Guest post by Stephen Marquiss
I’m taking you to Piano Wonderland. Please set preconceptions aside – not easy, given the weight of tradition in piano practice and pedagogy – and imagine your ideal practice session. What would you play? Choose anything – forget realism. Which passages would you master triumphantly? Imagine the details – your tempo, dynamic shaping, cantabile tone and brilliance.
I recently wrote an article outlining hinderances to progress for musicians. They were pretty general and wide open to interpretation. As musicians, our journey of practice and progress is intensely personal. Many, not unreasonably, defend their territory. So, I thought it would be helpful to offer some of the solutions I’ve uncovered.
Above all, I wish to throw a buoy to struggling pianists. It’s my raison d’être. If you’re happy with your playing, I can’t tell you how thrilled I am for you. I’m not out to convert you. I’m talking to two groups: (1) those who struggle, are frustrated or blocked; (2) those who address the struggling multitudes and tell them they’re not talented enough or insist that their dogma is the only way. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re in Group 2, you’d better be damn sure you know what you’re talking about. Robbing even one pilgrim of one of the world’s great joys is an all-but unforgivable sin in my book.
I passionately want you to succeed as a pianist. I want to reach out to you if you struggle with semiquavers in Beethoven, singing tone in Chopin or delicacy in Debussy; if you struggle to play fluently, expressively, simply, brilliantly, evenly, cantabile; or tussle with narrative line, balance or ornamentation. I’m inviting you to check that you’re practising the coordination you need for playing, and that not one piece of ‘received wisdom’ is letting you down.
So I’m not going to point out problems, attack assumptions or reveal root causes. Let’s head straight to Wonderland. After years of practising in conventional ways and actually deteriorating as a pianist, followed by a decade of throwing the fundamentals of what I was taught out the window and replacing them with fresh priorities, I play to my satisfaction. I’m living my piano dream. I can’t remember what it’s like to experience a paralysing difficulty. Most of this was due to a change of priorities, not ‘hard work’.
I sense the Defenders of Graft rallying. I could fight them, but I’d rather offer fresh, transformational options which have worked for me and those who’ve let me in. How these haven’t been top priorities in mainstream pedagogy is another article. They’re all based on observable elements of able players’ playing armoury.
I’ve created an ecosystem, a musical environment, a framework which I believe can empower all players – evenly the least ‘naturally’ gifted or coordinated – who are tired of ‘try, try, try again’ and open to ideas. It’s called Piano Portals, and I’m immensely proud of it. It’s not a ‘method’, but an invitation – to try fresh, surprising points of focus in your practice and see where that leads. It invites you to think critically about the fundamentals of playing.
Here’s a whistle-stop tour of Wonderland – the seven principles underpinning Piano Portals, which are making piano-playing dreams come true, right now. The Haters will huff and puff. Please remember they’re invitations. When I began to prioritise these things in earnest, hurdles faded, difficulties dissolved and magic happened.
1. Connect deeply and personally with the music. Not just when you perform. Not just when you’ve ‘learnt the notes first’. From the instant you sit at the piano, seek to enter the world of the music, as your top priority, even as you get to know the first phrase of the first part. In a deeply connected state, your mind and body behave completely differently from their ‘everyday’ mode. Things that otherwise cannot be done – whether placing a pianissimo chord or performing pyrotechnics – become possible. Why practise in a mental and physical state that bears no relation to that in which those that ‘can’, do?
I once knew a religious person who told me he how great his technique became when he performed in church. He described it as the Holy Spirit transfiguring his playing. Call it what you will, there’s no escaping the probability that an emotionally absorbed, deeply focused state facilitates all techniques. This is what the greatest players do habitually, but where in pedagogy is this the top priority, from the outset and at all stages? Piano Portals goes so far as to suggest that ‘working on’ technique outside of this ‘zone’ is a waste of time.
2. Play by Ear. Or at least, play primarily by ear. Play more by ear than by sight, motor memory, rote or theory. This was my biggest fear, for twenty years. I dreaded birthdays with pianos – I’d fumble for the right chords, even after a decade as a professional accompanist. I lived in the shadow of my Grandfather, a jazz pianist. Over the space of a few years, I reoriented my learning to become reasonably fluent in Tonic so-fa and hear sounds in detail in my mind’s ear. I can now reproduce simple popular and classical music fairly easily from hearing it. I learn complex repertoire immeasurably more quickly, easily and enjoyably. Crippled by stage fright for most of my music school years, moreover, I find that playing by ear provides a concrete focus for my attention in performance. This means not only that my mind’s less likely to wander but also that I remain ‘conscious’ – I enjoy the music, in the moment, as performer and listener simultaneously. I’ve banished the rabbit in the headlights. It’s a blast.
3. Balance Freely Against Your Sitting Bones. This is where jazz players also have the upper hand. If you learn to let gravity ‘take’ your torso without resistance; if you let your torso support, anchor and take ultimate responsibility for all deftness and power, then your fingers, hands and arms eventually succumb and stop trying to control everything by themselves. I’ll stick my neck out and say this is the single most useful physical element of technique – and the most neglected in all pedagogy I’ve received, witnessed and read about. You have to feel it to ‘get’ it – and it may be a journey. But the rewards are awesome. The greatest players do it instinctively, but it can be cultivated, and is a large part of the reason Piano Portals exists.
4. Free Your Forearms. This is also a big topic and not necessarily an overnight ‘fix’. Many of us disrupt the innate connections between the flexion/extension and rotation of the forearms and the thumbs and fingers – whether by trying to maintain a fixed ‘hand position’ as a child, practising 5-finger exercises or remaining emotionally stifled and never experiencing the joyful flow of improvisation or pop ballads. But the forearms and fingers can kiss and make up – and a whole new world of facility can ensue.
5. Free Your Breath. Yes, by all means don’t hold your breath (Step One). But also free your breath, so that it’s gloriously uninhibited – it can become your primary means of feeling and expressing every musical nuance, so that you don’t expressive musical tension through excess tension in your shoulders, forearms or legs.
6. Be Attentive – not to unrealistically complex physical minutiae but to the central elements of your playing coordination. Stop trying to ‘do’ things that you’ve been instructed to do without deepening self-awareness. Become the expert on your own playing – this spirit underpins Piano Portals.
7. Free Your Fingers. This is my unashamedly favourite step. I can hear the Defenders with their battering rams. I don’t care. I used to focus on my fingers. Now they do my bidding. When you’ve tried the previous six suggestions – and I mean made a genuine effort to understand them in the spirit in which they’re intended and given them a fighting chance – then, and only then, ask yourself how much attention you need to give your fingers – to how they position themselves, which ones go where (the door’s buckling from the Defenders’ fury) and how to train them. If the answer is still ‘a great deal’, perhaps reflect some more on jazz musicians and truly able children – not ones merely shoved into the limelight – and consider how they achieve their feats. Daniel Barenboim – not notorious, as far as I know, for raids on conventional pedagogy – asserts in A Life in Music that fingers don’t need strengthening. My teacher, at the time I read it aloud, said something like, ‘Well, maybe not for people like him, but for the rest of us…’. Really?
I can’t help being a little provocative, which I know might rile some. I try to stay playful, as an antidote to a century of dogma – and to entice you to experiment. Sometimes even the merest suspension of disbelief can open a door. It could unearth buried treasure, like it did for me. It could change your life forever.
Stephen Marquiss is a pianist and founder of Piano Portals, an online treasure trove of courses, e-books and cheat sheets comprising a radical, holistic approach to piano playing. The Free Taster: The 7 Secrets of Piano Playing is available at pianoportals.com/courses
Stephen is leading his fourth course at Jackdaws Educational Trust in October, entitled Playing by Ear for Pleasure and Technique. Further details at jackdaws.org.uk/piano