So our wonderful Summer School for Pianists is over, and we’re all back at home. The cases are unpacked, the paperwork dealt with, and reality has kicked in: I returned to a garden full of delicious vegetables, lovingly watered by my neighbour – and a non-working freezer full of rotting food, caused by a power-cut tripping the fuse. C’est la vie.
Of my non-musical Summer School tasks, the one which gave me pause for thought was a request to give an ‘uplifting speech’ at the Forum, the final full meeting of tutors and delegates, rather like the speech given by the conductor on the Last Night of the Proms. But how to draw together the many disparate threads of the week, plus the personalities, experiences and expectations of such a varied group of people? It worried me all summer.
The answer lay in looking at what unites us: our love of music, and of the piano in particular. For inspiration I turned to Guardian Editor-cum-pianist Alan Rusbridger’s book, Play it Again – An Amateur Against The Impossible, which charts the progress of the author’s self-appointed challenge to learn and perform Chopin’s First Ballade. I read aloud a section from the Epilogue. Here it is, reprinted in full. May it uplift us all as a new term and a new season begin.
When I embarked on the project, I had no way of knowing that these 16 months would be the most intensive of my working life. There were two major stories – WikiLeaks and phone hacking – which not only made global headlines for weeks on end, but were deeply controversial in some quarters and involved immensely powerful and aggressive adversaries.
All this piled in on top of trying to negotiate the digital revolution, the most profound challenge – technical, economic and journalistic – that the press has seen in generations, if not ever. A job that was routinely twelve to fourteen hours a day Monday to Friday regularly expanded beyond that and ate deeply into the sixth and seventh days.
And now, at the end, I know the answer to two questions. Is there time? And, is it too late?
Yes, there’s time – no matter how frantically busy one’s life. There’s always enough time in a week to nibble out a regular twenty minutes here and there if one wants to make it a priority.
And more than that, by making time, life improves: under the great pressures and stresses of the year, I’ve discovered the value of having a small escape valve – something so absorbing, so different, so rebalancing.
And the answer to the second question seems to be equally encouraging. Back in the summer of 2010 I had no idea of just how capable a 56-year-old brain was of learning new tricks. In the course of the past sixteen months I have asked mine to develop capabilities beyond my imagination. Could I really train that sponge of grey matter – already full to overflowing, it often seemed – to not only learn 264 bars of immensely complicated musical notation, but also to memorise great swathes of the piece?
It’s heartening to know that, quite well into middle age, the brain is perfectly plastic enough to blast open hitherto unused neural pathways and adapt to new and complicated tasks. So, no, it’s not too late.
And I’ve learned my mother was right – right to make me play; right in the pleasure music would give me; right that music ability is both a social ice-breaker and the forger of deep and lasting friendships.
Play it again.
© 2013 Alan Rusbridger