By Clemency Burton-Hill
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 practise 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.