I’m often asked “Why did you develop Piano Portals – what's the back story?”
In 2012, I gave my first full piano recital from memory in 19 years.
In 2013, aged 34, I recorded my first pop cover on the piano.
In 2015, I birthed my own compositional piano style and recorded an EP for the first time.
The same year, I compiled and recorded Piano Portals. I launched the books and audio at the Music Education Expo in London in 2016.
I'm Stephen Marquiss, creator of Piano Portals. At the time of writing, in 2017, I feel satisfied with my piano playing. This feels like a miracle. I play expressively, easily and joyfully. I learn my chosen repertoire efficiently through flowing, fail-safe processes. I perform it confidently from memory.
Back in the 1990s, I received just about as much music education as is humanly possible. I won a scholarship to a leading music school, before reading Music at Cambridge University. I explored the history of Western music in great detail, three times – an experience for which I’m grateful every day. I learnt piano repertoire that I still cherish.
During my first few years at school, I won the prize for the highest exam mark and reached the final of an international piano competition. My teachers were caring and dedicated. I did everything they asked of me, and they called me an exemplary student.
How, then, could my playing deteriorate to such an extent that I became the first A Level Music student at my school in living memory to sit a theoretical paper in place of a performance? I struggled with ongoing physical niggles and postural problems throughout my Fifth and Sixth Forms. I met with puzzled expressions from specialists, who tried diverse treatments. My confidence plummeted. When I left school, I felt like an empty shell, creatively. I felt disembodied as an artist and as a person.
At university, I felt sick with jealousy watching musicians – particularly jazz players – who performed confidently and expressively. They were the opposite of me - and I longed to become them.
After a while, the inspiring and protective bubble of Cambridge University invoked the beginning of a personal journey. I scoured libraries and the web in search of answers and ways forward. I investigated piano pedagogy, early years’ musical learning and peak performance practices. In my final year, I prioritised this quest over my coursework.
Regarding piano pedagogy, I found multiple variations on similar themes. Approaches that seemed at first to differ widely revealed themselves to be underpinned by common fundamental principles and priorities. It proved difficult to find anything truly outside the box. That was until I stumbled upon the work of Abby Whiteside.
At first, I couldn’t believe it. Then it began to blow my mind. I was desperate for fresh solutions, and Whiteside's were so daring, so audacious. I decided to contact the publishers to find out whether anyone was teaching her radical principles.
As a result, I made several short trips to New York to study with Sophia Rosoff, co-editor of Whiteside’s writings and a former Whiteside student. This was the first step along the road to Piano Portals. I'd begun to question long-held assumptions in piano playing.
After university, I entered the real world with a jolt. There seemed no easy way to preach the gospel of a New Way to approach the piano. I settled for teaching a few adults privately whilst seeking other work. Little did I know back then just how far I was from integrating my discoveries into my own playing and being. I'd barely reached square one.
Over ten years, I developed a career in my native county of Somerset, England, as an accompanist, piano teacher, conductor, soloist, duo player, ensemble member and community project facilitator. My investigations into piano playing and pedagogy took a back seat for a while.
On the surface, I was pretty happy. Passers-by were quick to remind me that I was doing what I love. Of course I was grateful. But deep down lurked resentment, dissatisfaction and a sense of disconnect. How could this be, since I was working in music, my passion?
I eventually acknowledged that I’d barely scraped the surface of the issues with my piano playing. I hadn’t come close to uncovering the root causes of my difficulties. I knew I wouldn't be happy until I looked in the mirror and saw the expressive musician that I wanted to be. It was almost worse because I was performing regularly and collaborating with wonderful musicians. The happier they all were with my contributions, the more discontented I grew – why couldn’t they see how inadequate it all felt?
I reached a crisis moment. I admitted to myself how dissociated I'd felt since my mid-teens. The only person that seemed to see it was me - so I was the one to find the answers. I’d retained countless technical difficulties in playing from my school days. I'd developed a block about performing from memory. I felt uncomfortable in my posture. Above all, I still felt disembodied as I played. This feeling was spilling over into my life in general and affecting those around me.
When I hit 29, I began passing on my community work to others and refocusing on the piano. I was determined to become the musician I felt I could be. I also wanted to develop my investigations into something I could one day share with others. I'd met countless musicians who'd 'given up' and some who couldn't even face their instrument. I was determined to hold tight and not let go.
The Piano Portals music emerged as early as 2008 and remains largely unchanged. But nothing could have prepared me for the journey of self-discovery that followed, through exploring, refining, recording and finally sharing the work.
During that period, I was constantly astounded by the ramifications not just for my piano playing, but also my general moving (walking, exercising, driving) and living. I began reconnecting with my body through deepening self-awareness. I became more focused and coordinated. I started to become not just the musician but the expressive person that I'd dreamt of becoming. As with any life journey, the process is ongoing. But it feels good.
One by one, technical difficulties in playing dissolved. I've completely remodelled and reoriented my approach to practising. I’ve discarded a lot, replacing unhelpful old processes with satisfying, efficient new ones. I now enjoy every moment of my practice - it feels rather indulgent. And I progress to my own satisfaction.
Piano Portals now transforms the lives of others, too. A growing number of open-minded, radical players and teachers are witnessing the power of fresh priorities, when they summon the courage to reenvision their approach.
Piano Portals was born out of an adult journey - a tireless, compulsive quest. Yes, I have a natural affinity with music, but I couldn't play to my potential aged 20. I've learnt to do that, by unexpected means, and bring the perspective of genuine personal evolution to my work.
It’s a great privilege to live my own Piano Portals journey and to share in the journeys of my clients. It’s my dream come true.
Thanks for reading. Please be in touch and tell me about your journey.
“I love Piano Portals. I use it every day as my warm-up.”
What do I get when I buy it?
The physical Piano Portals product comprises two beautiful books and CD. The digital product is a double-ebook/mp3 track download version of the same material. If you order the hard copy you get the electronic one too.
The main book contains beautiful music, inspirational text and a detailed, easy-to-read introduction.
The Piano Portals Players' and Teachers' Guide is packed with creative suggestions for exploring the musical material. It features detailed illustrations and musical examples - a lifetime's worth of resources for technique!
The products are supplemented by an ever-growing stream of online videos. Detailed online courses are coming soon!