We’re delighted to announce the launch of a new online course on teaching healthy expressive technique by Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, Penelope Roskell. In this week’s blog post, Penelope discusses the importance of teaching healthy technique and shares a few tips and suggestions for doing so!

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A healthy piano technique is at the heart of all good playing. It not only avoids injury but also helps to achieve a more beautiful sound, greater artistic freedom and faster progress. Teachers with good understanding of the principles of well-coordinated technique are able to resolve common problems quickly and easily. They also instil in their students a confident, musically-focussed approach to technique which can lead to a life-long enjoyment of music-making.  

‘I never have time to teach technique thoroughly!’

Piano playing is a complex skill and there always seems to be so much to cover in each lesson. Most teachers have limited lesson time – and our students often have very limited practice time too. Teachers are also naturally concerned that a traditional diet of dull, lengthy studies will discourage and demotivate students. So sadly, the foundations of technique often get pushed aside and bad habits become established.

When should I start teaching healthy technique?

It’s possible to teach all the fundamental techniques more quickly and easily than you might think. The main piano-playing movements (up/down, sideways, forward/back, rotation and rounded movements) can all be taught in the first year of lessons (for any student, whether beginner or a higher-level transfer student). Once learnt, these simple techniques can then be refined and put into practice in all pieces of music.

Teaching healthy technique

Teaching technique can be fun!

Teaching technique does not need to be dull. When devising exercises I always think of how the exercise relates to the student’s own experiences and interests. I give the exercises imaginative, sometimes quite quirky, titles, such as ‘The Parachute Touch’, ‘Jellyfish’ and ‘Swat that Fly’. Even my adult students all like these titles as the imagery inspires them to achieve the correct movement spontaneously and with ease. 

Introduction and excerpts from Teaching a Healthy, Expressive Piano Technique

Are studies the best way to learn technique?

All my exercises are short, fun and easy to learn. They also have a very specific musical purpose. I find it’s not necessary to study copious lengthy studies to acquire stamina and an excellent technique. In fact, some studies can even be counterproductive. They may encourage a very mechanical approach to playing, which can then spill over into the playing of pieces. And if the study is played with a faulty technique, the improvement will be minimal – the student’s practice only reinforces the existing bad habits.

Studies are traditionally played hands together and involve time-consuming note learning which can distract the student from learning the correct movements thoroughly and from listening carefully to the sound. Each study tends to incorporate several different techniques, which makes it more difficult for the student to focus on and perfect the movements. I personally teach very short, simple ‘exercises in movement and sound’, mainly hands separately. I have devised these over forty years of teaching students of all levels, from beginners to professional. Once a student has learnt these techniques, they are quickly able to put them into practice in pieces of music. 

What are the main requirements for developing a healthy technique?

  • Warming up regularly before playing
  • Coordinating the body so that the stronger muscles of the back, shoulder and arm support the smaller muscles in the hand, especially when playing forte
  • Using gravity rather than pressure for cantabile playing
  • Minimising stretches where possible, especially for pianists with small hands
  • Keeping joints supple and learning how and where to release tension 
  • Working around the mid-point of movement
  • Using minimum effort for maximum music result
  • Using flowing natural movements that are in keeping with the musical message
  • Developing sensitivity and awareness of movement and sound

Why teach healthy technique?

As a specialist in playing–related injury, I have worked with students and professionals who have suffered devastating injuries resulting from their playing technique. I think that as teachers, we have a duty of care to protect our students from injury as best we can. Spending a little extra time to correct faulty technique as it arises can avoid major problems in the future and the skills learnt will remain with the student throughout their musical life. The earlier you teach the fundamental techniques, the better!

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Penelope’s online course, Teaching Healthy Expressive Piano Technique, is now available! Click here to view the course index or here to find out more about it.

Further links 

  • Penelope’s website (click here)
  • Roskell Academy website (click here)
  • Teaching Healthy, Expressive Piano Technique (click here)
  • The Complete Pianist: from healthy technique to natural artistry (click here)
  • The Art of Piano Fingering (click here to purchase eBook edition)
  • Yoga for Musicians (click here)