16 February 2014

Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible

Summary from Goodreads:
As the editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger’s life is dictated by the demands of the twenty-four-hour news cycle. It is not the kind of job that leaves time for hobbies. But in the summer of 2010, Rusbridger determined to learn, in the course of a year, Chopin’s Ballade No.1 in G minor, one of the most beautiful and challenging pieces of music ever composed. With passages that demand feats of memory, dexterity, and power, even concert pianists are intimidated by its pyrotechnical requirements. Rusbridger’s timing could have been better. The next twelve months witnessed the Arab Spring and the Japanese tsunami and were bookended by The Guardian breaking two major news stories: WikiLeaks and the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. It was a defining year for The Guardian and its editor.

In Play It Again, Rusbridger recounts trying to carve out twenty minutes a day to practice, find the right teacher, the right piano, the right fingering—even if it meant practicing in a Libyan hotel in the midst of a revolution. He sought advice from legendary pianists, from historians and neuroscientists, and even occasionally from secretaries of state. But was he able to conquer the piece? A book about distraction, absorption, discipline, and desire, Play It Again resonates far beyond the realm of music, for anyone with an instinct to “wall off a small part of . . . life for creative expression.”

If you didn't know, I play the piano. Not spectacularly well (something of Elizabeth Bennet's line about not playing as well as she would wish to because she never took the time to practice hits home here), but I can play some advanced pieces. Albeit with a lot of mistakes and only in the privacy of my own home. But that is why I bought an Essex upright during a Steinway sale - I play well enough to care about having a good quality piano.

Alan Rusbridger's book Play It Again caught my eye because we are in similar positions - amateur pianists - but he takes it one step further than me: he actually plays with other amateur and professional musicians, even taking piano intensives in France.  Lucky duck.  While at one of those intensives, a fellow participant suddenly blows everyone away by playing Chopin's Ballade No. 1 in G minor.  So Rusbridger decides that, yes, he, too, can learn to play this amazingly hard (not because it is fast but because holy-crap-there-are-a-lot-of-notes-squashed-into-it) piano solo.  It's one of the holy grails of the piano literature.  Rusbridger overhauls his practice time, finds a teacher, and sets to work...then, of course, everything goes spectacularly haywire.  If it hadn't, there wouldn't be any book to read, in my opinion.

Rusbridger, in his capacity as the editor of the UK's Guardian, is uniquely poised at the outset of what turns out to be the most exhausting and exhilarating news year:  Wikileaks, the Japanese tsunami, the Arab Spring (which, as a side story, necessitates Rusbridger needing to fly to Libya to rescue a reporter), and the News of the World phone hacking scandal.  As much as Rusbridger tries to keep practicing, building his lovely music room, and interviewing major pianists - even the brilliant actor Simon Russell Beale is interviewed because he, too, is a talented pianist - he keeps later and later nights and weekends as the world's news keeps getting bigger and bigger.  A normal person might lose his or her sanity.

In a way, one could argue that music helped Rusbridger keep everything together during such a stressful year and he is successful in his quest to master such a difficult piano piece.  He inspired me to get a little more serious about my own practicing - even to the point of owning up that I never learned "proper" music theory and looked up a few workbooks to help me out (apparently, if you know and practice all your scales and arpeggios in all the keys the runs in piano pieces are much easier - who knew?).  Play It Again is a great book for aspiring pianists and even aspiring journalists - a great look at what goes into a major news publication.

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