense of the word. They cover all the fundamental skills a pianist needs in order to play both with technical assurance and with artistry: good coordination, freedom of movement, finger independence and the ability to create a wide range of beautiful sounds.”

The three books are labelled,

  • Primer A: “Hop, skip and jump”
  • Primer B: “Making Waves”
  • Level 1: “Leaping ahead”

The covers (shown above) are attractive, if perhaps a little artsy for younger players. Within, the books have an appealing design that is certainly child friendly, with enjoyable black-and-white cartoon illustrations (by Eilidh Muldoon) throughout, attractive easy-to-read text fonts, spacious design and generously sized notation. And yes, they are printed on lovely cream paper!

Technical concepts are brought to life with imaginative allusions to windmills, skateboarding, rainbows, balloons, spiders, parachutes, kangaroos and a host of other memorable images. The accompanying activities are all neatly explained and, where necessarily, illustrated.

Original music has been added by Aaron Burrows, while some pieces include song lyrics by Carl Heap. Their collaboration with Roskell was clearly close and effective, and their contribution is uniformly engaging.

A progressive approach

Primer A focuses on establishing an optimal hand position while exploring the whole keyboard with a range of dynamics, playing both detached and legato. Note learning is kept as simple as possible so that students can learn each technique quickly, then immediately put it into practice in a musical context.

As in many method books, initial exercises use notation without a stave, allowing students to explore the full range of the keyboard, playing in different octaves. Once conventional notation appears, it is in written around the Middle C area for ease of note-reading, but with instruction to play with the right hand an octave higher, the left hand an octave lower, avoiding the physical tension and imbalance that can result from playing solely in the middle register. This is helpful indeed.

Primer B builds on these skills with gentle progression, introducing cantabile playing, legato and staccato, phrasing and articulation, scales, broken chords and even glissandi. Players are encouraged (at the teacher’s discretion) to start playing the exercises hands together, and a wider range of notation is included, with notes across the full stave and occasional use of ledger lines.

Though not explicitly linked to any examining system, the Level 1 book would suit learners at that grade level. Here, the studies are played hands together, include chords and broken chords, leaps, slurs, chromatic and two-octave scales, fingering, rotation and more.

Each book concludes with an “encore” duet, a more substantial piece which incorporates all the skills and learning of the book in order to consolidate and celebrate progress. In the first two Primers, there’s even a certificate which the teacher can fill in to encourage the young player.

There are four-to-five full pages of Teaching Notes at the rear of each of these volumes, with advice for each page of the material. This identifies the learning objective, gives detailed additional tips for teachers, and suggestions for related pieces which can be found in other widely available collections recommended by the author.

Using the QR codes provided, teachers can access additional video support online, which many will undoubtedly find invaluable.

Using this material

Taken as a whole, this is clearly material that has the potential to transform the teaching and learning of young beginners for the better.

It is beyond doubt that Roskell’s insights into the development of a healthy piano technique are on point, and truly invaluable, as are her many wonderful activities and strategies for doing so. The more difficult question is that of how to implement this material in lessons. Roskell’s suggestion is that these books be used alongside other method book material.

Some teachers might find that logistically difficult. They may also feel uneasy about how well the books would dovetail with their existing materials of choice, particularly if they are using a method book whose ‘technique’ content pales (or worse) when viewed alongside the authoritative approaches found here. Awkward!

Roskell advocates taking a flexible approach. She recommends allowing each student to study at their own pace and in the learning style which suits them best. She recognises that some teachers will prefer to teach some pieces by rote, and that others may want to delve into the chapters and material in a different order to that presented, using it to address specific technical needs as they arise. She also advises that additional material could be used, including activities devised by the teacher, and additional theory work.

In my own teaching I would perhaps take this flexibility further, dipping into the material as appropriate rather than working through it sequentially. To be fair, I tend to use method books that way too, rather than systematically, but your approach may well differ to mine!

Perhaps the bottom line is that all teachers should be encouraged to explore this material for themselves, adapting their teaching where necessary and diligently considering how to use Roskell’s ideas and material within their ongoing practice.

Lastly, how brilliant would it be were Roskell to adapt this material for older learners! I have found that the teen and adult beginner market for piano lessons has been the fastest growing throughout the last decade or so. These older piano students would, I believe, equally benefit from the outstanding content that Roskell has developed, were it presented age-appropriately for their learning needs.

Closing Thoughts

I cannot state urgently enough how highly I rate and strongly recommend these three volumes. Beautifully presented, but modestly priced, they indisputably establish a new benchmark for teaching children a healthy piano technique. Ignoring them is not an option.

That said, I must also echo a point which Roskell herself makes:

“I strongly recommend that you learn to apply these techniques to your own playing before teaching them to students.”

Good piano technique poorly taught or misapplied may well no longer be good! But to help teachers everywhere, Roskell provides additional support on her website here, including an online video course that covers all the elements included in these three volumes. I would also underline the point that her book The Complete Pianist is an essential reference resource.

The introduction to this new series hints that these three books are the start of a growing project, and we must certainly hope that Edition Peters’ new owners, Faber Music, continue to support Roskell’s vision. Her continuing publications are, to my mind, among the most truly significant of our times.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.