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 - a radical, holistic daily practice for pianists which was over a decade in the making. 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. I credit Piano Portals with this transformation.
Back in the 1990s, I received just about as much music education as is 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 cherish to this day.
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 the school in living memory to sit a theoretical paper in place of a performance? I struggled with so-called Repetitive Strain Injury and mental blocks throughout my Fifth and Sixth Forms. I met with puzzled expressions from specialists, who tried diverse treatments. My self-esteem 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. I investigated piano pedagogy, the ergonomics of playing, early years’ learning and peak performance practices. In my final year, I prioritised this quest over my coursework, much to the undoubted chagrin of my tutors.
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 what I was reading. In time, it began to blow my mind. I was desperate for fresh solutions, and Whiteside's were so daring, so audacious, so far outside the box. I decided to contact the publishers to find out whether anyone was teaching according 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 long 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 for sustenance. I feel a little sorry for those early clients. I had no idea back then just how far I was from integrating my discoveries into my own playing, teaching and being.
Over ten years, I developed a career in my native 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 face of it, I was pretty happy. Friends and family were quick to remind me that I was doing what I love if I had a grumpy day. Of course I was grateful for countless blessings. 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 that stretched back to my school days. 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, and they couldn't see anything was wrong. The happier they all were with my contributions, the more discontented I grew – why couldn’t they see how inadequate I 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 would be the one to find answers. I’d retained countless technical difficulties in playing from my school days. I'd developed a block about performing from memory. I could barely play Happy Birthday by ear on cue. I felt uncomfortable in my posture. Above all, I felt disembodied as I played. This feeling spilled over into my life in general and was starting to affect 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 knew I could be. I hoped eventually to 'do something' with the informal investigations I'd carried out at Cambridge which would help others like me. I'd met many musicians over my lifetime who had 'given up' and some who couldn't even face their instrument. I was determined to hang onto my passion for dear life.
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 revelations, not just in my piano playing, but also my general moving (walking, exercising, driving) and living. I reconnected with my body through deepening self-awareness. I became more focused, coordinated and confident. I became 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 dissolved. I've completely remodelled and reoriented my approach to practice. I’ve discarded a lot, replacing unhelpful old processes with holistic, effective new ones. I can now say in all honesty that I enjoy every moment of my practice - it feels rather indulgent. And that's not because I can suddenly do everything straight away, but, rather, because I trust in engaging, invigorating processes which never let me down. I progress to my own satisfaction.
Piano Portals is transforming the playing - and the lives - of a growing number of open-minded players and teachers. They're 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 strong natural affinity with music, but I was never one of those 'gifted' souls who could just miraculously do everything as a child. At the age of 29, I was still a long way from playing to my potential. I've come into my own, as an adult artist, by unexpected and gratifying means. I bring the perspective of this personal evolution to my work with my clients.
It’s a great privilege to live my own Piano Portals journey and to share in the journeys of my colleagues and clients. It really does feel like a dream come true.
Thanks for reading. Please be in touch and tell me about your journey. I passionately hope that Piano Portals will be for you a great ally too.
“I love Piano Portals. I use it every day as my warm-up.”
How can I have Piano Portals in my life?
Buy the main book, Guide and CD as a bundle and you get the digital version, integrated with online videos, for free.
More online courses coming soon!
I also offer a limited number of 1-2-1 in-person and Skype sessions and group clinics for pianists and teachers
Please be in touch for a friendly chat for any reason at all. I love to connect with like-minded pianists and teachers.