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 worked out my first pop cover by ear and posted it online.
In 2015, I birthed my own piano style and recorded an EP for the first time (Joshua's Fire).
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 original books at Music Education Expo, London, in 2016.
I'm Stephen Marquiss, creator of Piano Portals. At the time of writing, I feel satisfied with my piano playing, which feels like a dream come true. I play expressively 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.
In the '90s I received just about as much music education as possible. I won a scholarship to 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.
In my early school days, 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 was labelled 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 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 - disembodied as an artist and person.
At university, I became chronically jealous of other musicians, particularly jazz players, who were confident and expressive. They were the opposite of me - and I longed to be like them.
After a while, the nurturing bubble of university invoked the beginnings of a personal journey. I began scouring libraries and the internet in search of solutions. I investigated piano pedagogy, the ergonomics of playing, early years’ learning and peak performance. In my final year, I prioritised this quest over my coursework, to the chagrin of my tutors.
When it came to piano pedagogy, I found multiple variations on similar themes. Approaches that seemed at first to differ revealed themselves to be underpinned by common fundamentals. It was hard to find anything outside of the box of orthodoxy. That was until I stumbled upon Abby Whiteside.
At first, I sought to repudiate her audacious claims. Over time, they blew my mind. Whiteside's solutions were daring and not for the faint-hearted. They challenged the very fundamentals of orthodox pedagogy. I contacted the publishers to find out whether anyone was teaching according to her radical principles.
As a result, I made several 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 towards Piano Portals. In time, I would further question long-held assumptions in piano playing and make an even more radical departure myself.
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 adult clients privately whilst working part-time outside of music. Little did I realise 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 to some of the country's finest musicians, piano teacher at the prestigious musical department at Hazlegrove Preparatory School, founder and conductor of Frome Symphony - a ground-breaking amateur orchestra - soloist and ensemble member. My own piano evolution took a back seat for a while.
I was fortunate to be working in a field I loved. But just below the surface lurked dissatisfaction with my piano playing; and resentment that, despite the best education, and my baby steps towards adopting a New Way, I still felt awkward and disconnected when I played. Technical difficulties remained, alongside a mental block about performing from memory.
After nearly a decade, I reluctantly acknowledged that I’d barely scraped the surface of issues with my piano playing that stretched back to school. I became determined to attain my potential as a pianist.
Aged 29, I began passing on my community work to others and refocusing on the piano. My quest became a compulsion. I hoped one day also to help others like me.
The music for Piano Portals emerged as early as 2008 and remains largely unchanged. But nothing could've prepared me for the journey that followed, through exploring, refining, recording and finally sharing the work, which took the large part of another decade.
One revelation followed another. I reconnected with my body through deepening self-awareness. I became focused, coordinated and confident. I became not just the musician but the expressive person that I'd dreamt of becoming.
Technical difficulties dissolved in my playing as I refocused on fresh priorities. I remodelled and reoriented my practice, throwing out much that I'd previously believed important and replacing unhelpful processes with effective new ones. I now enjoy every moment of my practice - not because I can suddenly play everything straight away, but because I trust in engaging processes that never let me down. I play my chosen repertoire to my own satisfaction, fluently and expressively.
Piano Portals is transforming the playing and lives of a growing number of open-minded pianists and teachers around the world. They're facing up to assumptions in orthodox pedagogy and experiencing the power of fresh, radical priorities as the fruit of their courage.
Piano Portals was born out of an adult journey - a tireless quest. In my early 30s I was still some way from playing to my potential and yet I never gave up. I bring the perspective of this personal evolution to the Piano Portals resources, which I urge you to explore below.
Thanks very much for reading. Please be in touch and share your journey. It's part of my dream that Piano Portals helps you to achieve yours.