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The Complete Pianist: From healthy technique to natural artistry
By Penelope Roskell
558 pp
Publ. 2020
Edition Peters

Penelope Roskell’s new book The Complete Pianist represents the culmination of a life spent playing and teaching the piano. At 558 pages, this forbidding doorstopper covers all aspects of piano playing, from applied technique to memorization and sightreading. The book self-advertises as being applicable to the full gamut of pianists, from the beginner to the advanced artist. Roskell identifies the most useful chapters for beginners/intermediate pianists in the foreword, advising pianists to focus on basic techniques before moving on to more challenging ones.

Each of the twenty-two chapters (called “sections” here) is divided into several sub-topics. For example, “Section 12: Rotation” has four smaller sections within: “Rotation technique,” “Rotary movements in tremolo, split octaves and chords,” “Alberti bass” and “Rotation for scales, trills and accents.” Each section is detailed, covering a concept thoroughly through numerous musical examples and video demonstrations. Like all good piano teachers, Roskell has a knack for using vivid imagery to help demonstrate physical concepts. The introduction of the use of arm weight is achieved via “the parachute touch,” an approach in which the student is taught how to apply the appropriate amount of arm weight needed to create fuller tone. Fast, supple scales are taught through “the magic finger touch.”

There are many important bits of wisdom that most piano teachers learn the hard way from years of teaching. For example: “Sometimes pianists convince themselves that they are playing forte because they feel as though they are using their full force. But if they are not using a free, well co-ordinated mechanism, and if the stroke is mistimed, then much of that force goes to waste.” (191) For the non-pianist, this might seem like common sense, but it’s an important concept that can be difficult to teach. Roskell’s solutions to this problem include learning to give the “illusion” of forte, staying close to the keys, achieving faster independent finger action, releasing unnecessary tension, practicing the passages in question at a piano dynamic, and engaging the arm. Throughout the book, Roskell diagnoses a fault or cites a technical puzzle, then prescribes a number of fixes. Some chapters are more successful than others, but that is to be expected in a massive tome covering piano technique from A to Z.

Although the book is a valuable resource for advanced pianists and teachers, I question its suitability for less seasoned pianists. One of the sections recommended by Roskell in the foreword for beginner/intermediate students is No 10, or “Detached Chords.” The musical exercises provided to allow students to practice Roskell’s approach are taken at first from Schumann’s Album for the Young (perfect!), but then continue through Schubert’s massive D major Sonata, D. 850, Beethoven’s Sonata, Op 2 No 3, and other peaks of the literature including the Tchaikovsky first piano concerto, Chopin’s first ballade, and the Schumann piano quintet. Although these exercises are not problematic for the advanced pianist, a beginner or even intermediate pianist attempting to work through the book on their own will be frustrated by the consistently forbidding repertoire. A teacher working from the book with less-advanced students should expect to supplement with examples from easier pedagogical repertoire.

Another concern, somewhat paradoxically, is the heavy use of video demonstrations. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video must be worth at least ten thousand, at least when it comes to piano pedagogy. Roskell’s demonstrations are precisely labeled, well-filmed, and concise, immediately conveying the technical strategies involved. The question that arose immediately when seeing the sheer number of video demonstrations involved was: will these demonstrations still be hosted on the Edition Peters website in five, ten, or fifteen years? Few books about piano technique remain in print for long periods of time, and hosting videos on a website takes up quite a bit of bandwith. Most studio teachers will cling to this effective book for years to come. Without the video demonstrations, will the volume be as easy to use and helpful as it is at the moment?

The book’s concluding pages feel like padding. Ensemble playing, learning music, memorization, and sightreading are dealt with a cursory manner. To be fair, these are among the most difficult things to teach pianists; the “school of hard knocks” ultimately delivers more useful lessons in these subjects than any book ever could. The section on “healthy playing” is very helpful, but should have been covered much earlier in the book. The concepts of letting go of notes and releasing the stretch are extremely important, and should be taught as soon as possible to pianists who are advanced enough to understand the techniques.

Although the book is very large, it stays open on the music rack with little effort. The glossary of terms used by Roskell provides page numbers, but there is no index. The table of contents at the beginning is helpful, but not as immediately convenient as an index would be.

Overall, this is an extremely handy and practical resource for piano teachers and serious students of the piano.

Richard Masters

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