Play it Again, an Amateur Against the Impossible by Alan Rusbridger

Browsing through the new book collection at my local library I came across this book, at first I thought: “not another ‘how I came back to lessons as an adult’ book!” However, the “against the impossible” part of the title intrigued me a bit so I thought I would at least give a start. After the first bite my appetite became insatiable.

For those, like me, who have no idea who Alan Rusbridger is, let me give a quick biography of him. He, like most of us had piano lessons throughout his childhood, often he was less than a great student, sliding by on his wits more than his effort. He even took of the clarinet in his early teens. He advanced well but always short of his potential. He ultimately goes into journalism where he does excel and is quite successful reaching the editor’s desk of a major English newspaper by his 40’s. He has continued to play throughout his college years and adult years, though as his responsibilities increase he has less time for his past time. For a couple of years leading up to the events of this book he has attended a sort of summer camp for amateur pianists for a week. During the camp about two years ago one of the students plays the 1st Chopin Ballade and Alan gets bitten. He wonders “Could I possibly do that too?” He rashly commits himself to playing for the group the following summer and sets out to begin learning this work on about 20 minutes of practice a day!!?? (And this from someone who readily admits he never “practices”, he just plays around.) Through over 350 pages Rusbidger chronicles the personal discovery of what it means to commit oneself to the mastery of a great work of art.

During this period of his life, while sitting at the editors desk of The Guardian, he must deal with several major issues and stories, any one of which could have commanded all of his attention. There were three primary stories which compete with Chopin, 1) the need of traditional newspapers to find new business models to survive in the internet age 2) The Guardian was one the primary outlets for Julian Assange and Wikileaks 3) the Murdock news organizations engaged in massive illegal wire tapping of celebrities, politicians, and even crime victims, The Guardian broke the story.

Throughout the year leading up the next summer music camp Rusbidger shares the same struggles we all face in finding a balance between our work and our art. Unlike the rest of us, he has the opportunity to interview several internationally know pianists who share their thoughts about his adventure including, Emanuel Ax, Murray Perahia, and Alfred Brendel. In the end he finds that life has conspired against him, and though he has made remarkable progress by the next summer’s music camp, he is far from ready for a real “performance”. He reset the goal and plays on a couple different occasions in December of last year 1 1/2 years after starting to work on his project against the impossible.

He admits his performance is far from what one would expect from a professional pianist, but he and his audience found it a profoundly musical experience nonetheless. And here I think is the most important point of his writing. It is a celebration of the amateur’s music making. We often overlook the importance of music making in the living room as we get caught up in the celebrity of the concert hall or recording studio. Which is really more important to the art, Andras Schiff recording all of Bach’s Partitas or Mrs. Jones, down the street, learning her first Prelude and Fugue?