Alan Rusbridger: Play it Again

Yesterday evening Guardian editor (and amateur pianist/ clarinetist/ classical music buff/ journalist/ author) Alan Rusbridger gave an illuminating, insightful talk at Kings Place about his newly-published book: Play it Again.

play it again

Upon reaching middle age, Rusbridger had an urge to take up piano-playing again. He’d played until the age of 16 (and grade 6, for which he achieved 101 – “150 is exceptional,” he explained, “100 is acceptable.”) and then drifted away, as so many teenagers do.

His university years were spent listening to classical music, tinkering on the piano at Christmas time and then later – when his daughters were born – he’d play nursery rhymes.

But it wasn’t until he reached the ‘afternoon’ of his life, as Jung describes it, that he experienced a longing to learn again properly – to play challenging pieces.

Rusbridger found a connection with Jung’s ideas about middle age – post child-rearing (mostly), settled into a career – as being the cultural years, the years where one should revisit music, enjoy art, languages, without the burden of young children, or trying to establish a career.

And so he enrolled on a summer piano-playing course for amateurs, to take place in the outhouses of a woman’s home in France. Visiting tutors would teach the small group of piano players, and they would preform to each other. On the last evening a guy called Gary – who Rusbridger had noticed seemed lost and sad – amazed the other players be reciting Chopin’s First Ballade, Op 23, a piece that most professionals live in fear of.

This awoke a yearning in Rusbridger to spend a year attempting to master this ballade. Only, as editor of the Guardian – and with WikiLeaks breaking, and the phone hacking scandal continuing to bubble up – he didn’t have much spare time. But then he read that if you sleep for eight hours and work for eight hours, what happens to the remaining eight hours? He set his alarm clock for 20 minutes earlier and began practicing each morning.

He soon realised that the more you do, the more you are able to do. And so he would interview pianists for the Guardian, and ask for five minutes at the end to talk about Chopin’s First Ballade, Op 23 and how to execute it.

The most difficult part of learning the piece was his memory. This ballade is so complex that the pianist can’t follow the music at the same time as playing, so although Rusbridger describes himself as a fairly good sight-reader, he found he couldn’t remember any music to play by heart. After visiting a neuroscientist, he discovered that you can train yourself to use as yet unused parts of your brain. Subsequently, he became able to memorise the piece.

He learned that there are different types of memory. After originally assuming that there was a muscle memory (like with golf, and remembering how to swing the club), he found out there’s no such thing and that instead, pianists must rely on a photographic memory, or a harmonic memory (memorising harmonic structures).

As he continued to improve, with the help of a piano teacher and advice from experts, Rusbridger began to enjoy the process, and the playing, more and more.

During a trip to Libya, to search for Guardian correspondent Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who’d be seized, Rusbridger found himself in a hotel with a piano. He recited the ballade. He then discovered that they’d be leaving via Casablanca and he liked the idea of finding another hotel with a piano in Casablanca and playing it again. This is where the title of the book comes from.

The talk was fascinating because of Rusbridger’s ability to analyse reason and process so articulately, and also because of his journalistic experience: he answers the questions we want him to answer. He explained his own desire to find out about the intricate details of other people’s lives (musicians, sports players) and was generous with the details he divulged of his own.

He’s been contacted by amateur pianists who’ve been inspired by the book to take playing more seriously, which pleases him. And he highlighted the joy of being an amateur and not taking playing too seriously – less pressure, allowed to drink wine between recitals – against the huge strain of playing professionally.

When an audience member asked why so many children give up instruments, and if it’s the fault of the teacher, another audience member explained that Rusbridger had already answered that question: the autumn years are for culture. It’s natural for teenagers to move away from musical instruments, and search for other vices, concentrate on their careers and then build families. But we should all return to this creativity in later years, because if the editor of the Guardian can find time to fit in 20 minutes of practice a day – anyone can.

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