Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Play It Again

Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible
by Alan Rusbridger
Farrar, Straus and Girox, 2013. 403 pages. Biography.

When Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger went to his annual amateur piano camp and heard one of his fellow amateurs pull off playing Chopin's G minor Ballade, he is amazed. And inspired. This is one of Chopin's most challenging pieces - a song that even professional pianists sweat over playing. Thus begins his journey into learning the G minor Ballade for himself, over a period of 16 months, with 20 minutes of practice a day whittled out of one of the most hectic work schedules in the news industry - and in a news season that included the release of the Wikileaks documents and working with the volatile Julian Assange and the infamous World of the News phone tapping scandals, both of which were coordinated by Rusbridger. Rusbridger's success shows that a dedicated amateur can take on the impossible and do amazingly well in the end.

The premise to the book is interesting: can an amateur take on the job of a professional and do it even passably well? Rusbridger seeks the answer both through his own experience as well as through interviews and consultations with professionals, both musicians and scientists. While the cover description calls it a battle cry for all amateurs, not necessarily musicians, I found that the text itself was full of enough musical terminology as to make it difficult for non-musicians to read. Even as an avid amateur pianist myself, I soon started skimming through what seemed never-ending descriptions of changing his fingerings for passages and his quest to find the best antique piano to put in his new music room at his summer cottage. The most fascinating part was his behind-the-scenes description of some of the biggest headlines of the day (Julian Assange came off as considerably less neurotic in the standard press than he is in this book) and his discussions with behavioral scientists, neurosurgeons, and professional musicians about the possibilities of amateur musicians to tackle even the hardest pieces in the repertoire. Overall, great for a reader who is profoundly interested in how to make good music, even as an amateur.


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