Friday, January 17, 2014

Rusbridger - Play it again

Play it again is Alan Rusbridger’s revelatory account of how he simultaneously disciplined himself to become a better pianist while managing the very difficult job of serving as editor of the Guardian newspaper (UK). Rusbridger’s discoveries about discipline and artistic expression in music were interspersed with the unfolding Julius Assange and Wikileaks story as well as the News of the World's (now defunct Murdoch tabloid) cell phone hacking and bribery of public officials scandal; both of these could have been stories on their own. Play it again will captivate musicians and journalists but the detail Rusbridger includes on both of these topics may not be of as much interest to others. For those interested in leadership, there are plenty of lessons about how people interact, how aspiration shapes our experience, and how the pursuit of art can be critical to managing the stressful challenges of leadership.

Rusbridger described his journey of renewing his piano skills as one of discovering glowing embers under grey ashes. He had training in his youth but did not take himself seriously enough to achieve the level of skill that he wanted. Mid-life reconsideration drew him back to attempt to recapture his musical ability and take it further. While he might have done it through other pieces, Rusbridger attempted to master one of the more difficult piano pieces in the entire keyboard repertoire – Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23. Jumping to the end of the story, after almost eighteen months of practice, Rusbridger was able to competently play the Ballade for a small assemblage of friends, an experience that ended up being profoundly affirming. It also convinced him that we can always learn, sometimes more effectively than we think, and that there is just as much purpose for amateur pianists (those who perform for the love of music) to be diligent and careful as there is for professionals. In fact, Rusbridger suggested, and other musicians confirmed, that skilled amateurs may actually be able to “reach” their listeners as well or better than professionals.

Rusbridger didn’t only renew his commitment to practicing piano, he built a music studio onto his home and furnished it with the prize of all professional or serious amateur pianists – a Steinway grand. As he pursued his lessons, he identified several important principles for those who wish to play artistically. For all pianists, discipline is absolutely essential but this technical ability has to be complemented by musicality, or the ability to interpret and bring the story of each piece of music to life. Beyond musicality, the other challenges that aging musicians often encounter are finger speed and dexterity, and then memory.

In relation to memory, Rusbridger provided fascinating scientific details, details that helped to describe both the challenges and successes I’ve encountered in mastering specific compositions. The problem with more complicated pieces of music is that the notes either come so fast or the span of your hands across the keyboard is so wide that you have trouble glancing at the manuscript to keep track of where you are. The only answer to this is memorization or at least enough recall of the notes that you can play while only glancing at the printed music as a reminder. Rusbridger provided incredible relief to those of us who are aging when he shared the process of locking musical pieces into procedural memory, ready for artistic and natural access as long as the distractions around us (work, family, health), or the anxiety and fear (enabled by episodic memory) of performance, do not come in the way. The answer which will from hereafter free me to play – both technically and musically – is to complete the hard work of analysis, identifying the nuance of a piece and fingering it in ways that help me to master and remember it, and then play the music for the art of expression and with any audience (if there is one) only incidental to the moment of creation.

Rusbridger’s book struck so many common chords (pun intended) for me. Living in Qatar has exacted many very difficult sacrifices for my family and me. Although it has been great to live abroad, being away from family has been very difficult, especially after Darbi left. My embers under the grey ashes ahve been sparked by the discipline of playing piano every morning before work and for many hours on weekends. The dedication and discipline of adulthood has allowed me, like Rusbridger, to incorporate expressing myself artistically through the piano in ways that are now deeply gratifying. Rusbridger captured the essence of amateur musicianship by quoting Charles Cooke's Playing the piano for pleasure, “Too many students study music with the view to becoming great virtuosi, but the place of music in the life of the amateur pianist should be, as I see it, important but not all-important; a source of pleasure in the work done and in the results achieved.”

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