Play it again...and again....

For someone who's been involved in making music since they were about 9, I have to make a confession: I've never really enjoyed books about music. I guess for me the music itself in its own little bubble has always been the important thing. I've never cared particularly what critics think about the work, or that the composer was having a nervous breakdown at the time he wrote it, or any of that sort of thing. That's not to say that perhaps I shouldn't care about it - this could very well be a failing in me - just that I don't.

Having to read books about music was a struggle at university - not easy when you're studying for a BMus. Virtually every one felt like the dreaded set book for English Lit. However much you might enjoy the book if you weren't forced to read it, having to read it suddenly took all the joy out. There were very few exceptions - I loved The inner game of music and I enjoyed books on orchestration and keyboard skills probably because they all had practical applications, but other works didn't interest me. However over the last year I seem to have suddenly started reading books about music; and, scarily, I'm enjoying them.

The latest is Alan Rusbridger's Play it again, which is a little gem. Rusbridger leads a frighteningly busy life. He's one of those sickening people who seems able to survive on 4 hours sleep a night while holding down a high powered job - he's editor of The Guardian newspaper - mixing with the great and the good, having chamber music sessions with people you would kill to know, and being a general all-round-good-guy. He's a keen amateur pianist after taking the piano up again in adulthood following a break away from the instrument.

Play it again follows him through 18 months of his life. After attending a piano summer school and being inspired by a performance, Rusbridger decides to learn Chopin's 1st Ballade. He always knew it was going to be difficult, but life as inevitably  happens with adult learners, got in the way in one of the busiest years ever for The Guardian. The start of Rusbridger's relationship with the Chopin coincided with the launch of Wikileaks, while he was soon to be embroiled in the hacking scandal at the News of the World and the resulting Leveson enquiry.

However throughout this time he managed to keep playing again and again and again (yes, any piano teacher will tell you that this really does matter) and interviewed everyone from pianists such as Murray Perahia and Stephen Hough to piano makers and scientists who know all about how our brains work.

I found it fascinating. You're not going to agree with everything that Rusbridger says, but that shows what an individual experience making music is. Some technical aspects that he finds difficult I think are easy, and vice versa. The variant views of top calibre concert pianists are fascinating; and again, some you are going to agree with, some you are going to think are completely barking. I was ridiculously chuffed to discover that Stephen Hough (do follow him on Twitter, he's great fun @houghhough) and I share similar views on the 1st Ballade, although I've never quite had the guts or big enough hands to attempt THAT coda.

What I found most intriguing though were Rusbridger's thoughts on musical memory. Here we definitely have something in common. Both of us have appalling musical memories. I am completely unable to play a piece I know well unless the music is in front of me. And yet I'm an excellent sight-reader (as is Rusbridger), and I've got a very good musical memory for tunes. I know, for example, if I've seen a TV programme or film before because I can remember the music even if everything else about the film has escaped me.And yet sit me in front of a keyboard with no music, and my mind and hands go blank. I can remember nothing of all the hours of music I know that I know. I've always felt this was a handicap, and was consoled by Rusbridger's similar experience. So inspired by his own progress I tried again. I went for something simple, the first of Bach's 48 - the C major prelude. Got 2 bars in and flunked. Had a look at the music, and then played the whole of the first page. I couldn't quite believe it, it had always been there. I just hadn't known how to access it.

What I so enjoyed about this book was that it made me think. It made me reflect on my own musical experience, my experiences both as a music teacher and a musician. And it made me think about my pupils' experience of learning in a rather different way too. A fascinating absorbing read. Highly recommended. For Alan Rusbridger on Chopin see


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