6129wygd2byl-_sy344_bo1204203200_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



Music education, particularly for young children in state primary school, and beyond, has been the subject of much debate in recent weeks, not least because of a new initiative and accompanying TV series Don’t Stop the Music headed by pianist James Rhodes, and the publication of a report on music education by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM). While the ABRSM report highlights increased access to music tuition amongst schoolchildren, James Rhodes’ tv series presents a much bleaker picture of little or no funding, woefully inadequate provision for music lessons in the state school sector, and untrained teaching staff. His campaign, Don’t Stop the Music aims to right these wrongs, and, working in conjunction with Oxfam and Yodel, the courier company, Rhodes is asking people to donate unwanted and unused instruments so that schoolchildren across the UK can have the chance to play an instrument, join a school orchestra and generally experience the joy and wonder of making music. This is all very laudable – and there is no doubting Rhodes’ passion and commitment (akin to Jamie Oliver’s campaign to reform school dinners) – but without the trained staff to teach the children how to play these instruments, the project may not be as successful as Mr Rhodes hopes, which would be a great pity.

I don’t want to dwell too much on this subject as my knowledge of music education in school is based largely on my own experience at school in the 1970s and 80s, but I would like to offer some of my own thoughts and observations on the value of music tuition, based on my experience over the last 8 years as a private piano teacher.

But first, a little background as to how I arrived at my current career path. I was very fortunate when I was growing up to be surrounded by music: at home my parents listened to Radio 3 and classical and jazz LPs. I was encouraged to begin piano lessons around the age of 6 and although I remember being quite bored a lot of the time with my first teacher, I can still recall the pleasure that came from being able to sit at the piano and play for my own enjoyment and to escape into my own fantasy world that was music. In addition, my parents took me to many concerts and operas. At senior school, I had an inspiring music teacher who took me through O- and A-level music, and who led the senior choir, orchestra, madrigal group and baroque ensemble with great energy and enthusiasm (he retired quite recently, having remained at the school for nearly 30 years). Alongside this, I had a very good private piano teacher with whom I learnt fast. Music was part of my day-to-day landscape, at home and at school. In fact, it seemed to be everywhere in my life. Looking back, I now realise that I was very privileged to be surrounded by music and to be encouraged in my music by supportive parents and music teachers. What I enjoyed was very much the preserve of a comfortable middle-class upbringing, but I do not believe that music and music lessons should only be the exclusive preserve of the better off.

Fast forward 30 years, and now I am involved in music education, in a tiny way, as a private piano teacher in an affluent area of south-west London. I didn’t choose this profession (I worked for 10 years in art and academic publishing and bookselling before I had my son); rather it chose me when I was approached by a friend to teach her daughter. At the time, I had no great desire to become a piano teacher, but I quickly grew to enjoy the job because it gave me an opportunity to share my passion for the piano, a passion that had been reignited after a long period in hibernation while I was busy working in London, getting married and having my son. And I could work from home.

Children in the leafy suburbs where I live now are very lucky indeed – as lucky as I was when I was growing up in an affluent part of Hertfordshire in the 1980s. In addition to excellent state and private schools, they have parents who are interested and keen to invest in their children through extra-curricular activities, and piano lessons take their place alongside tennis, French, Kumon maths, judo, gymnastics, horse riding and much more. The children who attend private schools in the area have access to fantastic music facilities (Hampton Boys’ School, for example, has a new purpose-built theatre/concert hall, complete with a Steinway D grand piano), and even those at state school receive good music tuition in class and via visiting peripatetic instrumental teachers.

So why is music so important? For me, music, of all the arts, puts us in touch with what it means to be human. I suspect we were drumming on the floor of the cave with sticks long before we started painting on the cave wall, and we are driven by an internal drumbeat, if you will – our pulse. Music (and indeed all the arts) is important in broadening our horizons, both culturally and socially.

The benefits of learning a musical instrument are well-documented and I have observed many of them at close quarters through my teaching and my own recent studies when I returned to piano lessons as an adult. One of the key benefits is building confidence, and I’d like to illustrate this with an anecdote about one of my students, who I’ll call Jane.

Jane came to me as a complete beginner about five years ago. At the time, her mother decided to have lessons as well, to help support her daughter. Jane was a very timid child (until very recently her mother would sit in on her lessons), but obviously bright and keen to learn, and she progressed quickly. I was impressed by her determination to learn notation, musical terms and signs, and the “language” of music without much input from me during lessons, and by the time she took her Grade 1 exam, it was clear that she was developing into a rather fine young musician. Despite her shyness and anxiety, she would perform in my student concerts and was rewarded with a special prize at one of the concerts. This endorsement of what she could do, from an independent observer (a teaching colleague of mine), together with a high merit for her Grade 1, signaled a wonderful transformation in Jane and she quickly grew noticeably more confident, eager to progress to Grade 2. Meanwhile, her playing was showing great poise, sensitive sound, and a solid musical understanding. It was no surprise to me when she achieved a Distinction for her Grade 2 exam earlier this year, around the same time as she gained a place at a prestigious local grammar school. This week she came for her first lesson after the summer holiday – she literally ran in the door and was at the piano and ready to play before I had time to ask her about her summer break. And she played beautifully.

I would not dream of taking all the credit for Jane’s new-found confidence, but I have no doubt that her piano lessons have contributed to this in no small way, and I have seen other students make similar strides in confidence and self-esteem as a result of their music lessons.

Learning a musical instrument equips us with important life-skills. If you can perform in a student or school concert or a public music festival, you can also stand up before a room of people and give a paper at a conference. Music stimulates brain function and can improve memory, cognitive and motor skills, concentration, time management and organizational skills, and creative thinking. Playing an instrument is both stimulating and therapeutic, as the physical activity of playing releases the same “happy hormones” (endorphins) which sportspeople enjoy. Learning and playing a musical instrument fosters self-expression and relieves stress, and can also bring a deep sense of fulfillment and personal achievement (I have observed this many times in recent months when hosting events for the London Piano Meetup Group). Meanwhile, playing in an ensemble, orchestra or band, or singing in a choir, offers a wonderful sense of a shared experience while also encouraging team building, sociability and cooperation. For children with special needs or learning difficulties such as dyslexia and ADHD, music can offer an important outlet and allow them to shine when they may be struggling in other areas of their school life.

We need music, and we need committed, skilled and enthusiastic people to encourage and train the next generation of musicians and to foster an appreciation of and excitement in music, whatever the genre. The devaluing of music, along with the other arts, by former education secretary Michael Gove, was an outrageous attack on a crucial aspect of our cultural landscape and heritage, and music and arts education is still not safe in this government’s hands.

We need music. Support music in schools, music hubs, local ensembles, national orchestras. Encourage your children to learn music, sing in a choir, join a band, form their own band, go to concerts, talk to musicians. Write to your MP and urge him or her to take music education seriously. Listen, engage, and above all enjoy. Please.

Protect Music Education

Don’t Stop the Music – a response from My Music Classroom

Don’t Stop the Music – Starting on the Wrong Note?

Look to the Informal – Abigail Amore