Many years ago, I took piano lessons at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago on Michigan Avenue. I was a hobbyist, an amateur, playing technically difficult pieces, practicing nights and weekends around my 9-to-5 job. I also practiced during my lunch hours, in the practice rooms at the Conservatory that was near to where I worked. One day, riding the elevator back to my desk, an executive seconded to the company from London, England, asked about the piano music I carried in my arms. We were the only two on the elevator taking us to the 52nd floor.
He told me that he studied the piano once and had intended to make it his profession. He was accepted at the London Conservatory of Music, but on the first day, he didn’t show up at class. In fact, he walked away from the conservatory and the career forever, fearful and intimidated by what it would take to succeed. He also walked away from the piano, never touching it again. While he was cool and calm, I heard a wrenching personal trauma. He admitted that, seeing my music, a yearning for the piano rose up in him, what Alan Rusbridger in Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible refers to as one’s musical inner life — or creative DNA — tugging at the soul.
Rusbridger “mucked around on the piano” for most of his life, aided by the fact he’s an excellent sight reader. In his 50s, he became inspired to push himself to a greater understanding of the instrument by learning to play Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Opus 23, a tremendously challenging piece both technically and musically, one of the hardest piano compositions in the canon to master. He gave himself one year to do it, practicing 20 minutes a day. The goal was to not just play the Ballade, which he could get away with by skating over the tricky parts or creating workarounds or fudging on the fingering and pedaling, but to learn it properly.
Here’s the kicker: Rusbridger is editor of the Guardian, one of the most distinguished newspapers in the world. It’s not unusual for him to leave work after midnight and in the morning attend a breakfast meeting. He travels the world for speaking engagements and panels, fields hundreds of daily emails and is always on-call running a major newspaper with “a hum of low-level stress much of the time, with periodic eruptions of great tension.”( He tells a fascinating story of flying to Tripoli to secure the release of a Guardian journalist held in prison somewhere in Libya.) Little did he know that the year he committed to learning the Ballade would be an unusually dramatic year for the newspaper due to the publication partnership with WikiLeaks and breaking the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. It was also the year of the Arab Spring and the Japanese tsunami. In other words, if you think you don’t have time to pursue your passion in life, think again. It’s one of the major messages in this book: “Essentially, you do have the time; you just don’t realise (sic) it,” Rusbridger writes.
There are additional thoughtful points made in Rusbridger’s Play It Again. For example, he explores the concept that social success alone in one’s life — status, career, family, financial gain, etc. — is not enough for a satisfying life, and middle-age can be a time to reclaim ignored passions. He tells us progress is not always linear, and breakthroughs come with patience.
The book is formatted as diary entries, a perfect way to bring us into his daily newspaper life, as well as his musical life. It’s a balance of politics and culture, personal and public lives, as well as a venue that allows Rusbridger to share interviews with experts on topics such as memory (he struggles to memorize music), the difference between amateur and professional pianists, the recording industry’s effect on perfection required by concert pianists and the future of newspapers.
Granted, this book isn’t for everyone — if you don’t read music and/or don’t have an interest in the piano, your eyes will glaze over in the long technical passages about the Ballade, let alone the interviews with famous pianists, including Daniel Barenboim, Emanuel Ax and Murray Perahia. For me, it was a chance to sink into a world I’ve missed.
I walked away from the American Conservatory after a rather difficult performance of the first movement of Schumann’s A minor piano concerto, but I didn’t walk away from the piano forever, like the British executive on the elevator. More like Rusbridger before he took on the Ballade, I find myself endlessly replaying the pieces I know, and not all that well. I’m not inclined to take on the Ballade, but there’s the Bach Toccata in D major BWV912 I want to play. To Rusbridger’s point, I told a piano tuner I couldn’t play it, and he said, “Yes you can.” I said, “No, I can’t.” Back and forth we comically argued beside my piano, until the tuner said what I knew he was going to say: “You just have to commit the time to it.” Play It Again is about just that, with Rusbridger reminding us to get on with one’s life ambitions.