Book Review: How to Play the Piano

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How to Play the Piano, by concert pianist James Rhodes, is the first offering in Quercus’s new ‘The Little Book of Life Skills’ series. I received the book just before it was published six weeks ago and read it through almost immediately. I decided not to post my review until I had attempted to follow its instructions that I may report back on how effective they had been at teaching me to play Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C Major within the time period proscribed. In the interests of full disclosure I posted details of my musical background here. The key points are that I have never had a formal piano lesson but I did have some musical training on other instruments as a child.

The book opens with advice on how to master a piece of music. It is important to take things slowly and to practice regularly. To play the piano it is necessary to be able to read music, and to understand the correlation between the symbols on a musical score and a piano’s keys. Explaining this vital information takes up about half the book. It is then time to start to play.

A copy of the score is included and may be cut out or scanned. A few annotations have been added which are pointed out as progress is made.

The importance of correct fingering is explained. To navigate a keyboard smoothly this is a necessary skill to master. Timing is also important and to demonstrate this, and to give some idea of the sound being aimed for, the reader is directed to a series of short videos the author has posted at http://www.jamesrhodes.tv  I found these helpful.

The next twenty pages take the reader through the score, two bars at a time, explaining the tricky sections and offering advice on how to move the piece along. Getting through this section took me about four weeks. I was diligent with my practice, although I may have averaged closer to half an hour, five days a week rather than the three quarters of an hour, six days a week suggested. As much as anything I found the muscles in my hands would start to ache after this length of time and wanted to maintain my enjoyment even if it was to the detriment of the musical skill I could aquire.

Having more or less mastered the notes, albeit at quite a slow pace, there is then a chapter on performance and instruction on how to use the piano pedals. I found this tricky. Remembering the pedal affected my concentration on the notes and I struggled to play without mistakes. I also wished to add the suggested interpretation which, again, led me to flounder on the bars where notes move between octaves and fingering positions must be changed. The author suggested that, having played through the piece so many times, the score would no longer be required. My memory does not work in this way and I continued to need the score in front of me in order to play.

There is a lot to take in and remember but the book is clear in its instruction and eager to remind the reader that they started out unable to play the piano. To be able to get through the piece, even if not to as high a standard as desired, is very pleasing.

The final chapter offers a pat on the back and suggests some other pieces that the reader may wish to tackle should they choose to continue their musical journey. Using the advice gleaned from this book I can see that this is possible. I now feel that I have learned to play this particular piece, which is satisfying. It has also been a lot of fun.

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An example of how it should sound: Prelude No 1 in C Major by J.S. Bach, BWV 846 | The Well-Tempered Clavier

And my less than perfect performance, affected by knowing I was being recorded, although the mistakes and hesitations are still typical when I play.

 

Thanks to my younger son for jumping the hoops needed to get my mobile recording onto YouTube – the only way I could think of to share the results of my 6 week challenge.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quercus.

Learning to play Bach on the Piano

howtoplaypiano

How to Play the Piano, written by concert pianist James Rhodes, is published today by Quercus. It promises to teach anyone with two hands and access to a piano or electronic keyboard how to play Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C Major within six weeks, so long as they are willing to practice for 45 minutes each day.

When the book started showing up on my twitter feed I became curious. When I was offered a copy I jumped at the chance to accept the challenge and see what I could achieve in this time frame. I am currently four days in and can report that it is an accessible and fun way to learn. I am practising hard and the few bars that I am slowly mastering already sound almost as they should.

It is early days but I am hopeful that I can achieve the stated aims if I persevere. That being said, in the spirit of full disclosure, I feel that I should share a few facts about my musical background.

I have never had a formal piano lesson in my life. I was, however, taught the basics by my father as a child. My father was a skilled musician. Largely self taught, he took piano to diploma level and his playing formed the soundtrack to my childhood. It instilled in me a love of classical music, particularly when written for his instrument.

Although I tinkered on the piano I never practised enough to play well.

At primary school I learned recorder and then cornet, joining the terrible sounding junior brass band. I disliked having to carry a heavy instrument on the long walk to and from school so when I moved to secondary school I took up the oboe. I played this instrument for seven years, joining several youth bands and orchestras. Eventually I achieved my ABRSM Grade 8. A throwaway comment from my tutor suggesting I didn’t possess the required musical feeling to gain my diploma was all it took to discourage me. I abandoned my lessons.

When I started work and was able to buy a house I decided that I would like to try playing the piano again. I traded the beautiful, French oboe that my parents had provided, that had been gathering dust in a cupboard, and purchased a basic electronic keyboard. My parents were not pleased. Once again I tinkered on the ivories but never practised enough to play well.

However, in my view the keyboard proved its worth. My children showed an interest and I enrolled them in lessons. When their tutor was told that my son had broken a few keys on the keyboard with his toy hammer she offered us an old piano that her church was disposing of as they had been gifted a better model. That ancient instrument was all but impossible to tune but proved adequate for three youngsters, just starting out on their musical journey, to practice on.

As they worked their way through the grades its inadequacies became more of an issue. My ever generous parents stepped in and provided the money that enabled us to purchase a reconditioned Yamaha upright model. Our piano tuner was delighted.

And once again I decided to tinker. And once again I didn’t practice enough to play well.

Now my elder two children live away from home. My youngest will occasionally make music but I hadn’t touched the instrument in many years – until I received this little book.

Thus, I am taking the challenge as a not quite beginner pianist, and as someone who is familiar with music theory. I will not post my review until I have either mastered the Bach Prelude or practised for six weeks. What I hope to achieve is not just the ability to play one piece, but to discover if I can once again enjoy making music. I will keep you posted on my progress.

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My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quercus.