The week started well with me interviewing Basira Ward-Davies about her techniques for confidence as a performer and singer. (see the previous blog post for this interview) She mentioned at the end of the interview that I should take time to see the pianist and teacher, Stephen Marquiss about his piano technique book entitled, “Piano Portals” and the materials he had been creating to guide pupils when learning to become musical pianists. Having heard him play at several concerts and parties, I was really intrigued to meet him again and talk more specifically about playing.
Before you read on, please watch Stephen’s performance of Handel Suite No. 2 in F Second movement
From the video, you can see that Stephen is a very accomplished pianist, and his CV is by anybody’s standards, impressive. In his early embarkation into the musical world, he made it through to the final televised stages of the BBC Young Musicians of the Year and also achieved among other accolades, the highest ABRSM exam result in the country for Grade 6. He is quite dismissive of these achievements and believes exams “to be amongst the least meaningful barometers of authentic musical achievement” It is interesting to hear people talk about these landmarks in such a way as for layman or non-musician, these are seen as major stepping stones by which he or she might judge progress and musical ability. I knew that Stephen had experienced some issues with playing and performing and then had some kind of major break through about 2 years ago. I was keen to find out what it was and what had caused it.
Over the course of the 90 minute interview, Stephen talked about how his musical training had not really prepared him to be a truly confident musician. Up until about two years ago, he felt that he could only go so far with his playing and that he could only play a certain type of concert or gig and feel confident with the experience. He believed that a few technical and mental issues had placed a ceiling on his playing. Through working with a wide range of students, he developed a different method of working with, playing and engaging with, music. He also worked on developing the aural skills of his students and also re-engaged his own aural skills with the music he was playing which helped him to reconnect with music. Stephen described the fear he had previously of playing music from memory which was largely down to his ability to be able to read music so well. We often rely on the ways which we know are successful and to a large extent in my own playing, I relied on using my ear to learn and memorise music, something I still do now when I know I will be playing from memory. Stephen’s new approach sought to engage fully, the idea of Aural Imprinting as he had realised that relying on reading just kept him in a familiar comfort zone. The comfort zone Stephen is referring to is the fact that he is quite a concert draw for the Local Music Festival and the organiser said, “To get a lot of bums on seats, we have either got to get somebody really, really famous, or we get Stephen Marquiss” Most musicians would see that as a reason to stay doing exactly what you are doing. I mean, if it isn’t broken, then why fix it? Stephen was unhappy with the way he was doing things and he didn’t feel confident about certain aspects of his playing and this troubled him.
We carried on talking and I raised the question about Stephen’s piano book which I had seen at Basira’s house and the thing that had caught be me by surprise was the text which accompanied each little piece. For example in one piece, the text opposite the musical score reads: “Be comforted… delighted… pampered.” I asked him about these studies or exercises and Stephen was very quick to correct me on what they should be called. He insisted that they are “pieces” or “patterns.” I asked why this was so and why not call them studies and his response was that learning to play the piano was all about MUSIC and engaging the emotions and feelings to reveal this in the playing. As many people will know from reading my other blog posts, the only route I see for confident performing is emotional engagement and investment in the event, music and audience. Stephen has gone one massive step further in this area. He incorporates the emotional engagement at every musical step of teaching.
This is absolutely fundamental in music and something which is sadly missing in much musical teaching and indeed many teaching methodologies. I asked Stephen in subsequent emails what had inspired him to include such text and he said there was a little reference back to the works of Erik Satie and his inclusion of text to stimulate the musician to feel the music rather than just read it. My question then was, “Does he think that every teacher will engage with this and will every pupil engage with this?” The question is perhaps a little rhetorical and I anticipated his response. He is trying to change things and replace dogmatic, prosaic remarks from tradition musical scores, which do not develop imaginative musical interpretations in the player with thought and feeling provoking statements. He says, “The other thing is that I wanted to achieve was for the creation to be a thing of beauty in itself, rather than just another instructional manual” I commend this approach whole-heartedly.
Interestingly, many of the pieces are very short which is excellent! Many of the piano works I encountered in the early stages of learning, (and sometimes even now!) are forebodingly long. How many people have looked for the shortest piece in a book to learn…? Ok, that was my own interjection and projection. I for one as an auditory learner hate long scary studies. My piano career is littered with “One page wonders….” The other aspect of shorter pieces or “Patterns” as Stephen calls them is the current fashion for minimalistic piano styles. Many of my own students love to play and experiment with, small repeating piano or instrumental patterns with which they develop their own influences into improvisations and sometimes pieces in their own right. This is the other aspect of the method, which Stephen is developing, the integration with listening performing and composing. In my view, creativity has 3 dimensions and I love hearing the emotional investment a student has made in a piece of music and I encourage them with this further and further. Some teachers, through no fault of their own do not know how to veer away from the set pieces in the piano tutor books or feel incredibly out of their depth and their own comfort zones and seek to stay comfortable by limiting the progress of their students within their own limited experience… The cycle goes on if they themselves become teachers… (a subject for another debate…)
In the course of the interview and subsequent emails, I used the term “Holistic” in describing the approach he is taking with teaching and playing. He was worried that I may portray this in the wrong way. He writes:
“The main point of Piano Portals as I see it (and their unique selling point) is as a genuine substitute for traditional technical exercises with a view to developing a free and flowing and brilliant technique in an efficient, effective and enjoyable way; but the way to do this is of course in a holistic manner and thereby to turn on their heads the assumptions made by almost everyone I’ve ever spoken to about how to become a brilliant and confident pianist. “
My thoughts immediately turned to the problem that many of us having been taught in ways, which are so strict and perhaps under nourishing emotionally and yet they are very difficult to break free from. I suspect that this was part of the problem Stephen had encountered. By his own admission, he says he has had more formal piano and music tuition than anybody can have and started to realise that not all the teaching was serving him positively.
In my own experience, in Neuro Linguistic Programming circles, if something is not serving you, supporting the direction you want or need to go then the task you have is to change it. Stephen’s advice to all musicians is to ask yourself about the techniques you learn, “How is it serving me? Is it making me better?” This is a very good question to ask yourself as a student or even a teacher. I often say to my students, if you are finding something difficult to accept or understand, tell me about it and make me earn my money!
Technique is often an area for contentious debate and this is the point in the interview where Stephen became most animated and most emotionally engaged. Talking at length about some of the bizarre traditions of technical instruction and how many of the so called ‘Core TECHNIQUES’ we learn are not beneficial to good piano playing and good musical outcomes. I wonder why we teach them? Some techniques being taught can introduce technical inhibitions. Is it just to get the student to sit still long enough to get their hands on a few notes? He lists these below:-
• A tendency at the beginner stages to focus the attention and emphasis of teaching on the hand and fingers, which may include “hand position”, associating certain notes with certain finger-numbers, achieving legato predominantly with the fingers, etc.
• A tendency, through an emphasis on certain methods of practising and widely available “technical exercises”, of inhibiting certain physical activities from interacting “naturally” and usefully with the movements of the hand, including the flexion/extension of the forearm (especially the extension of the forearm’s integration with the motion of the thumb), the “in-out” motion of the forearm and the activity of the torso against the seat and the feet against the floor.
• A tendency, through certain methods and emphases, to encourage the attempted “clinging on” (or “placing” or “preparing” or “not letting go”) of the hand in relation to the keys which can cause many people to struggle for ever with passages of (e.g.) reasonably fast-moving chords or octaves etc. and many other elements and to negotiate the geography of the keyboard freely and easily.
• A tendency to fail to emphasise the fundamental importance of cultivating and relying on the “aural imprint” of the music (the best way to do this is to incorporate singing, regularly and methodically – many piano students have never been asked to sing) and then to integrate this successfully with fluent score-reading whilst maintaining the fundamental aural impulse.
• A tendency not to take into account the individual learning emphasis/personality type of the student and to adapt emphases accordingly. Hence many students who think they can play but not read and vice versa.
• A tendency to compartmentalise and neglect beautifully complementary musical idioms which could be integrated to great effect (such as classical/jazz/pop or “learning” versus improvising) and elements (how many people spend all of their piano lesson time sitting on the stool – where is the integration of movement that was so fundamental in expressing rhythms/musical creativity in pre-school?)
Stephen mentions the work of Abby Whiteside, a controversial piano teacher in the early to mid 1900’s, and his own teacher, Sophia Rosoff as being a particularly influential part of his musical development. Sophia co-edited the teaching works of Whiteside in which many traditionally accepted piano techniques are dismissed as they will not lead to fluent, musical, sustainable technique. One such technique Stephen sites is the strange tendency for piano teachers to forbid certain movements, i.e. assisting the thumb with the forearm. This seems ridiculous given that we move most fluently when our muscles work together. I remember this from a year of Tai Chi. The smoothest movement came from a seamless integration of arm, shoulder, torso and lower body movements. It makes sense that the piano technique should be similar. There is not sufficient scope within this article to cover these technical areas in much detail but it did make me think that what we teach or learn must always support the emotional engagement and fluently controlled technique and some things I was taught, did not always lead to this end.
This for me was the most interesting area which came up in the discussion. I asked Stephen when did he feel most on top of his technique and piano playing. He said it was at the time of being aged 11 – 12 and then things started to slow for him. Having some problems with a long-standing shoulder injury, slowed his progress down in his teens. Stephen also stated that much of the teaching around this time, aged 12-15 did not take into account his emotional developmental needs. I suspected an indigestion from an over propensity of spoon feeding and even Stephen admits that he often took onboard anything he was taught. All too often teachers have too little time or understanding of the connection between the development of the emotional side of a musician and the technical side of playing music. Stephen’s “block” or “ceiling” which he reached a couple of years ago seems to represent the need to dismantle the scaffolding left by a lifetime of piano lessons, sorting through the good, not so good and down right destructive aspects of techniques learned processing and filtering it back into a way learning and living as a musician. For me The “Piano Portals” work and teaching and learning materials represents the results from these revelations. It feeds and preserves motivation by answering WHY we want to play something. This is far more important than HOW we are going to play something. All too often, as Stephen says, we are told HOW to interpret a particular piano piece or HOW somebody else interprets a piece of music and why that interpretation is important to music. Sometimes we are told we must interpret it in the same way. This does little or nothing to develop a person’s personality or their musical understanding. It destroys motivation and kills off any life long love and understanding somebody might have for music. Stephen refers to it as:-
“the apparent notion that “teaching music” is something somewhat disintegrated from interacting empathically and intelligently with a whole person, including the physical, mental/emotional (personality type, mindset), spiritual (level of engagement) and the possible misapprehension that taking these latter aspects into account might not be fundamental to developing as an expressive and technically accomplished musician. “
I mentioned to Stephen about my experiences of being a musician in school, watching various students learn the piano and very quickly got to grade 3, 4 or 5 without too much trouble with great efficiency. I also described the fact that many stopped very soon afterwards because they had no engagement or love for the music itself. For me, musical teaching which fails to include emotional engagement and development produces weak and specific hot housed results which will not be sustained. Musicians will not be able to cope with many aspects of performance, or a variety of styles. Music is a lifelong gift, which MUST include emotional engagement and an engagement of aural imprinting. We both commented and admitted we would both love a pound for every person we had met who wished they had continued playing but stopped because of bad teaching or negative programming.
I recommend the Piano Portals method because of its integration with the personal and emotional needs and development of the whole musical self. At the heart of the Confident Performer blog and writings is the philosophy that confident musical performing stems from total engagement with music and emotion and this must influence everything you do in your musical life. I am pleased to say that I am learning many of the patterns and pieces from the book and finding them rewarding as they are testing my own technique. The music is also very rewarding and well worth the investment of money and time. They are available from Stephen’s Own Website priced £10 plus P&P http://www.stephenmarquiss.co.uk/
• Think for yourself and don’t just do what you are told.
• Ask “Is what I am being taught helping me to achieve these goals.
• Ask yourself what you want to achieve.
• Think about your priorities.
• Identify aspects of your learning or teaching which do not serve you and change them.
• Make sure you are getting the best tools for the job.
• Watch everybody, watch musicians, watch dancers, watch public speakers, watch tennis players, watch violinists to see fluency and gain inspiration.
• Watch talented youngsters and see if there is a natural fluency in what they do.
Confident Performer is written by Clive Stocker.