Can you learn to play J S Bach’s wondrous Prelude in C BWV 846 in just 6 weeks? The pianist James Rhodes thinks you can – and to prove his point, he has written a book to help you achieve this, the first ‘Little Book of Life Skills’ in a new series by Quercus Editions.
I come across many people who, on discovering I am a pianist and piano teacher, tell me they wished they had continued with the piano into adulthood. Many were put off by bossy, overbearing, unpleasant or just plain useless teachers; or by the daily grind of practising; or being put an exam treadmill, one a year until they could bear it no longer. Happily, I also meet many people who have either returned to the piano in adulthood or who have taken it up from scratch, and who find playing the piano a rewarding and therapeutic activity.
James Rhodes can fully attest to the therapeutic powers of music in general and the piano in particular. In his memoir ‘Instrumental’ he explains how hearing Glenn Gould’s recording of the Aria from the Goldberg Variations marked the first stage in his gradual recovery from a devastating mental breakdown. Not just a career, playing the piano for Rhodes provides significant emotional nourishment.
But ‘How to Play the Piano’ is not some new-age self-help book, extolling the “power of now” – though the author does discuss the benefits of pursuing a creative activity, describing it as “a kind of stillness meditation for the soul”, and reminds us that we need such stillness in today’s fast-moving, instant gratification-led world. As both a musician and writer, it’s a view I definitely concur with. Rhodes’ book promises to equip the reader with “all the tools necessary to have you playing a piano masterpiece…..within six weeks”, and it’s written in a chatty, conversational style – almost as if Mr Rhodes is seated by your side at the piano offering cheery words of encouragement. The format of the book, in keeping with the recent penchant for updated Ladybird Books for adults, is quite small with a retro typeface suggesting an old-fashioned manual or piano tutor book, and hand-drawn illustrations, including some rather gnarly pianist’s hands. The score of the Prelude comes in two pull-out sections, smaller than A4, which most people, cross-eyed or otherwise, might find a little small to work with. But no matter, you can download a copy of the score from James Rhodes’ website, where you can also view instructional videos on the music.
After the introduction, there is a whole chapter on “the basics” – the layout of the keyboard, how music is written, numbered fingering for each hand. As a piano teacher, I was a little troubled by Mr Rhodes’ exhortation to the newbie pianist to start in the Middle C position, as this immediately encourages elbows to be jammed in against the body, not a good tension-free position from which to begin, but he does later suggest one explores the full range of the keyboard. Chapter 3 introduces the Prelude with some background about Bach and the music itself, before it’s time to start playing. The directions are generally clear and simple and the chatty, encouraging tone continues throughout, but I immediately spotted a discrepancy in the text and the diagram for the first bar of the music: the player is told to put their right-hand “thumb, third and fourth” fingers in position for the first bar of the piece, but in the diagram the thumb, second and fourth fingers are shown in the same position on the keys. There is also no mention of how we all have different sized hands and that one cannot rely on a one-size-fits-all fingering scheme. Further on, brief mention is made of “rhythm”, but up until this point nothing much has been said about the note groupings in this music.
The book continues in the same vein with a bar-by-bar walk-through of the music, with similar diagrams and fingering schemes. The fourth chapter, The Performance, discusses aspects such as pedalling, an area of piano technique which is regularly mis-used and abused. I would be very wary of suggesting a novice pianist try pedalling a piece as sophisticated as this Prelude, and I know Bach purists would be appalled at the idea of the feet going anywhere near it. I would also have liked to have seen some discussion about how this piece is constructed from a series of chords which have been broken up: encouraging the student to play each bar as a chord and then to separate the notes is helpful in establishing both a good fingering scheme and understanding the harmonic structure of the piece which, as one of my students is discovering, has a significant bearing on how one shapes this piece in terms of dynamics and phrasing. I was, however, pleased to see a section on interpretation and the reader is encouraged to seek out recordings of the piece which can be a useful way of discovering how individual musicians shape and interpret the music and make it their own. Often beginner piano students are nervous about doing this in case they “get it wrong”.
The final chapter encourages the reader to keep going with the music and maybe try performing it for friends, with some rather simplistic commentary about performance anxiety. Finally, Mr Rhodes suggests the reader try some other repertoire or seeks out a piano teacher – which is possibly the best advice I’ve read in the whole book.
James Rhodes is a passionate advocate of the piano and music education, and one can only admire his enthusiasm and commitment. If his book encourages someone, anyone, who has always longed to play the piano to have a go then that is surely a good thing. But I would caution against using this book as the only “how to” guide for learning this piece or indeed a good basic introduction to the piano and reading music. Playing the piano is so much more than simply placing your fingers on the keys in the right place at the right time, and in this respect the title of the book is misleading. The book lacks detail about simple technique, such as lateral arm movement (which can be explained easily for the beginner as a “polishing movement” on the keyboard and which would help the player get round those right-hand semiquavers with ease and without tension), and I did not find the small format particularly practical for use at the piano.
How to Play the Piano is published by Quercus on 6th October 2016. RRP £9.99