Book Review: Climbing Piano’s Mount Everest

Alan Rusbridger, editor, The Guardian Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons, The Guardian

Alan Rusbridger, editor, The Guardian Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons, The Guardian

I love the piano.

I mean, I really love the piano.

The fact that I’ve taken it up late in life and have no ambitions about it — and I mean absolutely no ambitions about it — is part of the reason why I love it.

My elderly mother is constantly telling me how much she regrets that she and my father didn’t give me piano lessons when I was a child.  “You could have been someone really great, a concert pianist,” she tells me.

Her short term memory is gone, so she repeats this refrain often. Each time she says it, I tell her that I have no regrets about the fact that I’m taking up piano now, and not earlier.

I love it.


It makes me happy.


And if there’s one small thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that the best time to be happy is always — you guessed it — Now.

My newfound love of the piano is without a doubt the reason why I downloaded, Play It Again, an Amateur Against the Impossible onto my Kindle. It’s the first-person story of British journalist Alan Rusbridger’s attempt to learn Chopin’s Ballade No 1 in G Minor.

The Ballade, as Mr Rusbridger calls it, is something of a Mount Everest among pianists. Playing it is usually considered the province of the best of the best, the professionals, and not the amateurs among us.

While Mr Rusbridger is an accomplished and enthusiastic musician, he is not by any stretch a professional pianist.  His day job is at the British newspaper, The Guardian, where he’s the editor. That’s a big job at any time, but the year that he chose to take on the Ballade was also the year of Wikileaks and the story about a powerful British newspaper bugging cell phones to get stories. These stories were both broken by The Guardian, and neither of them was received easily by the world at large.

Mr Rusbridger had to be determined to find 20 minutes each morning for piano practice. While that night be enough time for a child to learn this week’s lesson, it is not in the universe of the amount of time a pianist needs to devote to master something like the Ballade.

He took lessons from three extraordinary teachers and interviewed experts in related fields during the course of his journey with the Ballade. He also engaged in lots of social music playing with friends.

After a year and a half, he successfully performed the Ballade for a group of friends, which, for him, was mission accomplished.

The important thing for me is that he never, at any time, worked toward a professional performance. He had a goal, but the journey was just as important as the final outcome.

This is what piano is to me. It’s about the music, yes, but in a personal, entirely selfish way. Of all the things I do, the piano stands alone among as the one thing that I do entirely for myself. I am an amateur and I have a determination to never be anything else.

The joy of it all is that it’s not about being a professional musician. It’s not about being a musician at all. It is, simply, about the pleasure, the incredible, totally absorbing and absolutely healing to the depths, pleasure of me and the piano and the music that is in both of us.

I identified with this book on many levels. Mr Rusbridger works in a public profession that is competitive to the point of combativeness. His tools are words that change people’s lives. He is constantly on call, always under the gun, never really “off” from his job.

Ask any elected official and they’ll tell you that this sounds a lot like what they do.

I always wanted to play the piano, but I never did. It was a vague longing with no direction. It might have stayed like that except a friend from my church told me she had a friend who wanted “to get rid of” a piano. I jumped at the chance to get it, and the rest is a love story.

It turns out that the piano and I were star-crossed lovers, or at least we were on my part. I sit down at the piano and the world falls away. When I first touched those keys, it was if a long-slumbering part of my brain woke up, kicked it’s heels and started doing fist pumps.

Mr Rusbridger talks a lot about his problems remembering the score. I have a somewhat analogous disability. I cannot, for the life of me remember notes. After I’ve plunked through a new piece of music the first time,  and I look back at it the next day, I remember the sound. I hear the note when I look at it on paper.

I’ve had a hard time describing this to my teacher, but here’s what it’s like. I look at a note on the page for D, and instead of thinking D, I hear the note itself. It’s weird and it makes what people call method books almost painful to me.

I pulled myself out of the method books and into real music within a couple of months. I’ve been working on one advanced piece of music for almost 8 months now, slowly learning my way through it. First, the fingering, then the hands, then, ever so slowly, the hands together, and then, finally, the pedals. The whole time, I’m searching for the music in the notes, the story it’s telling me.

It’s a slow process, but it is so much fun. Let me repeat that: It. Is. Fun.

If you take a good piece of music apart, you will see quite quickly how it moves from one key to the next, how the chords come apart and combine, how the sounds repeat but do it differently, how they build and then fall, how it speaks. That’s the fun of it; finding the story in the music, the voice in it that uses these sounds to create a world of its own.

Mr Rusbridger studied music as a child, went through the (to me) mechanical process of graded learning. He’s modest about his abilities, but it is just modesty. I gather from reading the book that he is actually a very good amateur pianist. Which is to say that he may actually be a better pianist than the homogenized and rather dead predictability of much professional pianism I’ve heard in recordings.

We are veering toward a computer-like perfection in classical music, which is to say, we are taking the life out of it. Mr Rusbridger discusses this in some depth in his book. He theorizes that it’s the power of our recording studios to eliminate the flaws in performance that leads to this.

We are doing to music what Photoshop is doing to the human form: Replacing it with a plasticized shape that is a caricature of the beautifully flawed reality of life.

Real music, played by real people has flaws. But it also has voice and power and tells stories that reach into people and bring their deep inner selves to the surface. People love music. They love to listen to it, to dance to it, to just let it wash over them and lift them up and away.

The value of amateurs such as Mr Rusbridger, and, yes, even me, is that we keep music alive. We lift it out of the recording studio and the sterility of computer programs that eliminate flaws and place it squarely back into the human.

Mr Rusbridger makes an excellent case for this, and I will take it one step further. Without amateurs, music dies. This is true partly because the audiences for professionals is made up of amateurs. It is also true because the flaws, fun and good times of amateur playing is where the life of music lives. Music is of the human soul, not the human-made equipment that wipes performances clean of flaws and packages them to sell.

My family was a musical family. I never thought about this, took it for granted, until I got my hands on that first piano. We would get together and after a big meal with fried chicken, baked beans, potato salad, homemade ice cream and watermelon, everyone would get out their fiddles and guitars.

Nobody could read music. They just played. The standard line when someone asked “Do you know …” was “Hum it.” If you could hum it, they could play it. First one, then the other would take it up, and they’d be off.

That’s the ultimate amateurism; one step removed from playing a bottle and keeping time on a washboard with a spoon. It was also, I realize now, beautiful.

Not the music so much, although if I remember correctly, it wasn’t all that bad. The beauty was in the family, the love, the life of it. Music is a human invention.

Music is emotion, language, math, symbolism, and our driving need for beauty all rolled up into a profound self-expression. It links us, one to another on a profound and visceral level.

Without music, would people die? Would we become like neglected children who fail to thrive? Would our eyes hollow out into deep pits of despair and our bodies grow frail and and wraithlike if we lost our ability to sing?

I think we would. I really think we would.

Because music is not about perfection or performance or making money. Music is, and always has been, our soul’s voice with wings.


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Edward Snowden, Michael Hastings’ Too-Convenient Death and British Tyranny — What is Happening Here?


It began with a young man who decided that the American people had the right to know that their government had them under surveillance.

Not, mind you, that the government had possible criminals under court-ordered surveillance by virtue of having produced evidence of probable cause. Our government has been sweeping all of our emails and cell phone convos into a big database and sifting through it looking for crimes, potential crimes, or anything it deems “suspicious.”

In the brave new world of Fourth-Amendment?-What-Fourth-Amendment?-Patriot-Act-land, we’re all potential criminals and we’re all under government surveillance.

The amount of data that our government has swept into its intelligence gathering maw has become so vast (remember these are electronic 1 and 0s, not piles of space-consuming paper) that the NSA is building a gi-normous file cabinet in the Utah desert to warehouse it all.

The minute that this young man stepped up and made this information available to the general public, the government smear machine and its trusty operatives in the press (perhaps I should say, it’s trusty operative, the press) swung into action, claiming and proclaiming that this young man, Edward Snowden is his name, was the worst American traitor since Benedict Arnold.

There were, of course, outliers in the press who didn’t buy it. MichaelHastings was one of this hardy band of actual journalists who didn’t write his stories straight from White House press releases.

Shortly after giving this interview:

YouTube Preview Image

Michael Hastings died in a car crash,

The public was interested in Mr Hastings’ too convenient death until the same press that pushes the government line on us distracted the public with a trial about a shooting in Florida. This trial so transfixed the public that it completely forgot that Uncle Sam was watching its every move.

Unfortunately for the government, Mr Snowden decided to run rather than take his chances in a kangaroo court.

The president of the United States brought out all his big bully artillery and fired it off at every nation that might give Mr Snowden sanctuary. He huffed and he puffed and one by one the various nations put up the No Vacancy sign in front of Mr Snowden.

Russia finally took the wandering whistle-blower in, and President Obama promptly cancelled a scheduled G4 Summit talk with President Putin. I don’t know if President Putin cried himself to sleep that night or not. But I do know that the world is balanced on a razor’s edge. It might be nice if these two guys talked things over, even if President Putin is sheltering that dreadnought Snowden.

But then, that would presume that somebody involved in the government end of this mess actually cared about this country. It seems safe to say that they only care about covering their own backsides.

Meanwhile, our ally, the United Kingdom, decided to get into the act. Rather than huff and puff, they picked up their guns and clubs and went a-huntin’ and a-smashin’ in the offices of the British publication, The Guardian.

The Guardian had actually had the temerity to behave like a — I know this is hard to believe — member of the free press, and report Mr Snowden’s revelations about the work our governments were doing to put all of us on both sides of the Atlantic in the surveillance crosshairs.

The Brits, who are not troubled by niceties like First and Fourth Amendments, evidently took advantage of their government’s relative freedom to oppress its citizens and barged into The Guardian’s offices like Elliott Ness raiding a gin mill. They smashed computers and generally, as we say in these parts, tore up jack.

Of course, these tyrannical nitwits forgot (as tyrannical nitwits often do) the very essence of what they were dealing with. Evidently, nobody told them about backups.

I doubt that The Guardian lost a lot of data in this raid. But the British people lost a tremendous amount of freedom.

The question on this side of the Atlantic, not to even try to put it nicely, is did members of our government use the computer in Michael Hastings car to murder him because he was a danger to their careers?

It’s not even a question on the other side of the Atlantic. The answer is yes, the UK is in the bag for Obama and his spying on the populace of this country and probably theirs, as well. They don’t need a whistle blower to come forward and release evidence that their government has become a danger to the freedom of its citizens.

They went over to The Guardian’s offices and demonstrated that fact for all the world to see.

What is happening here?

Are we going to sit around and watch trashy televised trials and allow ourselves to be flim-flammed out of all our freedoms? Does anybody see how outrageous it is that the government has the entire American populace under surveillance?

I’ve run posts showing just how dishonest President Obama has been with the American people. Why, exactly, are they believing him now?

He’s got the whole world in his files.

That means you.

What happened in Britain isn’t a fluke. It’s a harbinger.

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