This all began with Gary. We were a group of strangers, who had come to the Lot Valley in central France to play the piano for a week; keen amateurs all.
Gary seemed the outsider – a little awkward, unfinished around the edges; at times distant, melancholy; troubled even. There had been hints about Gary’s life – time spent as a Manchester cab driver; anecdotes about a pub he’d once run. And now, he’d produced business cards for his latest venture: a website for leather and PVC clothes. (‘There’s leather’, he would say knowingly over dinner one night, ‘and then there’s . . . leather.’)
A couple of days into the course, he’d broken off his masterclass – an overambitious attempt at some Liszt – saying he felt unwell. He was more than unusually withdrawn in the run-up to his final recital, when the nine of us played to each other. But then, on the last evening, he sat down and played Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23.
In that bare stone-floored room above the village vineyards, we were all transfixed. Gary’s fingers seemed possessed. His customary sense of distraction had been replaced by complete absorption. He was playing one of the most complex and technically demanding pieces in the canon, and he was playing without the score, as if carrying the music inside him.
The final Presto was both demonic and dramatic. The last converging octaves crashed out defiantly. He’d done it! An amateur pianist – no better than any of us – had just knocked off one of the most daunting pieces in the piano repertoire. There was a moment of stunned silence. Gary turned round and looked a little sheepishly at us. And then the audience of eight burst into amazed applause.
A week or so later, I was packing for our August holiday when at the last minute I found myself slipping a score of the Ballade into my suitcase. In our rented farmhouse, there was a cheap upright piano and, one day I tentatively tried to pick my way through this formidable piece. I’d known the Chopin Ballades since university, but it had never before occurred to me to try and play any of them. In mountaineering terms, it would be akin to a middle-aged man deciding to climb the Matterhorn – something a few obsessive and foolhardy amateurs do, indeed, attempt, but fraught with peril.
Not in my dreams could I get near playing it. The thought niggled away. It wasn’t (I think, I hope) a competitive thought – if Gary can, I must – so much as simple curiosity. How was it possible? If I could begin to comprehend that, I would have a much better understanding of how to play this instrument that had really eluded me for the whole of my life.
I resolved to learn the piece and perform it. I would give myself a year. I’d carve out 20 minutes a day to practise. I was three months short of my 57th birthday – quite late for a Damascene conversion to a musical rigour that I had so far shunned. Were my brain and fingers still capable of learning new tricks? I would have to acquire lashings of technique I knew about but had spent a life avoiding. In short, I would have to learn to play the piano properly.
And I would be tackling the piece that the great Murray Perahia was soon to warn me is ‘one of the hardest pieces in the repertoire’.
I went to see Claus Moser today. He is a few weeks short of his 88th birthday. In his time in Britain he seems to have had a hand in running everything – from music academies to banks to Oxford colleges, museums and the Royal Opera House. But it is being an amateur pianist that is perhaps the central obsession of his long life. I found him sitting in an armchair in his upstairs sitting room just off Regent’s Park – an L-shaped room with the family Bechstein which escaped Hitler in one wing of the L: ‘It’s not fantastic,’ he says, ‘but I can’t get rid of it, it’s too emotional.’
Outside the trees are golden brown in the late October sun, which adds to the autumnal air as we talk about some his of earliest memories. He speaks in a still-firm and resonant voice, with an impeccable English upper-middle- class modulation:
“Hausmusik, as we call it, was absolutely the centre of life in the sort of home in which I grew up. What I can describe as Hausmusik, I think even Hitler couldn’t disturb. In any middle-class family, not to mention upper-class family, which I suppose we were, the chances are nine out of ten that somebody in the family plays something. I mean, it’s just more natural than not.
It would be absolutely normal and expected that, certainly once a month, but probably more, there would be a chamber-music evening in the house. I think that goes back to Bach and Handel and so on, I mean Hausmusik was just part of life, much more common than going out to supper or having dinner parties.
If the family was well off enoughthen amateurs would be joined by professionals. It wasn’t just amateurs, it wasn’t just family making music. It was quite common that we’d have first-rate professionals making music with us and we’d practise like mad. So amateurs like me grew up trying to be as good as the professionals in a way. Not that we were, but we were never a separate clique. So high standards were aimed at, were there, from the beginning and it was all enriched in those years until Hitler came to power.
The week begins with a Tube strike paralysing London, which complicates a journey across town to White City to do the Today programme on BBC radio. By dawn the Wikileaks story has gone completely global. Monday and Tuesday are a total blur as we’re besieged with media requests and enquiries from newspapers all over the world; but we have to keep our heads down and focus on producing the following day’s revelations according to the schedules the partners have spent so long agreeing.
It is going to be like this right up to Christmas, I suspect. I can’t remember any story quite like it: each day – actually twice a day, since we’re launching stories in the morning and late at night – the partner newspapers are setting something off that ends up being discussed simultaneously in the White House, the Pentagon, the Kremlin, the Elysée Palace, in Delhi, Caracas and Canberra. It’s the first prolonged rolling, real-time global scoop – a vast spillage of information seeping out across the world.
Somehow I’m managing to keep playing my 20 minutes a day most days, and on Wednesday – in the middle of all this – I have precisely fifty-nine minutes with [my teacher] Michael [Shak].
We pick up at the precise spot we left off last Wednesday – looking at the problem of how to tackle the octaves at bar 119. If I’d thought this was going to be fifty-nine minutes of respite or retreat, I was wrong. Michael says the scale we’re looking at is in ‘B minor – apart from the E sharp’, which might be a help if I’d ever learned my B minor scales. And, to complicate things, he doesn’t agree with either of my suggested fingerings. Again, he wants me to use my third finger for an octave reach – which I’ve never done before – on the basis that using the third finger on the first F sharp will help make sense of the beginning of the scale.
The next scale in the octaves is ‘C-sharp minor, apart from the F double sharp’, which is of equally limited use to my brain at this time in the morning (or, if I’m honest, ever). This time he wants two third fingers in the mix. The final scale is – mainly – G-sharp minor, and again, I am going to have to learn it note by note, never having previously considered playing G-sharp minor scales to be an essential life skill.
It’s 9.29 when we stop. For a few seconds – as I come blinking out into the Kentish Town daylight – my mind remains lost in Michael’s convoluted technical challenges. But it is only seconds. I’m immediately checking emails and within fifteen minutes I’m back at my desk, the morning conference about to start. There’s a brief post-mortem on Tuesday’s WikiLeaks releases – encompassing Pakistani, British and French politics – and then a look ahead to Wednesday’s, with all its myriad legal rapids.
The problem of how to finger an octave C-sharp minor scale is fast receding. But the fifty-nine minutes of non-WikiLeaks has, as ever, helped clear the head and reset the mental clock.
What can I do about my terrible memory? What goes on between the eyes reading the notes on the page and the fingers moving across the keys? Who can explain it all to me?
A friend points me in the director of Ray Dolan, FRS, professor of neuropsychiatry at UCL, and one of the pioneers of modern neurobehavioural research – he’s also a hiking partner and scientific muse to the novelist Ian McEwan. And so today I nipped out for a lunchtime coffee in his office overlooking Queen Square in central London.
I find a 50-something, warm, loquacious Irishman with endless patience to explain the intricacies of the brain to an arts graduate whose last exposure to the biological sciences was in O-level classes forty-odd years previously. I begin by explaining the nature of my problem: that I can sight-read music perfectly
well, but the moment the sheet of music is taken away from me I really struggle – in fact, until recently I couldn’t play a note without sheet music in front of me.
Dolan immediately reassures me. ‘You have a memory,’ he says firmly, ‘and the fact is that, at the end of that first month on the foothills, you were better at playing the Ballade. So something has gone in, something has happened. What the sheet is, essentially, is a cue and a lot of us need a cue to remember things, just something that will elicit the memory. So the music for you, as it’s written and in front of you, is clearly a guide, it’s a script, but it’s a cue as well. It’s eliciting memories that have been laid down.’
He proceeds to give me a lesson in memory. Broadly speaking, he says, there are two types. ‘The first is what’s called explicit memory: and then there’s implicit memory. Explicit memory would be a memory that I can bring to mind and declare in some way. So the fact that yesterday morning I was in Potsdam. I can remember what I had for breakfast. I can remember waiting for the taxi to pick me up, going to airport. So that’s declarative memory.’
I’m already struggling. This sounds like three types of memory – implicit, explicit, declarative. Not two.
‘Well, there’s two types of explicit memory, so let me unpack it a little bit better. The memory I’m describing is what’s called an episodic declarative memory. In other words, I can retrieve the actual “me” embedded in the memory. There’s another type of memory which doesn’t require the “me” but which I can make explicit, which is “I know that Angela Merkel is the chancellor; I know that Joe Biden is the vice president of the US.” So I don’t have to think of “me” in that memory but I can bring it to consciousness.
‘So that’s two types of explicit, one is episodic, the other is semantic. You can bring them to your mind. I would say that that is a small component of the brain’s memory ability. The vast majority of your memory is implicit. It cannot be brought to consciousness, but it is there and we know it’s there for the following reasons. Based upon prior experience, your behavioural fluency is enhanced, and that goes from everything from walking, to riding a bicycle, to writing. “
Or playing the piano.
I drive across town in the afternoon to interview Murray Perahia, who asks me over to his new house in North London. We start with tea and chocolate cake, sitting in their light, airy kitchen/dining room.
‘I always loved the Ballade,” he says as he pours the tea. “It’s a piece I went back to many times. I left it, went back to it. I was there when Horowitz made his comeback and he played that Ballade and it was staggering. I’ve heard it since on YouTube, that performance, it’s an amazing performance.”
‘And how hard is it for you?’
‘It’s very hard. I think it’s one of the hardest pieces in the repertoire. It’s, what, about ten minutes of music, and in those ten minutes you have to express a world, and a continuous world. That’s a difficulty because it can get segmented, it can get ‘this little bit is like this’ and “that little bit is like that”.’
‘Well, now I have to play it.’
‘How much time do you get to practise it? You probably don’t get any time.’
‘I practise twenty minutes in the morning and then at the weekends if I can . . . I’m aiming for July. It will have taken me a year.’
That won’t do for Perahia. ‘You need two hours a day for anything to stick. Twenty minutes is not enough.’
‘For anything to stick in the mind?’
‘Yeah, because you’ll get many ideas and they have to sort of crystallise and focus on something. I’m not excessive over practice, but you do need two hours.’
I quickly change the subject,
Today I interview Daniel Barenboim, who’s in town for a ‘cameo concert’ at Tate Modern. His view of the Ballade? “Slippery”
Meaning? ‘The G minor Ballade uses so many difficult techniques,’ he replies, ‘the leaps, the continuous movements, the soft playing, the loud playing, the chords [he mimics playing these different passages in the air, a cigar still in the grip of his right hand] – so that you are constantly bombarded with new difficulties and no time to prepare for them because they are suddenly there and you’re not ready for it.”
Lessons with Michael remain difficult. I’m now fairly sure that he’s not trying to give me the brush-off, but his mood is not encouraging.
Michael has always insisted that by ‘baking in’ bad habits you set yourself up for trouble for the future, and so lessons can – if I don’t work hard enough - be very narrowly focused and critical.
‘No left hand, that’s a 5 you’re playing, not a 3.’
His eyes were glued to the keys. I began to feel flustered. ‘No, Alan. You slipped a 3 instead of a 4.’ He paused at one point and addressed me quite severely. ‘Alan. You’re just not precise enough. You don’t work hard enough at getting everything right. You’re just not learning it thoroughly enough, putting the work in.’
I was suddenly 11 years old again, being told off by the fearsome choirmaster at Guildford Cathedral, Barry Rose. I felt flickers of resentment, and even a little shame, at Michael’s diagnosis and insistent tone. But the point of being an adult learner ought to be that you can accept fair and constructive criticism. I go to him to learn, not to be flattered or charmed or coaxed into playing this piece. But I can taste the bitterness I felt as a teenager. And how, at the age of 16, I just wanted give up.
Up at 7 a.m., with a TV crew doing a live broadcast to Australia from my sitting room. I then walk around to Michael’s house for a piano lesson. It wouldn’t be true to say that Michael knows nothing about what has been going on in the outside world – he did say that he’d seen me on Newsnight, or the news – but it’s plain that the phone-hacking story holds limited interest for him. So we don’t waste much time discussing Rupert Murdoch. It’s not so much a cold start today as a cryogenic one.
I play the entire Ballade through for him, only the second time I’ve done so. As usual, Michael sits right by the side of the piano as I play so I’m hyper-conscious of his relentless eyes flitting between the keyboard and the score on his knee. Early on, I fluff some arpeggios and I hear him gasp in a completely involuntary way. Given that I’ve had, by now, nine days of working sixteen hours a day at least, I’m not utterly dismayed or surprised by the mediocre result. Despite the onslaught of new information at present, it seems the procedural memory is holding fairly firm. Michael seems – how would one rank it? – not entirely displeased. At the end, he says something mild – not ‘you’ve got a lot of work to do’ or ‘that was good’ or ‘that was terrible’, just something understated like ‘you can do much of it’.
It’s taken much more than a year. But now I have to play the Ballade in front of a small audience – just to prove to myself (with witnesses) that I did it. It’s just as well they’re all mates. No one in their right mind wants to come out on a dark December night to hear a ten-minute amateur performance of one Chopin piece.
Before actually sitting down at the piano, I play the audience two audio clips from my interviews over the past year. First, there’s Emanuel Ax wishing me well, warning that I’m not going to play it like Pollini – before cheerfully adding that nor is he ever going to manage that standard. And then it’s Murray Perahia’s Bronx tones chastising all those who claim to hear errors in Horowitz’s YouTube performance of the Ballade. ‘There’s all these idiots writing in, “Oh there’s so many mistakes.” I really don’t hear them . . . As far as I’m concerned it’s a perfect performance. I don’t hear those wrong notes that everybody hears . . . All these nuts, you know, they write into YouTube, they say, “I can play better than that,” so I say, “Well, post it then, let’s hear it.”’
I take a deep breath and bring the joint thumbs-and-first-finger of each hand down on the first octave C. Suddenly I’m blind to the audience. My conscious world has shrunk to a very intimate space bounded by the span of the keyboard. And within that tiny dot of concentration there’s an inner circle of unconscious from which the notes are beginning to well.
The first few pages are not too bad. I’m conscious of taking my time. If this is the Matterhorn, I’m walking confidently along a ridge with a sheer drop on either side. The slow second subject sings its way to the back of the room. The big chords are mostly where they should be, the octaves more or less as written; the waltz could be a lot worse.
Then, about halfway through, I’m conscious of burn in my forearms. So I’m not as relaxed as I feel – and the very thought of the burn makes me tense a little more, conscious of all the tumbling, rushing passages to come.
I’m two bars away from the coda and the big beast of a Steinway has just unleashed a deep organ-like D to mark the two bars marked ‘il più forte possibile’ – as loud as possible. My hands, though still tense, wrench everything they can out of the instrument. The first bar is marked appassionato – rushing forward. The second poco ritenuto – slowing down. The effect is like the winding of a spring which will explode with the next note – the first chord of the coda. I’ve played this link maybe 200 times in the past sixteen months. But tonight it’s precisely here that my mind goes blank. I just can’t remember how the coda begins. Totally ridiculous. I know it so well. I do. It’s there in my brain even now, just at the front above my eyebrows – but I can’t retrieve it. And somewhere else in my brain – creeping down the back of my neck now – there’s a fleeting instinct of panic. Which is going to win? Should I stop, regain composure and restart? Or linger for a fraction of a second and see if the fingers ignore the momentarily frozen brain and find the notes for themselves?
In the end, the hesitation lasts maybe three-quarters of a second – none of the non-musicians later said they noticed a thing – but it feels like several heartbeats have passed. And then, just as suddenly, something unblocks. Not with a snap, but a sort of surge, like a sluice gate opening.
By the last two pages, the niggling fear of complete capsizing has receded. I’m into the final torrents – snaking chromatically to the top of the keyboard, then cascading all the way down. Then up again in octaves. Up even further in more or less coordinated tenths. Finally – the most dramatic ending to any
piano piece I know – the jagged octaves that begin in dissonance from opposite ends of the piano, slowing down as each is hammered out, before they converge and crash chromatically and ever more furiously back down to earth.
Suddenly it’s over. My hands have ended as they began – with thumbs and fingers joined in intoning a unison note of despair There’s a moment of silence and then everyone’s on their feet. I can’t remember ever feeling such an instant, immediately physical surge of release.
So I managed it, even if it’s taken much longer than I’d anticipated. But I have, over sixteen months of snatched private moments and lessons, learned a great and very difficult masterpiece of the piano repertoire and can – in the professional view of at least three proper pianists I’ve learned with – play it. Sort of.
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.