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How High-Powered Editor Alan Rusbridger Taught Himself To Master Chopin By Practicing Just 20 Minutes A Day

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ALAN RUSBRIDGER
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In 1995, when he was in his early 40s, Alan Rusbridger became editor of the Guardian. Since then, he’s steered the paper through the WikiLeaks revelations and the News of the World phone-hacking scandal -- tumultuous experiences that shook the world and brought him a great deal of personal stress.

It’s hardly surprising that Rusbridger wrote a book about all this. What’s notable is that WikiLeaks and phone-hacking fall into the background of his book, Play It Again: An Amateur Against The Impossible. The real story is how, despite all the secrecy, anxiety, and constant demands on his time and attention, Rusbridger rediscovered his love of music as those stories were breaking. He committed to 20 minutes a day of piano practice in order to learn one of the most difficult compositions in the canon: Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor (which some may know as the piece Adrien Brody’s character plays for the Nazi officer in The Pianist). In the course of the book, Rusbridger explains how he found the time to learn the Ballade and enrich his life immeasurably along the way.

Here are 8 bits of wisdom from Play It Again that remind us that it is possible to make time for what matters most in the face of life’s demands and stresses.

Own Your Stress

Rusbridger is completely clear-eyed about just how stressful his job is, and by confronting -- rather than denying -- the reality of his stress, he’s able to seek out ways to reduce it. Being editor of the Guardian is “one of those jobs which expands infinitely to fill the time and then spill beyond it,” he writes. “An editor, particularly within a modern global media company, is never truly off duty.”

A typical day in the life of a newspaper editor, he writes, means “a hum of low-level stress much of the time, with periodic eruptions of great tension.”

Find Your Metaphor

When Rusbridger felt frustration and self-doubt -- which was nearly all the time -- he found it helpful to think of people who took on great challenges in different fields. This helped put his own project in perspective, and also let him feel solidarity with others who had taken on great challenges. He compares learning Chopin to climbing the Matterhorn, the forbidding mountain in the Alps.

He writes: “Jerry R. Hobbs, an American computational linguistics expert and amateur climber, described the mountain as ‘just about the hardest climb and ordinary person can do’, which, apropos the G minor Ballade, sounds familiar.”

You’re Not Alone

Rusbridger supplements his piano practice with lots of reading. One book in particular, Arnold Bennett’s 1910 How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, reminds him that the sense of having not enough time to do all we want to do is universal, and not exactly new.

As Bennett writes: “We never shall have any more time. We have, and we have always had, all the time there is.”

There’s Power In A Morning Routine

Rusbridger learns quickly that his daily 20 minutes have to happen in the morning, before the unpredictable demands of work kick in. Here is how he describes his routine:

“I get up half an hour earlier. I fit in ten minutes of yoga listening to the Today programme – not exactly meditative. Then breakfast and the papers with more Today programme all at the same time. Then I slip upstairs to the sitting room to play before driving into work.”

Pursuing Your Passion Is An Investment

Even though his morning piano practice is a solitary activity, he undertakes it knowing that it will have social benefits. After all, when he was a child, his mother told him that playing the piano would help him make friends. She’s right, and he finds her message echoed in the pages of Charles Cooke’s book Playing the Piano for Pleasure: “The better you play, the more your circle of friends will expand. You can count on this as confidently as you can count on the sun rising. Music is a powerful magnet which never fails to attract new, congenial, long-term friends.”

Mortality Is A Good Motivator

When Rusbridger’s former girlfriend gets in touch to tell him that her breast cancer has returned, he finds himself reflecting on mortality, and thinking of other friends more or less his age who are undergoing treatment for various serious diseases. Each brush with illness or mortality strengthens his determination to lean the Ballade. “In terms of getting on with life’s ambitions,” he writes, “I’m hit by more than a tinge of carpe diem.”

"Amateur" Is Not An Insult

Rusbridger has no illusions or intentions about becoming a professional pianist. He’s a dedicated amateur from the start, and his conversations and meetings with other music lovers -- both professional and amateur -- is a reminder that “amateur” isn’t a value judgment (i.e. worse than a professional), but a worthy end in itself. In fact, it’s probably a good deal more enjoyable and less stressful than being a pro.

In conversation with Rusbridger, the New York Times music critic Michael Kimmelman talks about the perks of being an amateur. “You have another life, it’s a full and interesting life, but you decide to add this life as well because music gives you something that you can’t get from this other life. It isn’t about having a career and making a living from it, it’s about something that only music-making will give you.”


It’s Never Too Late

As he improves and comes closer to learning the entire Ballade, no one is as surprised as Rusbridger himself. “It’s a funny thing to discover about yourself in your mid-50s --- that you spent the previous forty years not doing something on the assumption that you couldn’t do it, when all along you could.”

He is astonished to learn, after memorizing complex passages of the Ballade, just how powerful his own memory is. “Back in the summer of 2010 I had no idea of just how capable a 56-year-old brain was of learning new tricks,” he writes. “So it’s heartening to know that, quite well into middle age, the brain is plastic enough to blast open hitherto unused neural pathways and adapt to new and complicated tasks. So, no, it’s not too late.”