Learning to Play Piano with James Rhodes by David Tierney

It’s been just under a year since I began learning to play piano, something I’ve been putting off for a long time. I finally took the plunge when I spotted James Rhodes’s How to Play the Piano in the music section of our shop. At the time it was a red hardback book and part of the Little Ways to Live a Big Life series, and it’s now available in an even smaller blue edition. I was attracted by how tiny and cheap it was, and by the packaged sheet music. There are plenty of alternatives out there, but they tend to resemble school textbooks and often are just about as enjoyable.

Rhodes is entertaining and concise.  ‘If listening to music is soothing your soul, then playing music is achieving enlightenment. It’s going from kicking a ball around the park with a few pals to playing alongside Ronaldo.’ I began reading his earlier published emotionally-driven biography Instrumental a week ago, and you can feel there the same thing you feel here—a powerful writing voice. Like a great teacher, he is understanding and passionate, and you can’t help but feel driven to listen to what he has to say.

While this book is particularly fine-tuned to lead you towards its goal, it also sets you up to build good practices around playing piano.

He’s quite reasonable in his expectations of readers and the promised reward for listening is enticing. As long as you have ‘two hands, one, or preferably two, eyes, this book, and access to a piano or an electric keyboard.’ he promises that you will be able to play Bach’s first prelude in six weeks. 45 minutes of practice is all you need each day and that’s a routine I still follow. While this book is particularly fine-tuned to lead you towards its goal, it also sets you up to build good practices around playing piano.

Rhodes constantly recommends going slow both in reading and playing. This may be a small book, but getting past one page can take considerable time, between hours and days, particularly when you get to some later points. Rhodes begins with the basics, working his way from the layout of the keyboard, to how to read music, and finally how to play. He’s not comprehensive, sticking to the basics, but he drills these in, every few moments asking you to ‘Take 5’ and revise or practice what’s been taught. This is a practical book, one to be read in front of a piano or keyboard.

It helps to ease stress and improve your concentration and personal well-being, and I adored those moments when I sat down to read How to Play the Piano.

It’s therapeutic. ‘When you’re sitting there at your keyboard, you’re not going to be tweeting or liking Facebook posts, nor are you going to be assaulted by adverts, eating fast food, staring at cat videos online or watching America’s Next Top Model.’ It helps to ease stress and improve your concentration and personal well-being, and I adored those moments when I sat down to read How to Play the Piano. In the third chapter, Bach’s first prelude is broken down into individual bars, the tiniest intricacies in finger movements outlined, and I felt so much joy as my skill at the piano increased slowly, near imperceptibly.

Even though it is Bach, the first prelude is relatively easy to play. Rarely are you using both hands at the same time or playing two notes simultaneously with a single hand. The rhythm is constant, with your hands often moving between and returning to the same movements. Rhodes’s lessons are patient, spending more time on trickier bars, offering simple jargon-less explanations of what is required, which fingers to use, constantly reminding you to slow down even as you reach the end.

It’s a strange feeling when you get there, to finishing the final few bars of the song and then blending it together, but you aren’t left stranded. The skills you’ve learnt are transferrable. Since finishing learning the prelude, I’ve started taking online piano lessons with a local teacher I will hopefully physically see sometime this year. I was surprised by how on our first lesson he was impressed by how well I could already play, and I think it was only then that I realised I wasn’t just banging on keys. I could actually play. It was incredibly empowering. I’m 31 years old, had never played before and never thought I would. But with this book, I realised how simple it was. As Bach said, ‘All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.’

David is a bookseller in Dubray Galway, an aspiring pianist, and a writer. He has been published in The Stinging Fly, The Galway Review, Silver Streams Journal, and HeadStuff. You can find him online @WriteDavidWrite.

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