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, 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 '90s, I received just about as much music education as possible. I won a scholarship to a leading music school and read 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.
In my early days at music 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 labelled me an exemplary student.
How, then, could my playing deteriorate to such an extent that I became their first A Level Music student in living memory to sit a theoretical paper in place of a performance? I struggled with so-called Repetitive Strain Injury and mental issues 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 - disembodied as an artist and as a person.
At university, I felt jealousy watching other musicians, particularly jazz players, who performed confidently and expressively. They were the opposite of me - and I longed to become like them.
After a while, the bubble of university invoked the beginnings of a journey. I scoured libraries and the internet in search of solutions. 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, to the 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 fundamentals. It proved difficult to find anything truly outside the box. That was until I stumbled upon Abby Whiteside.
At first, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Over time, it blew my mind. I sought fresh solutions, and Whiteside's were daring, audacious, and miles outside the orthodox box. I contacted 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 my first step towards Piano Portals. In time, I would question more and more 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 piano playing. I taught a few adult clients privately whilst seeking part-time work for sustenance. Little did I know 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 for a while.
On the face of it, I was fortunate. Friends and family were quick to remind me that I was doing what I love. But deep down lurked resentment, dissatisfaction and a sense of disconnect.
After some time, I grudgingly acknowledged that I’d barely scraped the surface of the issues with my piano playing that stretched back to my school days. I knew I wouldn't move beyond these gnawing feelings until I could look in the mirror and see the expressive musician that I'd always dreamt of becoming. It was hard to extricate myself from the career that I was building. I performed regularly and collaborated with wonderful musicians - and few could see what was wrong. The happier they all were with my contributions, the more frustrated I grew.
I reached a crisis moment. I left a gig and drove away without saying goodbye. I came face to face with how dissociated I'd felt since my mid-teens, as a musician and person. The only one that felt it was me - so I needed to find my own answers. I’d reached a ceiling with my playing, and had remained there for some time. I had skills but also many difficulties. I'd developed a block about performing from memory. I could barely play Happy Birthday by ear. I felt uncomfortable in my posture. I felt disembodied as I played. This feeling spilled over into my life in general.
Aged 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 one day to help others like me too. I'd met many musicians who'd 'given up' - some who couldn't even face their instrument. I was determined to hang onto my passion with both hands and sort this out.
The music for Piano Portals emerged as early as 2008 and remains largely unchanged. But nothing could've prepared me for the journey of self-discovery that followed, through exploring, refining, recording and finally sharing the work.
During that period, I was astounded by one revelation after another, not just in my piano playing, but also my general moving 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!
In my playing, technical difficulties dissolved as I refocused on fresh priorities. I've completely remodelled and reoriented my approach to practice, discarding a lot and replacing unhelpful processes with effective new ones. I can honestly say that I enjoy every moment of my practice - it's indulgent and invigorating. And it's not because I can suddenly just do everything straight away, but rather that I trust in engaging, fail-safe processes. I play the repertoire of my choice to my own satisfaction, which is a dream come true.
Piano Portals is transforming the playing and the lives of a growing number of open-minded pianists and teachers. They're experiencing the power of fresh priorities as the fruit of their courage and spirit of adventure.
Piano Portals was born out of an adult journey - a tireless, compulsive quest. Yes, I've always loved music, but I wasn't a prodigy who could 'just do' everything. In my 20s and early 30s I was still a long way from playing to my potential. I bring the perspective of this personal evolution to the Piano Portals courses and videos.
It’s a privilege to live my own Piano Portals journey and now to share in the journeys of others.
Thanks for reading. Please be in touch and tell me about your journey. It's a big part of my dream that Piano Portals helps you to achieve yours.
How can I have Piano Portals in my life?
Full online courses coming soon!
Please contact founder Stephen Marquiss with any questions or queries about Piano Portals.