ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 14 JANUARY 2013
Each year for the past five or so years I’ve been going to a piano course in France, enticed in by another journalist, the former Times theatre critic, Irving Wardle – who’s still going strong on the keyboard at 83.
In the summer of 2010 I heard another amateur, Gary, play the Chopin G Minor Ballade. It’s not the hardest piece ever written, but it is – even for many professional pianists – quite a challenge. I was stunned by Gary’s playing – and intrigued. How could an amateur pianist – no better than me – possibly conquer this piece? And so began the exploration that ended up with Play it Again.
The book’s not simply, or even mainly, about the piano. It’s about the value of amateur endeavour. It’s about carving out time in a busy life for a project which is nothing to do with work. It’s about trying to discover whether the brain, in middle age is still up to learning new tricks – such as memorising large chunks of complex music. It’s about two enormous stories that coincided with this endeavour – phone hacking and Wikileaks. And it is about what’s involved in delving deeply enough into a piece of music that you can truly play it. Or, in my case, truly sort of play it.
During the writing of the book I came across so many people who gave up playing a musical instrument in their teens. For most, it was the biggest regret in their lives. And most of them added something to the effect of “But, of course, I don’t have time now.”
Well, nor do I, really. Editing a national paper gobbles up the hours. There were days, even weeks, on end, when I’d be working 12 – 16 hours a day on the biggest stories. Learning the G Minor Ballade to the point where I was happy to play it in public took 16 months. But I got there. Sort of. So if the book inspires a few people to set their alarm clocks 20 minutes earlier then it will have achieved one of its aim.