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Adult piano lessons: Never too late to

When Clemency Burton-Hill returned to piano lessons as an adult, she
found herself in good company. Grown-ups everywhere are learning the
instrument to relieve stress, focus their minds and for the sheer joy it

They say that youth is wasted on the young, but its nothing compared to piano
When I look back at my younger self and remember how I battled against
learning the instrument and how quickly I gave it up, Im gnawed at by rage.
Why, why didnt I practise when I had the chance? And why do I find myself in
my thirties, suffering the mortification of learning the piano again, the indignity of
being rubbish at something my eight-year-old self could do, the sheer misery of
the difference between how I want something to sound and what actually
happens when I play?
The only consolation I can take from this is that Im not alone. I often hear from
listeners on my BBC Radio 3 Breakfast show who say theyre revisiting in
adulthood the instruments they gave up as children, and its invariably the
keyboard to which they return. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger recently wrote a
beautiful book Play It Again: An Amateur against the Impossible that
explores the year he spent learning Chopins No Ballade 1, aged 56. And he
was just one of the many high-profile amateur pianists, including actor Simon
Russell Beale and the former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Ed Balls, who
were persuaded to tackle Schumanns Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood)
live onstage at a concert in London last year.
Gluttons for punishment?

So whats behind this trend, I wonder? Why are so many otherwise sane adults
submitting themselves to the strictures of daily scales and arpeggios and asking
the terrifying question of whether an adult brain is still plastic enough to learn
and memorise some of the most complex music ever written?
Its an overriding passion, not just for the music [but] for the challenge,
reckons Lucy Parham, the leading concert pianist who taught Rusbridger his
Chopin. And the challenge is constant: theres always a harder piece, you can
always take it to the next level, youre never finished. But theres also the fact
that the piano is your friend; its always there. That gathers more significance as
you get older: what you can express through it, in a personal language,
becomes incredibly important.
This is certainly true for British actor and director Samuel West, who tells me he
recently bought himself a proper piano again, and has started practising daily
for the first time in 30 years. As an adult youre much more knowledgeable
about your own moods, so it becomes much more possible to use music as a
way to express yourself, he says. "If I have a little piece I can play, I can listen
to myself better, I can express myself better. Thats entirely a function of being
older, and thats a joy.
West, also an amateur cellist, had nurtured a desire to master the Aria from
Bachs Goldberg Variations for as long as he could remember. It was
something I felt I really ought to know. Its simple, but its difficult and complex
enough to keep me going until I die. Consider Glenn Gould: he rarely ever
recorded the same piece twice, but he famously re-recorded the Goldberg
Variations when he was older, despite having had huge acclaim when he was
twenty-three. He didnt feel hed said enough.
West would be the first to admit he is no Glenn Gould. Didnt he find the
learning process maddening, given how out of practise he was? The
fascinating thing is how much my hands remembered, he says. When youre
small you learn faster, your hands are more adept, its just much, much easier;
as an adult, the fear that getting back to any kind of match fitness will take

forever is a bit depressing. But its worth it: I got myself a piece Id wanted to
learn and I taught it to myself and that was really satisfying. Even if my fingering
was rubbish.
Keys to happiness
An easy reward for the amateur pianist lies in the fact that, unlike a violin or
cello, the keyboard is percussive. While the instrument certainly has its
challenges around 88 of the damned things at least when you strike a key,
you know what note will sound. With the piano you can play small things
beautifully because you dont have the tuning challenge, Parham points out.
That makes it slightly more doable, and intellectually, people like it very much.
When you learn as a child you do it because, say, your mum makes you go to
piano lessons. But when you make the conscious decision to learn as an adult
youre paying with your hard-earned cash and time.
Then there is what Parham calls the de-stressing element. She cites one of
her students, a banker, who travels constantly for his job but is learning a
fiendishly difficult Schubert sonata. Instead of reading endless emails on the
plane, hes downloaded the score onto his iPad and he studies that, she says.
He loves it. Gripped as we are by the supposed wonders of daily mindfulness
meditation apparently even Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic is a fan
its intriguing that Rusbridger describes practising the piano in similar terms. On
the mornings he plays before heading into the office, he notices an increased
zing and focus for the rest of the day. With other people its yoga or a run or a
burst in the gym, he writes. Twenty minutes on the piano has the same effect
for me. Once its in the bank Im ready for more or less anything the day can
throw at me. Without it, things are harder.
This perceived magical effect is grounded in hard science. Ray Dolan, one of
the many neuroscientists Rusbridger talked to in an attempt to understand what
was happening to his brain during his Chopin year, explains that whenever
Rusbridger plays the piano, his brain is liberated from the explicit over-

representational mind of his day job. That has advantages not just for his brain
but for his body. He goes through the piano days calmer; everything benefits.
But perhaps above all else, there is the sheer joy of playing. My decision to get
back to the piano was inspired in part by the lovely things that happened
whenever I walked past one of the pianos that street artist Luke Jerram placed
all over New York as part of his project Play Me, Im Yours, launched in London
in 2009 and so popular it was subsequently rolled out it in cities all over the
globe. The piano is such a great communal thing, such a great bringer together
of people, even if you can only play the simplest thing, Parham says. It makes
me sad that more people dont get back to it as adults for the simple fear of not
being good enough. Theyd never think that about sport: people pick up a tennis
racket or kick a football about even though they know theyre no Andy Murray or
David Beckham. Id like to start a campaign: just do it!