Matter of size8:00, 2nd November 2017
Penelope Roskell has been campaigning for keyboards to be made for pianists with smaller hands. She also runs workshops and classes to help players coordinate and understand their bodies. Claire Jackson catches up with her
When it comes to playing the piano, size matters. Rachmaninov famously had an enormous width, as did Liszt. We refer, of course, to hand-span, and the ability to reach an octave and beyond (the aforementioned composers could stretch to a 13th). But plenty of world-class pianists have small hands, such as Vladimir Ashkenazy. Ultimately, physical attributes should never prevent someone from learning music or becoming a professional musician, as pianist Nicholas McCarthy, who was born without his right hand, demonstrates. However, some repertoire (I’m looking at you, Rachmaninov) is more challenging for those of us with small hands. The good news is that the solution is not to be found in a medieval finger-stretching device, but through technique and specific workarounds.
‘A large number of the piano community have smaller-than-average hands,’ says pianist and teacher Penelope Roskell, who considers this issue – and many others – in her workshops. ‘Keyboards were designed for pianists with larger-than-average hands. This means that many pianists have difficulty in reaching beyond an octave, which causes a tendency to tighten up. It’s important that pianists with small hands learn to avoid tension, to minimise stretch when it’s not needed, and work around awkward movements – perhaps revoicing a chord on occasions. A bit of cheating once in a while is necessary! Pianists with small hands often become more aware and knowledgeable about technique because they’ve had to work harder at it.’
As well as teaching pianists how to get the most out of their playing, Roskell is part of a campaign to encourage the production of smaller-sized keyboards. ‘They are more widely available in the US and they’re not as expensive or problematic to use as you might think,’ she explains. ‘Most instruments have smaller options for children to use – why not pianos?’
Roskell is an international concert pianist and professor of piano at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Her thoughts on technique, honed over 40 years of teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate level, have been brought together in a new publication that will be released in the spring.
‘I’ve always enjoyed all the different aspects of music-making: performing all different types of repertoire, chamber music, teaching and writing,’ says Roskell. ‘This book is the culmination of my work over the course of my career. It’s important to me to share my knowledge.’ The title is produced by Peters Edition; the print version has supporting videos to illustrate the techniques discussed. Readers will be able to access these via a QR code. A digital version will also be available through music app Tido.
This is Roskell’s second book; the first – The Art of Piano Fingering – came out 20 years ago. The pianist has also made a DVD, Yoga for Musicians, which draws on Roskell’s holistic approach to pianism. ‘I’ve learned a great deal from yoga and other methods, particularly martial arts and the Alexander Technique,’ she says. ‘They all help to teach us how to coordinate the body. This is so important for pianists because if you have tight wrists or shoulders it is difficult to get the fingers to work effectively – and to get a beautiful sound. Your whole arm has to support each finger.
‘It’s important for players and teachers to have a good understanding of how the body works so that we’re not wasting energy or pushing into the keys. We need to use gravity, and keep the joints fluid so that we can get around the keyboard with ease and fluency.’
Roskell performed widely as a soloist before focusing on teaching: she’s worked at Trinity for 17 years. She cites the Mozart concertos as some of her favourite repertoire, and is passionate about contemporary music (she has won first prize in the British Contemporary Piano Competition). The pianist also enjoys chamber music and has a piano trio with violinist Colin Scobie and cellist Heather Tuach, as well as playing quintets regularly with the Fitzwilliam String Quartet. Roskell also sits on juries at music competitions, including BBC Young Musician of the Year.
But perhaps her greatest interest is rehabilitation – she’s the UK’s leading expert in teaching pianists who are recovering from injuries. ‘I work closely with BAPAM [British Association for Performing Arts Medicine] and they often send pianists to me. I work with medical professionals to get the best possible result for the musician. For example, at the moment I am helping someone with focal dystonia in conjunction with a doctor.
‘A lot of people who suffer from focal dystonia are pianists who have a history of mechanical practice; often very finger-focused, rather than using the whole arm. So I work on technique to ensure there is less tendency for fingers to curl inwards.
‘There is a need for greater understanding in how we use the body at the piano – and how we teach that. It’s vital that we raise awareness.’
- Advanced London Piano Courses
3-5 November 2017; 19-21 October 2018
An intensive course for advanced pianists (professional, students or amateur), including work on repertoire, technique and healthy piano-playing, with end-of-course concert. Limited to nine students per course for maximum participation.
- Two-day workshop on piano technique
16-17 June 2018
This two-day London workshop is open to all pianists (professional performers and teachers, students and amateur pianists) who are interested in learning more about Penelope Roskell’s approach to piano-playing and teaching, and in investigating and discussing new methods of technique.
- Workshop for pianists with small hands
3 February 2019
A one-day workshop discussing the issues faced by pianists with small-to-medium-sized hands. Covering technique, repertoire, modifications, avoiding injury and small keyboards.
For further information visit www.peneloperoskell.co.uk