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 2015, aged 36, 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 it at the Music Education Expo in London in 2016.
Hi, I'm Stephen Marquiss MA (Cantab.), 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, joyfully. I learn the repertoire I want to play – Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert – with 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 covered 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 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 disconnected from my own body.
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, peak performance practices. In my final year, I prioritised this quest over my coursework.
Regarding piano technique, 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 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 since Whiteside was so daring, so audacious, I decided to contact the publishers to find out whether any teachers were deploying her radical principles.
As a result, I made several short trips to New York City to study with Sophia Rosoff - co-editor of Whiteside’s writings and a former Whiteside student - and took a big step along the road to Piano Portals. Little by little, I began to question long-held assumptions in piano playing.
After university, I entered the real world with a jolt. There seemed no tangible way to practise what I'd come to preach, short of teaching a few adults privately. I must admit to feeling a little sorry for those few, as I was a long way from integrating the work into my own playing and person.
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 faded into the background.
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 the root causes of my difficulties. I knew I wouldn't be happy until I faced up to them and became the expressive musician that I'd all but lost sight of. 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 how dissociated I felt. The only person that seemed to see it was me - so I had to be the one to find solutions. I’d retained countless technical difficulties in playing from my school days. I'd developed a block about performing from memory. I felt uncomfortable with my posture. Most of all, I acknowledged that I still felt ‘out of my body' 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, 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.
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 the processes of 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 focus and coordinated. I started to become not just the musician but the expressive person that I dreamt of becoming. As with any profound journey, the process is ongoing. But I feel as if I've reached the end of a full stage in the metamorphosis only very recently. And it feels good.
One by one, technical difficulties in playing have dissolved. I've completely remodelled my approach to practising. I’ve discarded a heck of a lot, replacing unhelpful old processes with satisfying new ones. I enjoy every moment of my practice - it feels almost indulgent - and I progress efficiently.
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 explore new paradigms.
It’s a great privilege to live my own Piano Portals journey and to share in the journeys of my clients. In fact, it’s a dream come true.
Thanks for reading. Please be in touch and tell me about your journey.
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. Many are free-to-access lively tutorials which expound the approach in connection with specific repertoire and aspects of technique.