piano

James Rhodes is an English pianist born in March 6, 1975 in London. He became very interested in music at a young age, more specifically piano, after listening to a recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 E flat major, Op. 73. He wanted to play piano and asked many times for piano lessons but never got any. Around the age of 14 he finally got the chance to study with Colin Stone and even got a scholarship to the Guidhall School of Music and Drama, but he decided not to take the opportunity.

It might seem like a strange thing to do, but he didn’t exactly have a normal childhood. At the age of 5 he was a victim of sexual abuse, which he wrote about in his autobiography.

This became a very hard struggle against “the demons from the past” which haunted him not only because it happened, but because he couldn’t say anything, which led him to self harm, and suicidal tendencies.

After rejecting the opportunity to study music, he took a sales and met his first wife, an American writer had a son and left music behind, however this didn’t work for him, and he said:

‘It was grim. It just wasn’t me. I was brought to my knees. I thought, “The only thing I want to do is music.”

After ten years he decided to go back to music, although it wasn’t easy. The next few months were hard, he practiced with Edoardo Strabbioli in order to get his skills polished but during that time he was in and out of mental institutions trying to hold on to life and although his marriage feel apart, he didn’t. After those dark days, he went out to make his first album and signed with Warner Bros.

He stopped the medications, and went on to play piano as one of the most passionate and unique pianists to ever express himself with the instrument.

Classical Music Rockstar

Rhodes

He is not super precise, nor does he care about the exact “form” of playing a specific piece, he is just himself, messy and chaotic but charismatic and so very human. In way he acts like a rockstar but not because he wants to play the part, but because that is who he is, and how life has treated him, but through music it feels right.

He also urges people that want to do something, to just do it, there are no excuses to hold back on being creative and making art if you feel the impulse to doing it. Who better to say this than someone who supressed his desire for music for 10 years and then suffered for it?

‘Don’t be a massive d**k,’ he says. ‘Don’t be one of those idiots who say, “I’ve got a book in me” and then don’t write it. Don’t be a f***ing idiot and complain that you have no time to devote to music. Anyone can find 20 minutes a day. It’s not that hard.’

James Rhodes

And he is right, all you need is to take a bit of time out of your day, and beautiful things can come out of it.

‘I mean who the f*** cares about sonata form in Beethoven’s Vienna? I don’t!’ he says. ‘I want to know that Beethoven was born into poverty and syphilis and domestic abuse, almost beaten to death twice by his drunk father before he was a teenager.’ As for Bach, he was a ‘gnarly, aggressive, obsessive lunatic’ who was arrested for keeping groupies in the organ loft. ‘Once you play a piece after that, it makes sense to people. It’s about feelings.’

James Rhodes

James Rhodes is living proof that music can save lives and shine a light on the darkest times, and just like he did, he wishes more people to experience how beautiful and intimate a musical experience can be.

‘Trying to do things for other people is the best possible thing. Kindness is the best cure for any mental condition there is.’

James Rhodes

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Many times the topic of improvisation comes to mind in music, but it’s usually tied to genres like Jazz and Rock, however, improvisation happened long before these two were even a genre.

Musicians like Beethoven and Mozart would sometimes improvise and impress the audience with an unexpected yet natural turn in the performance.

John Mortensen’s Thoughts

John Mortensen, author of “The Pianist’s Guide to Historic Improvisation” says:

“Bach could improvise fugues not because he was unique, but because almost any properly trained keyboard player in his day could. It was built into their musical thinking from the very beginning of their training.”

theguardian.com

It’s not that classical music doesn’t allow for improvisation to happen, it’s that there has been a new tradition of following the original composition step by step, and if there is even the slightest deviation, whether by mistake or conscious improvisation, it’s wrong. This takes away a bit of the humanity of music which is to really feel what is being played.

“Those who attend collegiate music schools spend nearly all their time and effort on learning, perfecting and reciting masterpieces from the standard repertoire.”

theguardian.com

“There is something stultifying about a tradition where millions of pianists are all playing the same 100 compositions. The way we’ve developed musicians is falling apart, as it was designed for a very narrow outcome – preserving and perfecting the canonic repertoire

theguardian.com

What it Means Today

Classical

With such an accelerated evolution of technology, it should be no surprise that musicians are in the lookout for maintaining this strong sense of feeling and humanity, and classical music could be the perfect place to find it if the academic system allows it.

Pianist Steven Osborne had some thoughts to share on this topic:

“I largely agree. When I was at the RNCM, I wanted to put improvisation into one of my programmes. My teacher tried to stop me, saying, ‘They won’t take you seriously.’” I was stubborn. There was a sense that improvisation is not serious music.”

“Individuals are pushing improvisation because they recognise how it can deepen musicianship.”

theguardian.com

Of course in classical music, it’s very difficult to improvise but still there are two ways to incorporate improvisation.

First of all, most of the improvisation in classical music comes from the piano, which is the most flexible of instruments when it comes to breaking out of the original structure.

Now there is improvisation in composition, it is possible to just write down all the music and play it but it’s not the easiest thing to do, and neither does it give a lot of freedom. When you sit down and want to make something new, the best way to approach this is to just play, and see where it takes you, in another words, improvise and see how the pieces fall into place until you have enough to polish, write down and modify. However if there is no previous experience with playing an instrument without following any guide, then you’ll probably feel like a child trying to speak a new language for the first time.

The other context for improvisation is during a concert, which is obviously more difficult, as you have all the music written down, a strict method of how you must follow it and little margin for error, but it is possible, with enough practice to add these deviations and touches that alter the original piece and make it one of a kind.

This is the most important aspect of improvisation in classical music, this is a type of music that has so much emotion and feeling to it that sometimes it doesn’t make sense how cold it feels to learn about it sometimes. While it is complex, hard and not easy to master, it’s not about reproducing sounds, it’s about playing music and even more, creating.

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There is an idea that some musicians share that the instrument a musician plays is related to the player’s personality and attitude, or can even change it transforming the person just like a superhero changes when they put ther suits on. It changes depending on the person but it can go one way or the other. The fact is that there is a connection between playing an instrument and one’s personality.

From the composer’s point of view, the music that is being made is very different depending on the base instrument for the idea, for example, if you begin to play something from scratch with a violin, it will definitely convey very different feelings than if it was played with a piano.

From Guitar to Piano

Alex Turner playing the piano

Many musicians that begin with one instrument and then learn another one feel this difference. One example in modern rock is with Alex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys, who has composed his song singing with a guitar, but in their most recent album, he decided to go with a piano as the main instrument to compose the songs. He describes it as

“The guitar had lost its ability to give me ideas. Every time I sat with a guitar I was suspicious of where it was gonna go. I had a pretty good idea of what I might be which is completely contrary to what I felt when I sat at the piano.”

In an interview with Radio X’s John Kennedy Alex Turner talks about how picking up an instrument makes him become a certain character and how the piano is a different “hat” than the guitar, he says: “It is what they describe in dramatics as the mantle of the expert”. He says that he remembers when he first picked up the guitar, he knew what sort of role he would play even before actually playing the instrument, so in a way the instrument determined a lot of what he as a musician was going to be eventually.

Reveal a New You

It may seem like it doesn’t really matter but it actually makes sense. But not as obvious as it may seem. If the general idea of music is to communicate feelings to the people who listen, you need to find an instrument that understands you, what this means is that it is in sync with what you want to say, this doesn’t mean the instrument you play is determined by your personality, what it means is that you choose a type of language that suits your body and mind in a way that you can be who you want to be.

This is actually a rather beautiful idea, not only because it pushes you to do new things, but because an instrument represents the greek notion of “aletheia” which means “uncover” “to reveal” and that is what the instrument does, it doesn’t change you, it reveals a part of you through music.

In an article by Jesse Scheinin, from bayareaparent.com these is an example of this:

A lot of the musicians I know had similar experiences. Theo Meneau, a trumpet player from Marin, says that these programs provided him with a “social outlet that was missing in the school system.”

Theo was initially drawn to the flute, which was appropriate since he is a soft-spoken guy. But playing the loud, bright trumpet has made him more confident and “able to be myself,” he says, even when his surroundings aren’t inherently comfortable.

Aspiring musicians have to take their time and find the instrument that is able to say what they want to say, and be who they want to be, and no teacher can know that, it’s a very personal thing that comes from trial, error, and dedication, but most of all, it’s a very natural thing.

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