Old Dog, New Tricks | Play It Again, by Alan Rusbridger

Introduction

First off, I must apologize for the title. I tried long and hard to find something more suitable, but nothing felt quite as right as this did. Apologies, Mr. Rusbridger, if you do read this.

Secondly, some context. This marvelous book was recommended to me by the genie that is Goodreads, thanks not in small part to my recent completion of another book on classical music (which I should hopefully review shortly), and the fact that Year of Wonder is now a book I am currently reading. My own history with classical music is long and storied. It forms a part of a poem, and a blogpost from early 2016. At present, I am falling in love with it all over again. I’ve begun piano classes, I listen to more classical pieces, I’m engaging with my own study of music theory – and I’m enjoying every bit of it. However, it has been 6 years since I properly attended lessons and focused on technique instead of playing things by the ear. As a consequence, my dexterity is something I am relearning. In that sense, finding this book felt like more than a coincidence. My review might therefore be coloured by this experience.

Plot Summary 

Pretty straightforward really. Rusbridger explains it in a video he recorded, which you can see here. In a series of diary-style entries, Rusbridger recounts taking up the challenge to learn and play Chopin’s Ballade No.1 in G minor Op. 23, which is one of the most daunting pieces of music ever written. There are added layers to the challenge, though. First, he gave up the piano when he was 16, and took it up as a serious hobby only past the age of 40. Second, he’s got a day-job (and not any day-job. At the time, he was Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian). Third, he wants to learn it in a year – committing to do so by giving himself 20 minutes a day of dedicated practice. To anybody, developing a habit over the course of a year by attempting it for just 20 minutes of a day sounds ludicrous enough. To commit to learning a fresh piece of music – and something that lasts 10 whole minutes isn’t just committing to a habit – it’s committing to teaching yourself something new that develops on past knowledge, which is incredible.

To give you a spoiler alert: yes, he manages to play it, and rather successfully, I might add. There are snippets of his playing in the video I’ve linked above.

The Writing 

I’ve often found that diary-style entries face the arduous challenge of establishing context in as few words as possible before developing plot, or rather, furthering plot in a manner that is engaging, yet succinct. Some preliminary comments on length and style before analyzing the writing itself.

Some books written as journal or diary entries end up writing these extracts at length. They feel well-edited, meticulously-crafted – that the thoughts come in a structured manner, or a structured flow at all points of time. While it is arguable that journal/diary writers do spend time thinking about what they wish to write about, I often feel that there is an erosion of the unfiltered thought that takes place when they are crafted to be literary. There’s a beauty to the natural flow of thought when somebody sits down with a pen and paper to write – the brain hops, skips, and jumps, and you can see that with the writing. It feels organic, and natural, with stops that are as abrupt as these thoughts themselves. There is no doubt to Rusbridger’s talent in the English language (he studied at Cambridge and was a journalist, for goodness sakes’), but what I loved here is that the diary entries never felt too long. While we do not know whether these were extracts culled out of longer pieces of writing from each day, there’s a flow to the book that feels like I could’ve sat and written it at home.

This does two things for me: one, it makes it incredibly easy to read, even when it’s discussing something like the art of choosing which piano to buy – something that is incredibly boring if you cannot hear the tone of the pianos being compared and the subtle differences in tone. Two, it makes the amateur portion of his piano playing feel more genuine. You can see that this is something he is incredibly passionate about – (at least this one project), but having the writing laid out in a very amateur-like way makes it feel more relatable.

Interweaving Subplots and Interviews 

The book would have been incredibly boring to the general public if it was exclusively about him learning new sections of the piece each day, with stylistic changes being described as if you understand everything about how the piano is to be played. It would make for excellent technical reading, and I wouldn’t mind reading that too, but that’s for another day. There’s a lot going on in Rusbridger’s life, as I pointed out. There is success not only in the fact that he does play the piece at the end of the book, but that he doggedly and determinedly ensures he gets in as much practice as possible whenever he finds the time.

It’s evident that he needs to make the time for this hobby. He explains, at different junctures, the WikiLeaks stories, the phone hacking scandals, and other stories – including the rescue of a Guardian reporter from Libya (where he conceives the title of the book). All of this means that pages turn not exclusively because you’re interested in finding out more about his journey with the piece, but also because you’re trying to figure out whether or not he’s succeeding in the other things that are the top of the priority list for the paper and for him.

While that is admirable, what I enjoyed even more was the fact that he presented the art of learning this piece in a very holistic manner. It isn’t him self-learning, or self-teaching the piece. In technicality, once you learn how to read music, you can pretty much learn how to play anything – for playing sakes’. It’s clear that he doesn’t want this. He enrols in regular lessons, which you can see changes his perspective on the piece by giving him an observer to play to every time he visits. There are nuggets of information from professional pianists whom he has the opportunity to spend time with (as a result of his day-job), and all their interpretations offers him with the chance to look at the music through his own eyes – and reflect in the music a story that he connects with, which I think is beautiful. He also speaks to neuroscientists to understand the art of memory and learning an instrument better in an attempt to figure out what the easiest way to commit the piece to his brain would be.

All of this portrays Western classical music and its performance as being so much more than the random notes and squiggles on a staff. Indeed, in various moments, Rusbridger taps into his historical knowledge to offer different views on the context and meaning of Chopin, which I absolutely adored.

The Personality 

This would’ve also been a little less interesting if the writing didn’t allow the personal side of the story to shine through. I’ve stated above how personal the challenge itself becomes, but Rusbridger takes that one step forward, involving the reader in several aspects and decisions he’s taking on the fly. This includes the fact that he ends up building a music room in his house, he buys a piano, and he attends a couple of amateur piano conferences. There is humour interspersed in his own reflections of the kind of mountain he’s trying to climb – all of which really allows you to see who Rusbridge is beyond this singular focus he has for a year.

Conclusion

Listen to a performance of Chopin’s Ballade. Then read the book. It’s a wonderful exposition of how immersive classical music, or any hobby can be really. For me, it’s deepened my own resolve to learn the piano to enjoy it as much as I possibly can, given the history I’ve got with the instrument. It’s also convinced me that I can learn new things at any age, and I’m never going to be dissuaded by my age as an excuse to learn a skill I’m interested in. Without much doubt, this book earns ***** (5 stars).