Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and pursue a career in music?
My parents were given a pretty, old upright piano with candlestick holders when I was seven. I showed an interest, and my mother bought a copy of How to Play Piano by Roger Evans and started to teach me, learning as she went. I quickly overtook, at which point I enrolled with a local piano teacher. My grandfather was a jazz pianist based in Bath, and took me to lunchtime concerts in Bath Abbey. He later went to the trouble of notating duets for us to play together, even though his own preference was to steer clear of sheet music, whilst I was super-quick visually. Because of our divergent approaches, I don’t think I fully appreciated his kindness and inspiration until later on.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I have had many caring and committed teachers. If I had to pick three major influences, I’d say, firstly, my school chaplain, Peter Hogg. One of his mottos was ‘think for yourself’, and he held after-school classes to prepare us for university interviews which included logic. Before that point, I’d pretty much towed the line at school, especially piano-wise. I was described as an exemplary piano student for some years, but I gradually deteriorated, creatively and personally, through my teens, following various niggling injuries and diminishing self-esteem. The chaplain’s classes sparked the beginning of my long journey towards thinking for myself and developing a truly holistic – and in many ways anti-orthodox – approach to piano technique, Piano Portals.
Secondly, I had musical composition lessons for two terms with Simon Dearsley. I’d had composition lessons since the age of nine, but any inventive flow that might have occasionally bubbled to the surface had dried up by my GCSEs. Simon had many unique ways of drawing out authentic, expressive music from his students. I was painfully shy for most of the sixth form, and he used to get me to sing at the top of my voice (I hated singing!) in different accents and then my own, whilst other students filed past his tiny teaching room in between lessons. It was excruciating, but almost overnight I began composing – really composing. He taught me to listen for the very best music within me and introduced me to the American Songbook, which formed much of the soundtrack for my university years. It took a while, but I eventually found a compositional ‘voice’, and I owe him a debt of gratitude.
Finally, the greatest influence of all was Abby Whiteside (1881-1956), through her pioneering written works. Having attended a specialist music school for six years, I couldn’t believe what I was reading about piano technique when I first leafed compulsively through her essays. It blew my mind. It led me to write to the editors and then scrape together my meagre savings and a college bursary to go to study with the inspirational teacher Sophia Rosoff – who studied with Whiteside – in New York and begin my journey towards freedom and fulfilment in piano playing and to Piano Portals.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Hitting the age of twenty-nine and realising that, after a decade of playing solo and accompanying at a high level, conducting, teaching and staging countless community musical events, I felt like an empty shell, creatively. Above all, I was fundamentally unhappy with my piano playing. I was also frustrated by having half-embarked upon a path of thinking for myself about piano technique and pedagogy and reached no clear destination. This led me to hand over my community projects (a symphony orchestra, two choirs, educational workshops and other groups) one by one to safe pairs of hands and set about fulfilling my dream of playing to my own potential and developing a detailed, comprehensive approach to technique that could be a genuine, effective substitute for the kinds of technical exercises that I’d come to deplore.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
My seven music videos for my own set of piano pieces, ‘Joshua’s Fire’, which are on my Youtube channel. Finally, in my late thirties, I unearthed a compositional piano style of which I’m proud. Creating and filming the videos was a labour of love in summer 2015, and I felt like resting for six months afterwards to admire my handywork (I didn’t).
How would you characterise your compositional language?
Some of Einaudi’s or Nyman’s wondrous textures – yet richer, with moments of intricate counterpoint; the filmic textures of Korngold reimagined on the piano; a dash of Copland’s piquant harmony and a nod towards the minimalism of Mogwai or Brian Eno.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
At the moment, little Baroque gems by Purcell and Scarlatti, Viennese Classics and the German Romantics, alongside my own music.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
To perform, Mozart Sonata K. 331, Beethoven Sonata Op. 110, Schumann’s Papillons, Grieg’s Concerto and ‘Joshua’s Fire’. To listen to, Brahms Sonata No. 3 and Concerto No. 2, Schumann’s Concerto and Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 2, all of which I hope will soon be in my playing repertoire.
Who are your favourite musicians?
Murray Perahia, Radu Lupu, Leonard Bernstein, Glenn Gould, Sergiu Celibidache, John Eliot Gardiner, Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, Ian Anderson, Gerald Moore, Art Tatum, Jim Moray, Mario Piu
What is your most memorable concert experience?
The premiere of ‘Joshua’s Fire’ last year in my home town of Frome in Somerset. I didn’t think the audience would ever stop clapping – it was truly heart-warming.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Think for yourself! Remember that art and life are an interweaving dance, and that one informs and inspires the other. Develop an instinct for which sacrifices are truly worth making and which risks are worth taking. Don’t specialise too completely, too early – if you’re an energetic teenager, don’t give up all sport and spend all your time behind the piano! If you get injured, don’t take the first – or even second – doctor’s opinion as final. Trust your instincts and look into root causes, seeking a holistic understanding. Don’t assume that time spent practising your instrument is always more worthwhile than something else. Continue to question, hone and tweak your processes. Question assumptions, especially those that seem not to be serving you – even if they seem all-pervasive. Draw inspiration from all fields – other arts, sport, science, philosophy. Stay present.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Performing my own music to a wide audience. Helping more pianists to move from frustration to facility in playing. Helping more piano teachers to inspire and motivate their students with holistic processes. Admiring the array of multimedia educational resourcesnthat I’ve produced. Willing and able to find more time to travel, especially by bicycle and motorcycle.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Freewheeling down Butser Hill in Hampshire. But next time I shall do it on a mountain bike. Playing music that I’d dreamt of playing, expressively and fluently, to my own satisfaction.
What is your most treasured possession?
Piano, bicycle, bed. In that order.
Stephen Marquiss is a pianist and teacher and founder/creator of Piano Portals, a holistic and mindful approach to piano technique.
Transform your playing at www.pianoportals.com
Read a feature on Piano Portals in Music Teacher magazine November 2016.