“I wish I’d kept up my piano lessons!”

How many people do you meet who express this regret, that they’d continued childhood piano lessons into adulthood?

At my piano club, there are people who have played all their life; others who, like me, gave up, often in childhood or their teens, only to return to the instrument later in life; and those who have taken up the piano from scratch as adults, setting themselves on a path which brings pleasure and frustration in equal measure. For all of us, there is a huge sense of personal growth, self-determination and fulfilment.

The idea that once one reaches adulthood it is “too late” to take up the piano – or indeed any other instrument – is nonsense. The body and, more importantly, the brain is still receptive and highly malleable, and research has amply demonstrated that the brain remains “plastic” (able to adapt and change) throughout our life. Learning a musical instrument stimulates almost every part of the brain, especially those areas associated with memory. Contrary to common misconceptions, the adult brain continues to carve new neural pathways throughout life, and learning an instrument stimulates this and improves cognitive function.

Dismiss any idea that it is “harder” to learn an instrument as an adult. Unlike children, who may be compelled to learn an instrument by their parents, the adult learner makes the personal choice to pursue music and has the motivation, intent and self-discipline to stay the course.

It takes a degree of courage to decide to learn, or return to, an instrument, and to take lessons with the teacher and the first few lessons can be extremely daunting, but find the right teacher and the activity is an extraordinarily fulfilling experience. No dull exercises or drills or exams, but a stimulating flow of ideas and inspiration, exploring repertoire and honing one’s skills, while life experience and maturity bring a special dimension to lessons and learning.

I first started to learn the piano when I was about five years old, took all my grade exams, and then abruptly stopped playing when I left home to go to university (to study not music but Anglo-Saxon and Medieval literature). I hardly touched the piano for 20 years, but when I returned to it, I did so with an all-consuming passion. I took lessons with master teachers and attended masterclasses with leading concert pianists. I set myself the personal target of learning and preparing music at a very high level to fulfil the requirements of professional musical qualifications (two performance diplomas which I passed with distinction) and organised and performed in my own concerts. Today the piano is my life – and my work – and it has put me in touch with so many wonderful, inspiring and interesting people. I certainly intend to go on playing the piano and engaging with the literature and those who play it for as long as I can.

It’s never too late!

I was recently asked for some tips on returning to the piano after a long absence.

I stopped playing the piano at the age of 18 when I left home to go to university and I didn’t touch the instrument again seriously until I was in my late 30s.

It may be two years or twenty since you last touched a piano, but however long the absence, taking the decision to return to playing is exciting, challenging and just a little trepidatious.

Here are some thoughts on how to return to playing:

Stick with the familiar and play the music you learnt before

To get back in to the habit of playing, start by returning to music you have previously learnt. You may be surprised at how much has remained in the fingers and brain, and while facility, nimbleness and technique may be rusty, it shouldn’t take too long to find the music flowing again, especially if you learnt and practised it carefully in the past.

Take time to warm up

You may like to play scales or exercises to warm up, but simple yoga or Pilates-style exercises, done away from the piano, can also be very helpful in warming up fingers and arms and getting the blood flowing. This kind of warm up can also be a useful head-clearing exercise to help you focus when you go to the piano.

You don’t have to play scales or exercises!

Some people swear by scales, arpeggios and technical exercises while others run a mile from them (me!). As a returner, you are under no obligation to play scales or exercises. While they may be helpful in improving finger dexterity and velocity, many exercises can be tedious and repetitive. Instead try and create exercises from the music you are playing – it will be far more useful and, importantly, relevant.

Invest in a decent instrument

If you are serious about returning to the piano, a good instrument is essential. It needn’t be an acoustic piano; there are many very high-quality digital instruments to choose from. Select one with a full-size keyboard and properly weighted keys which imitate the action of a real piano. The benefits of a digital instrument are that you can adjust the volume and play with headphones so as not to disturb other members of your household or neighbours, and most digital instruments allow you to record yourself and connect to apps which provide accompaniments or a rhythm section which makes playing even more fun!

Posture is important

You’ve got a good instrument, now invest in a proper adjustable piano stool or bench. Good posture enables you to play better, avoid tiredness and injury

Little and often

Your new-found enthusiasm for the piano may lead you to play for hours on end over the weekend but hardly at all during the week. Instead of a long practice session, aim for shorter periods at the piano, every day if possible, or at least 5 days out of 7. Routine and regularity of practice are important for progress.

Consider taking lessons

A teacher can be a valuable support, offering advice on technique, productive practising, repertoire, performance practice, and more. Choose carefully: the pupil-teacher relationship is a very special one and a good relationship will foster progress and musical development. Ask for recommendations from other people and take some trial lessons to find the right teacher for you.

Pianists at play at a summer piano course in France

Go on a piano course

Piano courses are a great way to meet other like-minded people – and you’ll be surprised how many returners there are out there! Courses also offer the opportunity to study with different teachers, hear other people playing, get tips on practising, chat to other pianists, and discover repertoire. I’ve made some very good friends through piano courses, and the social aspect is often as important as the learning for many adult amateur pianists.  More on piano courses here

Join a piano club or meetup group

If you fancy improving your performance skills in a supportive friendly environment, consider joining a piano club. You’ll meet other adult pianists, hear lots of different repertoire, have an opportunity to exchange ideas, and enjoy a social life connected to the piano. Piano clubs offer regular performance opportunities which can help build confidence and fluency in your playing.

Listen widely

Listening, both to CDs or via streaming, or going to live concerts, is a great way to discover new repertoire or be inspired by hearing the music you’re learning played by master musicians.

Buy good-quality scores

Cheap, flimsy scores don’t last long and are often littered with editorial inconsistencies. If you’re serious about your music, invest in decent sheet music and where possible buy Urtext scores (e.g. Henle, Barenreiter or Weiner editions) which have useful commentaries, annotations, fingering suggestions, and clear typesetting on good-quality paper.

Play the music you want to play

One of the most satisfying aspects of being an adult pianist is that you can choose what repertoire to play. Don’t let people tell you to play certain repertoire because “it’s good for you”! If you don’t enjoy the music, you won’t want to practice. As pianists we are spoilt for choice and there really is music out there to suit every taste.

Above all, enjoy the piano!


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Guest post by Howard Smith


Glenn Gould once said “One does not play the piano with one’s fingers, one plays the piano with one’s mind.” Sounds plausible, but what did he mean? I’ve heard similar ideas from my piano teachers. One suggested, “spending time away from the keyboard with the sheet music.”  Another urged me to “fully concentrate while practicing”.  And, an experienced concert pianist told me that “Practice must always be ‘mind led’. Do not touch the keyboard until you are sure of things.”  

What does it mean to play the piano with one’s mind?

I should explain why I am writing about this topic. I am an upper-intermediate pianist struggling to make a solid transition to ‘advanced’. I stress ‘solid’. How come? I did little piano as a child and my gap before returning to the keys was 45 years! The cards are stacked against me. Whenever I use this cruel fact as an excuse with my teachers, they ramble on about practice approaches – of course – and the conversation always ends in the same place: “It’s all in the mind, Howard.” Well, is it? 

I must start with how I feel. It is taking me an inordinate time to bring new pieces to fruition. I won’t go into details but I will make an assertion. Unless I can get on top of pieces more readily, I simply won’t be getting through enough varied music to make progress. Imagine a tennis player who rarely played against more able opponents. The only way top-ranked players progress is to play regularly against their peers. Likewise, the only way musicians progress is to expand their repertoire. If the amateur pianist is taking weeks, months or in some cases a year or more to get a new piece under their fingers, is it surprising that their progress will be limited? No. One could easily find oneself going backwards!

I am sitting with my regular teacher and explaining the dilemma to her. She explains that it is common to take weeks and months on new work. She also explains that she generally requires her students to tackle the set pieces for upcoming grade examinations in a single term, or at most two terms. I tend to agree with her.  I don’t think you can count yourself to be ‘at’ a grade level if it takes a year or more to bring the required three pieces to a good standard. But I am no exam chaser. Far from it. My interest in this topic is borne out of my own frustration in crossing the chasm from upper-intermediate to advanced. It is also an intellectual curiosity. My teacher observed, for example, that I have no trouble moving my fingers and hands once the piece is absorbed. “It is not your fingers that are the problem,” she said. So what, precisely, is the problem? 

Another teacher talked about patterns.  “It’s all about patterns, Howard,” he said. “You must be able to recognise the patterns, not the individual notes”. I can relate to that, my sight reading is sub-standard. But I am unconvinced this is the only, or even the main, thing that is holding me back. Even after I have spent time ‘learning the notes’ the hard way (rote repetition) I still feel an impediment buried deep in my playing. It rarely feels … easy, relaxed. There is a hesitancy in my transitions, especially in more complex or rapid passages. I must admit, it does feel as though it is my mind being the sluggish laggard in those moments, not my nimble fingers. It ‘feels’ as if a signal is not being communicated from my brain to my hands as quickly as required to keep the music moving forward. Or perhaps the conjuring up of the correct signal, the moment of thought, is lacking. It is often enough to disturb the play. I can enjoy the occasional sense of ‘flow’ but it is rare for me to experience what other pianists have described as ‘letting go’.  When I do, everything falls apart, more often than not.

Teachers cannot easily see into the mind of their pupils. My starting point for thinking about this impediment can only be, therefore, how I feel while playing. And believe me, I have tried. This kind of self reflection is like trying to swivel your eyes to look inside your head. Yes, I do have a sense that something mental lies at the heart of my blocks. The question is, what? 

It’s easy to become paranoid. I am in late middle age and only too well aware that the mind is less agile than perhaps it once was. It starts with little things, forgetfulness, not remembering people’s names, forgetting where one left one’s glasses, etc. Is this what is holding me back? Am I simply the victim of biology and the ageing process? The thought horrifies me. I stepped into this ‘piano journey’ game late in life. I understood there was a diminishing ‘window of opportunity’. But every time I raise this with a teacher they assure me the impediment can be overstated, that adults have certain advantages over children. We are able to spend more time at the keyboard for example, and with developed intellects we can immerse ourselves in more of the theory and practice that tackling this instrument requires. There are stories of amateur pianists still making progress well into their late 70s and early 80s. Will that be me, I wonder? I have to believe so. 

If the ageing process is not as much an impediment than I once feared, what else could be holding me back? My career was spent in the computer industry, specifically, software development and complex systems design. That takes intelligence? What is the role of intelligence in piano playing? I’ve never met an unintelligent musician at the top of their game. There is a reason why you find super-intelligent people around music. Perhaps I have the wrong kind of intelligence for the piano? Is there such a thing as ‘musical intelligence’? Am I lacking it? My penfriend, a biologist, is quick to point out there are not different types of intelligence, just differences in the way the brain develops depending how it is applied, the object of our attention. Does the child who plays music from the age of six develop a musician’s intelligence different in kind than the intelligence required of a software engineer? Is it now too late to change the wiring? 

When I think about great pianists, when I marvel at their superhuman feats of virtuosic performance and memorisation, I have to conclude that raw IQ must play a significant role. Is that what is holding me back? Am I less intelligent than required for piano? I never was any good at those ‘recall twenty objects on a tray’ games. Or perhaps my kind of intelligence (logic and math) is simply the wrong colour for music? The thought terrifies me. Having taken the decision to step out of a career of one kind for an activity of quite a different nature, to have spent years in the journey on a quest that leads nowhere, I’m not sure how I could handle that. My friends, sensing such a possibility, urge me to have ‘realistic’ expectations. So what’s to be done? I’m not ready to give up. On the other hand, unless I can make more progress and tackle more advanced music more readily, I do not believe that playing a stream of simpler pieces could sustain me. There is a real possibility of never touching the keys again. For someone as passionate about music as I, who has entered into the spirit of the journey as fully as I, this is quite a statement to make. But I have to admit it: as I write this article, I am on a knife edge. To use a metaphor from my book, Note For Note, I may be about to fall off the escalator and never jump back on. 

What’s to be done? 

A friend from my piano circle urged me to reassess my practice regime. He was kind enough to send me a detailed systematic approach that he is experimenting with. I looked at it, but was unconvinced. I have used some of those techniques before, perhaps not as rigorously as he would advise, but I don’t think doing more of the same will help me. He also suggested that I step back and work on simpler pieces, a few grades below my current level, so as to get through more music and, at the same time, benefit from the sight-reading.  Sounds sensible, but I was not immediately motivated to do this. No, another idea popped into my mind, and it was reinforced by an experienced pianist I met at summer school. He said, “Given your age, Howard, it’s now or never.  I would recommend you tackle a few works far in advance of your grade. Stretch goals.”  His idea held great appeal to me. His theory was that even if I did not complete the pieces to the standard required for performance, I would learn a lot in the process. And so, somewhat tentatively, I chose such a piece. 

Have you ever come across a piece that, on first listen, touches you so deeply that you decide, there and then, that you simply must be able to play it, no matter what the cost in time and effort. Not ‘wish’ or ‘hope’ to play it, but ‘must’ play it, with all your soul. I have found such a piece, by complete chance. It is more than gorgeous. It is not one of the greatest works of music, nor is it so complex that a diploma level pianist would find it daunting. For me it is pitched just right. It lies far from my comfort zone but not so far as to be permanently inaccessible. And so I have set myself this goal: unless I can truly perform (not merely play) this piece by the Spring, I hereby make a solemn oath: I will never play again. 

Postscript

I’ve not yet learnt to play with the mind, but I have learnt this:  As I practice I must practice even more slowly than I had previously realised. Every note and every chord must be ‘read’ from the sheet music. I must never assume my fingers will take me to where I need them to be. I must will them to do so, by brain power alone. Every movement must be fully considered. As I move through the music I must make no mistakes. For to make a single mistake will engrain it for next time. If I am making mistakes, even small ones, this is the signal that I must slow down even more. If necessary I must not move to the next beat until the positions of the hands and fingers for the subsequent beat are correct. This correction must occur in the mind before it is manifest in the fingers. This mind-led practice is what I will strive to perfect from now on.  Whether this is what Glenn Gould or my teachers meant I am less sure. I must find out. 

As ever, I wish to learn from the piano community, many of whom will have made more progress than me. Let’s have a conversation. What do you think Glenn Gould and my teachers meant? Please feel free to comment below


Howard Smith is a keen amateur pianist and author of Note for Note, a compelling account of his piano journey. Find out more here https://linktr.ee/note4notethebook

 

I understand you took up the piano during lockdown. What prompted you to do this and did you have any experience of playing the piano before then?

Yes, I started learning the piano shortly after the first lockdown hit, when I went to stay with my girlfriend (for the lockdown period). She has played the piano since she was a child. We dug her keyboard out of the loft with the intention of her brushing up on her technique, but after an hour of us playing around and her showing me a couple of easy things to play, I was hooked.

I have not had any experience with, or exposure to any instruments before, so I had to start with the basics. Not knowing anything at all about reading music, chords, key signatures etc., but with a brain that has a thirst for knowledge, I set out on my journey.

What attracted you to the piano?

It was more about circumstances than attraction. I had always wanted to learn an instrument and when I was presented with lots of time on my hands and the keyboard in front of me, I jumped at the chance.

What have been the pleasures and challenges of learning to play the piano?

There have been many challenges, but I think the main one for me was finding the right things to practise/learn and in what order. Whilst teaching myself in a lockdown, I read many books and watched loads of YouTube videos. I found that information was often just repeating things I had already learned. The other challenges included getting my hands to do different things at the same time and then, when I bought myself a pedal, adding that third thing ….. a challenge which I still struggle with.

When I am sitting at my keyboard and no matter what I am doing, whether it’s playing a piece, doing scales of chord progression, or learning a new piece, the pleasures for me are that nothing else matters in the world at that point, I am completely present in the moment. That is what hooked me at the beginning and still does now.

How much practising do you do on a daily basis?

I can normally manage an hour’s practise each day; more if I am lucky enough. I normally start with some scales, chords and arpeggios working my way through the keys. A different key each week. Then I learn more and practise the piece I’m working on at that time. Following that, I like to just ‘free play’, learning what sounds good (and what doesn’t!!) and not be tied to the music on the sheet. I usually finish by playing some pieces that I have already learnt and enjoy playing.

What kind of music do you enjoy playing?

My favourite genre is Jazz and Blues. I love the sounds of jazz chords as they resolve into each other and with blues, I love the swinging rhythm and that soulful feel it has. I get lost in it. I do also enjoy playing classical music, although I am sticking to playing some slower pieces for now.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am working on Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata 2nd movement at the moment. I have
learnt the 1st movement and love playing it. I am also trying to teach myself to improvise Blues.

You belong to a piano meetup group. What are the benefits of belonging to such a group? How do you feel it supports your progress as a pianist?

I highly recommend joining a meetup group. I have been fortunate enough to meet some encouraging and supportive people there. I was very nervous at first and not sure what to expect; my hands were shaking and half way through my first piece I froze. Everyone was so supportive that I managed to carry on and finish!

I am a perfectionist and very tough on myself and seeing that even the best players can hit a ‘bum note’ or even lose their place at times, helped me loads. Also just seeing pianists perform in real life was inspiring.

Would you consider attending a piano course, and if so why?

Definitely. I have been looking into getting lessons now and things are going back to normal (post lockdown). I am struggling to find someone that has space that fits around work. I feel that I need some direction now. I have tried some online subscription lessons but they’re not for me. Although they did help, I would like someone to whom I can ask questions and who can watch me and tell me what I am doing wrong (and hopefully right!)..

What about piano exams… do you have any plans to take grade exams?

Yes, I will definitely be taking some graded exams at some point. Actually when I started to learn I used the grade books as a starting point for learning and would love to go through them with a teacher and sit the exams.

What advice would you give other adults who are considering taking up the piano?

Do it!!!! Sometimes it feels like a mountain to climb. Reading music, theory, scales etc but keep it simple. For me, the more I did scales and read music, then looked into the theory, timing and key signatures, the more it made sense. Learn an easy piece or song that you enjoy playing so when the practise gets boring you can play it and lose yourself in it. The most important thing is to have fun.

If you could play one piece what would it be?

I long to be able to ‘jam’ and confidently improvise on the piano.


Biography
I grew up in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire. After leaving school I trained as a plasterer, which I still do today. I suffer from drug addiction and I spent twenty years in active addiction; not really living but just existing and the last eight years of those I was homeless. After making the decision that I needed to change, I moved to nearby Luton and started attending Cocaine Anonymous (CA) meetings. After a six month detox program and support from CA, I now work a 12 step program and have reintegrated myself back into society. I will be three years clean from all drugs and alcohol on the 13th October 2021. I met my girlfriend, Abbie, whilst working in the school where she works, and now live in Surrey with her.


If you are an adult amateur pianist and you would like to take part in the Piano Notes series to share your personal piano journey, please get in touch

In this wide-ranging conversation Frances Wilson (AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist) talks to pianist, recording artist and teacher Eleonor Bindman about the world of the amateur pianist, the pleasures and frustrations of being an amateur pianist, how teaching adult amateurs presents interesting unique challenges for teacher and pupil alike, and much, much more…..


Books about piano journeys are rare and valuable – especially those written from the perspective of the amateur player.

A new book, by late-returner pianist and ex-technologist Howard Smith, adds to the genre and does so in a surprising (and delightful) fashion. In this article I list the six books I have read, and compare and contrast the approach each (very different) author has taken in narrating their adventures in pianism. My reading list comprises:

1. Piano Notes, The hidden world of the pianist, Charles Rosen

2. Piano Lessons, Music, love & true adventures, Noah Adams

3. The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, Discovering a forgotten passion in a Paris atelier, Thad Carhart

4. Piano Pieces, Russell Sherman

5. Play It Again, An amateur against the impossible, Alan Rusbridger

6. Note For Note, Bewitched, bothered & bewildered, Howard Smith


589578._uy200_Piano Notes, The Hidden World of the Pianist, by Charles Rosen (first published in the USA by The Free Press in 2002., republished by Penguin in 2004).

The late Charles Rosen, a distinguished concert pianist, music critic and author of The Classical Style and its sequel The Romantic Generation, provides an eloquent description of the ‘delights and demands’ of the piano. The author explores every aspect of the instrument, from the physical challenges of technique to the subtle art of creating a beautiful tone, to the culture and foibles of conservatories and contests. The book is structured as a set of connected essays, scholarly in approach but highly readable and accessible. I read this book when I was beginning a tentative return to the piano in my late 30s and found Rosen’s wisdom inspiring and insightful.

9780385318211_p0_v2_s260x420Piano Lessons, Music, Love & True Adventures, by Noah Adams. Published in 1997 (Delta/Random House), the book explores why a fifty one-year old man would suddenly decide he has to own a grand piano: a Steinway. Adams, a radio journalist and host of NPR’s flagship news program All Things Considered, sets out a month-by-month chronicle of one year spent pursuing his passion for the piano. The book is packed with anecdotes beyond the telling of his own story of obsession, covering such diverse worlds as Bach, Pop, boogie-woogie, and is littered with his recollection of meeting with or speaking to masters such as Glenn Gould, Leon Fleisher and George Shearing. Adams is a consummate writer, and as each month and season in his year long journey spins by, culminating in his surprise ‘Christmas Party performance’ of Schumann’s Traumerei from Scenes from Childhood, he reflects on what could have been. ‘There’s been a secret, hiding in my heart about this piano-learning endeavor: Perhaps I do have a talent and no one knows.’ Adam’s dedication is ‘For all who would play’. Written by an amateur pianist who sets himself on a path to master the piano, this book is an engaging, entertaining and inspiring read whose sentiments will resonate with others on a similar journey.

9781407016979The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier, by Thad Carhart, became a New York Times Bestseller. First published in 2001 the book tells the story of how, while walking his children to school, the author chances upon an unassuming piano workshop in his Paris neighbourhood. Curious, he eventually wins the trust of the owner and is gradually introduced to the complexities of the engineering of pianos old and new, as well as the curiosities of the unique style of ‘trade’ in pianos between dealers, professionals and amateurs who wish to acquire distinctive and beautiful instruments. Along the way we learn much of the rich history and art of the piano, and the stories of those special people who care for them.

The parallel story is how the author returns to playing the piano by acquiring a Stingl grand piano and taking lessons himself – and here the “piano journey” once again resonates with those of us who have taken up, or returned to the instrument later in life.

It’s a captivating read, the boulevards and backstreets of Paris brought to life in an atmospheric and engaging narrative, and and author reveals a special awareness of the special attachment pianists, professional and amateur, have to their instruments. In an appendix titled ‘A Readers’ Guide’, Cahart explains how pianos occupy a special place in people’s lives. ‘Musically, they are unique,’ he explains. ‘But they are also just too big to ignore … Pianos are truly amazing receptacles of memory and emotion for many families’.

b45d34f1d09b64b19a931d666a4b8eecPiano Pieces, by Russell Sherman. Described by The New Yorker as ‘Startling … dreamily linked observations about the experience of piano playing and a thousand other unexpected subjects’. Sherman’s book is cerebral, esoteric and at times philosophical in its ruminations on the physical, metaphysical and emotional activity of playing the piano and being a pianist. It is packed with profound ponderings and thought-provoking insights, and although it is written by a professional pianist, it is relevant to anyone who plays and/or teaches the piano. For example, on coordination he says: ‘Coordination is what the teacher must begin and end with. As I stand next to my student I feel dangerously like a puppeteer trying to guide him or her through the vortex of ideas and feelings. I console myself in the realization that eventually students will internalise this role and learn to master their own fate’. In another ‘thought’ he simply writes: ‘When one plays Beethoven one must serve Beethoven. No, one must represent Beethoven. No, one must be Beethoven’. An unusual contemplation on the piano and what it means to “be” a pianist.

9780099554745Play It Again, An Amateur Against The Impossible, by Alan Rusbridger, is almost certainly the most well-known of the books in this niche genre. In 2010, the then editor of the Guardian newspaper, set himself an ‘almost impossible’ task: to learn, in the space of a year, Chopin’s Ballade No. 1, considered one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire that inspires dread in many professional pianists. Written in the form of diary extracts, the book charts not only his adventures with the Ballade, a project he likens to George Mallory attempting to climb Everest “in tweed jacket and puttees”, but also an extraordinarily busy year for his newspaper (The Guardian) and the world in general: the year of the Arab Spring and the Japanese Tsunami, Wikileaks and the UK summer riots, and the phone hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Enquiry. Despite this, somehow the author managed to find ‘twenty minutes practice a day’ – even if it meant practising in a Libyan hotel in the middle of a revolution. Much of the book is a glimpse into Alan Rusbridger’s “practice diary”, his day-to-day responses to learning the piece. For the serious amateur pianist and teacher, Rusbridger’s analysis, virtually bar-by-bar, is very informative, but you would want to have a copy of the score beside you as you read. There is also plenty of useful material on how to practice “properly” – something Rusbridger has to learn almost from scratch, with the guidance of, amongst others, eminent pianists such as Murray Perahia and Lucy Parham – and how to make the most of limited practice time. Alongside this, we also meet piano restorers and technicians to peer into the rarefied world of high class grand pianos (Steinway, Fazioli), as well as neurologists (with whom Rusbridger discusses the phenomenon of memory), piano teachers, pianists all over the world who have played or are studying the piece, other journalists, celebrities, politicians, dissenters, and Rusbridger’s friends and family.

Another aspect which comes across very clearly throughout is the pleasure of music making and its therapeutic benefits, for performer and listener, and the book is very much a hymn to this. Like the Ballade itself, the book hurtles towards its finale: will the author learn the piece, memorise, and finesse it in time for the concert….?

From Rusbridger’s elevated platform as a high profile journalist with a myriad connections, the book was an immense success when it was first published, due in no small part, one suspects, because the text will appeal as much to those with an interest in current events as it does for amateur pianists chasing a similar virtuosic feat of pianism.

n4nfrontcoverAnd so we come to the new kid on the block: Howard Smith’s Note For Note, Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered. Released in 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Smith’s book was described by amateur pianist and performing arts clinician Marie McKavanagh as, ‘A brutally honest personal testimony of a human experience that enriches life via the intimate physical act of working with a musical instrument.’ Over thirty-eight chapters, covering a period of just three years, Smith charts his unexpected transformation from software-geek to musician or, as he points it ‘from the digital to the analogue: from the bits and bytes of the computer industry to the world of melody, harmony and musical performance’. Covering topics as diverse as lead sheets, mental performance, unblocking, the musical ‘fourth’, the circle of fifths, two-five-one progressions, modes and chord-scale theory, theory and practice is blended with what Victoria Williams of MyMusicTheory called ‘captivating story-telling’. The result is a unique memoir and simultaneously an educational text for all amateur pianists, described by educator Andrew Eales (who blogs as Pianodao) as ‘Essential reading for 2021’. However, Note For Note is not a textbook; nor is it a novel. Smith calls it a ‘musical fable’; a message as much about how not to go about learning the piano as it is a guide to best practice. The author claims that every word is true, and I have no reason to doubt him. In the song-writing chapters, for example, Smith enumerates the process of his work with his teachers in composition and lyric-writing, presenting every chord symbol and poetic line as it happened. (One day, he tells me, he will release this music.) Smith’s story (and writing) unfolds as it happened, or as he says, ‘from the theory to the practice’. Devoid of any artifice, perhaps the most surprising aspect of this book is depth of wisdom it embodies for someone who, at the time of writing, had only been playing for a couple of years. We learn that Smith is the proverbial ‘late returning’ amateur, and this reality (and his narrowing ‘window of opportunity’) weighs heavily on him at key points in the text. He returned to the piano, leaving the IT career he loved, after a ‘gap’ of forty-five years, having only achieved a modest ‘grade three’ as a child; a child engineer who found the mechanism of the piano and its ‘physics of sound’ more interesting than any disciplined ‘practice’. Note For Note is a book written by an amateur pianist for amateur pianists, especially those, like Smith, who struggle to make the transition from ‘intermediate’ to ‘advanced’. The author does eventually learn what it means to ‘be a musician’, and you believe him: concert pianist Murray McLachlan, Head of Keyboard at Chetham’s School of Music, called it a ‘A truly inspirational odyssey’. As to how the book came to be written, that must remain strictly ‘no spoilers’.

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To summarise, each of these books charts the mystery that is our “piano journey” but do so in very different and distinctive ways. Each demands your attention, offering up a rich brew of ideas, topics and insights that will help every pianist (or teacher) at any level to advance their own art and practice.