This is an introductory blog about how my training and experience as a working classical pianist has lead me to embark on one of the most comprehensive and demanding Pilates teacher training programmes in the world.
Firstly, I’d like to clear up any confusion that this blog might cause. I am definitely NOT giving up music! Several people have been asking me about this, and I have no intention of stopping teaching or playing the piano professionally. The plan is to use my Romana’s Pilates teacher training to enhance my teaching and performance as well as improving my own body. Developing a deep understanding of body mechanics, and strengthening myself, will enable me to educate other musicians, so that they too can improve their performance by becoming stronger and more physically and mentally integrated.
I am a professional pianist. From the age of 5, playing the piano has been an important and consistent part of my life and the conviction that I needed to pursue music as a career came to me in my mid-teenage years. After graduating from the Royal Northern College of Music in 2005 with a Master of Music in Performance, I did what professional musicians usually do and built a portfolio career of teaching and performing. Today, I continue to perform as a soloist and chamber musician and teach piano and chamber music at three institutions, one being the junior department at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
I frequently meet musicians who suffer from injury or debilitating, ongoing physical issues that prevent them from playing their instruments freely. In some cases, people who have dedicated their whole lives to music have to stop playing altogether. I find this incredibly frustrating and, until recently, I have never come across a method of therapy or exercise that is truly rehabilitative and that can address and fix the cause of these issues.
Don’t get me wrong, physical therapy sessions are great! They can be restorative, alleviate pain and improve wellbeing, however, it is rare that these sessions get to the very root of a physical problem and deal with fixing the issue in the WHOLE body, not just the isolated area. If the therapy does treat the whole body, the effects often wear off and the issue returns. Medical intervention frequently involves temporary treatments such as steroid injections into a joint and, while surgery is occasionally necessary, it can often be avoided, and should only be a last resort.
I have amassed so many questions about this over the years…
…Is playing the piano with ease really this difficult?
Is practising the particulars on your instrument for endless hours really the best way to achieve a perfect state in performance?… Apparently not.
Is there a form of exercise or therapy that can truly change the body, from the inside out?
Is there a form of deep and comprehensive training I can do that isn’t medical that will enable me to help my fellow musicians?
Is there a way of learning to be more integrated, where the mind can become much more closely connected to the body, but that also strengthens it? (I’m a huge fan of Alexander Technique and have had years of private lessons but, for all its virtues, it doesn’t address muscle weakness.)
After mulling over different possibilities and trying different forms of therapy and exercise to improve my own body, I have finally found what I believe is the perfect solution. I make this sound like I’ve given it the occasional thought… far from it. I’ve agonised over this, had sleepless nights on occasion, questioned my identity as a teacher and struggled with dealing with my own physical pain for years. This is a decision that I arrived at when several aspects of my life converged into one moment. Corny though it may sound, it was indeed an epiphany (and happened at about 2am last Summer).
I discovered Pilates almost 6 years ago and I loved it. I received expert tuition from Sonja Fitzpatrick in Epsom, and once I’d had my light-bulb moment and decided to train as a Pilates teacher, Sonja encouraged me to do my research and try different methods. I knew that I wanted to train as true to Joseph Pilates’ method as possible and researching this lead me to Classical Pilates.
It was in February this year (2019) that I came across Kinetic Pilates in north London, and discovered that Rebecca Convey is THE UK teacher-trainer for Romana’s Pilates. I did some digging and found out that Romana was a devoted student of Joseph Pilates’, working closely with him and his wife Clara for years. After his death, Romana set up a teacher training programme with Clara that would ensure future teachers of his method stayed as true to his system and approach as possible. It seemed that this was as close as I would get to learning Pilates (or ‘Contrology’ as Joseph called it), as it was meant to be learnt.
I booked a lesson with Rebecca Convey to see what the difference was. It was expensive so I went along with an open mind. As soon as the lesson commenced I noticed a big difference. The focus on my body and what it was doing went much deeper than what I’d been used to, and Rebecca taught me more about what was going on physically in one hour than I’d learnt in the past 5 years, and I’d been taught a lot! What I learnt didn’t always come from what Rebecca said, but from how she said it. The way she used her voice would directly affect the impact of my movements and therefore change the intensity of the exercise. There was also a wealth of information that came through where she placed her hands, which seemed to have a very close association with Alexander Technique; it was all about directing and lengthening. All of the studio equipment was at her disposal, and there was always a reason for moving from one piece of apparatus to another. Everything was connected, and it immediately felt clear to me that Pilates had created a system that held integrity at its very core. From the design of his apparatus to the relationship of teacher to client, and practitioner to apparatus, everything was deliberate.
I walked away from the lesson feeling several inches taller and a lot stronger. Pilates in its truest form deals directly with internal mechanics and addresses long-term issues by realigning, strengthening, rebalancing and reintegrating. I was convinced. Rebecca’s teaching wasn’t just about expertise, it was intuitive, sensitive, and she had a deep knowledge of Joseph Pilates’ method.
After several weeks of lessons with Rebecca and James Palmer, another fantastic teacher at Kinetic Pilates, I noticed my piano playing start to change. My hands felt much lighter, my pelvis more stable and my whole body was more powerful. The technical issues I’d been dealing with for decades were melting away and I was playing with much greater ease. I knew that this was my path and felt certain that this teacher training method would enable me to fulfil my desire to help others.
Seven months on and I’ve made the commitment. I’ve even bought a Gratz reformer to practise on, which will eventually be the first piece of apparatus in my teaching studio. (Gratz have maintained Pilates’ original designs without making any modifications to the dimensions, angles or materials he specified.) I passed the initial assessment earlier this August, which lead to an invitation to embark on the apprenticeship programme. It began earlier this month with our Basic Seminar, given by Jane Poerwoatmodjo from ‘The Pilates Studio’ in The Hague. It was an incredible two days and I’m extremely excited, if a little apprehensive, about completing the 1000+ of apprenticeship necessary to qualify while continuing to teach and play professionally.
I know it will all be worth it. If I can help musicians have a better relationship with their instruments, playing pain-free with improved endurance and control for many more years of their life than they might otherwise, then my work in this lifetime is done.
Visit the Kinetic Pilates Teacher Training website
Visit The Pilates Studio at The Hague
Visit the Romana’s Pilates website
Visit the Gratz website
22nd September 2019