Amateur’s Luck: Two Books Contemplate Music as a Hobby

By Nathaniel SteinJanuary 18, 2015

A Pianist’s A-Z: A Piano Lover’s Reader by Alfred Brendel
Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible by Alan Charles Rusbridger

OF ALL THE LITTLE boys and girls who take up piano, how many end up quitting before they reach adulthood? It would not be entirely ridiculous to estimate the figure at one hundred percent. (With reasonable rounding, anyway.) And of those quitters, what percent regret the decision later on, in middle age? Again, the figure must be extraordinarily high. I can recall, as a child, diligent in my weekly lessons, that whenever I was impressed into giving an impromptu living room recital for relatives or family friends, immediately afterward I was approached by an old lady with a scary facial expression that, in retrospect, I ascribe to a certain regret-tinged urgency. “Dont ever quit!” she said. I wonder what she would have answered if I had asked: Why not?

Alan Rusbridger, the editor-in-chief of the the Guardian, also went down this overfamiliar path. He took piano lessons from age six until his late teens, when he quit and, despite also having passion for the clarinet and for singing, decided on a career in journalism. Then, in middle age, in defiance of the scheduling stranglehold of his increasing professional responsibilities, he took up the piano again, immersing himself in the joys of chamber playing and individual practice. Then, a couple of years ago, inspired by a performance at an adult piano camp, and spurred by the nagging ghost of an alternative life, he decided that he would coax his stubborn old fingers into playing the immensely famous, immensely difficult, first Ballade of Chopin, in G minor — no matter what. It was a resolution so bold as to border on insanity. When he told Daniel Barenboim, the eminent pianist and conductor laughed. “I’d like to fly an aeroplane,” he said.

Rusbridger’s recent book, Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible, purports to chronicle, in diary form, the 18 months in which he took on this daunting goal. In a heavily discursive style — the “diary” is clearly a conceit, but many “entries” really do feel unedited — he tracks his daily determination to squeeze 15 or 20 minutes of practice in among the chaos of his professional duties until he can play the piece passably well. Also, despite that incredible busyness (you will be told, more than once, how many emails he receives each hour), he finds time to interview dozens of friends, colleagues, critics, neuroscientists, piano teachers, eminent amateurs, and a handful of very famous professionals.

That he makes such research a priority is telling, and indeed the “daring-the-impossible” narrative turns out to be a bit of a red herring. By the big concert at the end, when Rusbridger thinks to himself that “if one person leaves the room tonight intent on relearning an instrument, that wouldn’t be a bad result,” you understand that he feels similarly about the book. His real purpose is to use the spectacle of his journey as a kind of publicity stunt, to hike Everest in order to advocate the benefits of a daily stroll in the woods. He is a proselytizer for musical amateurism, the old lady who admonishes the child at the end of the recital never to quit — but backs it up with some reasons.

He comes up with several — astonishing improvements in time management and memory, the otherworldly test of a live audience (which transports the performer to new realms of consciousness). There is also a therapeutic benefit, a kind of calmness, or centeredness, that lasts all day following a morning’s practice. A few well-meaning neuroscientists aren’t quite able to explain this effect, though it seems to have something to do with the piano’s head-clearing mental demands: “The great thing about struggling with Brahms is that … you cannot think about anything else.” (These are the words of Condoleezza Rice — recalling a Middle East trip during which “just nothing had gone right” — in whose case I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe she should have been giving those other things a bit more thought.)

If there’s a drawback to his approach, it is that Rusbridger is so discursive that these benefits tend to be merely glanced. In true newspaper editor’s style, he is attracted by quantities and breadth of ideas, flitting from one to another, never delving toward a deeper, more systematic account of amateurism, despite many suggestive hints. In fairness, he might not mean to. But still I wish more of the loose ends led somewhere. Descriptions of his (almost) daily practice, for instance, are too excruciatingly detailed to be merely evocative, but not technically assured enough to be instructive. Lapsed amateurs will feel a charming ping of recognition at Rusbridger’s spending “fifteen minutes on [a] bar, working out the groups of six [notes], practicing them in different rhythms and experimenting with varied fingerings” — and then a less charming ping of recognition when this sort of minutiae continues unrelentingly. Then there are thrilling dispatches from the career he must (drainingly) keep up all the while — secret meetings with Julian Assange, a rescue trip to war-torn Libya, the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal — which are fascinating in themselves (and there’s a wonderful memoir of his Guardian stewardship lurking in these pages), but the attempts to connect them to the main theme by analogizing the effect of “amateur” bloggers and Tweeters on the field of journalism don’t quite cohere. (A million bloggers at a million computers may well break an important news story, but they won’t write Shakespeare, or interpret Chopin.)

Nevertheless, if Rusbridger doesn’t always follow his own thematic charge, nearly every page of this book — which is suffused with the author’s unflagging and exuberant love of music-making — bristles with the suggestion of it. What Rusbridger gets at many times is the way in which amateurism can open up an entire musical universe which would otherwise be hidden.

This truth used to be self-evident. There was a time, now long vanished, in which amateurism was essentially the only way to access the world of music — a time when composers made money not mainly from concerts but by selling scores, when the only way most people could hear, say, a Beethoven symphony, was to grab a friend and work through Liszt’s four-hand piano arrangement of it. Wagner said, “The masterpieces of music are kept alive not at the theaters and concert-halls but at the pianofortes of lovers of music,” and a culture of near-universal music-making was the logical consequence of this fact — a kind of hyper-ubiquitous amateurism, at least where people had money and leisure for it. Rusbridger interviews the statistician Claus Moser, who recalls the Hausmusik tradition of his childhood in Berlin, where chamber music evenings were “much more common than going out to supper or having dinner parties” and “it was quite common that we’d have first-rate professionals making music with us and we’d practice like mad.” With the advent of widespread high-fidelity recording, Wagner’s remark was simply no longer true. The masterpieces could be kept alive, in a third place, outside the concert halls, away from the family pianofortes.

Except that there was of course a crucial difference. If a work of music is a sculpture, then a recording is in effect an extremely detailed (and often magnificently rendered) photograph of it. Where before a work of music had been a three-dimensional object into which you necessarily entered — the act of appreciating it encompassing not just listening but also constructing, gleaning some understanding of the inner structure and design — suddenly it became two-dimensional. You could just have it, you didn’t have to build it. Which is not to say, of course, that recording is a bad thing, or a negative development in classical music. But Rusbridger’s project illustrates well the missing dimension to which amateurism has always afforded access, the ability to see the Ballade from the inside, “picking my way through it, bar by bar to see how it’s been made.” He finds, in the end, that he has immersed himself “in a single work of art more deeply than ever before.”

The benefits of this immersion become clearer in Rusbridger’s encounters with professional pianists, one of the books greatest pleasures. (Two pages with Charles Rosen are so dense with insight and anecdote as to make up for 30 pages on fingering.) For not only is his understanding of the piece’s structure augmented in a basic way — allowing him to understand its remarkable unity of disparate elements, for example, or to discuss with Rosen its marvelous “dramatic narrative,” harmonically “the most radical of its time” — but this kind of structural knowledge also opens access to a deeper psychological and artistic understanding. Anyone, with or without playing experience, can experience the animal thrill of a piece like the first Ballade, that rush of sentimental pleasure that, for instance, leads the Nazi in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist to spare Adrien Brody’s character when he plays it. (Or think of the metamorphosed Gregor Samsa, drawn toward his sister’s violin: “Was he an animal, that music had such an effect upon him?”) But a higher and more characteristically human experience — artistically and psychologically complex — comes with the interior perspective available to amateur and professional players. When, for instance, the pianist Ronan O’Hora speaks to Rusbridger of the “adolescent hormonal attraction” in the Ballade (which is why so many teenagers try to play it), or remarks that “with Brahms there is a center of gravity,” which, in Chopin, is absent, he is accessing a plane of the music that, like all art, expands consciousness, and to which amateurism affords a fuller glimpse than casual listening.

There was a second practical way in which the advent of recording, more indirectly, leeched a lot of the appeal of amateurism. Just as amateurism was becoming unnecessary to the preservation of great masterpieces, it also came to seem increasingly incommensurate with professional playing. Now that professionals could hear their own playing, and study it from the outside, and had to compete not just with each other but with all the recordings of all time — past, present, and future — there began an arms race of technical perfectionism. Before long, the pros got so good that it seemed they were engaging in a different activity altogether, and that if you weren’t going to do what they were doing, you weren’t really accessing the world of the music at all — at least not the same one. And so young amateurs, when they came up against the edges of their hopeful naïveté, and saw the reality of what really rarefied playing was, came to think, “Well, I’m never going to be that good, and if I’m not, then there’s no point to playing at all.” And this tendency was exacerbated by the increasingly staggering costs of a professional career — the exhausting hours and physical strain, the brutal competition, and all that pain for only a small chance of making it big, even with extraordinary talent.

But this all-or-none proposition — become a pro or quit — was a great mistake, a false choice. Rusbridger’s book is replete with illustrations of how the spectrum of piano-playing is still intact, and continuous, from the beginner all the way up to Murray Perahia. (For one thing, they all agree that the infamous Coda of the G-minor Ballade is terrifying.) This insider’s glimpse into supposed human perfection, at what monkish devotion coupled with talent can achieve — and the realization that these achievements do stand, as we all do, on a continuous spectrum of human achievement — is another thrill to which amateurism affords access. Moreover, in some sense the relative benefits of being an amateur actually increased with the cult of professional perfectionism, since the pro, in all those soul-hammering hours, quickly runs into diminishing returns. If she puts in, say, ten thousand hours in the course of becoming a professional, the benefit of the final thousand is much smaller than the benefit of the first thousand. For many people, from a purely utilitarian perspective, the ideal amount of time, that number placing into balance cost and benefit, is not ten thousand hours — but nor is it zero. It is in between. (Of course, Rusbridger’s 20 minutes a day, which his piano teachers are constantly wrinkling their noses at, may fall somewhat short of the ideal. Perahia tells him flatly, “You need two hours a day for anything to stick. Twenty minutes is not enough.”)


The Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel, and his wonderful recent book A Pianists A-Z: A Piano Lovers Reader, is a perfect illustration of this in-between space, and how one can enter beneficially into the world of music without becoming a monkish professional. For in a sense, just as old people proverbially enter a second childhood, Brendel, who retired from the concert stage in 2008, is now in his second amateurhood. And he has taken the occasion of that new amateurhood — the relaxation of professional pressure — to undertake a leisurely meditation on the intellectual side of the musical universe to which a lifetime of participation, and mastery, has given him entrée.

Brendel is of course no stranger to the intellectual side of music. He says, in the preface to his new book, that his “other métier” is “literature.” Elsewhere, as in the essays collected in Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts and Afred Brendel on Music, he has been systematic in presenting his thoughts. Here, by contrast, he allows himself a more casual, more wandering course. Like Rusbridger’s, his new book is a discursive conceit — in this case a purported dictionary of musical terms. But it is actually, as the author nicely puts it, a distillation — of “what, at my advanced age, I feel able to say about music, musicians, and matters of my pianistic profession.” The free-associative text feels conversational, as if you’ve buttonholed the master and can now sit back and enjoy hearing him discourse on any number of musical topics, including composers, styles, techniques, and particular pieces. B is for Bach, but in the course of talking about Bach, he thinks of Handel — and off he goes. Instead of a newspaper editor’s professional discursiveness, Brendel’s is the amateur’s wanderlust, and the result is the tour of a richly endowed mind.

There is a kind of poetic unity in the resulting willy-nilly collection of observations, insights, and anecdotes. No topic takes up more than a couple of pages, and many converge on small aphoristic delights. “There are angel’s and devil’s trills,” we are told. Elsewhere: “To me, form and character (feeling, psychology, atmosphere, ‘expression,’ ‘impulse’) are non-identical twins. The form and structure of a piece are visible and verifiable in the composer’s text. The other twin has to be experienced.” Elsewhere: “I see the art of interpretation as a cabinet of distorting mirrors. We perceive something. This perception already is interpretation. When we become aware of this, we are interpreting — always presupposing a degree of curiosity — the interpreted.” Even — or especially — when Brendel’s description turns to physical technicality, as when he talks about “a special movement” for syncopation “that pushes the wrist gently in the direction of the piano lid,” you can glimpse the strange poetry inherent in the universe of piano-playing.

There is also unity in the book of another kind, which is thematic. It is not rigorously pursued (as it might be in another essay collection), but there is a recurring theme related to the special place of piano amateurism in classical music: the tradition of “cantabile” playing — the ever-present singing voice in most tonal classical music — and of seeing the piano as the imitative representation of other instruments, “the image of the pianist as a ten-fingered orchestra.” Brendel fears that many of today’s pianists have forgotten the importance of these metaphors, thereby undermining music that often has its origin or inspiration in ensemble playing. “Let me say once again,” he writes (occasionally as schoolmaster), “that nearly all the great piano composers have also, or principally, been ensemble composers.” To forget this is to risk “a high-handedness that does not do justice to musical responsibility” — a kind of pianistic isolationism that leads to music that is too far afield, too capricious in execution, too whimsical in swooning tempos, too irresponsible to a unified and premeditated conception:

These days, performances of Beethoven’s quartets are, on the whole, more rewarding than those of his piano sonatas. Why? Because the rhythm of four musicians needs to be coordinated. But they also have to agree about the details of their execution. The composer’s markings give them a matching orientation. They don’t lose themselves in the whim of the moment — or at least they take their liberties within certain confines.

Elsewhere, he writes that “the piano must be an instrument, not a fetish. It serves a purpose.” In other words, Brendel is imprecating the pianist never to stop peeking into another world — that of the ensemble — in order to illuminate his own. The pianist, like all of us, must never forget the importance of a second métier, just as Brendel claims literature, just as Rusbridger claims piano. The commonality in all these cases is that the knowledge of another universe, even merely glimpsed, expands the view of the one you inhabit during the day.

But to the question “Why be an amateur pianist?,” there’s another good and simple answer: so that you can enjoy this unique and extraordinarily charming little book.


Nathaniel Stein has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Daily Beast, and television. He lives in Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

Nathaniel Stein has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Daily Beast and television. He lives in Los Angeles.


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