By Clemency Burton-Hill
10 January 2017
Is it ever too late to learn a musical instrument? According to the leading British concert pianist James Rhodes, the answer is an emphatic ‘no’ – and he has just written the book to prove it. The delightfully straight-talking How To Play the Piano is an elegant little volume that promises – with just 45 minutes’ practice a day, six days a week, for six weeks – to enable anyone with access to a keyboard to play one of JS Bach’s most beloved works, the Prelude no 1 in C major from Book One of The Well-Tempered Clavier.
The book, Rhodes reveals, came from an overwhelming response to his excoriating 2015 memoir Instrumental, which addressed his devastating mental breakdown and the critical role music played in his recovery and redemption. Following its publication, countless readers were moved to tell him they’d been inspired by his words to return to the piano themselves. “I lose track of how many people have said ‘Oh, I used to play when I was a kid, I wish I’d stuck it out,’” he tells me, mentioning one particular email that sparked the idea.
“I got a message from a retired Mexican professional airline pilot who said: ‘I used to play as a kid but I haven’t played for 50 years. I read Instrumental, I bought a piano, I got myself a piano teacher, now I practice every day. And I just want you to know: these are my best days.’ I found that so moving.”
Learning a musical instrument can unlock the door to a new dimension that many of us have forgotten exists – James Rhodes
Rhodes’ new book is the first in publisher Quercus Books’ Little Book of Life Skills series. It manages to tap into something pervasive, even romantic in the Western zeitgeist – becoming better, more skilled, more cultured and accomplished versions of ourselves – whilst never deviating from the integrity of a tradition that has remained essentially unchanged since humans first started making music on keyboards hundreds of years ago. “Learning a musical instrument can unlock the door to a new dimension that many of us have forgotten even exists,” Rhodes begins in his opening chapter, and there is no denying the immense appeal of laying aside technology to engage one’s fingers and brain and soul in a pursuit that has nothing to do with email, texting, or social media.
His project offers perhaps the ultimate digital detox. Reading the book, I had fantasies of lighting a few candles of an evening, pouring a large glass of wine and getting stuck in to my piano practice: an alluring act of hygge, artistic self-improvement and self-care all in one. If you’d told me as a kid that I’d one day actually look forward to practicing the piano, I would have laughed in disbelief. But in Rhodes’ witty, engaging, unpretentious hands, the prospect of daily piano-practice and its requirement of deep concentration becomes both meditation and medication.
“We live in an age of such instant gratification, we’re always looking outside of ourselves, and I think we’ve lost sight of just doing something quiet for ourselves,” he offers, when I suggest that the book is also a timely reflection of a modern Western aspiration not to material wealth but to spiritual and emotional enrichment, as seen in the proliferation of on- and offline adult skills courses such as those offered by Skillshare, Creative Live and The School of Life.
“Not for the reward but just for the sheer loveliness of doing it. I think of playing the piano as a version of mindfulness – for which you don’t need a fleet of commando-style, shaven-haired monks, you just need a keyboard.” Besides, have we ever needed analogue escape routes more than now? Rhodes agrees. “All the news is bad, so why not just do something lovely for ourselves?”
Ditch the scales
Besides, learning – or re-learning – a skill such as playing the piano is proven to be good for our brains. According to research from the University of Texas, “mentally-challenging leisure activities” can re-wire our grey matter, restoring our brains to a more “youth-like” state. Rhodes is careful not to over-promise. “Look, this book won’t have you playing Rachmaninov or Chopin etudes. I was well aware that if you set out with a book about learning to play the piano and you say it takes 10,000 hours, nobody’s going to do it, because for whatever reason, good or bad, it has become hard to find time to simply focus and work on something for yourself. Time is such a precious commodity. But it will have you playing some Bach. And the Bach is still challenging, it will still push you, but it’s as accessible as possible.” He continues. “And six weeks is an outsize estimate: if you have time to practise more, or you played a lot as a kid, it will come back quicker. And it will give you a proper insight into the music. Maybe that in itself will be enough, or maybe you’ll enjoy it so much you’ll decide to get a teacher and learn other things.”
Find a piece you love, and work on it through the music – James Rhodes
Central to his approach is the beauty of the actual music itself. “I’m a big fan of taking a piece that you want to play and finding a positive way to work at it, not through scales and etudes and exercises, but by simply playing it,” he explains. The book breaks down exactly how to practice in this way, including his genius fingerings, which staves off the potential boredom and frustration that would lead many of us to give up. I tell him I could never face doing scales and arpeggios as a child and I feel no differently about them as an adult.
“Arpeggios and scales are never necessary!” he insists. “In any piece there will be technical challenges that you can work on using the music itself. I also loathe doing scales and arpeggios, but hey, I’m looking at this Mozart concerto that’s sitting on my piano right now, and it’s filled with scales and arpeggios. If you’re working on a piece and achieving something, it’s a great way to learn. Find a piece you love, and work on it through the music.”
Rhodes is evangelical about the joys of connecting or reconnecting with the piano, and beyond the book itself, his website has tutorials and videos dedicated to help you on your journey. The start of a new year, with all its attendant resolve, seems as good a time as any to take the plunge; our lives, after all, are not getting any longer. “Yeah. We’re not going to be lying on our death bed thinking, I wish I’d sent a few more emails and done a few more spreadsheets,” he jokes. “But you might well think: I wish I’d written that novel or painted that picture. Or learned to play that piece of Bach on the piano…”