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.

Active kids

Newspapers often carry articles discussing ‘studies’ into methods of parenting. These are generally written in a critical style and will, over time, offer contradictory advice. This weekend there were reports of a government advisor who believes that children whose parents enrol them in too many organised activities lose the ability to think for themselves and are therefore unable to cope with living independently when they are older. I sometimes wonder if these advisors have children themselves. I can see that, taken to extremes, any method of parenting could be detrimental. However, most parents listen to what their kids want and offer gentle encouragement or admonishment. If a child is active, whether through organisations or free play, it is likely to be because this is what the child wants.

Over the years my three children have tried so many different sports and activities that it can be hard to remember all the things that they have done. They have attended regular training sessions for ballet, gymnastics, swimming, football, horse riding, hockey, cricket, golf, taekwondo, judo and archery, They have joined rainbows, brownies, guides, beavers, cubs, scouts and explorers. They have attended weekend drama schools, taken piano lessons and joined badminton and ping pong clubs. There have been activity camps with climbing, kayaking, raft building and caving. They have even chosen to go on week long residentials where they could race karts and quad bikes. Some of the regular activities were enjoyed for a year or two before the time was needed to fit in the next interest, others they still attend regularly.

There have been periods when they were younger when it did feel as if we had no time to sit down and just relax. The logistics of getting each child from school to activity after activity meant packed teas eaten in the car and homework being done as they waited for a sibling to complete a lesson. I did not, however, insist on them doing any of these things apart from the swimming lessons (they had to keep these up until they could swim a good distance with a strong stroke). All activities were started because they heard about how amazing it was from a friend. They would try a couple of classes and, if they wanted to continue, would be enrolled for a term. Once paid for I insisted that classes were attended regularly, but when the bill for the next term came in they were always given the choice of continuing or leaving. Over the years we have accumulated a lot of uniforms, kit and sports equipment that is no longer used.

Alongside these organised activities we did a lot of walking and cycling as a family. We also went swimming together each weekend for many years. Our village abuts the estate of a large house with grounds open to the paying public and a large, exciting adventure playground. We would buy season tickets for this each year and the children would regularly meet up with friends to play. They were always free to go out around the village but more often chose to have friends back to our garden which we had turned into a mini playground for them. Quiet moments were rare.

Far from taking away their independence the experiences they have gained from taking part  in so much has given them the confidence to face new situations and challenges. They know that they can have a reasonable attempt at most sports and are used to going to new places and working with people they do not know. It has not always been logistically possible (or necessary!) to drive them everywhere so they have got used to travelling under their own steam and, as they have got older, have learnt to use public transport. My eldest child is now capable of organising herself.

I do not hover over my children constantly but I do like to know where they are and what they are doing. I also like to support them in their interests and encourage active participation in support of clubs they belong to. I take an interest in their lives and feel they will be happier if they leave their laptops regularly and participate in something more active and sociable. They are of an age where this cannot be forced and they value free time so it is particularly pleasing that they still choose to take part in a good number of activities.

To suggest that parents should organise less for their children and allow them to play free or get bored ignores the alternatives available to the modern child. When the majority of houses contain multiple computers and televisions a child is as likely to switch on and tune out rather than run around outside. There are also fewer and fewer parents who are happy to have their child run free. I have lost count of the number of parents who have voiced concern to me over the years that I have expected my eight or nine year old to walk the few hundred metres home from school or the village hall unattended (even in the dark!), or who has complained that my child was being noisy, boisterous or engaging in rough play whilst out with friends. When my son fell out of a tree he learnt a valuable lesson. Yes, he could have broken his neck, but that could happen on the stairs at home.

My hackles will always be raised when unasked for criticism and advise are offered. If parents are to do their job then they must be allowed to make decisions based on how their kids are and how best to encourage them to be good citizens. There will always be extremes – parents who ignore their children almost entirely and those who make every decision for them – but most parents that I know encourage but do not force. I think that my kids are amazing. I hope that most parents think that of their kids. They are also individuals and will react in different ways to the same treatment, just as adults will. If the government is trying to parent the nation then I would advise them to learn a few lessons in parenting themselves.

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