“I got up to Grade VI piano when I was around 16, then I gave it up. I didn’t have the patience to do all the technical training that now, as an adult, I realise you have to do. I started again when I was 40. I’d inherited my mother’s old piano, a little baby grand, and that gave me the excuse to take lessons. I’ve begun taking it very seriously, I find myself getting better.
About six years ago I discovered piano courses in France which gave me the excuse to work all year on something big. Suddenly I had goals, teaching; everything changed. I did big song cycles such as Winterreise and Dichterliebe, each would take me a whole year to learn.
For the past two years I’ve been working on the Chopin G Minor Ballade, because that’s what I’ve been writing the book about. The reason I started learning it was that there was a fellow at the piano camp, he was no better than me, and on the last day he just sat down and played it. I was curious; I could not imagine how an amateur pianist could play that piece. When I decided that I would learn it I went to see him and it turned out that he had played it six times a day for over a year, in a sort of life-saving sort of way. He’d been at a low point in his life when he’d discovered this music. This is just one example of how, when you hang around with fellow amateur pianists, you get inspiration from each other.
All the time people say to me that they wish they could learn as well – that was one of the points of writing the book. I’ve obviously got a pretty busy day job; the year that I took on the Chopin turned out to be a particularly frantic year with Wikileaks and phone-hacking and so on. So I thought if I could edit a national newspaper and also find time to carve twenty minutes per day from an incredibly full-on life, then I could say to them “what’s your excuse?”
I get up earlier in order to practice. It’s therapeutic, you can’t think of anything else while you play. If I’m feeling disciplined I start my practice with scales for around 5 minutes. The way I learned the Ballade was to break it up. There were fifteen passages that were frantically difficult so I used post it notes and sticky tape and isolated those bit I couldn’t play, then I’d just obsessively practise those bits. After around 6 months I started knitting them into the bits that I could play. I was 56 when I started this piece and I’d never memorised a note of music in my life. The piece is so complicated that I knew I wouldn’t be able to play and look at the sheet music at the same time.
I was worried that a brain in middle age can’t learn new tricks so I went to see some neuroscientists to find out about the whole machinery of learning and fingers and so on. I think that is the reassuring part of all of this for other adults thinking of taking up the piano. There seems to be no physical or mental reason why you can’t take up the piano at any age and make fairly good progress.” (Alan Rusbridger)
Alan Rusbridger is Guardian Editor-in-Chief. His book, Play It Again: Why Amateurs Should Attempt the Impossible (Jonathan Cape) is due out next year.